From the Comments: The Suprastate and the Substate

My post on American Senator Rand Paul’s recent remarks on Kurdistan elicited the following response from fellow Notewriter Michelangelo:

If a neo-Ottoman federation arises I suspect it will begin as a political alliance between Turkey and Israel. Perhaps such a federation will arise from the Mediterranean Union, who can know really. The two countries are already relatively close in interests and are, alongside a few of the Gulf States, the closest things the region has to secular liberal powers. The Turks at this time would not favor an independent Kurdistan though and I fear they might withdraw support for a federation if that was part of the package.

I think it would be easier to first form an Ottoman federation and afterward grant Kurds their independence within the federation.

It is hard for me to imagine the Arabs joining said federation either way. The Egyptian-Syrian Arab republic went nowhere. Part of me (an infinitely small part!) kind of hopes ISIS manages to defeat the Iraqi and Syrian forces and creates the core of a Pan-Arab nation.

I’ll let him have the last word here (be sure to scroll though the entire dialogue), but I just want to take this opportunity to stress the importance of thinking about the world in terms we might not be used to. The standard unit of measurement – for lack of a better term – for thinking about international affairs is the nation-state, but this way of thinking about the world has, like all devices humans use to make sense of their world, weaknesses as well as strengths. To my mind, as the world becomes increasingly interconnected thanks to liberalization, the nation-state becomes less and less useful as a tool for understanding human action.

What Michelangelo is doing here is thinking ahead of the curve; he is applying the notions of suprastate and substate to international affairs. A suprastate is an organization or union that is composed of various nation-states, such as the ones Michelangelo uses in his argument (i.e. “Mediterranean Union”). A substate is a region within a nation-state, such as Kurdistan or Scotland or Somaliland.

Often, especially in debates here at NOL, the notions of suprastate and substate are used in conjunction with the developing, or post-colonial, regions of the world. This doesn’t mean these notions can’t be applied to places like the United States or Argentina. Indeed, the US itself was created as a supranational union in order to combat the strategies of the British, French, Spanish, and various Native nations. If you can entertain the notions of suprastate and substate when you think about human action, you will be that much closer to advocating clearly for the free and open society (see this piece on the informal economy by Dr Gibson, for example).

A proposal to help curb grade inflation.

I have a stack of midterms I’m procrastinating grading, but I’m not simply going to babble on about some minor nuisance in my own life, I’m going to expound on a modest, but promising intervention into the problem of grade inflation which, I believe, costs us millions of dollars every year.

Here’s the basic problem: schools serve a mix of roles, including signaling, human capital formation, and pure consumption. Unfortunately, universities face a problem of grade inflation. I have encountered many students who were very angry that I should even dare to suggest that a C is an acceptable grade. This, despite the fact that C has never been sold as anything but “average- simple, common, adequate but ordinary”.

And why is grade inflation a problem? It makes the signal of a college degree less meaningful. And the result is that students have to pile on ever more credentials at ever more selective institutions to prove themselves. It also leads to students turning school into a GPA maximization game rather than an intellectual pursuit. For top students this isn’t a real problem, but for the rest it may be costly. So here’s my proposal…

Maybe we should be describing the grade distribution as being like the Fahrenheit scale… 73 is just about right; sure it’s a few degrees off, but it’s close enough for government work. 93 Is about as hot as you’d ever really want it to be. Any hotter is superfluous, and besides, this school doesn’t give A+’s. The 90’s are hot; exceptionally so, but the 80’s are pretty warm. Once in a while an 85 degree day can be quite nice, But you don’t really even want too many 80+ grades on your transcript. This is related to a fact that always amazes my students: in econ grad school an A means you over-invested in a class and wasted energy that could have been spent on advancing your dissertation. Too many B’s for a typical undergrad means that they aren’t doing enough intellectual, spiritual, social, and personal exploration outside of class. So what about F’s and D’s? Well, the analogy might fall apart here, but I don’t think we need to sell students on going for F’s, although I think one or two would probably build character.

I think that if this description spread through high schools and colleges then we might just calm the students and parents down a bit. Doing that might just allow us all to slow down enough that the students might actually learn something and retain it.

We Must Have Order!

I sometimes think that the small daily vexations of government do more to wake up regular people than the really big abuses of government. Below is a relevant anecdote.

Seven or eight years ago, the City of Santa Cruz forbade me from cutting the tree figuring in the picture below. It’s a redwood tree. It’s in my tiny front yard. Its invasion of a sewer line cost me $10,000 before I asked humbly for permission to remove the tree. Now, the tree roots are destroying the foundations of my house as well as the sidewalk in front of it. The city says that I am responsible for fixing the sidewalk, indefinitely, apparently because redwood tress grow at least for several hundred years.

redwood in santa cruz

Now, to be fair, the City arborist told me a few months ago privately that if I asked for permission to cut the tree again now, it would probably be approved. It does not do me much good now. She said no when I could afford to cut it now, I can’t afford it. Besides, the city insists that I have to pay for a permit to remove the tree I did not want in the first place. This is more offensive than the much higher cost of taking the tree down which involves real work, at least. (It’s true that I bought the property with the tree on it. I had no idea then that I could even be denied the permission to cut a forest tree.) I am quite insensitive to the need of my city to have redwood trees, specifically, within its boundaries.

First, everyone knows that redwoods are destructive. Moreover, they sterilize the area where they grow. Second, it’s not as if our citizens were deprived of trees, as people might be, say, in Arizona. In fact, there is a large forest a four minute drive from my house, seven minutes by bicycle, tops. It’s a 90% redwood forest. It’s not clear to me that I must recognize a duty to subsidize the redwood viewing of residents and visitors who are too lazy to drive or bike there.

Note my delicateness of mind: I admit that many of my fellow Santa Cruzans would be morally torn between the desire to commune with redwood trees, on the one hand and their fervent wish to not contribute to global warming by driving four minutes, on the other hand. But I think they can just bike there, or walk. I also admit that there are people in Santa Cruz who don’t own a car and who are physically unable to bike or walk to the forest. I would be in favor of a city-sponsored collection to bus them to the redwood forest four times each year. I would gladly contribute, voluntarily, that is.

Two deeply different views of the world are at odds here. Now, let me assure you that although I am a conservative, I like trees. I like cherry trees and apple trees mostly, for obvious reasons, but redwoods are OK because they give high grade lumber. And, yes, they look wonderful. That is, they look wonderful where they belong, in a forest, with their brothers and sisters and all the cousins around. My own redwood tree (the tree that my family and the City apparently jointly own) is a object of shame. It’s so bad, that I never use it to give directions to my house although it stands right out. It’s an object of shame because PG&E, the publicly regulated monopoly, has the right to shape it in any way it chooses. I am sure there are technicalities that escape me here but the shape it prefers makes my redwood tree look like an old, overused toilet brush. Sorry for the vision, I call them as I see them!

Well, I planted a yellow rose bush nearby and the bush found the spot attractive. It grew and grew under my firm benign neglect. Eventually, it had to discover that the nearby redwood tree makes a good ladder to the sun. The result is in the photo above. Well, I think you are not going to believe this but a member of the leftist and left-liberal city council complained about the rose bush on the tree. She says it looks unkempt. Here you have it – not left-wing thought, there is no thinking involved here – but the leftist temperament in a nutshell: Things have to be neat; personal preferences do not matter; bureaucracies give you predictability even if at stupendous cost, the market is inherently messy. We must have order even if it impoverishes our lives.

Robert Tracinski on the Left’s Anger Issues

Ooo-weee. I apologize for not being around very much this week. I’ve been bumming around and just got back into civilization in order to enjoy the second weekend of March Madness.

I have viewed Leftists as cowards for a long time now. Now, whether or not being a coward is a good thing is another question, but I nevertheless view them as cowards. Angry cowards are the worst kind of cowards, of course. Here’s Tracinski trying to figure out why Leftists are so angry:

There’s the fact that those of us on the right are accustomed to encountering a lot of ideological opposition. For most of our lives, the left has controlled the high ground of the culture, such as it is: the mainstream media, Hollywood, the universities, the arts. So we’re not used to crawling into a “safe space” and hiding from ideas we disagree with, which makes it easier for us to regard ideological opposition with a degree of equanimity.

The rest of the essay is pretty good, too. What’s that old school term for a coward? The dog who is all bark and no bite? I remember these type of people well, from when I marched in San Francisco against the Iraq War. If tomorrow’s best and brightest Leftists are refusing to even consider the opposition’s arguments, what does that say for the future of the West?

But really, though: How on earth did the government come to be in charge of the roads?

More on Liberty and Homer: Tacitus, Montesquieu, and Humboldt

As I have discussed before here, there is a way of writing about liberty in a conscious focus on political thought, which finds liberty to be emulated in some respect, going back at least to the first century Roman historian Tacitus. He was referring to the condition of the ancient Britons, within the Roman Empire, but rebelling against it, and the ancient Germans who could not be incorporated into the Empire.

The latter situation may have been at least as much for economic reasons as for the German fighting spirit, but they were certainly difficult to overcome and inflicted one of the great defeats on the Roman legions, at the height of Roman power in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 25CE.

The image of barbarian liberty in Tacitus was certainly in some part shaped by Homer given the deep impact of Greek culture on the Romans, and most relevantly in this instance through the continuation of Homer in the greatest latin epic, Aeneid, which links Rome with the Trojan prince Aeneas. As I pointed out before here, Tacitus’ idea of barbarian liberty strongly influenced Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748, a work I will be posting on in future), whose view of liberty in modern Europe, in brutal but meaningful summary, was of a combination of Roman law and Germanic individualism.

Montesquieu was of course a great part of Classical Liberalism and we can follow up his interest in barbaric liberty with reference to other classical liberals. David Hume and Adam Smith, who were writing after Montesquieu, tended to write on ‘barbarism’ and a related idea of ‘savagery’ with some anxiety regarding the possibility that such societies, or societies closer to that stage than those European nations where civil society had advanced the most, might overwhelm commercial legalistic nations with their unrestrained force.

However, some element of respect for liberty in the most simple societies does manifest itself at times, but mostly through an interest in the earliest stages of the Roman and Greek republics of antiquity, which in Montesquieu’s thinking come between the Germanic individualism and the late Roman legalism. Tacitus was thinking of the ‘virtue’ (in the sense of patriotic courage and love of law) of the early Romans when addressing the courage, rough individuality, and fierce independence of the Britons and Germans.

The most interesting way of linking back from Enlightenment liberalism of the Eighteenth century, for me at least, is via Wilhelm von Humboldt, a thinker I will address in at least one dedicated post in future. Humboldt’s major contribution to political thought, The Limits of State Action, was written in the 1790s, so another generation on from Montesquieu, just after Smith and Hume.

At this point, we might think of a movement from Enlightenment to Romanticism in European thought. While we should be very careful about such general distinctions, and amongst other things not engage in simplistic oppositions, it is appropriate to think of Humboldt as belonging to a phase of interest in the history and current meaning of aesthetics, literature, culture, and language as part of the study of political ideas.

He was in fact a major thinker about language and the infinite capacities inherent in the combinatory nature of language, which was part of his thinking about individual human capacity and the power of voluntary co-operation.

It is the interest in aesthetics, language, culture, historical existence, and the capacity of the inner human which makes him ‘Romantic’ rather than ‘Enlightened’, though again we should avoid stereotype and simple opposition here. Humboldt was very much not against Enlightenment respect for reasons, and some of these ‘Romantic’ themes are in ‘Enlightenment’ texts.

One of the earlier big classics of Enlightenment, The New Science (1725, 1744) by Giambattista Vico, is a good example and that is a book giving great importance to Homer. Vico is someone else who merits at least one dedicated post, so there will be more about him at some point. I am not aware of any evidence that Humboldt read Vico, but he certainly made an impression on German thinkers of the time.

Anyway, Humboldt was a learned classicist from a philological and literary way, which has an impact on his idea of how liberty was strengthened in antiquity, which compensated for the tendency of the ancient state to interfere in the soul, as Humboldt thinks of antique laws and institutions to promote moral and religious traditions.

What compensates for this pressure on liberty is the struggle in the lives of ancient humans, which has two main aspects. First the struggle with nature to have enough food and shelter to preserve life. Second the military struggle with rival states and communities, which was a very frequent experience in antiquity, and was an aspect of the history of the early Greek and Roman republics.

The best place to look for that in antique sources is Homer, because of the breadth of the Homeric world, as well as its poetic qualities, as well as its enormous influence on Greek and Roman culture. I had meant to address how the kind of struggle which can promote some kinds of liberty does appear in Homer, but this post is already long enough, and the best thing is to address Homer directly in the next post.

In the meantime, careful reading of any of the translations in books and post on websites, of The Iliad and The Odyssey (or indeed the original Greek for those fortunate enough to have that linguistic capacity), should I hope provide material to confirm what I’m suggesting.

Review of “The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture”

I just finished one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, so even though it’s been out since 2007 I’m going to review it: “The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture” by Brink Lindsey.  A second subtitle reads, “Why the Culture Wars Made Us More Libertarian.” It would be a shame if that subtitle put off some potential readers because the book isn’t a libertarian tract, not by a long shot. It’s a fine piece of sociological analysis, rigorous yet readable.

I lived through the post-war transformation of America but that doesn’t mean I really understood what was going on. I understand a whole lot better now thanks to Lindsey’s book. My mother struggled through the Great Depression, by necessity developing a scarcity mentality, some of which rubbed off on me. But as postwar abundance spread, overcoming scarcity was the driving motivation for fewer and fewer people. Instead, mass affluence became the norm. My cousin in Ohio, for example, spent his entire working life as a diesel mechanic for Ford Motor Co. Over the years he and his wife acquired a nice house, a boat, three cars, and took cruises abroad. He worked very hard, but so did his forebears, and they never had what he had.

Mass affluence gave people free time and energy to explore the meaning of life. The New Age, or the Aquarian movement as Lindsey calls it, burst forth in the 1970’s. Having participated peripherally in some of the “personal growth” movements of the time, I can attest to two things. First, most of it was nonsense. I’m chagrined to look back on some of the groups I got into, and glad that I never went overboard with any of them. Second, I’m grateful for some of the genuine growth I experienced during those times. Crucially, I never questioned the work ethic that I inherited from my mother. I grew a beard, but otherwise dressed conventionally and held a steady job.

Almost nobody in the personal growth movements of the time understood that they owed their newfound freedom to mass affluence and that that affluence resulted from the capitalist system which many of them liked to deride. (An exception would be the tiny libertarian movement of the time which for some people was allied with the personal growth movement.) Most participants looked down their noses at hard workers like my cousin.

As it happens, the capitalist system not only survived the Aquarian onslaught but found ways to make a buck from it, adapting and softening its revolutionary fashions, music, and entertainment for a mass market. Capitalism, far from keeling over, co-opted the movement and moved on.

Then came the evangelical backlash, a movement I never had any truck with. The system survived the evangelicals’ attacks on personal liberties.  The upshot, says Lindsey, is that while these two forces pulled at the capitalist center (or the free-market center as I prefer to call it), the system survived and has actually thrived. Out of it all, we are learning to balance liberation and responsibility. Here’s how he puts it on p. 316 of the hardcover edition:

Out of the antitheses of the Aquarian awakening and the evangelical revival came the synthesis that is emerging today. At the heart of that synthesis is a new version of the middle-class morality—more sober, to be sure, than the wild and crazy days of “if it feels good, do it,” but far removed from old-style bourgeois starchiness or even the genial conformism of the early postwar years. Core commitments to family, work, and country remain strong, but the are tempered by broad-minded tolerance of the country’s diversity and a deep humility about telling others how they should live.

As you can tell, Lindsey is a masterful story teller. He adds statistics occasionally; more would have been welcome. I doubt that he will ever get his material published in a sociology journal. Not only is he “politically incorrect” but his writing is too clear and too compelling. By the way, do you see the dialectics in this passage? Lindsey never uses the word, but there it is: Aquarian thesis, evangelical antithesis, libertarian synthesis. Fascinating.

A History of Regional Governments (Part 1)

Cities have historically been compact hyper-dense communities. This is because cities have been constrained in size by the average resident’s capacity to reasonably travel throughout the city within a day. Cities built before the dawn of the automobile are often noted for being walkable. It is doubtful that the walkability of these cities is due to any planned attempt to make them so as the urban planning profession is a relatively new discipline. Rather older cities are walkable because they had to be. For most of history the average man could only travel as far as his own legs could take him. Horses and other beasts of burden substantially increased one’s travel range, but even up to the 19th century ownership of such beasts was beyond the reach of the every man. Any real estate developer who attempted to build outside a city’s natural growth boundary would as such find it difficult to attract the necessary foot traffic to make his endeavor economically feasible.

This constraint in outward growth also led to older cities being easily dominated by a single local authority. This changed with the creation of the automobile. As noted above, a beast of burden was already capable of extending the effective range of their owner. The automobile similarly would have done little to influence the growth of cities if it were inaccessible to the average man. What made the automobile such a game changer to the future of cities was that it was within the reach of the average man’s finances.  In their early days, as in our own, automobiles presented a serious financial investment but were nonetheless cheap enough to afford.

With the advent of the economic automobile the general public was no longer constrained to the urban core. Attracted by cheap land prices in the periphery an increasing portion of the city settled in the periphery region – the so called suburbs. The development of suburbs had several immediate effects, but of interest to us is its effect on local government. At first cities attempted to annex the suburb regions but it was not before long that some suburbs rejected annexation. One of the first such cases was in when Brookline, a wealthy suburb of Boston, rejected annexation in the late 19th century. Even some suburbs which originally agreed to annexation changed their minds and fought to regain their independence.

Suburb residents had been driven to migrate from the cities in search for cheap housing, but they also valued their new found independence from urban politics.  Many suburbs elected to instead incorporate as cities by their own right. Despite their political independence the suburbs remained economically tied to the mother cities. It did not take long for the limits of this style of organization to be realized. In the greater New York metropolitan area New York and New Jersey local governments found themselves unable to settle basic questions regarding their common port. Meanwhile in Los Angeles the various local governments were unable to efficiently synchronize their electric current systems. Los Angeles proper synchronized its electrical system with the rest of the nation in 1936 but the rest of the metro didn’t make the switch for another twelve years. In greater Boston the suburbs found themselves unable to provide for quality running water and other basic utilities. These problems only increased as population growth increasingly favored suburbs and urban sprawl intensified.

Early reformers suggested the creation of a new layer of government, between state and local government, which would preserve the independence of the suburbs whilst creating a central authority capable of providing for regional needs.  Attempts to create regional governments were retarded by the actions of local governments who jealously guarded their own powers. It is unclear what would have happened if things would have been allowed to play out without federal intervention.

It was at the height of the New Deal era that the modern regional government was born. The Roosevelt administration began to encourage regions to form councils of government and other regional government associations if they wished preferential federal aid. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations codified this policy with the Housing Act of 1949 and 1954 respectively. Section 701 of the 1954 Housing Act in particular would serve as the benchmark for years to come in promoting the creation of regional governments. As a result of these actions almost one hundred regional governments were formed. The regional governments formed tended to be in name only. Local governments agreed to their formation in order to secure federal funding but granted their regional counterparts little actual control in day to day affairs. Regional governments were relegated to providing technical advice to local government and to aiding state government with paperwork, but were unable to pursue their own objectives. Meanwhile the growth of the suburbs continued strong, aided in part due to the return of WW2 veterans and the preferential mortgage packages offered to them.

The federal government attempted to bolster the strength of regional governments with the passage of the Highway Act of 1962. Thus far federal legislation had merely given preferential treatment in aid allocations towards regional governments. The Highway Act of 1962 made federal aid contingent on having areas with a population greater than 50,000 create a regional development plan. In practice the act gave regional governments little power as the language was broad enough to allow state and local governments to circumvent them. Once more regional governments found themselves with little teeth and better termed advisory bodies.