Guys, thanks for your comments, and apologies for the delay in responding!
1. I share your love for idle speculation. I’d say my fundamental difference with you lies elsewhere: you grew up/are very familiar with a country where federalism has worked pretty well (with notable exceptions, such as slavery and the Jim Crow laws), while I came from another where federal institutions are full of perverse incentives. So, whenever somebody proposes a federal arrangement, I immediately perceive the costs, while you’re more open to the potential benefits.
2. That said, I think an useful way for thinking about federal structures is to analyze the incentives faced by subnational governments. (a) Some subnational governments are accountable to domestic audiences, and thus they seek a federal structure where subnational governments retain considerable autonomy, including autonomy over taxation. This is the kind of federation that fosters tax competition and experimentation, with the US and the EU as good examples. (b) In other contexts, subnational governments are not fully accountable to domestic audiences (even with elections) and thus they devise federal institutions as mechanisms for extracting and distributing rents among themselves, and they use these rents to perpetuate themselves in power. Rather than keeping authority over taxation, they purposefully delegate their tax authority in the federal government to collect taxes for themselves. In other words, the federal government acts as a enforcer of a cartel: it establishes the same tax rate everywhere, collects the money, and distributes it between the states according to some highly politicized formula. This is the kind of federalism that predominates in Latin America: Argentina, Mexico, and to a lesser extent Brazil.
In sum, my point is that creating a federation among governments that are not responsive to voters will lead to the second type of federation. I don’t see the Middle East creating a fully functional federal system unless governments in the region become fully responsive to voters, which will require much more than competitive elections.
3. Michelangelo: I agree with 95% of what you say about Turkey and Israel, especially the EU part, and I obviously believe that it is a good thing these countries trade more and develop better relationship with each other. That said, the main reason why I don’t see these countries forming a federation is a more fundamental one: (a) that neither Turkish nor Israeli politicians have anything to win by creating a federal arrangement, and (b) given Turkey’s enormous size with respect to Israel, this problem is especially important from the Israeli point of view.
The other pertinent issue raised by Rafia is about the patriarchal structure, which is a political institution now sanctioned by religious practices and with social acceptance. The plight of women is considered to be a private affair but it is a political programme through which one gender controls the activities of the other. It defines values and sets up norms to control and regulate the body of women. This control and regulation becomes strong in conflict-affected societies where the level of violence is high. The stronger group tries to abduct and carry out violence against women from other communities while the minority, in the name of protection of its ‘honour’, puts all forms of restrictions on their women and carries out violence against them within their own community.
- A Republic of Cuckoo Clocks: Switzerland and the History of Liberty (pdf)
- Pastoralism in a Stateless Environment: The Case of the Southern Somalia Borderlands (pdf)
- The Profits of Power: Land Rights and Agricultural Investment in Ghana (pdf)
- Rethinking Postcolonial Democracy: An Examination of the Politics of Lower-Caste Empowerment in North India (pdf)
- Working Across Borders: Methodological and Policy Challenges of Cross-Border Livestock Trade in the Horn of Africa (pdf)
Anyone who has written anything other than an accident report, maybe even only three letters to his mother, knows or guesses the following: facts often interfere with the quality of a narrative. Only very great writers manage to incorporate all the relevant facts without damaging the beauty of their narratives. Or, they make up facts that will fit without damage into their narrative. I am thinking of Mark Twain among a few others. But that’s in mostly fiction writing, intended as fiction and perceived as such by the reader. The other option is to leave out all the hard facts to the benefit of narrative beauty and then, you have poetry!
Writers in genres other than fiction – old-school journalists, for example – face the same issue, the same dilemma. While they wish to communicate facts, they understand that an attractive narrative helps them in their task. If nothing else, an enthralling story, does keep the reader, and the listener awake; even merely a pleasantly told story Only the un-gifted who face what they think is a captive audience (no such thing, I think) abandon narrative altogether. They insist on bullet points of facts, a method that seldom achieves much of anything, or anything lasting, I believe.
There is thus another, more subtle reason to craft one’s narrative when transmitting facts, a reason to which I just alluded: Facts embedded in a good narrative are retained longer than facts thrown out at random.
Form really matters when you tell others things you believe they ought to know. But facts are often undisciplined, they often refuse to be choreographed into the opera you wish to stage.
Every writer of other than fiction faces the same issue although more or less frequently. The issue is this: what to do with facts that injure an attractive feature, or the whole integrity of the narrative to which it belongs, like this:
“Dear Mom and Dad: I really, really enjoy Camp Iroquois. In the morning, with have this huge breakfast outside with huge omelets and as much bacon as we can eat plus pancakes with syrup and jam. Then, we wash a little and sometimes the counselors make us brush our teeth and we throw wet towels at each other. After that we, play baseball or touch football until noon. (Don’t worry, Mom, I am wearing my cap and lots of sunscreen.) After games, we all have barbecued lunch with hot dogs and lots of relish and cold coke. And then, we rest under a big tree and a counselor reads us adventure stories. After the story, we go and bathe naked in the pond that’s very close. Just the other day, I went to the pond early by myself and I slipped into water that reached above my head. You couldn’t see anything underwater and there was lots of mud at the bottom. So, I forgot that I could swim a little and I swallowed some pond water. Fortunately, Counselor John, the tall one I told you about was just walking by the other side of the pond. He ran and he pulled me out just in time. I coughed a lot of brown water but I guess I am fine, now, so, don’t worry. And, Mom, don’t worry about the laundry either because we hardly wear any clothes most of the time. Plus, I have found a way to make my underwear last for more than one day by just turning it inside out. Oh, I almost forgot to tell you that right after diner, every night, the counselors make a big bonfire and we sing songs until we feel tired and we have to walk to our tents to sleep.
So, Mom, and Dad, you see, I am having a great time at camp so, don’t fret about me.
Your son, Peter.”
You see the problem? The narrative of a happy kid whose parents need not worry about a thing would be improved by the removal of the near-drowning episode. If the child were wise beyond his years, he would leave it out, right?
The same problem arises with every political narrative, including the long-flowing narratives that serve as action guides by default for political parties and for political currents:
Do you tell a good story on an ongoing basis or do you include the relevant facts even if they interfere with its flow?
It seems to me that there is a major difference between political left and right in their willingness to worsen the narrative with facts. I may be wrong. I will listen to criticism and to contradictions. If my perception is correct however this preference for the narrative explains a great deal. It explains the fact that the left everywhere is inured to its own failures and to the success of its adversaries. Curiously, it explains why there is such a preponderance of leftists in practically all the arts, from Hollywood to French singers.
This preference for form over fact even explains the continuing puzzle that is the country of Argentina. I explain: There is no reason why Argentina is not Canada, as prosperous as Canada or nearly so. In fact, three times in one hundred years, the Argentinean standard of living nearly equaled that of Canada. Each time, it was after an important conflict elsewhere. Each time, Argentinians squandered their wealth; each time, they allowed themselves to fall back into poverty instead of taking off and out of underdevelopment for good.
The current government in Buenos Aires is the third iteration of a populist movement called “Peronismo.” The movement is based on a good story: a benevolent, and originally elected dictator, distributes the unjustly acquired wealth of the insolent rich to the poor to the “descamisados,” to those who don’t even have a shirt on their back. Sure the process, is sometimes a little messy but it does not matter; it’s the intention and the goal that matter. And if you stop the clock at any time during the re-distribution process, you will easily find poor families that are better off this year than they were last year.
Peronismo promises to create social justice and a decent life without the rigors and the discipline of communism, for example. The first two times, Peronist regimes ended in economic disaster, the second time, also in a brutal, murderous military dictatorship that lasted for seven years. The current Peronist regime recently had to assassinate a prosecutor in his home because he was about to splash the presidency bloody with a precise, well documented tale of murder and corruption in high places. (Argentina is not a stereotypical Latin American dictatorship however; the current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was properly elected .)
The thing, when you talk to Argentinians of the middle class is how civilized they are, how courteous, how well educated, how well informed, (much better informed that middle class Americans in general, if you ask me). And they speak a beautiful Spanish that bears lightly the faint echo of the millions of Italians that form the bulk of Argentina’s population. And their songsters and their singers are second to none. I am listening to Mercedes Sosa as I write, whose “Gracias a la vida” would make me shed tears if I could shed tears. Before her there was Atahualpa Yupánqui, a singer and poet of the poor much better than any country music singer I know (and I know many). Even Buenos Aires pimps invented the tango which is more than you can say about pimps anywhere else. And then, there is that gaucho sitting on his skinny horse sipping hierba mate from a silver tube in a gourd. He always looked to me like a more authentic version of Western movie cowboys because he is not that well groomed, if truth be told; he is just more manly.
In brief, Argentina, the nation, has an excellent narrative. It’s all the better because it is not spoiled, it does not contain disturbing facts: Destiny and history favored Argentinians from the beginning but they are poor most of the time. (Currently, the country has a GDP (PPP) per capita of $19,000, against Korea’s $33,000, a country that had nothing in 1955, and $53,000 for the US – CIA Fact Book) Argentines always dive into poverty for the same reason: They insist that dividing into twenty a pie intended for six will be just fine. They give no attention to the requisites for baking a bigger pie. They are quick to endorse concrete injustices committed in the name of abstract justice. (After all, the expressed wish of the sovereign people must take precedence over constitutional formalities.) If all these obvious historical facts were woven into it, the narrative would not be nearly as attractive; it would be disfigured. It might be disturbing enough to force them to pay attention and begin fixing what’s wrong with their society at last.
It seems to me that a preference for the flow, the coherence of a narrative over the inclusion of relevant facts is commonplace but I think it’s routine among the tribes of the left.* Communism killed at least 100 million people. Yes but it fought injustice. Cubans lead miserable lives in Cuba; those who fled with the shirts on their back are twice richer than those who stayed, after only a couple of years parking cars in Miami. Yes, but the Cuban revolution was deserving of a great movie and it ended by providing free medical care for everyone. That is justice.
Even worse, the US is an international bully variously attacking other, weaker countries for their oil or to force them to adopt institutions they don’t like. A sense of decency requires that Americans stop the bullying.
In the US, the Democratic Party, propelled by its energetic left wing, often garners the extra votes it needs to win – beyond the obligatory black votes, union votes and teachers’ votes – by telling a good story: It’s the party holding the fort against the “war on women,” it’s the party of the little guy; it’s the party of the perpetually racially oppressed, of those oppressed merely because of their sexual preference, even of the newly oppressed “middle class.” Its narrative tugs at your heart strings unless you are very critical and very well informed. It’s a narrative that is squarely opposed to facts. Here are some facts that would change the liberal American story’s face, if they were allowed into that story:
- The War on Poverty may have been a good idea originally. Fifty years later later, we are allowed to take stock. There is no reason to believe it was a success. There are reasons to think it was a failure.
- The death rate of young black Americans is stupendous. Few die at the hands of police however. Mostly, they kill one another and they succumb to drug overdoses.
- At any one time, at least half of American adults are opposed to abortion on demand. A high proportion of these think it’s murder plain and simple.
- There is no evidence that, on the average, women earn less money than comparably situated men. There is a law forbidding this and there is no evidence that it’s often violated.
- Out-of-wedlock birth is highly correlated with poverty for all social and racial groups.
- The thesis that human activities (industrial, cars) are causing a rapid rise in global temperature that will cause catastrophes for the environment and, eventually for humans, that thesis is not well established, if it is established at all. Evidence against as a well as evidence in support is amassing quickly.
- When the US does not act as a world policeman, unspeakable horrors multiply.
I could go on and on, obviously. Liberals don’t want to include these basic facts in their narrative of injustice and of oppression, domestic and international because it would simply destroy it. Absent the narrative, they would lose almost all elections. That’s why it matters to contradict tirelessly with facts the fairy tale in reverse tirelessly propagated by the left and by media now mostly at its beck and call.
Under the guidance of the Democratic Party (today’s Democratic Party), America would become another Argentina. The Democratic Party is not “socialist” as old Republicans are fond to grumble. (“Socialism” is a word that has lost any fixed meaning. It may never have had one. Perhaps, it was always only an incantation.) The Democratic Party is Peronist. Peronism is a form of soft, self-indulgent fascism that drags everyone except the dictator’s buddies into poverty. (See my short essay on fascism on this blog: “Fascism Explained.”)
* Here is an example of a conservative narrative that would be spoiled by relevant facts. Conservative media heads keep repeating that the first thing to do to solve the problem of illegal immigration, is to “secure the border.” Let’s not kid ourselves, they mean the southern border of the US, the border with Mexico. Missing from this concise and manly, energetic-sounding narrative:
The fact that most illegal immigrants today do not come from Mexico, or from elsewhere in Latin America.
The fact that those who do come from south of the Rio Grande don’t actually swim across that river or trudge in the desert at night but that they drive in and fly in and then, overstay their visa.
The fact that arrests of illegal aliens where they are easy to catch, at places of work that concentrate them such as slaughter houses, the fact the number of such arrests is tiny, year after year. (I mean that this requires an explanation.)
The fact that illegal immigrants who are arrested and who, under the law, are supposed to be deported by priority, criminals, often get to stay, mysteriously.
All these facts who detract from the “secure the border” narrative for the simple reason that none of facts above would be altered if the National Guard stood right on the border with Mexico elbow to elbow, fingers on the trigger of their machine guns.
The Iliad is the story of Achilles moving from rage with an ally to sympathy with an enemy. Many other characters appear and the extremism of Achilles’ character, which leads him to remove himself from battle and therefore the narrative, lends itself to allowing other characters to present other possibilities of human personality.
The Trojan characters, particularly Hector, provide on obvious source of alternatives, but so do the other Greek hero warriors, and one of those who emerges most distinctly is Odysseus. Though Odysseus is a fierce remorseless warrior, inclined towards killing the enemy, particularly when the enemy can be seen as socially inferior, he is also characterised by his intellectual resources. It is highly indicative that one of the major appearances of Odysseus in The Iliad is on a spying trip into the Trojan camp. This early appreciation of the role of intelligence of in warfare is part of what makes the Homeric epics a classic of the theory of war, as well as a class of many other kinds.
Odysseus we see in The Iliad is the best adapted of the Greek kings to moderating disagreements, speaking with a constructive purpose in assemblies and councils, and thinking about the conduct of the war. This does not always make him sympathetic, but it does show that the human individual can exist in a very vivid and alive way through speech and thought as well as through anger and violence.
It is fitting then that Odysseus get his own epic, The Odyssey, which contrasts the very communal, even hyper communal, world of men at war, with the growing isolation of a man separated both from the brothers in arms community of Troy and from his family community back in Ithaca. The journey from Troy to Ithaca takes him right across the Greek world of the time, conveniently for symbolising other kinds of distance between the world of war and the world of human community. That is in part the distance between a world of plunder and slave girls on one side, and a world of productive labour and marriage on the other side. The Homeric poems does not make the contrast as favourable to the home community, as that might suggest.
Clearly the Heroes at Troy in some way feel most alive at war, straining their human faculties most in that endeavour. The Iliad also suggests other ways in which individuals can heighten the sense of life, the athletic competition at the funeral of the Patroclus and the desire to be remembered in poetry are the most obvious. These are not separate activities from war in Homer. Odysseus participates in games and weeps at poetic performance about himself in the land of the Phaeacians. In both cases war is very close. The games nearly turn in to violence between Odysseus and a Phaeacian who ‘accuses’ him of being a merchant and the poetry refers to the Trojan War.
With all due qualifications, we can still say that The Odyssey shows the value for an individual of getting back to the peaceful world of productive labours and familial affections. It also shows an individual losing all of the normal social bonds that define the self and finding other aspects of the self, which are not obviously present in the community of war and plunder or the community of family and labour. These are the aspects of the self which are part of ‘individualism’, of the idea as an individual as having an existence behind and, to some extent, separable from the most deeply entrenched social roles and connections. The appreciation of such aspects of the individual is the ethical foundation of political ideas of liberty, and Homeric poetry, though apparently the product of very communal communities, does much to establish that ethic (in some ways more than later philosophers in the antique world).
Odysseus confronts the possibility of a lonely death at sea after losing all his men in the long journey from Troy. The fault is partly his and partly his men. The vital passage for many of these issues is the adventure in the land of the Cyclops. Odysseus is thoughtless of danger when he takes some of his men to a cave whose occupant is absent, where they feast on the available food. Odysseus is taking assumptions about the applicability of laws of hospitality to an imprudent extreme here, and even tips over in plunder when it seems he plans to return to the ships with much of what is in the cave before the occupant returns.
The occupant, Polyphemus, returns too soon for that and is inherently more inclined to consume his guests than give them presents. Odysseus evades death through cunning, partly by telling Polyphemus that his name is ‘No man’. This idea of Odysseus that he might be taken as anyone and therefore no one, is itself a comment on how being some thing depends on being recognised as someone. It is also a resourceful individual thinking of how to use these abstractions to evade danger. Odysseus, however, guarantees ten more years of danger by boasting of his name and demanding it be known when he is sailing away from the island, incurring the enmity of Polyphemus’ father the god Poseidon.
The danger of the name and the desire for a name is emphasised later in the Sirens episode where malevolent demigoddesses try to lure Odysseus to his death with songs of the glory of Odysseus. To only want to live by your name as warrior heroics is dangerous. Odysseus has to resist this to live and again be thrown back on a very individualised kind of individuality.
The Homeric role in the origins of liberty is then partly bound up with the sense that even an individual very tied to the basic forms of community in his society can only fully thrive and live, if wiling to experience and play with, or suffer, separation from social bonds, and that the strength of those bonds itself rests most strongly on characters who can confront and live from encounters with extreme and even traumatic loss of communal bonds, and without becoming addicted to such situations and there dangers either.
Today, the day after President Obama announced in the Rose Garden a “framework agreement” intended to limit the Islamic Republic of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, I read the Wall Street Journal account carefully but it did not help. I don’t understand it. It may just be too early for a good analysis. In the meantime several questions loom large in my mind.
- If I don’t understand the details, do I believe in an agreement with a hostile country described by a man who promised that “you could keep your doctor”?
- Do I believe that this agreement is to the advantage of the United States? The question arises because it was negotiated principally by two men with a track record. The first, Pres. Obama, succeeded in exchanging five terrorist generals for a single American soldiers who is a deserter according to those who were on the battlefield with him. The second, the current Secretary of State, demonstrated that you could leave the Palestinian/Israeli relationship in an even worse state than you found it.
- The President and the Secretary of State did not manage, as a part of this supposedly momentous agreement, to get three Americans held by Iran released. One of them is a former Marine. It should have been a tiny footnote to the main text. Ah, well, there is no text, just an oral argument! Frankly, in the bigger picture the freeing of three people is a small, symbolic thing. Symbols matter a lot though when you don’t have access to the hard facts. I don’t, you don’t.
- Is the mullahs’ government – that always cheated in the past – going to abstain from lying, this time? If it does not, is this agreement going to be the cause of the death of thousands of innocent Iranians (as collateral damage)? I ask because, the next administration may not have the current administration’s difficult-to-believe indulgence. It may just decide to take care once for all of a sore festering for twenty years. If an American administration does no such thing, what is the likelihood that a future (future) government of Israel will take the chance to see millions of Jews murdered? This is not gratuitous fear mongering. Two days before the announcement, an Iranian general was on TV affirming that Israel has no right to exists.
- Do I believe that our European partners will stand firm and renew their sanctions if Iran is caught cheating? The question arises because they were salivating on all their national TV at the prospect of selling, selling anything in Iran once the sanction were lifted.
On the bright side, the lifting of some sanctions will unleash a torrent of Iranian oil on the world market. This will further depress of global oil prices. One more thorn in the foot of the gangster Putin.
Towards the end of this week’s Cracked Podcast an important issue was raised: juries are peopled by human beings and human beings are not naturally good at figuring out cause and effect. Over the last few hundred years the sort of evidence juries would have to evaluate were fairly simple; things like “does the glove fit?” (Okay, that’s a bad example.) But now juries are faced with expert witnesses discussing things like DNA evidence which requires a jury capable of interpreting statistical evidence. This is fine if the defendant has the money to hire their own expert witnesses, but for poor defendants they might well get railroaded by the ignorance of the jury. Is there anything that can be done?