Stimuli For Your Moral Taste Buds [June 2022 Edition]

Today’s food-for-thought menu includes Eco-Feminism, Indics of Afghanistan, the Fetus Problem, a Mennonite Wedding, the Post-Roe Era, and the Native New World. I’m confident the dishes served today will stimulate your moral taste buds, and your gut instincts will motivate you to examine these themes in greater depth.

Note: I understand that most of us are unwilling to seek the opposing viewpoint on any topic. Our personal opinions are a fundamental principle that will not be altered. However, underlying this fundamental principle is our natural proclivity to prefer some moral taste buds over others. This series represents my approach to exploring our natural tendencies and uncovering different viewpoints on the same themes without doubting the validity of one’s own fundamental convictions. As a result, I invite you to reorder the articles I’ve shared today using moral taste buds that better reflect your convictions about understanding these issues. For instance, an article that appeals to my Care/Harm taste bud may appeal to your Liberty/Oppression taste bud. This moral divergence reveals different ways to look at the same thing.

The Care/Harm Taste Bud: Eco-feminism: Roots in Ancient Hindu Philosophy

The Nature-Culture Conflict Paradigm today reigns supreme and seeks to eradicate cultures, societies, and institutions that advocate for and spread the Nature-Culture Continuum Paradigm. Do you see this conflict happening? If so, can you better care for the environment by adopting a Nature-Culture Continuum paradigm? Is there anything one may learn from Hindu philosophy in this regard?

The Fairness/Cheating Taste Bud: 9/11 FAMILIES AND OTHERS CALL ON BIDEN TO CONFRONT AFGHAN HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

Due to a focus on other issues in Afghanistan, such as terrorism, food and water shortages, and poverty, the persecution of religious minorities in the nation is not as generally known, despite the fact that it has been a human rights crisis for decades. Ignorance of this topic poses a serious risk to persecuted groups seeking protection overseas. Western governments have yet to fully appreciate the risks that Afghan Sikhs and Hindus endure. I also recommend this quick overview of the topic: 5 things to know about Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan.

The Liberty/Oppression Taste Bud: Biological Individuality and the Foetus Problem

As I’ve discovered, abortion was one of the earliest medical specialties in American history when it became entirely commercialized in the 1840s. As a result, the United States has been wrestling with moral issues about abortion for 182 years! The abortion debate has gone through rights-based assertions and advanced to claims about the policy costs and benefits of abortion and now appears to have returned to rights-based arguments in the last 50 years. Regardless of where you stand on this debate, this much is clear: in the U.S., the circle of moral quandary surrounding abortion never closes. Nevertheless, what is the source of the moral ambiguity surrounding abortion? Can the philosophy of biology help us better comprehend this moral quandary?

Some philosophers would argue that the issue of biological individuality is central to this moral dispute. But why is biological individuality even a point of contention? Counting biologically individual organisms like humans and dogs appears straightforward at first glance, but the biological world is packed with challenges. For instance, Aspen trees appear to be different biological units from above the ground; nonetheless, they all share the same genome and are linked beneath the ground by a sophisticated root system. So, should we regard each tree as a distinct thing in its own right or as organs or portions of a larger organism?

How Aspens Grow?

Similarly, humans are hosts to a great variety of gut bacteria that play essential roles in many biological activities, including the immune system, metabolism, and digestion. Should we regard these microorganisms as part of us, despite their genetic differences, and treat a human being and its germs as a single biological unit?

NIH scientists find that salmonella use intestinal epithelial cells to colonize the gut

Answers to the ‘Problem of Biological Individuality’ have generally taken two main approaches: the Physiological Approach, which appeals to physiological processes such as immunological interactions, and the Evolutionary Approach, which appeals to the theory of evolution by natural selection. The Physiological Approach is concerned with biological individuals who are physiological wholes [Human + gut bacteria = one physiological whole], whereas the Evolutionary Approach is concerned with biological individuals who are selection units [Human and gut bacteria = two distinct natural selection units].

Is a fetus an Evolutionary individual or a Physiological individual? If we are Evolutionary individuals, we came into being before birth; if we are Physiological individuals, we come into being after birth. While the Physiological Approach makes it evident that a fetus is a part of its mother, the Evolutionary Approach makes it far less clear. But is there an overarching metaphysical approach to solving the problem of biological individuality? Can metaphysics (rather than organized monotheistic religion) lead us to a pluralistic zone where we can accept both perspectives with some measure of doubt?

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research

The Loyalty/Betrayal Taste Bud: What I Found at a Mennonite Wedding

Do you consider the United States to be a high-power-distance or low-power-distance culture? Coming from India, I used to see the U.S. as the latter, but in the last 12 years of living here, it is increasingly becoming the former.

Does your proximity to an authority strengthen or lessen your loyalty?

https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/france,india,the-usa/

The Authority/Subversion Taste Bud: The Post-Roe Era Begins Political and practical questions in an America without a constitutional right to abortion.

[In the link above, make sure to listen to both Akhil Amar and Caitlin Flanagan]

I also recommend reading Why Other Fundamental Rights Are Safe (At Least for Now)

Is there a flaw in the mainstream discussion of the U.S. Constitution that the abortion debate has brought to light? In my opinion, although predating the U.S. federal constitution and being significantly more involved in federal politics and constitutional evolution, each American state’s constitution is widely ignored. Keep in mind that state constitutions in the United States are far more open to public pressure. They frequently serve as a pressure release valve and a ‘pressuring lever’ for fractious U.S. national politics, catalyzing policy change. Regrettably, in an era of more contentious national politics, mainstream U.S. discourse largely ignores changes to state constitutions and spends far too much time intensely debating the praise or ridicule the federal Constitution receives for specific clauses, by which time the individual states have already shaped how the nation’s legal framework should perceive them. Altogether, a federal system, where individual state constitutions are ignored, and conflicts are centralized, is the American political equivalent of Yudhishthira’s response to the world’s greatest wonder in the thirty-three Yaksha Prashna [33 questions posed by an Indic tutelary spirit to the perfect king in the Hindu epic of Mahabharata].

The Sanctity/Degradation Taste Bud: The Native New World and Western North America

The emergence of a distinctly Native New World is a founding story that has largely gone unrecorded in accounts of early America. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

To round off this edition, a Western movie question: Are there any examples of American Westerns developed with the opposing premise—valuing the First Nation’s People’s agency, which has gained historical support? Why not have a heroic Old World First Nation protagonist who safeguards indigenous practices and familial networks in a culturally diverse middle ground somewhere in the frontier country, shaping and influencing the emerging New World? Can this alternate perspective revitalize the jaded American Western movie genre?

[Here’s the previous edition of Stimuli For Your Moral Taste Buds]

Gold Rush ducks (rushed in Monday)

2s rhyme nicely with 7s

Academic papers are a tough nut to crack. Apart from the prerequisite of expertise in the field (acquired or ongoing, real or imaginary), there is some ritualistic, innuendo stuff, like the author list. I always keep in mind this strip from PHD Comics:

It came handy when MR suggested this paper, A Golden Opportunity: The Gold Rush, Entrepreneurship and Culture.

Now, I cannot even pretend I read the thing. But eight listed authors popped-up to my eyes. And the subject is catchy enough in cementing the hard way what may seem as a pretty evident proposition

The term “Argonauts” (used for the gold rushers of 1849) irked me somewhat at first, since the crew of legendary, talking ship Argo was an all-star Fellowship of Justice Avengers team, featuring the baddest champions around (warfare, navigation, pugilism, wrestling, horse riding, music, to note the most renown, some of them later fathered other heroes), human or demi-god. But there is a sad story behind it, and also the Greek myth can be understood as a parable for ancient gold hunting, so I indeed learned something (on-top of quit charging to the void without good reason).

Argonautica notwithstanding, there is an even more telling reference for the theme of the paper. That would be no other than Scrooge McDuck, the creation of Carl Barks, the richest duck in the world. Per his biography, a gravely underappreciated graphic nov comic book (originally a series of twelve stories, published thirty years ago, other stories were added as a Companion edition later) that frustratingly keeps falling off best-of lists (I mean, apparently there is So MucH DePtH in costumed clowns, but not in anthropomorphic animals without pants) he was a gold rusher AND and an entrepreneur extraordinaire. The book, The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck by Don Rosa, tells Scrooge’s life before his first official appearance as a depressed old recluse who meets his estranged nephews in Christmas 1947. The duck adventures we all are familiar with followed that meeting. Rosa collected all the smatterings of Scrooge’s past from these endeavors, memories, quotes, thoughts, and reconstructed a working timeline (with the inevitable and necessary artist’s liberty, of course). The resulting prequel is all the more impressive given the sheer volume of detail, the breezy rhythm and the context it gives to a deserving character.

According to the Life and Times, Scrooge struggled from child’s age. The Number One Dime was not “Lucky”, it was earned by polishing boots. It deliberately was a lowly US coin (instead of the expected Scottish one), by a well-meaning ploy to inform young Scrooge that there are cheaters about. It was this underwhelming payment for tough work that lead him to drop this signature line and decide on how to conduct his business:

Well, I’ll be tougher than the toughies and sharper than the sharpies — and I’ll make my money square!

Scrooge McDuck, The Last of the Clan McDuck

This fist “fail” was followed by a series of entrepreneurial tries, each failing and each teaching our hero a lesson. Scrooge moved to the US to join as a deckhand, and then as a captain, a steamboat just as railroads were picking up. His cowboy and gun slinging chops went down the drain when the expansion to the West ended. He rose, fell, and still kept coming back. He became rich in the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, 20 years after the Number One Dime affair (and a little late for the California Gold Rush, my bad).

Scrooge finding a gold nugget the size of a goose egg, thus “making” it after 20 years (the cover of the Greek version – source)

As the paper technically puts it, the personality traits of those involved in gold prospecting associated with openness (resourceful, innovative, curious), conscientiousness (hardworking, persistent, cautious) and emotional stability (even-tempered, steady, confident), underpinned by low risk aversion, low fear of failure and self-efficacy. This constellation of traits, the authors note, is consistently associated with entrepreneurial activity. Indeed, from that point Scrooge demonstrated considerable acumen and expanded his business across industries and countries. A trait that serves him in building and maintaining his wealth (and seems lacking in his peers) is prudence (perceived as stinginess) and a very laconic lifestyle.

He casually brawled and stood his ground against scum. His undisputable morals lapsed only once, when ruthlessness briefly overtook decency. Though he made amends and corrected course, this failing, coupled with a hard demeanor, made his family distance themselves from him, adding a tragic – and very humane – edge to the duck mogul.

The hero, “born” 155 years ago (8 Jul 1867), stands as an underrated icon of individual effort and ethics.

Swimming Against the Currents in the Late Afternoon

I am in a testamental mood these days. I know the word does not yet exist. I am just trying to blend together the virtues of “testament,” as in, “last will and testament,” of the Biblical and legal term “testimony,” and maybe even of the term – not so common on the street -, “testes.” So, now, the word “testamental” exists. I just made it up and you all understand it. By the way, I know, there is a word “testamentary.” It does not suit my purpose.

I am old, now, older than I ever anticipated being (80, N. S. !). When I was growing up, life was much shorter than now; so, we had modest expectations. People died at every age of everything and nothing. Antibiotics were few, scarce and expensive. Both the anti-polio and the TB vaccines were invented while I was a kid. My paternal grandmother died at around sixty; my maternal grandfather, at twenty-six (of course, the cause was not illness; it was a German bullet.) My maternal grandmother, his widow, lasted only until age 75. (She left with a Gitane clenched in her right hand.)

Today feels a lot for me like late afternoon. I am swimming in a mostly calm ocean. The sun has not gone down much yet but there is a sense that night is coming. Even the seagulls have gone quiet. So, I look back, infrequently and only superficially, but I do. Overall, I had a lucky and almost charmed life. I was in good health most of my years and so were those most dear to me, or mostly so. I served in the military but my existence was never really threatened by armed others with bad intentions. Mostly, I had pretty much the life I wanted without necessarily deserving it. More on this below.

Emigrating to the US, I morphed in reasonable time from a French high school dropout to an American scholar, not a great American scholar, mind you, a fairly well respected one (1350+ scholarly mentions and counting, according to the specialized outfit ACADEMIA that keeps track of those things. That’s pretty good; ask anyone.) In America, from day one, numerous strangers and acquaintances gave me a hand, or a push upward, even a shove, occasionally. During the hard years, the benevolence of many helped keep my head above water. Even a Chinese restaurant server in San Francisco, regularly gave me double helpings of fried rice for the price of one. He was an older man with whom I did not have a single word in common. I have every reason to feel grateful and I do, every day. America makes everyone better, even the bad guys.

Fast forward a few years. Soon I was teaching college. From then on, I was always involved in research. Yet, I made my living mostly by doing something I liked, telling stories, or teaching, same thing. In the end, I also found a way to get paid for reading, exactly what I loved doing as a child and as a teenager. I retired about fifteen years ago. Since then, I have written three-plus books. The first and the third are in English, the second, in French. Incidentally, the third book, the second recent book in English, is under a nom de plume, the pseudonym: “John René Adolph.” You can just guess why I had to use a pen name. (Or, you can look up the electronic version of the book on Amazon. Warning, not a family reading!) I also wrote a slew of short stories plus a goodly number of political essays. None of the latter is of a scholarly nature. They are more of a kind of fou-fou sociology. So, I had a second career as a writer, one lacking somewhat in seriousness, a career as a moderately and pleasantly frivolous writer. Most of my stories and nearly all my essays are on my blog: factsmatter.wordpress.com. Most were also published, after a fashion.

The three books written since I retired are all published by Vanity Press, I am afraid. (A fourth book is in the hopper.) I figured I did not have the time at my age to go around begging commercial publishers to take a look at my productions. From the little I have seen, they treat you very badly. In fact, they generally won’t even talk to the poor souls who think they are writers. They only deal with literary agents. And you need an agent just to get an agent. Plus, I am convinced that unless you write porn or romances novels (same thing, more or less), you won’t find a publisher unless you are serial killer, or a disgraced politician, someone who already has a name! I am not surprised. I always knew, if only in a vague way, that the easiest thing about books, after reading them, is writing them. Do I wish I had tens of thousands of readers? Yes. With the royalties income to match? You bet! Am I bitter? Not at all. Remember, I am talking about my second life.

Of course, I can hear some unsympathetic murmurs from here: you were an unpublished writer. What did you expect? The world is overflowing with people who think they are writers and who have no right to think so. Again, what do you expect? Well, in fact, when I did the first of my last three books, I had already published two earlier ones, much earlier ones, unfortunately. Both books had been commercial successes. One was in French. It had even received a national award in France. It does not count, I was told, because it’s in French. The other was a thin volume in English, published forty years earlier. Too old to count, I was told. I never mentioned my many scholarly publications in that context because that’s the kiss of death for a regular writer, a trade writer. Who wants to read a book by a professor that has not been assigned and the reading of which will no produce a grade?

I have been married twice. The first time, when I was a pretend-hippie, it was for four and half months. The second marriage lasted forty-five years, so far. (Let no one claim that I don’t learn from experience.) My wife and I managed to adopt and raise two children. My academic job gave my talented wife space to be a painter who did not often have to work outside the home. More luck: I really like her paintings; they make me feel rich; I don’t have to pretend. I don’t even want her to sell them. Early on, when we were fairly poor she sold one good one, for a good price. I have not stopped mourning it. And, by the way, I dabbled in painting myself for several years. It’s hard to explain but I have no illusions about the quality of my own paintings. I am what the French call derisively: “un peintre du Dimanche,” an amateur who paints only on Sundays, as a hobby. Some of my many small paintings nevertheless generate much pleasure in a certain part of my brain. Shoot me but I actually like looking at my paintings! Every so often, I give one away to a friend – always with the dim fear that it will end up in his garage. (In my scenario, my friend’s wife orders him to put “this horror” away. Most of my friends are American-born males, of course. Almost all of them are wimps who obey women. This fact irritates the women in their lives, I have noticed.)

There is one more happy thing I need to mention about my life, even if it will not be clear to everyone. Because I lived in California, not far from the sea, because I made a decent living, and because I had plenty of leisure time, including time to travel, a wonderful thing happened to me that I dared not even dream of in my rudderless youth. Between ages 20 and 60, I mush have spent 15% of my wake time underwater. I don’t mean scuba diving, that’s just not chic; I mean free diving, holding your breath. Moving alone under the sea is so different from everything else you know that it’s is like having another, parallel life. The best I can say is that, in my case, it was as if I had had a long-term affair and that my wife approved of it. I would love to tell you more about my underwater biography but you probably wouldn’t believe me. Fortunately, I have photographs as evidence whenever I feel like bragging.

I was born and reared in Paris, that is, in a fairly cold and rainy place (outside of the travel posters). It’s also at the latitude of Labrador; look it up. Daylight there lasts about six hours in December. I realized far into adulthood that had always suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a real and widespread but largely ignored illness. The Paris climate and latitude made most of my childhood unhappy, although I did not even know it; I just thought it was normal to be cheerful only late spring and summer. When I moved to California – latitude of Algiers – for other reasons, my emotional world opened up, like going from black-and-white movies to Technicolor. I became contented on a regular basis, almost year around. My personality even changed from sometimes somber to mostly sunny.

Yet, in my old age, I find myself swimming against more currents than I had hoped for. Three in particular form obstacles to my well-deserved senior peace of mind. It all begun with radio host Rush Limbaugh’s departure from this earth to collect his own much better-deserved reward. I had been listening to him almost every morning for twenty years. Discombobulated, I beat the bushes looking for new radio shows to furnish my mornings. Perhaps as a result of gross incompetence (I wouldn’t put it past me), I ended up with a mixture of BBC World Service and National Public Radio. I know, I know the latter sounds unlikely for a libertarian-leaning conservative like me but, actually, NPR has a handful of really good programs. “How I Built This” is one, the Sunday morning show hosted by the author of Freakonomics is another. And then there is the excellent story-telling hour, “The Ted Radio Hour” that airs also on Sundays, I think. By the way, I would give my left big toe to be invited on that latter show though I have not even applied. Incidentally, I did local radio for three years. It was very interesting, unlike any other experience. It earned me many friends. Ten years later, shopkeepers who recognize my voice still give me discounts.

Anyway, once you have your radio set adequately tuned in the morning, sometimes, often, you don’t get up to change the channel. What you picked at 8 AM. stays with you till noon though the programming has become inappropriate, unhinged from your interest and preferences, or downright objectionable. So, for two years now, I have been served a steady diet of talks, and pseudo-documentaries about sexual crimes and recriminations, diatribes against inequalities (plural) and, of course, alarmist, uninformed preaching about climate change. Together, they spoil the quality of my daily life, of my last swim. They make me feel as if I were working hard against three significant currents. Now, one unpleasantness at a time.

The frequent talk and cries of anguish and claims of being a “survivor,” and confessions, and forced resignations, and voluntary resignations around real and/or alleged sex acts, and acts of a superficial sexual nature that aren’t sexual but are treated as such, blend into a cacophony that is never far out of my hearing. It makes me feel almost like a stranger to the human race. The reason is that it appears that almost everybody – every male human being (“XY”) – as we used to call them, at least, has committed some grave sexual infraction, yesterday or thirty years ago. But I think I haven’t. And it seems that I have lived my whole life surrounded by rapists or near-rapists without a hint of that reality. So, I feel excluded.

I performed a scrupulous examination of my memory from age twelve. (Fortunately, I have a good memory in general, down to small details, except for names.) I am completely certain I never touched a female human being (“XX”) without clear and repeated signals, not even in kindergarten (nor a male human being, by the way). In fact, I was often called “slow” in that area. A French woman my age thus, an old lady, told me just recently that when we were both fourteen, at the beach, she spent a whole summer trying to get me interested. All to no avail. The thing of it is that I liked her and found her attractive. She ended up seducing my brother, a couple of years later, as a consolation prize, I suppose. I am 100% sure I never raped any woman except by insistent, repeated, and clear requests on her part. (Yes, some women’s fantasies swing that way, wouldn’t you know?) Once, when I was about thirty, a woman in my age range even tried to force herself on me. She went so far as to break down my bedroom door lock to get at me. It was more farcical than tragic, actually. I never thought of turning her in although she was a colleague. I am positive attempted rape is different for women though but I am less than confident that you can even mention this nowadays.

Looking to avoid the appearance of sainthood, I dig further. I discover it’s likely that, on several occasions, I used off-color language in the presence of women (cis- and perhaps trans-women; I don’t know) to whom I was not especially close. I shouldn’t have done that and I am very sorry. If there is an excuse for such detestable behavior, it is that I learned it in the bosom of my family. I had a grandfather, a widower, who delighted at family meals in having for dessert several discreditable jokes he told right at the table. The women present, including my Mom, would roll their eyes but their eyes were always smiling, I noticed, even as a small boy. By the way, this is the same grandfather who died in his seventies, in his mistress’ s bed. The mistress managed a good wines and spirits shop. I come from good stock! Enough about near-copulatory events but I still don’t know if I am a saint or a pariah thanks to NPR’s obsession with sexual misbehavior.

Then, there is the issue and the non-issue of inequality. (It’s now often called “inequity,” for greater moral heft.) It comes up several times a day on my radio. First, liberals and, I think, perhaps, most people, routinely confuse inequality and poverty. Here is a small exercise. Consider the following (imagined) facts. This year, my income is twice higher than your income. The following year, my income quadruples while yours only triples. Thus, there is no doubt but that the inequality between us has increased greatly. Question: Are you poorer the second year? Difficult to get the straight answer this question deserves: “No.” But, of course, we are today very far from considerations of simple income.

Nearly every morning, I overhear touching interviews of successful African American women, singers and actresses for the most part. It’s always the same story: How difficult it was to make it in a world dominated by white men. Yet, the most highly remunerated entertainer in the history of the world, the richest, is a … Black woman. (Yes, I mean Oprah, of course.) Go figure! Interviewers, all white upper-middle class females with that particular diction – you know – clearly enjoying their white guilt, never think of mentioning this contrarian fact. Or the great Tina Turner who is quietly enjoying the end of her life in royal luxury on the French Riviera. (Yes, I agree, she earned each and every diamond of it.) There are many other examples. White demi-stars often follow the Black interviewees on the same channels. They all try to find some tremendous obstacle – besides the obvious male chauvinism – they had to surmount. It can be being short, of Italian background, or being born in New York City, or being born in the Midwest, nearly anything will do. At last resort, they can always claim they were molested as children. It looks like almost all women were, at least those who amount to anything or who are on their way to it. (See above.) “Almost all” because my own sisters and my wife never claimed they were molested but then, they were never interviewed on NPR. No, I am not denying that sexual violence against women exists. I also know that in most American states, rape will get you 10 to 15 years. If this does not get predators’ attention, nothing will and it’s time for women to pack heat. As for the horror of child molestation, I blame it squarely on parents’ lack of attentiveness, on their distance from their children.

The inequality narrative is competitive and it often turns almost insane. Recently, on one of those two networks I mentioned, somebody celebrated the anniversary of the first space walk by two women. What is being celebrated here, years later, I wondered? I am sure walking in space is fiendishly difficult and scary. I am a tough guy but I am also sure I couldn’t and wouldn’t do it. Yet, dozens of guys had done the same before those two women. So, what’s to brag about, that the girls went out of the space station without a strong dude even holding their hand for re-assurance? Isn’t this a self-defeating inequality story?

There is worse. Only a couple of days ago (late May 2022), BBC World Service interviewed a Kenyan man because he had been a member of an all-Black team to climb Mount Everest. The team had been put together by an African American mountaineer who had recruited Black men from several parts of the world. Nice, I am thinking, an international team! But wait, where is the edifying part of the story? I agree that the Kenyan guy had merit. The opportunities to become a good mountain climber are far and few in sub-Saharan Africa. After you have done famed but not that steep Mount Kilimanjaro a half-dozen times, it must get old on you. So, I don’t think at all that the Kenyan climber deserves kudos for his negroid features or for his dark skin, or for the disadvantages unfailingly associated with such features. And neither do the other Black victors over Everest. That Kenyan is in the same league as the beloved Jamaican Olympic luge team of several years ago much of the world remembers well. We are ready to love him because of his location of origin, not because of his race. By the way, any African American in the team was free to live on top of the Rockies and to train relentlessly, and to train several days a week. Same for the Black Canadians, if any. So, where is the big deal?

Here is the very best worst I heard under the general rubric of inequality. I hesitate to recount it lest I be accused of making it up abut I swear it’s true. Someone was discussing on the radio, as usual, the impending end of the world from climate change. Within a couple of sentences, the speaker, perhaps carried away by righteous emotion, asserted that “indigenous communities” would be the most severely affected. Now really, do I have the talent or the nerve, to make this up?

And, by the way, if you consider recent meetings of Defense Ministers of Western democracies you will notice that they look more and more like 1960s coffee klatches, with purses, skirts, nicely done hairdos, and lipstick all over. Which reminds me: the new French Prime Minister is a woman. Did you happen to see all the violent protests in Paris, the riots by Frenchmen who don’t want to be governed by a woman? No, you didn’t! There wasn’t even a murmur. I think that you female dogs are usually barking up the wrong tree. How about directing your attention and your anger where they are really needed? I am thinking Afghanistan, for example where several million teenage girls are currently prevented from going to school at all. Not a whisper from you about this humanitarian disaster.

The gem above about indigenous communities makes me think of the third current against which I am forced to swim every day. I refer, of course, to the incessant hysterical whining about climate change’s impending shutting down of the world. The first personal unpleasantness connected to this issue is that 95% of those I hear pronounce on either what causes climate change, or on its multitudinous consequences, all bad, 95%, I say, are obviously not trained or credentialed to say anything on the subject. (OK, let’s be perfectly honest here. I say 95% in an effort to appear moderate. In fact, I am really convinced that over 99+% have no idea what they are talking about.)

And then, there is the generally low quality of the research endeavor on climate change. Oh, the elusiveness of much needed metrics, the defective metrics, the readily available good metrics ignored, the sloppy collection of data, the faulty and/or dishonest study designs (Remember the hockey stick, anyone?), the haphazard or overly imaginative causal reasoning, the actual suppression of contrary evidence, the blinding omission of what obviously belongs in the discussion! I am referring last to the fact, for example, that nuclear energy produces no (zero) greenhouse emissions yet barely earns any mention from climate missionaries. And how about the benefits of the global warming aspect of climate change; do you ever hear about them? Isn’t it true, for example, that the northern and southern limits of wheat maturation are going to move respectively north and south, making bigger harvests possible?

And then, there is the deliberate disregard of the human (economic) ravages implicit in most of the solutions advanced to remedy the alleged consequences of climate change. I mean the continued poverty of those who are poor now. This disregard leads to blindness toward fairly obvious solutions. Ocean rising? Why not call in the Dutch? Most of them have been living very well six feet below sea level for centuries. At the time, they managed it all with their hands and shovels, with horses and windmills. Too much carbon in the atmosphere? Quickly plant billions of trees that will remain privately owned. It’s pretty cheap, and everyone likes trees, even conservatives like me. Etc.

No, it’s OK, no need to throw me a life jacket. I will just keep swimming. I will manage. I am pretty sure I can reach the next shore in spite of the currents. I am certain, I will make it before the end of the world at least. I am in no hurry anyway. Thanks all the same.

Fighting for Every Inch of Ukrainian Soil

I ask myself: How much would I be willing to sacrifice to protect the Ukrainians from Russian slavery. The answer is clear: I would take 50% cut in my living standard. That would be maybe not forever but for a long time.

Then, I ask, how much of a cut would I take to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and my level of support drops like a stone. Let me explain. Defending a territory is often the best way to defend the life and liberty of its inhabitants so that the one and the other are almost identical. I believe this is not the case in Ukraine. As I explained in detail more than a month ago it’s likely that the territories Russia seized by proxy in 2014, including Crimea, today shelter few people who want to be protected from Russia. In fact, militias of Russian-speaking Ukrainians from those territories appear to constitute a large part of Russia’s front troops in its attacks against the rest of Ukraine.

President Zelenskyy insists that he wants to recover every inch of Ukrainian territory lost to Russia and to pseudo-independentists. While I find Kerensky’ courage and firmness of purpose admirable, this particular goal leaves me cool. Perhaps, both his resolve and his political thinking belong in the 20 th century. Perhaps, that’s why he reminds many of us of Churchill.

When I ask myself, what I would sacrifice to help Ukraine regain its whole territory my mind turns resolutely to forgoing a few beers. I don’t like the thought of helping brave Ukrainians lose their lives for land. In general, some Ukrainians’ – and their president’s – apparently quasi religious attachment to their land rings the wrong historical bells in my head. Let me explain.

I think that very few well educated people today could explain why the vast carnage of the First World War took place at all. After all, there was no obviously evil side (as there was in WWII, for example). The same Great Powers that massacred one another’s men for four years had been conducted brisk and abundant trade among one another, practically until the minute before the war exploded. In my reading* one specific cause stands out in the initiation of the conflict. Let me say quickly that I don’t know that it’s a very important cause of the war, but I think it was a cause, for sure.

There was a willingness and a capacity effectively to mobilize in France, one of the main military powers at the time (first or second). It’s difficult to assume causation but there are abundant proofs in the daily French press that many in the French political class never accepted the loss to Germany of rich Alsace and of the northern half of Lorraine in 1870 (a consequence of the “Franco-Prussian War”). Schoolbooks, incredibly, kept the sense of loss alive for forty- four years. In 1914, millions of ordinary French men joyfully marched to war against Germans who had not done anything to them for the same forty-four years. World War One killed about 10 million soldiers and sailors in Europe alone. The figure includes my grandfather, First Lieutenant Maurice Adolph, pulverized somewhere near Verdun.

Germany lost. Communism arose in Russia and elsewhere and France recovered Alsace and the half of Lorraine that it had lost. Sure, there were celebrations in Strasbourg, the beautiful capital of Alsace. Frankly, I don’t know who organized them. I do know that there was enough reluctance in the Alsatian populace that the French Republic had to make special rules for that province. (They are fairly mild and mostly about the place of organized religion.)

Today, the language of instruction is, of course, French in all Alsatian and Lorraine schools. It corresponds only moderately well to linguistic reality because for many of the inhabitants the language spoken at home is a German dialect. Of course, there has been an influx of others from outside the region who are French speakers (some of them, by default, instead of Arabic, Tamazight, or Wolof). The European Union has made the French-German border largely irrelevant. It’s odd and pleasant little facts that remind you of it. Thus, on Sunday morning, there is heavy traffic on the main bridge from Germany to Alsace because of the many Germans who are coming to enjoy the superior Strasbourg sauerkraut. So why did so many Europeans have to grow up without a grandfather, one wonders?

In total contradiction to what I just wrote, yes, if I could be convinced that taking every square inch of Ukraine back from Russian aggression would be instrumental to keeping the Russian monster at bay for a long time, I would change my position. Different topic.


* Disclosure: My maternal grandfather’s own grandparents had left prosperous Alsace for raggedy central France in order to avoid living under German rule, according to family tradition. My mother’s maiden name was “Adolph.”

Meanwhile, back in Iran: The demise of JCPOA

The prospects for the revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal 2015/Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) seem to be dim after International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi’s announcement during a recent news conference that Iran has started removing 27 surveillance cameras from nuclear sites all over the country. Iran, on the other hand, has emphatically stated that it is cooperating with IAEA.

The board of governors of IAEA, consisting of 35 members, had passed a resolution last week seeking greater transparency with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. The censure accused Tehran of failing to provide correct information with regard to the development of ‘man made material’ at three undeclared sites in the country. While 30 countries voted in favor of the resolution, three countries abstained, and two countries – China and Russia — voted against the resolution.

The US has also once again underscored the point that a return to the Iran nuclear deal will not be possible if Tehran does not cooperate with IAEA. Said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken while referring to Iran’s decision to remove the above-mentioned 27 surveillance cameras :  

The only outcome of such a path will be a deepening nuclear crisis and further economic and political isolation for Iran.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi seemed unfazed by the IAEA resolution, and criticism from the West. Said Raisi

In the name of God and in the name of the nation, Iran will not withdraw from its stance a single step.

Given its numerous economic challenges, Iran has been looking towards a revival of the nuclear deal, since it could open up new economic vistas. In recent weeks there have been protests against rising inflation, and even Iranian retirees have been joining the fray (the government had announced earlier this month that it would raise pensions by 55%, but retirees say that this is not enough, given the level of inflation). Inflation is estimated at well over 45%, and 2 million Iranians have been left jobless as a result of US sanctions and the Covid pandemic.

Iran has been reiterating that if the 2015 Iran deal is not revived, it has other economic options and would adopt a ‘Look to the East policy’ where it would focus on improving ties with China and Russia.  

After the imposition of US sanctions in 2021, Iran and China had signed a 25-year agreement, referred to as strategic-cooperation agreement, to strengthen both economic and security links between the two countries. China has also been purchasing oil from Iran in spite of sanctions. For the first three months of 2022, Iran’s oil exports were estimated at 8,70,000, and a significant percentage of these were China bound. Iran has also been looking at a 20-year agreement with Russia. In 2021, bilateral trade between Russia and Iran was estimated at over $4 billion, and both countries have been seeking to strengthen ties in other areas like connectivity under the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC). 

Tehran, however, can not afford to be solely dependent on China or Russia, and needs to have economic relations with other countries — many which share close ties with the US. A great example of these limitations is China’s decision to reduce its import of oil from Iran after it was able to import the same at much cheaper prices from Russia.  

Even if Iran and the other signatories to the JCPOA are unable to revive the 2015 agreement, Iran may have some limited openings with regard to economic linkages with the outside world. The US could allow Iran to import oil in order to keep global oil prices down. It could provide waivers to certain countries to not just purchase oil, but also have limited economic linkages with Iran. After the withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA in 2018, the Trump administration had provided waivers to eight countries for a period of six months to purchase oil from Iran. Significantly, Iran itself had confessed that it had managed to evade sanctions. While addressing the Doha Forum in December 2018, then-Foreign Minister for Iran, Mohammad Zarif, said that

if there is an art that we have perfected in Iran [that] we can teach to others for a price, it is the art of evading sanctions.

In conclusion, Iran cannot afford to be solely dependent upon a handful of countries for putting its economy back on track. Given the current geopolitical turmoil globally, it is important for the US and other Western countries to be pragmatic and not push Iran to a corner.

Some Reflections on Liberal Democracy, Political Meritocracy, and Critical Rationalism

We live in times in which the liberal democracy is challenged by a sort of political meritocracy according to which a performance legitimacy — i.e., the utility that government management brings to the population – would be more important than the legitimacy of origin, based on the consent of the sovereign people. Thus, economic growth and its beneficial consequences for the governed are presented as substitutes for liberal values, which often also encounters difficulties in its governance. The next step would be to replace liberal democracy with a single-party meritocracy, legitimized in its ability to efficiently provide public goods to its population. In this context, is Contractualist Rationalism still a sufficient foundation for liberal democracy? We will seek to respond to this query with the answer to another question, related to the previous one: What position would the so-called anti-Contractualists or anti-Rationalist assume in the current context?

Both for David Hume and later for Edmund Burke, political power lacks legitimacy of origin. They stated that every government is born either by conquest or by usurpation, since for a social contract to even be conceived, it must be preceded by a system of legal norms in which to fit. Therefore, if there is a political obligation on the part of the governed, it has its source in the legitimacy of exercise that, day after day, the rulers gain. However, such source of legitimacy does not come exclusively from the force with which governments impose compliance with their laws, but in the common interest of the rulers and the ruled to maintain the validity of certain norms of coexistence or justice, whose discovery is born of the practice of interactions between different individuals, its fulfillment generates a long-term benefit for society and its application begets concern for the aforementioned common interest among all members of the social and political body.

Norms and human nature

David Hume distinguished, for this, between natural and artificial virtues, belonging those norms of justice to this last category, since the man in himself would not have a natural propensity to comply with them, but they depend on a critical reasoning capable of being able to see the convenience of the universalization of such standards. For this reason, the Scottish philosopher proposed a model of an agent who behaved in accordance with a principle of limited generosity: he was not exclusively selfish, but rather had an empathetic capacity capable of putting himself in the place of his fellow man. In turn, he was not entirely rational, but that same empathy moved him to act according to his passions, such as to prefer his own kind to strangers. Continuous interactions with other human beings following this behavioral model of limited generosity allowed the social fabric to be endowed with certain structuring regularities, by virtue of the habit born from the repetition of actions inspired by said principle of limited generosity -and the consequent expectations regarding the behavior of own and others arising from the aforementioned habits of conduct.

This plexus of habits and expectations allows agents to make decisions based on a given structure of human interactions that can be identified through a standard of expected behavior, distinguishing what should be from what is not expected to be. Such rules of conduct are called by David Hume as “of justice” and their compliance habit configures “artificial virtues,” since on certain occasions they may conflict with the natural virtues concerning the principles of limited generosity that make the agent prefer his own kind to the others.

In this way, David Hume stated that human interactions form a social structure that is built upon notions of justice that he identified as those of stability in possession, its peaceful transmission and the fulfillment of the promises. These consist of social institutions that arise spontaneously from human interaction and that, because on certain occasions they may conflict with private interests, are not universally accepted spontaneously, but rather, on the contrary, need the support of force for their fulfillment. It is by providing such enforced compliance with the norms of justice that governments gain their legitimacy of exercise.

Although, as we said, the observance of these practices and institutions constitutes a particular interest shared by all members of society, since they all share the natural virtues of looking after the interests of their own group and this is what make them peacefully prosper. Nevertheless, it would be useful to illustrate those instances in which the passions that make up the natural virtues conflict with the rules that maintain such a peaceful order of coexistence and exchange: such is the case, for example, of compliance with the promises.

If a person hires another for the manufacture of a certain work that will take a certain time to complete, pays him an advance on account of the payment of the total price at the end of the work, both will be faced with possible conflicts of interest when fulfilling their respective promises. Once the contractor receives the advance of the price, he will be faced with the dilemma of complying with the execution of the work and bringing it to completion or assuming the opportunistic behavior of allocating such a sum of money for another more desired interest: to buy toys to their children, for example. Suppose that the contractor complies with his commitment and delivers the work to his client in a timely manner. In this case, the latter will be faced with the dilemma of honoring his commitment and paying the balance of the price, receiving the work, or allocating that money to a more urgent and priority need at the moment, such as helping his parents to raise a debt. If social organization were structured exclusively around natural virtues, Hume reasoned, the fulfillment of promises would be highly unlikely. Thus, artificial virtues are born, such as justice.

The role of government, in Hume’s view, is to give mandatory force to the spontaneous norms of justice -such as the aforementioned stability in possession, the peaceful transmission of said possession and the fulfillment of promises- through the establishment of sanctions and compensations that discourage non-compliance. Thus, if the contractor in our example chooses to allocate the money from the advance of the work for which he had been hired to buy toys for his children – since, naturally, the happiness of his children is above the happiness of his client -, then he should pay his counterpart a compensation for damages that will far exceed the value of the said toys. In this way, the happiness of the children of the contractor will be better guarded if he fulfills his commitments. Correlatively, if at the end of the work the contractor hands it over to his client and the latter refuses to pay the balance of the price, given that he prefers to allocate the said amount of money to pay a debt from his parents, then he will have to face a compensation that probably would exceed the value of the debts, so the debtor in this case will have a strong incentive to fulfill his part of the contract.

However, there are cases in which the breach of a promise is still advantageous even when opportunistic conduct is threatened with the payment of its compensation. In those cases, the need to be met is so urgent that its value exceeds the standard set by the positive law for breach of contract. These are the cases in which the contractor in our example no longer must buy toys, but rather food or medicine for his children, or in which the parents of the buyer of the work will have to put their house up for auction if their son does not help them in due time. In both cases, what we have is a general and abstract rule: in the case of a breach of contract, the debtor owes the payment of principal and an interest rate. On certain occasions, it will be convenient for the debtor to make the payment, on others, to face the costs of the breach.

Every system of abstract norms is articulated around standards of conduct in accordance to which the agents make decisions that will have to be rational from an ecological point of view. For example: in American law system of torts, the Rule of Hand (in honor of Judge Learned Hand) establishes that a person, in order to avert a certain risk, cannot be asked to incur in costs greater than the value of the said risk (that is, the value of the protected asset multiplied by the probability that the loss will occur.) Thus, if to avoid losing an asset with a value of $1,000 and whose probability of the loss occurring is 1%, it is unjustifiable because it is unreasonable to require its guardian to incur costs greater than $10. Likewise, in this case, personal utility and social utility coincide, since higher expenditures would mean a decrease in aggregate wealth. Correlatively, in the legal world linked to the European Continental tradition, heir to Roman law, there are expected standards of conduct such as those of a good businessman and a good family man, which establish the upper and lower limits of the duty of care.

In all cases, the person who makes the final decision about whether or not to carry out a certain action and face the consequences, natural and legal, is the individual. Empathy towards someone who is considered as one’s own works as a natural limiting factor for action, as well as rules of courtesy and moral guidelines. They all act as empirical institutions. When these are insufficient for the purpose of maintaining a stable structure of peaceful exchanges, positive legal norms become relevant, establishing mechanisms of patrimonial compensation and repressive sanctions that have a dissuasive purpose with respect to a certain range of actions. However, a liberal legal system will never prevent the commission of certain actions, but will limit itself to discouraging them and, if carried out, to compensate them. In this way, each individual will have to decide their course of action according to their particular circumstances of time and place, refraining in some cases from carrying out certain actions and, in others, carrying them out knowing that their omission is more disadvantageous than the compensation or threatened sanction.

Suppose a man wants to avenge the outrage and murder perpetrated against a daughter of his, who went unpunished due to difficulties in the evidence. The state cannot apply repressive sanctions against the suspect of the crime because he has procedural guarantees that are inviolable. However, nothing prevents the offended party from choosing to take revenge at the price of being criminally sanctioned. We can assume that the suspect of the crime achieves an interdiction against whoever is chasing him, prohibiting him from approaching him within a certain radius of meters. However, the vigilante will have to prefer to violate such a prohibition and kill the person who, according to his particular conviction, is the author of the crime against his daughter. In this last case, there is no room for doubt: the avenger is the author of the homicide against the suspect of the previous crime. The avenger ends up sentenced to serve some years in prison, plus the payment of a fine for having violated the interdiction and the payment of compensation to the relatives of his victim. Well then, the criminal being convinced of the justice of his decision, that conviction will seem like a convenient price to pay in order to avenge the outrage followed by the murder against his daughter.

Such a case does not represent a failure of the legal system as an incentive structure for decision-making. On the contrary, it is a typical case of how such a system works. Compensation and repressive sanctions are prices that structure a certain ecological rationality, since under a certain matrix of compensation and sanctions one decision will be rational, while it will not be under another. If, for example, simple homicide is punished with a sentence of deprivation of liberty from eight to fifteen years, which can be extended to twenty-five years for cases of aggravated homicide, then certain actions will be irrational and others will remain reasonable. It is unreasonable to risk receiving such a penalty in the face of a verbal insult and, as we have already seen, there are other circumstances in which an individual is willing to assume not only the risk but also the certainty of being punished.

As a result of this system of incentives represented by the norms of justice, the final distribution of resources will correspond to a greater social utility, even in cases of violation of the aforementioned norms of justice, since no one will be forced to sacrifice resources inefficiently, above its opportunity cost. In this way, we see how David Hume offers us a sort of pre-utilitarian foundation for the norms of justice. However, this utilitarian-like notion also makes it possible to comply with an ethical requirement: for the purposes of complying with the rules of justice, no one is taken as a mere means, since compliance with them must provide some type of utility for each subject and, in otherwise, he is free to break the law and voluntarily face the consequences of such non-compliance, which he judges more advantageous than obeying the law itself.

The antagonism of interests between rulers and ruled

However, although a legal-political system understood in this way preserves its morality – since it encourages each individual to act contributing to the general welfare without losing sight of the fact that each individual is an end in himself -, its raison d’etre is not in the immediate interest of each agent in general, but in the immediate interest of a particular agent, who has interests diametrically opposed to the generality of the rest of the agents: the ruler. This does not pursue the protection of the general interest in the long term by enjoying a special moral predisposition, but by the particular interest of increasing its tax collection by increasing general wealth. The ruler who has a long-run horizon does not find it convenient to consume capital, but rather to increase it. Consequently, the government -being understood as the state– is directly interested in enforcing the rules of justice, although this often implies contradicting the direct and short-term interests of the governed.

Of course, David Hume also admits that, under exceptional circumstances, it would also be convenient in the long-run to temporarily suspend the rules of justice. This would be the case, for example, of a foreign exchange or bank run, in which, respectively, the foreign exchange market is suspended or the return of deposits is rescheduled. Both a devaluation of the currency and a rescheduling of bank deposits mean a disappointment to the legitimate expectations of holders of local currency or depositors, but a bankruptcy of the currency board, the national treasury or the banking system would cause greater damage -for both the ruler and the ruled.

But, removing those exceptional cases, the general rule is that the interests of the government are the opposite complement of the interests of the governed. While the former maximizes the utility of its resources by promoting the norms of justice, the latter do so by assuming opportunistic behavior – it is worth remembering here the well-known phrase by John Maynard Keynes, insofar as “in the long run, all we are dead”. However, the long term arrives and the societies that have a high level of enforcement of the rules of justice experience higher capitalization indices than the societies do not. It remains, of course, to see who appropriates such a surplus, if everything belongs to the ruler, or if the ruled can capture some of the surplus wealth generated by the effective enforcement of the rules of justice.

In this aspect, the classic forms of government are of particular incidence: a monarchy will have the advantage of having a greater incentive to enforce the rules of justice, which in the long run increase and deepen the structure of capital and, consequently, the tax collection. At the other pole, direct democracies would tend to find numerous exceptions to the rules of justice, rendering them completely ineffective. A mixed form of government, such as a constitutional monarchy in which the king is the head of state and the leader of parliament the head of government, would balance the interests of the rulers and the ruled. Those who are interested in increasing tax collection and those who seek to reduce it. The best way to reconcile both interests would be to encourage the formation of capital through the reassurance of the rules of justice: stability in possession, the peaceful transmission of it and the fulfillment of promises. In this way, governments legitimize themselves through the exercise of power aimed at ensuring compliance with a spontaneous regulatory system, which works at the same time as a system of incentives. In this line of argument, we can find the previously named Edmund Burke and Benjamin Constant.

Not in vain are the national states the natural heirs of the absolutist monarchies. The state is an institution -or a fiction, as Quentin Skinner points out- with a vocation for permanence and perpetuity. For the state, there is no short-term calculation, although it does find -in return- opportunistic behavior by officials and magistrates. When a simple individual acts in a way contrary to the law, he assumes the risk of being discovered by the state, which watches over the long-term interest. However, when this same individual manages state assets, his willful conduct has more devices to go unpunished. Therefore, we find in all systems a special responsibility of state administrators and other officials. But, above all things, we find ourselves with a system of checks and balances, of officialdom against opposition based not on virtue, but most of the time on the desire and competition to seize power and displace under any pretext the competitors. Modern liberal democracy means not only an abstract legal system for the governed, but also a set of abstract rules and anonymous procedures that encourage competition between different aspirants to political power.

The problem of the legitimacy of power

David Hume’s empiricism allows us to conceive how the legitimacy of the government does not come from its conditions of origin but from the exercise of power for the profit of the rulers and of the ruled. Furthermore, the norms of justice are regarded as desirable or good because compliance with them increases wealth and guarantees an equitable distribution of the said income between the rulers and the ruled. However, there is no a priori content of such norms of justice, but it emerges from the nature of things and only after a critical study of such circumstances can we infer the enunciation of the abstract norms and patterns that compose it. Furthermore, the abstract normative system that precedes governments and legitimizes them through their exercise is also made up of empirical norms that are not enunciated or are impossible to enunciate -as Friedrich Hayek noted in his work “Law, Legislation and Liberty“. It is worth saying that the spontaneous normative order that we call under the category of “norms of justice” does not depend on a positive enunciation but on its observance in the facts. It is through the positivization of certain principles of justice that governments, lacking in themselves any legitimacy of origin, acquire legitimacy of exercise.

Denying that every government has legitimacy of origin implies denying that there is a moral obligation to obey positive law whatever its content. Positive law is accompanied by a moral obligation to be obeyed when its purpose is to give binding force to spontaneous norms of justice, which contribute to the general well-being of the members of society. However, this does not mean that each individual has the competence to decide for himself if a positive legal norm has moral legitimacy to be followed, but rather that this depends on a critical judgment that is made taking into account not only the particular interest of a given subject, but the general interest of the whole society. To be valid, the particular judgment of each individual regarding the legitimacy of a positive norm must meet a necessary but not sufficient requirement of impartiality -and, thus, universality.

At this point, then, it is appropriate to ask how the rulers can identify those norms of justice from others that have only the appearance of being so but actually only respond to a particular interest. It is in this instance that the characteristic of spontaneous, tacit, or express compliance with the norms that make up a spontaneous order takes on special importance. This is because, if there is a given order, in which individuals interact, form expectations around the actions and decisions of their peers and coordinate individual plans among themselves, the observed empirical norms at least fulfill the task of maintaining stable, albeit in a precarious and provisional way, the said order. Furthermore, our own personal constitution, as subjects who recognize themselves as identical to themselves over time, depends largely on a stable order of events from our environment. As Friedrich Hayek explained at the time, what we call spontaneous order can also be characterized as the structure of reality in its aspect concerning human interactions, both instantaneous and sustained over time.

In conclusion, the line of the so-called anti-Contractualists or Empiricist could in no way be affiliated with the current critique of liberal democracy by surrogate candidates, such as a single-party meritocracy, which is efficient in promoting the economic growth for the population, at the cost of their political rights and the subjugation of certain human rights, such as freedom of expression or the right of assembly. On the contrary, the way in which governments legitimize themselves, regardless of the legitimacy of their origin, is to give mandatory force to a set of norms and values that concern fundamental or natural rights and political freedoms.

Some Monday Links

Shadows of the First World War loom over Germany’s ambiguous response to Russia (New Statesman)

The Wild West Outpost of Japan’s Isolationist Era (Narratively)

Vivid glimpses of life on an artificial island – called Dejima – in Nagasaki Bay. Dejima was a Dutch outpost and the sole trading route between an isolationist Japan and the rest of the world (meaning the Dutch, that had privileged access, and also the Chinese) from mid-17th to mid-19th century. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and its oriental, chauvinist Dunmer, obviously drew inspiration from the era.

The West’s Struggle for Mental Health (WSJ)

Picked it form Marginal Revolution’s assorted links. Paywalled, but I somehow briefly skimmed it and sensed “post-Christian” world stuff, à la Jack Curtis.

Lit in Review: The impact of epidemics on historical economics, part 1

The most recent Journal of Economic Literature includes four essays on how historical epidemics and pandemics affected major macroeconomic variables. Together, they account for 170-someodd pages, which I will summarize below. Each of them is a detailed literature review on decades of historical research. While they are dense, they are for the most part readable. Part 2 will summarize three articles from The Journal of Economic Perspectives on Macro Policy in the Pandemic.


“Modern Infectious Diseases: Macroeconomic Impacts and Policy Responses” – D. Bloom, M. Kuhn, and K. Prettner The greatest strength of this paper is in critically discussing the various methodologies and theories we have available to even answer the question of how epidemics affect the economy. This is aside from the problem that “narrow economic considerations take inadequate account of the ethical, normative, and political dimensions of decisions that relate to saving lives.”

Generally, micro-based methods that focus on the impacts on individuals and add them up ignore indirect, complex interactions that macro-based methods do capture. For instance, increasing the probability that a 15 year old survives to age 60 by 10 percentage points (roughly equivalent to moving from India to China) increases labor productivity by 9.1 percent. On the other hand, most macro models miss behavioral responses are an insufficiently complex. One problem is that my individual incentive to take preventative actions depends on everyone else. This is something I noticed in my own life – here in Texas where almost no one wore a mask, I had a strong incentive to stay masked myself; when we traveled to any state west of us, almost everyone was masked and surfaces were regularly cleaned, so I felt much less urgency to wear a mask myself. Their conclusion is that diseases will be difficult to eradicate via “private actions alone.” They therefore conclude that some form of government lockdown is likely to be warranted.

Epidemics will have different impacts on the economy depending on a) disease-specific characteristics (how much do they impact working-age population, how much long-term damage do they do, etc) b) population characteristics, particularly how much poverty there is and c) country characteristics, particularly government capacity. Because of this, the same epidemic might have minor impacts in one country, create a poverty trap in a second, impose economic hardship in a third while leaving long-run health mostly untouched, or leaving the economy mostly unaffected but harming health and increasing the incidence of other diseases in a fourth.

“Epidemics, Inequality, and Poverty in Preindustrial and Early Industrial Times” – G. Alfani Most important point: epidemics reduce poverty by either a) changing society/laws/markets in ways that are pro-poor and b) killing more poor people than other socioeconomic groups. If a particular disease leads more to the latter, then there will be very small impacts of disease on poverty. Standard intermediate macroeconomics says that wages come from productivity and the more land or physical capital each worker has, the higher their wages will be. Because of this, the usual story I tell my students about the Black Death that killed off 20-35% of western Europe but left the capital alone is that it raised wages for the poorest and created a large middle class, setting the stage for the Renaissance. Alfani shows Gini coefficients [measures of inequality] falling by 30 percent or more.

But this didn’t happen everywhere. “Government intervention may have suppressed wage bargaining for an extended period of time” in post-Colombus Mexico (Scheidel 2017), or Black-Death-era Spain (Álvarez-Nodal and Prados de la Escosura, 2013), and Poland.

And it didn’t happen always. Repeated epidemics in the 17th century that were as deadly as the Black Death in some communities didn’t seem to reduce inequality at all, either in total or compared to what happened in communities that were unaffected. Why not? One difference is that when epidemics happened more often, governments changed inheritance rules to ensure large amounts of wealth stayed controlled by only a few. He also argues that demand for labor will decrease, and if it decreases as much as the labor supply, wages may not increase at all. On top of these effects, I infer from his paper that later epidemics killed a higher percent of skilled workers than the Black Death did, and that stunted any change in the skill premium. Then there are diseases like cholera that not only hit poor areas hardest, but tended to increase and concentrate the negative aspects of poverty.

Alfani and Murphy (2017): “From the fifteenth century, most plagues were particularly harsh on the poor. This has to do both with the poor’s relatively unhealthy living areas, but also with how they were treated during the epidemics. Once doctors and health authorities noticed that plague mortality tended to be higher in the poorest parts of the city, they began to see the poor themselves as the potential culprits of the spread of the infection.” That attitude is contrasted with efforts to improve sanitation and nutrition to both reduce disease and improve the lives of the poor.

“The 1918 Influenza Pandemic and Its Lessons for COVID-19” – B. Beach, K. Clay, and M. Saavedra “The first lesson from 1918 is that the health effects were large and diffuse” and we may never know just how large because of inaccurate record keeping, “issues that also undermine our ability to quantify the impact of COVID-19.” The second lesson: The Spanish flu epidemic was more likely to kill working-age adults, so it had a major long-run labor supply shock which COVID is unlikely to cause, even though both have caused recessions.

Among the differences between the two are that epidemics were not unusual in 1918 and it happened right at the end of World War I, which had upset many economies already and led to falling productivity for reasons unrelated to the pandemic. We have also documented a wide range of negative health impacts from the 1918 epidemic and are only beginning to document the longer-term impacts of COVID, which will have to be studied in the future.

Interestingly, while there was some attempt at social distancing and closing society down in 1918, it was much shorter-lived and not as severe as what we tried during COVID. While they were “somewhat effective at reducing mortality in 1918, … the extent to which more restrictive [regulations] would have further reduced pandemic mortality remains debated.”

“The Economic Impact of the Black Death” – R. Jedwab, N. Johnson, and M. Koyama There are three primary lenses through which economists have viewed the Black Death. Malthusians argue that smaller populations increase wages (by raising the capital/labor or land/labor ratios) and lower inequality. The “Smithian” view is that larger populations are necessary for a greater division of labor, specialization, and larger markets that support important technologies. The third strand focuses on the role of institutions, both as causes and effects.

“In the very short run [the Black Death] caused a breakdown in markets and economic activity more generally.” In a longer run sense, though, England, Spain, and Italy had very different divergences between wages and productivity. Put another way, England had larger Smithian effects than Spain or Italy and Italy had the largest Malthusian effects. Thus, rather than one model being “right” and the other “wrong,” there is more of a continuum, moderated in part by institutions.

In the years after the plague, people moved out of rural areas to the cities that had been hardest hit because wages had increased more there, which also increased reforestation. In Western Europe, workers’ bargaining power increased, eroding the institution of serfdom. Craft guilds increased dramatically, though their net effect is questionable – decreasing competition through monopoly power but increasing human capital accumulation through apprenticeships. States grew in size and influence, perhaps because there were fewer people to oppose them, with growing taxation accompanying investment in public health and the ability to impose quarantines.

On Persons, Individuals, and Humans

It is only from a notion of the human, common to all men, that the concept of person can be dissolved into the idea of individual.

The relevance of the concept of person lies in its ability to describe functional relationships with its environment: sui juris or alieni juris, noble, patrician, commoner, serf or lord, father, minor, capable, incapable, etc. In pre-modern times, according to each function, a normative system exclusive to caste, position or estate, known as “privilege”, corresponded.

Rather, Modernity dissolves fixed personal relationships into an undifferentiated diagram of spheres of individual autonomy. Each human being ceases to be a person attached to a certain fixed function in the social fabric and, by the mere fact of being human, is the holder of his sphere of individual autonomy, equal to that of any other human being.

The legal system ceases to govern particular relationships between people to become a structure empty of intentions and purposes, which only determines procedures and delimits equal and predictable fields of interaction and clear methods for the resolution of disputes among the holders of the different spheres of individual autonomy.

The principle ceases to be that of difference to become that of equality. The difference becomes the exception, to be justified on a functional basis that results in a public benefit.

However, in the non-political sphere, that of civil society, the difference does not disappear, but is expressed in each of the individual exceptionalities, within each respective sphere of individual autonomy, while it is accidental and irrelevant to the legal-political system.

There are certain special situations framed within specific legal regimes, such as minority and intra-family relations, which enshrine assistance obligations, usufruct rights and a system of representation and guardianship.

Consequently, the role of the public sphere within civil society is defined by the procedure to be followed to settle the conflicts that could arise from the collision of the different spheres of individual autonomy.

From the moment in which each human being is an autonomous individual, the legitimate exercise of power in relation to the population does not consist in giving specific orders to subjects but in administering a set of procedures whose specific purpose is to serve as a means for different individuals settle their disputes peacefully.

Of course, in Modernity and in liberal democracies relations of command and political obedience subsist, but within the governmental structures themselves, which in turn incorporated procedural rules that limit discretion in the exercise of power and establish functions and hierarchies that define competencies and delimit individual responsibilities.

However, both modern government structures and the legal consecration of a social structure composed of equal individuals in dignity and respect are not the result of an invention but the consequence of a historical evolution whose becoming does not cease and whose hindrances persist in the field of the aforementioned civil society.

That the differences between people are exclusively functional and that such functions report a benefit to all the individuals involved, in such a way that none of them is used exclusively as a means, but is seen as an end in itself, is an imperative for the public sphere, but only a programmatic aspiration in the field of civil society.

In turn, that each person deserves equal consideration and respect is a discovery in the true sense of the word. Quentin Skinner in “The Foundations of Modern Political Thought” recounts the role played in the Late Middle Ages by the discussion that every person was endowed with an immortal soul, deserving of salvation, for the subsequent conceptualization that every human being is worthy also of legal protection regarding their fundamental interests, such as their life, their personal freedom, or their possessions.

Regarding the natural law doctrine of human rights, which states that human beings enjoy a certain set of guarantees and rights against the state and against other people, it is usually dismissed as metaphysical.

However, such statement can be understood more clearly if it is related to its historical evolution: the different freedoms already existed but assigned to different people according to their caste or status, who had an immediate and specific interest in their protection.

To cite an example, in the Partidas of Alfonso X of Castille, we find every detail of social life regulated: some had the right to bear arms but not to work, since they had to be available to the king in his court to eventually go to war; others had the right to exercise a certain trade or profession, excluding those who did not belong to their corporation, but they were not free to change their activity, neither in terms of their subject matter nor their geography. In the pre-modern world, the holders of freedoms had a specific interest in defending them, but their ownership depended on circumstances that, in the vast majority of cases, were out of their control and, in others, obsolete in terms of their functionality.

Given that this legal-political system had very little plasticity to adapt to changes in the surrounding circumstances, it was generally inefficient, stagnant, and unstable and, therefore, conflicts manifested themselves in recurrent revolts.

Modernity consisted in the universalization of liberties. This means that freedoms – or immunities against power – that already existed and whose entitlement was limited to reasons of belonging to certain castes or estates, to the exclusion in many cases of one another, began to be extended to all human beings by the mere fact of being such.

That is to say, there is nothing metaphysical in the natural law doctrine of human rights. It actually consists of the universalization of rights that already existed and were recognized.

The novelty that this brought is that each human being ceased to be considered as a person in relation to his family, his social status or his caste, to be considered as an autonomous individual and equal in rights to any other, holder of rights that he was actively interested in exercising as well as others whose content he hardly had any news or specific interest.

In turn, men exchanged differentiated rights that protected certain personal interests in exchange for new abstract freedoms, the same for each of the remaining individuals. As a result, each person gained potential spheres of action and saw specific regions of power restricted.

The nobleman gained a freedom to work and trade that he may or may not have an interest in exercising, but he lost the power he had over his serfs or was displaced by commoner bureaucrats in government functions. The shoemaker gained the freedom to emigrate to other cities or to change his trade to that of a blacksmith, in which he may or may not be interested, but he also received competition in his own town from other new shoemakers who emigrated from other latitudes, who effectively exercised such rights.

Such transformations and their discontents can be verified in the conservative authors of the beginnings of the Contemporary age, as is the case of Charles Dickens, among others.

That is why the universalization of fundamental rights -for the English tradition- or natural rights -for the American conception- constitutes both a discovery of intellectual research on historical evolution and a political program.

Whether such an extension is desirable and to what extent it should be continued or reversed largely defines political positioning from right to left. For this reason, historical evolution is not a legitimizing device in itself, but a process of discovery of various forms of social and political organization that is subject to a critical evaluation regarding which institutions and practices to incorporate, preserve, resist or modify.

Two visions of multilateralism are competing in the Indo-Pacific

The Indo Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), signed by a total of 13 countries on May 23, 2022, in Tokyo, is being dubbed by many as a means of checking China’s economic clout in Asia and sending out a message that the US is keen to bolster economic ties with its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.

Many Chinese analysts themselves have referred to the IPEF as an “Economic NATO.” China has also been uncomfortable with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which consists of the US, Australia, Japan, and India, and has even referred to Quad as an “Asian NATO” – though members of the grouping have categorically denied this assertion.  

The countries which joined the US-led IPEF are: Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

IPEF

These countries together account for 40% of global GDP. The four key pillars of the IPEF framework are:

  1. supply-chain resilience;
  2. clean energy, decarbonisation and infrastructure;
  3. taxation and anti-corruption;
  4. and fair and resilient trade.

While launching the plan, US President Joe Biden said

We’re here today for one simple purpose: the future of the 21st Century economy is going to be largely written in the Indo-Pacific. Our region.

US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, while commenting on the IPEF, said that it was important because it provided Asian countries an alternative to China’s economic model.

A few points need to be borne in mind. First, many of the countries — Australia, Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam – which have signed the IPEF are also part of the 15-nation Region Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade agreement of which China is a key driver (Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar have not ratified RCEP). RCEP accounts for 30% of the world’s GDP. Trade between China and other member countries has witnessed a significant rise, year on year in Q1 of 2022.

RCEP

Second, many of the countries which are part of the IPEF have repeatedly said that they don’t want to choose between China and the US. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was amongst the first to hail the IPEF, has emphatically stated this point on a number of occasions. In an interview to Nikkei Asian Review on May 20, 2022, Mr Lee reiterated this point. In fact, he even pitched for making China a part of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). (The precursor to the CPTPP, the TPP, was a brain child of the US).

Here it would be pertinent to point out that China had submitted an application for joining the CPTPP in September 2021. In the interview, Lee stated that countries in Asia needed to have good relations with the US, Japan, and Europe.

Indonesia’s Trade Minister, Muhammad Lutfi, who attended the signing of the IPEF on behalf of the archipelagic country’s president, stated that he did not want to see IPEF used as a tool to contain other countries.

One of the reasons why many countries are skeptical about the IPEF is the fact that it does not have any trade components. A number of ASEAN member states have pointed out that the IPEF makes no mention of tariffs and market access, a major drawback. At the US-ASEAN Summit held earlier this month, Malaysian Foreign Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob had explicitly referred to this point. Like many other countries, Malaysia has welcomed the IPEF, but in the immediate future sees RCEP as a far greater opportunity.

US President Joe Biden has not deviated significantly from the policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump, with regard to trade and the US is unlikely to return to the CPTPP, at least in the immediate future. Biden and senior officials in his administration have spoken about the need to check China’s growing economic influence, specifically in Asia, and to provide an alternative model. The US, though, along with some of its Indo-Pacific partners, has only recently begun taking some steps in this direction. Leaders of the Quad countries, for example, during their meeting at Tokyo, announced that they would spend $50 billion in infrastructural aid and investment in the Indo Pacific.

Given Biden’s low approval ratings and diminishing political capital, it is unlikely that he is likely to change his approach towards trade significantly. US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the TPP was “fragile,” and that there was no domestic support for the same. 

In conclusion, while the IPEF does have symbolic importance, bear in mind that many signatories themselves have close economic relations with China and would not like to get trapped in competition between the US and China. Unless the US re-examines its approach towards trade, which is highly unlikely, and unless countries which are part of the Indo-Pacific vision are able to strengthen economic cooperation, China is likely to dominate Asia’s economic landscape – even though there is growing skepticism with regard to the same.

Stimuli For Your Moral Taste Buds

Based on anthropologist Richard Shweder’s ideas, Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph developed the theory that humans have six basic moral modules that are elaborated in varying degrees over culture and time. The six modules characterized by Haidt as a “tongue with six taste receptors” are Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, Sanctity/degradation, and Liberty/oppression. I thought it would be interesting to organize articles I read into these six moral taste buds and post them here as a blog of varied reading suggestions to stimulate conversation not just on various themes but also on how they may affect our moral taste buds in different ways. To some of you, an article that appeals to my Fairness taste bud may appeal to your taste bud on Authority.

I had planned to post this blog yesterday, but it got delayed. Today, I can’t write a blog without mentioning guns. Given that gun violence is a preventable public health tragedy, which moral taste bud do you favor when considering gun violence? Care and Fairness taste buds are important to me.

I’ve only ever been a parent in the United States, where gun violence is a feature rather than a bug, and my childhood in India has provided no context for this feature. But, I can say that India has not provided me with reference points for several other cultural features that I can embrace, with the exception of this country’s gun culture. It is one aspect of American culture that most foreign nationals, including resident aliens like myself, find difficult to grasp, regardless of how long you have lived here. I’d like to see a cultural shift that views gun ownership as unsettling and undesirable. I know it is wishful thinking, but aren’t irrational ideas salvation by imagination?

Though I’m not an expert on guns and conflict, I can think broadly using two general arguments on deterrence, namely:

A) The general argument in favor of expanding civilian gun ownership is that it deters violence at the local level.

B) The general case for countries acquiring nuclear weapons is that it deters the escalation of international conflict.

I sense an instinctual contradiction when A) and B) are linked to the United States. The US favors a martial culture based on deterrence by expanding civilian gun ownership within its borders while actively preventing the same concept of deterrence from taking hold on a global scale with nuclear weapons. Why? The US understands that rogue states lacking credible checks and balances can harm the international community by abusing nuclear power. Surprisingly, this concept of controlling nuclear ammunition is not effectively translated when it comes to domestic firearms control. I get that trying to maintain a global monopoly on nuclear weapons appeals to the Authority taste bud, but does expanding firearms domestically in the face of an endless spiral of tragedies appeal just to the Liberty taste bud? Where are your Care and Fairness taste buds languishing?

Care: The Compassionate Invisibilization Of Homelessness: Where Revanchist And Supportive City Policies Meet/ Liberal US Cities Including Portland Change Course, Now Clearing Homeless Camps

[I’m sharing these two articles because my recent trip to Portland, Oregon, revealed some truly disturbing civic tragedies hidden within a sphere of natural wonders. I hadn’t expected such a high rate of homelessness. It’s a shame. “Rent control does not control the rent,” Thomas Sowell accurately asserts.]

Fairness: America Has Never Really Understood India

[I’d like to highlight one example of how “rules-based order” affected India: In the 1960s, India faced a severe food shortage and became heavily reliant on US food aid. Nehru had just died, and his successor, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, called upon the nation to skip at least one meal per week! Soon after, Shastri died, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took over, only to be humiliated by US President Lyndon B. Johnson for becoming dependent on food aid from his country. The progressive US President was irked by India’s lack of support for his Vietnam policy. So he vowed to keep India on a “ship-to-mouth” policy, whereby he would release ships carrying food grain only after food shortages reached a point of desperation. Never to face this kind of humiliation, India shifted from its previous institutional approach to agricultural policy to one based on technology and remunerative prices for farmers. The Green Revolution began, and India achieved self-sufficiency. The harsh lesson, however, remains: in international relations, India is better off being skeptical of self-congratulatory labels like “leader of the free world,” “do-gooders,” “progressives,” and so on.]

Liberty: Can Islam Be Liberal? / Where Islam And Reason Meet

[I would like to add that, in the name of advocating liberalism for all, personal liberty is often emphasized over collectivist rights in the majority, while collectivist rights are allowed to take precedence over personal liberty in minority groups, and all religious communities suffer as a result.]

Loyalty: Black-Robed Reactionaries: Has The Supreme Court Been Bad For The American Republic?

[Is it all about Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Supreme Court Majority?]

Authority: How Curing Aging Could Help Progress

[In my opinion, the indefinite future that awaits us compels us to contextualize our current activities and lives. What do you think will happen if anti-aging technology advances beyond the limits of our evolutionary environment? Furthermore, according to demographer James Vaupel, medical science has already unintentionally delayed the average person’s aging process by ten years [Vaupel, James W. “Biodemography of human ageing.” Nature 464.7288 (2010): 536-542]. We have 10 extra years of mobility compared to people living in the nineteenth century; 10 extra years without heart disease, stroke, or dementia; and 10 years of subjectively feeling healthy.]

Sanctity: India and the Indian: Hinduism, Caste Act As Unifying Forces In The Country

[Here is my gaze-reversal on caste as a moderate Hindu looking at a complacent American society: If caste is a social division or sorting based on wealth, inherited rank or privilege, or profession, then it exists in almost every nation or culture. Regardless of religious affiliation, there is an undeniable sorting of American society based on the intense matching of people based on wealth, political ideology, and education. These “American castes,” not without racial or ethnic animus, organize people according to education, income, and social class, resulting in more intense sorting along political lines. As a result, Democrats and Republicans are more likely to live in different neighborhoods and marry among themselves, which is reflected in increased polarization in Congress and perpetual governmental gridlock. The intensification of “American castes,” in my opinion, is to blame for much of the political polarization. What is the United States doing about these castes? Don’t tell me that developing more identity-centered political movements will solve it.]

I intend to regularly blog under this heading. To be clear, I refer to regularly using the Liberty taste bud rather than Fairness.

Nightcap

  1. Houellebecq’s omelette Theodore Dalrymple, First Things
  2. Hayek and the Lucas critique David Glasner, Uneasy Money
  3. An interesting alternative to federation Maxwell Tabarrok, Maximum Progress (h/t Vishnu)

Some Monday Links

Capitalism and autocracy (Critical Quarterly)

Undiminished by Decadence (Quillette)

Connected to the pop culture discussion here.

Baby formula industry was primed for disaster long before key factory closed down (The Conversation)

A history of punctuation (Aeon)