Monday, April 24, 2017

On a New Era Dawning in the E.U. State of France

With Emmanuel Macron finishing first on the first-round of voting for the head of state in the E.U. state of France, the media declared a new era in the state politics was already a foregone conclusion. Yet the support of the political elites at both the state and federal level could be read as tempering any such landmark announcement.
With 97 percent of the vote counted, Emmanuel Macron had 23.9 percent, Marine Le Pen followed closely with 21.5 percent, “the mainstream right candidate Francois Fillon had nearly 20 percent, and the far-left candidate Jean-Juc Melenchon had 19.6 percent.”[1] The Socialist Party’s candidate came in with only 6 percent. With just 4.3 percent between Macron and Melenchon, it can hardly be said the traditional parties, except for the disappointingly ruling Socialists, succumbed to “a new era” in the state’s politics.[2] Indeed, even “before the official tallies were announced, the political establishment was rallying behind” Macron, suggesting that the political elite would have considerable pull with the independent. “There is a sigh of relief, said Jan Techau of the Holbrooke forum at the American Academy in Berlin.[3] To be sure, the E.U.’s political elite was pleased that a federalist would be in the running against the anti-federalist, secessionist Le Pen in the state’s runoff for governor on May 7, 2017. Even so, that the state and federal political elites were rallying for the “independent” candidate” could be taken as a powerful indication that news of a “new era” in the state’s was being vastly overblown by the media—whose sensationalist bias needs no explanation.
The similarity to Ross Perot, a politically independent Texan businessman who received 18.9 percent of the popular vote, had he won the U.S. presidency in 1992 is simply bad comparative politics. Besides there being no run-off beyond intra-party primaries and caucuses, no “dangerous” alternative on the far-right had a credible chance. Additionally, an electoral structure taking account of the semi-sovereign republics in the Union does not apply to a state-level system in another such union. Specifically, the Electoral College, whose electors are by state and whose allocation of electors reflects the point that each republic, no matter how small, should have a significant role, as per the fact that each state has enumerated and residual sovereignty, in the selection of the federal executive. None of this applies to a state-office race in the E.U.
Eliminating the implied category mistake in likening a state-race in the E.U. to a federal race in the U.S., Emmanuel Macron is actually closer to Jesse Ventura, who was elected head of state and chief executive of Minnesota in 1998. Although he ran affiliated with the Reform Party that Perot had founded, the independent shed that party shortly into his term. The two traditional parties in Minnesota did not cheer on his campaign, so he was not beholden to them. The case of Macron in France is more nuanced. Hence, from this comparison we may conclude that the preachment of a new era in one of the E.U.’s big states to be hyperbolic rather than substantive.

[1] Alissa J. Rubin, “Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen Advance in French Election,” The New York Times, April 23, 2017.
[2] NPR news reported on the election night that the traditional parties’ demise in the first-round election signaled a new era in French politics.
[3] Steven Erlanger and Alison Smale, “After French Vote, Mainstream Europe Breathes a Sigh of Relief,” The New York Times, April 24, 2017.

Friday, April 21, 2017

On the Spread of Private Governments in a Democracy: Should Churches and Universities Have Their Own Police Forces?

In mid-April, 2017, Alabama’s Senate approved a bill that would authorize Briarwood Presbyterian Church to create a police department. At the time, the church hired off-duty police employees to provide security-- “a common practice among nonprofit organizations.”[1] With 4,000 congregants, a K-12 school and thousands of events on its land each year, church officials had difficulty finding enough off-duty cops who were available. More important than being able to make up for any shortages, the proposed law “would empower a religious group to do a job usually performed by the government.”[2] That the group is religious in nature whereas police power is governmental (i.e., “church and state”) is less important than that the “job” had come to be viewed societally, as per the quote from The New York Times, as usually performed by government. In other words, the slippery, subtle slope is itself a red flag.

Briarwood Church is a virtual village, albeit a privately-held one. (source: Briarwood Church)
“Police powers are a quintessential government role,” said Randall Marshall of the ACLU of Alabama.[3] In U.S. constitutional law, the Tenth Amendment is judicially interpreted as giving the states police powers in line with the protection and maintenance of the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens.[4] In other words, the police power resides with the state governments. That the elected representatives in state offices are “closer to the people”—meaning smaller districts—means that the police power is tightly woven with democratic accountability and thus democratic legitimacy, at least in theory. That state governments delegate the power to local subunits (i.e., counties and municipalities) introduces a wrinkle in this feedback loop, especially if the county or city government is corrupted by local wealth, which is by nature pro-police qua property-protection.
Randall Marshall of the ACLU of Alabama overlooks the key governmental basis of police power in privileging the problem of church and state in his conclusion, “Giving the powers of the state to a private religious organization is a …violation of the establishment clause” of the U.S. Constitution.[5] I submit that for a government to allow a church to have employees with the powers to arrest and use deadly force is not to establish a state religion. The decisive problem is rather that a non-governmental entity—a non-profit organization—would assume a governmental role. That democratic legitimacy would be replaced by managerial prerogative is the sort of shift that is not typically transparent to translucent daylight.
The church employees would have “all of the powers of law enforcement officers” in Alabama, including “the powers to make arrests and use deadly force.”[6] They would have to be certified by the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission, making them a real police department. The church pastor and his board of directors—private citizens, not government officials, in a private association—would be the bosses of a full-fledged police force. As troubling as this may sound, precedent exists in another domain of non-profit organizations.
Universities have their own police forces, which are accountable, in theory at least, to academic administrators (i.e., managers) rather than to a city council or mayor. In the case of state universities, their respective state governments are at a distance; typically a board of regents is the go-between. A university administration’s over-reaches can easily go under such a board’s radar—not to mention that of a state capitol. Even assuming adequate accountability, the interest of a university’s administration is not that of a state government—the former being considerably narrower in scope.
A government, unlike an organization’s board and management, stands for and protects society as a whole, so a police force answers to officials who are tasked with looking after the interests of the whole, rather than those of a part thereof. In theory, police can serve in an unbiased way between two contending groups within society, unless one of those groups is the government itself; but that group is not in society. Government as an organization differs qualitatively from organizations in society because only government represents the whole (i.e., the entire society, and thus the common good). This difference is crucial as to why giving organizations in society police forces of their own; organizational “police” are subject to a part (of society) rather than the whole and therefore something partial rather than the general good. Rather than the whole acting in its interest with respect to two contending parts of the whole, one part gains a lever over another part—a lever of such power that the U.S. Constitution assigns that prerogative to governments.
The issue at hand, whether the organizations are religious or educational (or both, as is Briarwood), is thus not the particular flavor of the organization. Even beyond whether a governmental power is misappropriated, the ultimate concern for the general public ought to be the risk of unaccountable police overreach at the expense of the members of organizations—whether parishioners, students, staff, faculty or even visitors. The risk is real because an inherent bias exists in the institutional arrangement itself, which unfortunately comes part and parcel with the misappropriation.
The troubling matter of accountability is so important because a serious, albeit unfortunately overlooked conflict of interest exists when a “police force” is beholden to an organization (i.e., its management) rather than a government, which represents the public good. Anytime such a “police force” intervenes in a conflict between the organization’s administration and its members, the “police” employees are subject to an inherent bias in favor of their bosses higher up in the organization. The bias is institutional in nature; employees are going to lean in the direction of the people who pay and direct them. A “police chief” in an organization is naturally going to side with the administration of which he or she is a part, rather than with members, and the “chief’s” subordinate employees are going to follow along even if they harm or intimidate members unjustifiably.
An organization’s management can order its “police force” to take action against “troubling” members, whereas they in turn face an “uphill climb” in convincing the administration’s “police” to take action against administrators who are out of line. “Police” employees of a church are likely to be hesitant at best to remove an irate, abusive pastor at the behest of some offended members, but those same employees would not blink an eye before removing a parishioner, who is orally challenging the pastor on a hitherto-secret regarding his salary or expenses, at the pastor’s request. This asymmetry is the fault-line in the conflict of interest. Any tense relation between an administration and the organization’s members suffers from the lack of a fair resolution mechanism because the security, or “police,” employees are subject to the institutional bias. In other words, the umpire or referee works for one of the teams.
As a result, administrators can potentially take liberties with more assurance than warranted of practical impunity, whereas the members and the general public (e.g., visitors) are potentially without the protections of liberty that are guaranteed citizens as per abuse of power by a government but interestingly not members as per abuse of power by an organization’s management or its armed “police force.”
Students "relaxing" on a university campus with a campus "police" jeep prominently (and nearly perpetually) displayed (behind the students) on the quad despite no actual perpetual threat.

More commonly, the board and pastor of a church and the administration of a university are likely to look the other way as members feel uncomfortable or even subtle intimidation on a daily basis due to an excessive “police” presence enabled by the bias in favor of the organizational leadership. That is, an organizational “police force” is not likely to be managed in such a way that the protection of the organization’s property and enforcement of its rules and even local law is balanced against the prerogative of members to feel at ease while at the organization.  Unfortunately, the risk of damage or violations of rules or laws cannot possibly reach absolute zero, so police forces, whether local or of organizations, are going to try to maximize their presence—caring less about member comfort in the process.
In short, giving non-profit organizations powers that are quintessentially governmental is inherently problematic, for to do so creates private governments without democratic legitimacy or accountability. Accordingly, universities and churches should be allowed to have security employees, who are empowered to guard the assets and enforce organizational rules yet without weapons and the power to arrest. Instead, they should be able to the local police rather than assume such governmental powers themselves. Otherwise, I fear the perpetuation of private governments—even at state universities!—with little or no real accountability. In a democracy, such a sordid spread should be a matter of concern rather than indifference or support.


[1] Ian Lovett, “Alabama Church Wants Police Force,” The New York Times, April 17, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] “Police Power,” Encycyclopaedia Britannica (accessed 4/18/2017)
[5] Ian Lovett, “Alabama Church Wants Police Force,” The New York Times, April 17, 2017.
[6] Ibid.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Strategic Use of Regulation in Government: A Proposal to Split-Up the Big Banks

The strategic use of regulatory reform is no stranger to businesses—especially to the strongest both financially and, relatedly, politically. Such proposals of more regulation are crafted not to benefit the macro economy or even the industry; rather, the point is to enhance a dominant firm’s competitive advantage over rivals. It follows that such proposals are not counter-factual to the thesis that republics are susceptible to the gravitational pull of plutocracy, the rule of wealth. A case in point is the U.S. Trump Administration’s consideration of a legislative proposal to reinstate the main content of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had separated commercial and investment banking such that a bank could not do both.
Gary Cohn, former number two at Goldman Sachs, talking to U.S. senators on behalf of the Trump Administration.
(source: Andrew Kelly, Reuters)
Gary Cohn, formerly President of Goldman Sachs, told U.S. senators on the Senate banking committee on April 5, 2017 in his new capacity as President Trump’s chief economic advisor that the administration was considering a proposal that would require banks to be either a retail or an investment bank. Interestingly, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, formerly a VP at Goldman, had expressed support for some version of the proposal. Meanwhile, JPMorgan’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, declared to stockholders that the existing regulations and capital requirements had largely eliminated the chance of a big bank failing. “Essentially, too big to fail has been solved,” he wrote.[1]
Only months before, Dimon had argued for financial deregulation, so had he been urging the removal of necessary safeguards? Perhaps the prospect of a renewed Glass-Steagall changed his view of the added regulation in Dodd-Frank. More likely, his positions were merely a reflection of the financial interest of his bank; his view of the value of the existing regulations and capital requirements was likely only strategic in thwarting a larger financial threat—having to sell off either the commercial or investment side of his bank. We cannot rely on his statement, therefore, that the problem of the systemic risk of a major bank collapsing has been solved; his changing views have one constant—the financial interest of his bank. Indeed, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren insisted at the time that despite “the progress since 2008, the biggest banks continue to threaten our economy.”[2] Dimon’s declaration looks self-serving in comparison. Put another way, the public should hesitate to put much stock on macro assertions made by CEOs, as their primary focus and perspective is firm-level (and at a particular firm).
Why would Goldman Sachs alums in the Trump Administration support invoking Glass-Steagall rather than join with Jamie Dimon? Breaking up the large banks could benefit Goldman Sachs, “whose retail deposit business is relatively recent and small: It would have a greater impact on Goldman rivals like JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup."[3] Dennis Kelleher of Better Markets said Goldman Sachs “would be king of the financial world where bank holding companies couldn’t compete.”[4] Hence, we have the difference of opinion on the proposal between the Goldman alums in the government and JPMorgan’s CEO. What they all share is an orientation principally to their respective banks.
The question whether reinstating some version of the Glass Steagall Act would reduce the systemic risk from a major bank going bankrupt (i.e., the risk that the financial system would collapse, thus upending the U.S. and perhaps the world economies) goes beyond whether such law is good for some banks and bad for others. In other words, the public-policy analysis is rightly societal, oriented to the common good rather than being a function of the strategic use of regulation by a bank whose alums have power in the U.S. Government. The danger of plutocracy, moreover, is that private interest trumps the public good. This danger puts society itself at risk because the impetus in legislative reform is not looking primarily at the big picture, but, rather, at particular parts.
By analogy, a captain of a cruise ship, who began his career managing the hot-chocolate bar on deck, still gets a kickback based on the revenue from that bar. When crossing from America to Europe, he tends to take the ship he is commanding unnecessarily north, into waters in which icebergs are possible. The colder air on deck is good for the hot-chocolate business, even if it is not good for passengers wanting to lie out on deck and use the swimming pool. More important than their inconvenience, which outweighs the pleasure of the hot-chocolate loving minority on board, the entire ship could sink were it to hit an iceberg. Yet the captain minimizes this risk even as his choice renders it higher.
What is in the strategic competitive advantage of one large bank is not necessarily the best route from the perspective of evading systemic risks to an entire financial system and economy. The implication is that one bank, or even the banking sector, should not be dominant in the halls of government, for such power is not likely to have a systemic perspective that gives due diligence to societal and even global risks of catastrophe.

[1] Michael Corkery and Jessica Silver-Greenberg, “Trump and Warren Agree? Maybe, on Plan to Shrink Big Banks,” The New York Times, April 6, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.

Monday, April 3, 2017

How to Craft a Non-Partisan Constitutional Court: The Case of the U.S. Senate Confirming Justices

In interpreting a constitution, justice is best carried out when the justices are non-partisan rather than politically ideological. To be sure, every living and breathing human being has a political ideology, even if implicitly. Even so, the institutional process by which justices are chosen can mitigate this point by being oriented to non-partisan candidates. In other words, a system can be designed so as to minimize the likelihood that a partisan of one political party or another will sit on a constitutional court. The confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court can provide some insights in this regard.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on Gorsuch's nomination on April 3, 2017. (NYT)

With the U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee having voted 11-9 along party lines to advance Gorsuch’s nomination to the full Senate, Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware voiced his intent to join the planned filibuster against the nomination. He said he wanted to “ensure the process to fill the next vacancy on the court is not a narrowly partisan process, but rather an opportunity of both parties to weigh in and support from members of both parties.”[1] A narrowly partisan process could be expected to produce a narrowly partisan justice, or at the very least to enable such a nominee to get through. In contrast, making support from a sizable number of senators from the minority party a requirement would make such a nomination unlikely. Instead, nominees whose views do not mirror those of one party would easily manage through the requirement. Were such nominees justices on the Court, its own decisions would be less likely to reflect familiar ideological differences wherein there are “conservative” and “liberal” justices. Instead, their more salient differences would be on judicial philosophy, which does not line up on the more political fault-lines such as “liberal” and “conservative.”

In the U.S. Senate, the filibuster requirement of 60 votes (in the 100 vote chamber) would ensure that a successful nominee gets at least some support from the minority party. In terms familiar in the E.U., the requirement of a qualified-majority vote—a “supermajority”—ensures that a choice is more widely accepted than would be the case on a more narrowly partisan basis. Ideally, both parties should confer with the U.S. President so he or she nominates someone who is acceptable to both parties. Then it would be very improbably that the justices sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court would be ideologically partisan (i.e., identify themselves as liberal or conservative). To a good jurisprud, those labels should mean little, especially in the legal context of interpreting law. My point is that a system or process of selection can be designed such that such judges tend to be the ones who get through unscathed.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

A Legislature Court: A Conflict of Interest Averted in Venezuela

Fundamentally, a court differs from a legislature, so it would be strange were a state’s supreme court to take it upon itself to act as the state’s legislature as well. In late March, 2017, Venezuela’s Supreme Court did exactly that, ignoring the qualitative difference between interpreting contested law and legislating. The court wrote that lawmakers in the legislature were “in a situation of contempt,” and that as long as that situation lasted the justices would “ensure that parliamentary powers [are] exercised directly by this chamber, or by the body that the chamber chooses.”[1] Understandably, Julio Borges, the head of the legislative Assembly, exclaimed, “They have kidnapped the Constitution, they have kidnapped our rights, they have kidnapped our liberty.”[2] Luisa Ortega, the Attorney General,” wrote that the court’s decision represented “a rupture in the constitutional order.”[3] This was true both in regard to the basic, or fundamental distinction between judicial review and legislating and democracy itself.

 The president and Chief Justice of Venezuela. An presidential over-reach? (Source: Reuters)

It was no mere coincidence that Borges’s party was not that of the state’s president. Importantly, both the legislators and the president had been democratically elected (assuming fair elections). To make this point, Borges added, “The people chose us through a popular vote.”[4] So for the justices to declare that legislative powers could be exercised directly by the court represents an affront to representative democracy.
Tellingly, in the wake of popular protests, the Court reversed parts of its decision only days later. In an address, the court’s chief judge insisted that the “decisions of the court have not divested the Parliament of its powers.”[5] The Court had suppressed parts of the prior decision to nullify the legislature and allow the court to write laws itself.  The chief justice said the Court is “only an arbiter” and thus should not be in conflict with other branches of government.[6] I would add that a court should not take on the functioning of another branch, for besides the risk to democracy itself, jurisprudence is qualitatively different than law-making and execution of the law. Interpretation of a law presumes that the latter has been promulgated and enacted for there to be a conflict over it. Additionally, to both enact and interpret the same law would occasion a conflict of interest wherein the judicial interpretation would favor the legislative intent. In fact, the interpretation could simply be a continuation of the intent!  So in the end, the separation of powers not only protects democracy, but also prevents a conflict of interest in governance.

[1] Nicholas Casey and Patricia Torres, “Venezuela Muzzles Legislature, Moving Closer to One-Man Rule,” The New York Times, March 30, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Nicholas Casey and Patricia Torres, “Venezuelan Court Revises Ruling That Nullified Legislature,” The New York Times, April 1, 2017.
[6] Ibid.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

How to Regain Reputational Capital: The Case of Wells Fargo

How does a firm rebound from the toll taken in reputational capital from a track-record of unethical practices? Paying $175 million to settle accusations without admitting any wrongdoing, such as Wells Fargo did in 2012, does not suffice, but neither does merely admitting culpability without real change going forward. The case of Wells Fargo may provide an explanation for how reputation recovers.
The U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency announced on March 27, 2017 that it had uncovered “an extensive and pervasive pattern and practice of discriminatory and illegal credit practices across multiple lines of business within [Wells Fargo] bank, resulting in significant harm to large numbers of consumers.”[1] The bank’s management had admitted six months earlier that over the course of several years, employees trying to meet aggressive sales quotas opened as many as two million fraudulent accounts.[2] “Under pressure to hit aggressive sales goals, thousands of employees created unauthorized bank and credit card accounts in the names of real customers.”[3] The unknowing customers were charged real fees. In the agency’s report, this conduct and at least nine other examples of “egregious” violations are cited. Overall, “the bank’s misdeeds were so glaring, the agency decided, that they overshadowed its achievements.”[4] In terms of reputational capital, the bank was under water.
Grasping for buoyancy again, the bank offered better terms than it would otherwise have had to in order to attract and retain understandably weary customers. Earning less in interest and offering better terms on savings and checking accounts may be the real way in which a bank becomes competitive again after having abused customers in the past.
The nub of my tussling question is whether existing and prospective customers should essentially give such a bank a break simply because doing so entails getting better financial terms than otherwise. Should not the existing customers walk away on principle—intent on sending the management a message that inconvenient consequences follow from taking advantage of customers? Should not prospective customers be expected to resist the better terms? By “paying off” existing and new customers with better terms than otherwise, Wells Fargo’s response was essentially to buy back its lost reputational capital. Should an ethical reputation be so purchasable? Do better terms really make up for a sordid past?

1. Stacy Cowley, “Citing Misdeeds, U.S. Gives Wells Fargo Failing Grade on Lending,” The New York Times, March 28, 2017.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Young Russians Protest Government Corruption

Russia witnessed the largest anti-government protests in more than five years on March 26, 2017. At the urging of Aleksei Navalny, “tens of thousands of Russians—many of them in their teens and 20s—poured into the streets in scores of cities . . . to protest endemic corruption among the governing elite.”[1] The police responded by beating protesters—a barbaric and psychologically pathological response to peaceful protest—and arresting more than a thousand. As the protests were not directed against Putin, but, rather, corruption, the Kremlin should have been a cheerleader rather than antagonist to the protests.

Aleksei A. Navalny at a court in Moscow on the day after the protests. He told reporters that he was “amazed” by the number of cities and by how many people had taken part in demonstrations. (Source: Denis Tyrin/Associated Press)  

Yet personal ties among the elite are by nature enduring. Prompting the protests, Navalny had released a video detailing “a web of dubious charitable organizations that funneled bribes from prominent oligarchs to Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev, allowing him to maintain a series of luxurious estates, vineyards and yachts in Russia and abroad.”[2] The allure of such easy money at the highest level of a government can easily dwarf any desire to reduce systemic corruption inside the system. This can be viewed as private advantage trumping the public good.
Fortunately, young people are sufficiently idealistic to hope for a better, fairer world. “I am glad and happy that a new generation grew up in the country that will not accept such [pro-corruption] atttitudes from the government and wants to feel that they are citizens,” Mavalny told reporters in court after the protests. Middle-aged people can easily slip into the self-fulfilling prophesy that the world cannot be improved much unless the change is in the interest of the political and financial elites. How to hold the most powerful in check is an especially vexing problem for any people, even in a healthy democracy. It is no accident that the elite typically control the media, such as Channel One in Russia. That station ignored the protests—a glaring editorial decision given the station’s duty to report the news.
Had the insiders in the Kremlin been strategizing in an enlightened self-interest, they would have realized that being on the side of the young in opposing corruption would pay off even just in good public relations. Stronger still, rooting out corruption can enhance a government’s stature, and thus the chances of genuine re-electability. Sadly, the old grooves of power tend to lead to clamping down on popular protest regardless of the cause. Rather than aligning, the instinctive reaction is to grasp at the levels of power available to any government: the police power of the state. I submit that a corrupt police state is the downside of politics and even democracy.

1. Neil MacFarquhar and Ivan Nechepurenko, “Aleksei Navalny, Russian Opposition Leader, Receives 15-Day Sentence,” The New York Times, March 27, 2017.
2. Ibid.

Making a Joke Out of Liberty: Unmasking a Political Travesty

“Land of the free” is a ubiquitous expression that Americans use to describe the United States. Presumably those states esteem liberty as a political value even though it is oxymoronic for a government to voluntarily limit its own power over the governed. Hence, ratification of the U.S. Constitution was predicated on a Bill of Rights quickly to follow. Declaring governmental power to be limited was not enough. That many States have had “mask laws,” many still on the books as of 2017, testifies as to how invasive government power can be precisely at the expense of personal liberty wherein no one is harmed.
In Virginia in late March, 2017, police arrested a man dressed as the Joker (of the Batman comic/movies). The man “was called in for walking around town in the creepy clown villain makeup while carrying a sword.” According to the Virginia criminal code, “It shall be unlawful for any person over 16 years of age, with the intent to conceal his identity, wear any mask, hood, or other device, whereby a substantial portion of the face is hidden or covered, so as to conceal the identity of the wearer, to be or appear in any public place, or upon any private property in this Commonwealth, without first having obtained from the owner or tenant thereof consent to do so in writing.”[1] Incredibly, a tenant with paint (e.g., of a professional or college sports team) on his or her face could not sit out on the porch of a house or a balcony of an apartment without the property owner’s written permission. Even indoors, in the privacy of the person’s residence, such permission would be needed. What room is there for liberty in a society having such an invasive law in spite of the fact that no harm to self or others is involved or even imminent? A slogan cannot hold up to such arduous “facts on the ground.”
Tellingly, the police arresting the man in Virginia “were apparently less worried about the weapon, and focused instead on [the man’s] face, which was covered in white paint.”[2] That priority defies common sense (which is what led me to write this essay). Clearly, a sword is more of a threat than white makeup on a face. Such makeup does not even constitute a mask, for the face itself is still recognizable. I suspect that the law’s true intent comes from the interest that police have in being able to identify people. That is to say, the law privileges a police state over individual liberty.
In the context of political protests, such as those of “Occupy Wall Street” in which New York City police cited protesters wearing masks, wearing makeup or even a mask can be considered part of the right to protest (though not free speech, as a mask is not speech). In the “Occupy Wall Street” protests, the mask used symbolized an aversion to governmental power, as per the influence of private wealth. Wearing the mask was in itself a protest.
Additionally, the right to protest anonymously may also be at stake; it is entirely reasonable to fear being identified by government security agencies simply for protesting peaceably. Furthermore, the requirement that political protests exclude the wearing of makeup or masks is dogmatic in the sense of being arbitrary—unless from the standpoint of a government’s security agency in wanting to be able to identify protesters. Where the protests are against the government, the government’s interest in identifying protesters is fraught with difficulty and is rightly to be questioned in terms of legitimacy.
Liberty not backed up by consistent statutes is meaningless. Statutes on the books contravening harmless actions such as face-painting makes a freedom-loving people a living hypocrisy. Some laws are so needlessly invasive that they cast a pall over rival broad claims of liberty; indeed, going to the extreme against liberty is itself a red flag, rather than a virtue.

[2] Andy Campbell, “’Joker’ Charged with Felony for Concealing His Face in Public,” The Huffington Post, March 25, 2017.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Perspective on the European Union

At the signing of the Rome Declaration at the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Community on March 25, 1957, E.U. leaders expressed their intention to further strengthening the federal Union. Even as “regional conflicts, terrorism, growing migratory pressures, protectionism and social and economic inequalities,” as well as Britain’s upcoming secession provided a sense of pessimism, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive branch, said, “Let us not lose perspective.”[1] I submit that this advice was at the time very important.

E.U. leaders in Rome to sign the Rome Declaration (source: NYT)

The E.U. president/chief executive pointed out that as daunting as the “Euro-skeptic” mood was at the time, the challenges were “in no way comparable to those faced by our founding fathers,” as the E.U. had been able to “achieve almost eternal peace.”[2] Indeed, the European Coal and Steel Cooperative had been formed in the wake of World War II precisely to forestall another such war by keeping an eye on German extractions of iron-ore for possible re-armament. The prevention of war within the E.U.’s borders has been a significant mark of success, and problems with immigration in 2016 paled in comparison—and yet what is closer to the eye can look disproportionately large, and thus important.

Even the secession of the state of Britain can be reckoned as an instance of political stability, and thus of peaceable political change in the E.U. Had the latter refused to allow the state to secede, as the U.S. refused to allow South Carolina and other states to secede in 1861, armed conflict could have resulted after the British vote to secede from the Union. Flexibility in terms of federalism is a strength rather than a weakness, even though the want of sufficient authority at the federal level has plagued the very functioning of the E.U., much as the same problem eviscerated the U.S.’s original treaty, the Articles of Confederation. Perspective is thus vital.

[1] James Kanter and Elisabetta Povoledo, “E.U. Leaders Sign Rome Declaration and Proclaim a ‘Common Future’ (Minus Britain),” The New York Times March 25, 2017.
[2] Ibid.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Happiness: A Matter of Prosperity or Economic Security?

A macro-economist would probably assume that the percentage of people rating their lives positively enough to be considered thriving is positively correlated with real GDP per capita. Yet evidence suggests that this is not the case. The key to happiness, I submit, is having the sense of foundational economic security—that come what may, even in the case of rich people, you won’t fall through the cracks. It is difficult to thrive over a continuous, subterranean (i.e., subtle) anxiety, whereas a sense of security, such as most children feel while still living in their childhood homes, is a sturdy foundation on which a sense of thriving can grow and survive. I think most people, particularly Americans, take this point for granted, and thus are all too willing to make staples like housing, food, and health care conditional on having money.

In Britain during the two years leading up to the referendum to secede from the E.U., Gallup found that the percentage of people who were happy in the sense of having the sense of thriving fell 15 percent.[1] Meanwhile, GDP per capita (PPP) in current international dollars increased from $38,873 to $41,499.[2] Egypt, likewise, went from 29 percent “happiness” in 2005 to 8 percent in 2012, while GDP per capita increased from $8,123 to $11,210. Clearly, something other than the level of prosperity is behind changes in happiness as a sense of thriving.

That Norway (7.537), Denmark (7.522) and Iceland (7.504) led the pack among countries in terms of happiness as thriving in 2017, with the Netherlands coming in sixth and Sweden tenth may suggest that having an economic safety-net may be important. The United States stood at only 6.993, and the safety nets in those states are partial. To be sure, the state of France in the E.U. came in even lower, at 6.442, and Italy at 5.964, so we cannot conclude that the stronger safety nets in the E.U. necessarily translate into more happiness. However, even within the E.U. Denmark and the Netherlands were known for their well-fortified socio-economic infrastructures, whereas in the U.S. only Massachusetts and California were known to have relatively encompassing social policies in comparison with the other American states. Unfortunately, Gallup lumped all of the American states together while distinguishing the European states, so we cannot tease out differences within the U.S. 

Even so, the high marks of Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands suggest that having a solid social-welfare safety net for the most vulnerable in matters of food, housing, and medical care is at the very least consistent with a broad sense of happiness in the sense of not merely surviving, but thriving in life. With less of the existential, conditional angst, people rich or poor can feel more stability upon which they can step out onto striving, venturing, into the unknown, with paradoxically a higher chance of sustainable self-sufficiency.

1. Jon Clifton, “The Happiest and Unhappiest Countries in the World,” The World Post, March 20, 2017.
2. Source: The IMF

Saturday, March 18, 2017

European Officials at the G20 Grapple with a New American Trading Position: Beyond the Joint Communiqué

It is perhaps only natural---only human—for us to take ourselves and our produced artifacts too seriously. Diplomats and other government officials, for example, fret arduously over mere words. When those words are etched in governmental or treaty parchment, the effort is understandable. The flaw of excess is evident in all the time and effort that go into the joint communiques of international conferences and meetings. I submit that the real politic at such occasions is much more significant even if nothing shows from it for some time.
At the March 18, 2017 meeting of the Group of 20, which includes the E.U. and U.S., the joint statement “became an unlikely focus of controversy” issuing in “a tortured compromise stating, in effect, that trade is a good thing.”[1] I submit that the use of such language is spurious—certainly much less than the attendees and even their principals back home supposed. The real politic was instead that the U.S. was “overturning long-held assumptions about international commerce,” and such transformational change takes time even just to register in minds ensconced in the status quo. That is to say, the real shift in power would need to play out in actual negotiations on trade, rather than in how to word a meeting’s joint statement.

A European official, Wolfgang Schauble, perhaps straining at the meeting to understand the new American position. (source: NYT)

The full essay is at "European Officials at the G20."

1. Jack Ewing, “U.S. Breaks With Allies Over Trade Issues Amid Trump’s ‘America First’ Vows,” The New York Times, March 18, 2017.