On Possibly Independent Countries of the Future

(Ignore the syntactically unfortunate title of this post…)

Scottish independence: Cameron and Salmond strike referendum deal“:

A deal setting out terms for a Scottish independence referendum has been signed by Prime Minister David Cameron and First Minister Alex Salmond.

The agreement, struck in Edinburgh, has paved the way for a vote in autumn 2014, with a single Yes/No question on Scotland leaving the UK.

It will also allow 16 and 17-year-olds to take part in the ballot.

The SNP secured a mandate to hold the referendum after its landslide Scottish election win last year.

The UK government, which has responsibility over constitutional issues, will grant limited powers to the Scottish Parliament to hold a legal referendum, under a mechanism called Section 30.

The deal will also commit both governments to working together constructively in the best interests of the people of Scotland, whatever the outcome of the referendum.

Mr Salmond said the agreement would mean a referendum “made in Scotland”, while the prime minister said keeping the United Kingdom together was his number one priority.

Perhaps even less well known to Americans is the desire for Catalonian independence from Spain, though independence is a somewhat less likely outcome here:

Artur Mas, the leader of Catalonia, has a clear message for Madrid: He is serious about his threat to let the people of Spain’s most economically powerful region decide for themselves in a referendum whether they should remain a part of Spain.

[…]

That kind of posturing has thrust Mr. Mas, 56, to the forefront of Spanish politics and made Catalonia the biggest domestic headache for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who is facing troubles on all sides as he tries to satisfy demands from the European Union to straighten out Spain’s economy and from Spain’s heavily indebted regions, including Catalonia.

The question now for Mr. Rajoy, and for all of Spain, is just how far Mr. Mas, a once relatively obscure politician who was elected regional president two years ago, is willing to go in posing what may be the most serious challenge to a sovereign entity in Europe since the implosion of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Mr. Mas’s talk is not idle. With a $260 billion economy that is roughly the size of Portugal’s, an independent Catalonia and its 7.5 million inhabitants — 16 percent of Spain’s population — would rank ahead of a dozen of the 27 nations in the European Union. But like most of Spain’s regions, it is under great financial pressure and would like a better deal from Madrid.

In that respect, his threats may amount to nothing more than brinkmanship, as he applies to Madrid much the same tactic it has used to gain favorable treatment in its own dealings with Brussels: that is, that Catalonia, which has its own language and sense of identity, is simply “too big to fail” without calamitous consequences that no one wants to see. On Friday, Catalonia’s government raised the pressure, saying it would not be able to meet its September payments for basic services like heath care on schedule.

For a somewhat more comprehensive take on the uptick in regionalism and the rise of new independence movements in Europe, see the New York Times.

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History Does Not Exist

Check out this post from the World Policy blog, “Democracy in China: The Popularity of Alexis de Toqueville in the Middle Kingdom” (emphasis added):

First there was Confucius. Then there was Mao Zedong. And now Alexis de Tocqueville tops the must-read list for avid Chinese intellectuals and bloggers.

The French aristocrat who limned the definitive political sociology of the United States almost two centuries ago might seem an unlikely crux of controversy in 21st-century China. But it is Tocqueville’s other classic, L’ancien régime et la Révolution—with its thesis that revolutions come not when masses are downtrodden, but when their lot is improving—that has sparked today’s hot debate.

After all, China arguably offers the ideal test of Tocqueville’s thesis. As one Chinese blogger puts it, “Don’t you feel that China now is nearly a copy of France in those [prerevolutionary] days?”

Or, as Cheng Li, director of Chinese research at the Brookings Institution, putsit, Chinese developments today seriously challenge the Western academic consensus that the Chinese Communist Party has somehow found the magic wand of “resilient” (or “adaptive”) authoritarianism to maintain its power indefinitely.

[…]

What the two [main] camps [within the CCP] are feuding about is, in essence, the verity of de Tocqueville’s apercu that revolutions erupt not when people suffer the most, but rather when their lives start improving, as the lives of today’s young generation have done spectacularly. Both camps tacitly see today’s China as anancien regime that is in crisis. Hardliners contend that the only way the Chinese Communists can hang on to power is by suppressing dissent. Reformers argue instead that the only way the party can stave off being swept away by the gathering storm is to loosen its tight bureaucratic control voluntarily and invite outsiders into the political game gradually.

For his part, Cheng Li thinks that time is short, but reform now could still forestall revolution by soliciting support from the 200,000 lawyers and other newcomers in China’s increasingly pluralist society. “If the CCP wants to regain the public’s confidence and avoid a bottom-up revolution, it must embrace genuine systematic democratic change in the country,” he contends. “[Like Taiwan in the 1980s] the CCP must now either make changes to be on the right side of history or be left behind.” Even if there is no “real consensus for the rule of law” in the party now, “sometimes the development of the rule of law happens through necessity, not due to the noble ideas of political leaders.”

This was an interesting post, but I want to take issue with the highlighted part, this idea of “History” with a capital “H” as something like a train moving inexorably forward.  On this view, history is more or less a force of nature, and a progressive one at that, steadily and unstoppably moving forward and making human societies more just as it does so.  To reject democracy in China–or the advances of the US Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, or the ongoing wave of legalization of gay marriage in many US states, and so on–is to be on the “wrong side of history,” to be in opposition to advances that were going to arrive sooner or later.  Because they are right.

The problem with this is that there is no History, not in the sense described above.  History is just the ensemble of stories we tell about people’s individual and collective actions in their societies and the ways these have changes over time.  If ethical progress is the yardstick we use to measure these actions, we should recognize that people are capable of taking 10 steps forward, 1000 steps back, and any variation or combination thereof.  History does not march forward; it’s not even linear!  We as individuals and as groups always have highly complex sets of choices to make that can take us in a number of directions, many of which with ethically ambiguous results.  That’s not to say that progress isn’t possible–I firmly believe it is–but we have to recognize that it isn’t automatic, and it can be rolled back.

I think the “history as History” view is problematic for a number of reasons.  It’s not very good history, methodologically speaking: it obscures the actions and dynamics that led to a certain situation or result.  It makes understanding progressive outcomes’ implications for the future much more difficult.  And it leads to a certain ethical complacency.  In my research in France I recently came across a work by an American historian named Todd Shepard called The Invention of Decolonization, in which he argues that metropolitan French authorities made use of the term “decolonization” to explain Algeria’s political independence from France, which came about in 1962.  It was easier and more politically expedient, Shepard argues, to see Algeria’s independence as just one instance of a larger historical process known as “decolonization,” which sooner or later brought about the end of direct colonial relationships, than to attend to the reasons for and dynamics of French colonialism and racism and to the effects the events of Algeria’s independence would have on Algerian and French society and the relationship between the two.

This seems to me a really powerful argument and one that applies to many, many other topics.

Biden vs. Ryan

So I really haven’t blogged at all since I’ve been in France, but I wanted to say a couple quick things about the VP debate last night:

1. Like many folks, I was quite happy with Martha Raddatz’s performance as the mediator.  Except for one thing: whenever Joe Biden would mention that the Obama administration’s policy was in accordance with recommendations of the Joint Chiefs, Raddatz would interject with something like, “But they’re answerable to civilian authorities,” as though to suggest that political considerations would bend their suggestions away from purely military considerations.  I’m not sure this is true (but can’t really say without looking into the matter more empirically), but more fundamentally, isn’t it a good thing that the US military is answerable to a civilian authority?  Isn’t that what we want?  Raddatz kept bringing it up as though that were a flaw in the decision-making process, but it seems to me that’s just the sort of thing you want in a democratic society that operates according to the rule of law.

2. David Brooks took issue with Biden’s tone in this debate.  He thought the VP was too aggressive, that he “exude[d] more drama than a decade of Latin American soap operas.”  And he chalks this up to a generational difference, i.e., that the political climate when Biden came on the scene in the 70s was much more conducive to this sort of theatricality and aggression, whereas politicians like Ryan are of a generation that favors cool, calm behavior.  And he thinks that Biden’s style is the sort of thing that makes efficient politics and effective policy-making more difficult.  I’ve got a number of problems with this.  I don’t think Biden was quite so bad as Brooks thinks, though certainly he was a bit obnoxious at times.    More importantly, I don’t think this was a generational issue at all.  I think you can see Biden’s performance last night partially as stemming from his personality but mostly as a political calculation.  This is what the Obama campaign thought needed to happen to make up for Obama’s comparatively lackluster performance in the first debate, and Biden pulled it off with style.  Talking about generational differences doesn’t really make sense (to me, anyway) and obscures the real dynamics here.

All that aside, though, I’d like to join the ranks of those who fetishize decency and cordiality in discourse.  Yes, people need a certain level of civility  to have a functional political conversation, but honesty and candor are much more important.  I’ll take an angry Biden who calls out Ryan on his obfuscation and untruths over a more polite one who refuses to do so any day.  And while the debate was unquestionably heated at times, it wasn’t out of control.  I was quite happy with Biden’s approach; it might be just what our politics needs in order to function better.

Image by azipaybarah

The Great Neoliberal Split includes transit

Since the 1950s, US policymakers and politicians have built highways and parking spaces on what seems like every corner of the country. Meanwhile, urban transit systems from Boston to San Francisco have suffered massive disinvestment and stigmatization despite their numerous positive externalities (notably, decreased pollution and gridlock) and increasing ridership. While subway and light-rail systems are appreciated and used by many affluent urban residents, bus systems, largely the modes of last resort for poor and underserved communities, are stigmatized by these same urbanites.

Karen Narefsky, the author of the Jacobin piece, goes on to gut an argument made by Jarrett Walker claiming that public transit should be designed with the poor in mind.

Leaving aside the spurious claim that the poor have different needs for a public transportation system than the wealthy (don’t we all want our transit to be clean, safe, extensive, and on time?), public transportation systems cannot function in the long term unless they are used by a majority of their possible constituents, including the poor, the working class, and Walker’s city councilmen and architects. Without the revenue earned through fares, transit systems are forced to rely on alternative and unstable sources of funding, such as high-interest credit swaps and politically vulnerable sales taxes. Urban professionals may not feel inclined to ride the bus, but ignoring that stigma will do little for the long-term viability of public transportation. The reasons that many affluent people disdain buses (they are crowded, unreliable, and subject to street traffic) have not escaped the notice of working-class riders, nor are these riders indifferent; many of them simply have no other choice.

The post is right on and points to an important aspect about urban planning in general: cities work best when the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor all aren’t ashamed to live in them.

Footnotes

  • Chicago’s black renaissance [Chicago Tribune]
  • New issue of Jacobin magazine [Jacobin]
  • What good are conventions now? [Swampland]
  • A civil rights group in Togo is encouraging women to withhold sex in protest of the country’s president. [TMC]
  • Mitt, can you just tell us what you actually think? Really? Just once? [The Economist]
  • The most puzzling David Brooks column in…a while. [NYT]
  • It’s funny because it’s true.. [The Onion]
  • Al Jazeera brings us a new sports network, beIn. [Grantland]
  • Joe Biden, is in fact, running for president. [TNR]

Vegetarianism: Key to Coping with Population Growth?

 

A post from French newspaper Le Monde‘s “Éco(lo)” blog speculates that an increase in the global number of vegetarians may help conserve water as the world adds an estimated 2 billion more people by 2050.  I’ll quote a bit of it for any Francophone readers out there:

Si les pays développés connaissent l’urgence à réduire la consommation de viande, peu imaginent adopter dans les prochaines décennies un régime végétarien quasi-généralisé. C’est pourtant la réalité qui attend la population mondiale d’ici 2050 afin d’éviter des pénuries alimentaires catastrophiques et des déficits en eau considérables, si l’on en croit une étude du Stockholm International Water Institute, citée par le Guardian.

Aujourd’hui, à l’échelle de la Terre, les 7 milliards d’hommes tirent en moyenne 20 % de leurs apports en protéines de produits d’origine animale. Mais d’ici 2050, ce chiffre devrait tomber à 5 %, pour nourrir deux milliards d’êtres humains supplémentaires.

[…]

La production de viande nécessite en effet non seulement de l’espace et des ressources – 30 % des terres habitables de la planète sont utilisées pour nourrir les animaux, selon l’Organisation des Nations unies pour l’alimentation et l’agriculture(FAO) –, mais aussi beaucoup d’eau pour faire pousser les cultures destinées à l’alimentation du bétail. Selon l’étude, les régimes riches en protéines animales engloutissent cinq à dix fois plus d’eau que ceux végétariens. Un kilo de bœuf nécessite ainsi 15 500 litres d’eau, un kilo de porc, 4 900 litres, le poulet, 4 000 litres, et le riz, 3 000 litres, selon une autre étude parue en février. Or, 1,1 milliard de personnes n’ont actuellement pas accès à une source d’eau salubre, selon l’organisation mondiale de la santé, et 800 millions à l’eau potable, d’après les Nations unies.

D’après les scientifiques, le végétarisme serait donc une façon d’augmenter la quantité de ressources naturelles disponibles pour produire plus de nourriture.

Basically, this post is reporting on a recent study by the Stockholm International Water Institute that estimates that global water supplies will be insufficient to produce enough meat to feed all the people on earth by 2050.  Because of the amount of water required to hydrate and produce feed for livestock, vegetarian diets are estimated to necessitate 5-10 times less water than the diets of meat-eaters.  The post claims that today, worldwide, 20% of people’s protein sources come from meat but that this number must drop to 5% for everyone to get enough protein.  If more people became vegetarian, this sort of outcome might be achieved, although there is one caveat (my translation follows):

The question of vegetarianism is not, however, clear-cut.  Certain experts estimate that vegetarians in developed countries do not consume many fewer resources than moderate omnivores.  The World Wildlife Fund also released in 2010 a report on the impact of agricultural production that emphasized that meat substitutes, including foods made from imported soy, could actually use more cultivatable land than their meat or dairy counterparts.

Which doesn’t negate the main point but merely emphasizes the importance of doing vegetarianism “the right way,” so to speak.  I’m a vegetarian–I eat no meat, including seafood, though I still eat eggs and dairy–so this sort of change appeals to me.  The blog post points out some of the ecological benefits of agriculture geared toward vegetarian diets, and, without getting into them, I think there would be health and ethical advantages as well.  (I must admit that while I feel I’ve done enough research to justify my personal decision not to eat meat, I’d need to do more to have an informed opinion about the probable ecological impacts of shifting global agriculture away from meat production.)

The problem, as I see it, is that such a shift toward increased vegetarianism wouldn’t be automatic.  The post also describes the number of people living in great hunger or famine conditions today, and I suspect that if this study’s model is accurate, a decrease in the availability of meat protein would lead to greater hunger and malnourishment rather than an uptick in vegetarianism.  The latter change would require a global, concerted effort, which would be most effective if led by governments around the world.  That seems decidedly unlikely.  There have been Malthusians since Malthus, and they’ve been wrong so far, but this sort of study still makes me worry.

Image by Corey Templeton

The Journalism-Stock Ticker Combo

You may have seen it on business-related news programs, but the WSJ now appears to be integrating stock prices into their articles.  While reading this article on growing mine worker strikes in South Africa, I noticed that every time a company was mentioned it was followed by a small icon indicating the performance of its stock for that day.  You can scroll over these icons to see a somewhat more detailed graph of stock performance alongside a few more stats:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Needless to say, this sort of thing has pernicious effects on journalism, especially labor-related journalism.  When you read an article about striking miners and see that their employees’ stock has dropped for the day, that’s probably going to filter your understanding of the events more narrowly through their market effects.  Some WSJ readers might already be more disposed to think in these terms anyway, but it’s still not a good trend.

Screenshots by Aaron Bekemeyer, 2012

Ta-Nehisi on the Obama Presidency

Check out Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest article in The Atlantic, “Fear of a Black President.”  Here’s how the summary reads: “As a candidate, Barack Obama said we needed to reckon with race and with America’s original sin, slavery. But as our first black president, he has avoided mention of race almost entirely. In having to be “twice as good” and “half as black,” Obama reveals the false promise and double standard of integration.”

Some excerpts:

The irony of President Barack Obama is best captured in his comments on the death of Trayvon Martin, and the ensuing fray. Obama has pitched his presidency as a monument to moderation. He peppers his speeches with nods to ideas originally held by conservatives. He routinely cites Ronald Reagan. He effusively praises the enduring wisdom of the American people, and believes that the height of insight lies in the town square. Despite his sloganeering for change and progress, Obama is a conservative revolutionary, and nowhere is his conservative character revealed more than in the very sphere where he holds singular gravity—race.

[…]

“The thing is, a black man can’t be president in America, given the racial aversion and history that’s still out there,” Cornell Belcher, a pollster for Obama, told the journalist Gwen Ifill after the 2008 election. “However, an extraordinary, gifted, and talented young man who happens to be black can be president.”

Belcher’s formulation grants the power of anti-black racism, and proposes to defeat it by not acknowledging it. His is the perfect statement of the Obama era, a time marked by a revolution that must never announce itself, by a democracy that must never acknowledge the weight of race, even while being shaped by it. Barack Obama governs a nation enlightened enough to send an African American to the White House, but not enlightened enough to accept a black man as its president.

[…]

The political consequences of race extend beyond the domestic. I am, like many liberals, horrified by Obama’s embrace of a secretive drone policy, and particularly the killing of American citizens without any restraints. A president aware of black America’s tenuous hold on citizenship, of how the government has at times secretly conspired against its advancement—a black president with a broad sense of the world—should know better. Except a black president with Obama’s past is the perfect target for right-wing attacks depicting him as weak on terrorism. The president’s inability to speak candidly on race cannot be bracketed off from his inability to speak candidly on every­thing. Race is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics.

Image by cattias.photos

From the Campaign Finance Reform Drawing Board

From the NYT:

The Congressional race between two incumbent Democrats in the redrawn 30th District in California is one of the most expensive in the country, but it is hardly unusual in reflecting the influence of big donors. Howard Berman has raised $3.5 million, while his opponent, Brad Sherman, raised $2.7 million. For both candidates, only 1 percent of their money came from donations under $200.

[…]

On Wednesday, two groups with outspoken records in favor of campaign finance reform proposed a plan that could restore a voice to ordinary citizens. Based on the very successful New York City campaign finance system, the plan would match contributions of $250 or less at a 5-to-1 rate with public funds. If someone gave $100 to a candidate, the program would add another $500 in public funds, magnifying the importance of the small donation.

The plan — proposed by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and Democracy 21, a campaign finance watchdog group — would be voluntary, but participating candidates would have to accept a $1,250 limit on all contributions, half the current level of $2,500. There would be a ceiling on public matches to candidates and a $50,000 limit on the amount a candidate could contribute to the campaign but no limit on spending.

The two groups estimated that such a system would cost about $700 million a year. But consider the benefits New York City has enjoyed from its program: more than half the donors to city candidates in 2009 were first-time givers, and more than 80 percent of those contributions were $175 or less. The percentage of residents contributing to a city campaign was more than three times higher than in New York State, and they were far more diverse (a good reason the state needs a similar system).

Republocrats? Sort of.

The Current Moment, with lucid commentary as always, has this to say about the Obama vs. Romney/Ryan race:

When Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running-mate the collective effervescence among various liberals was difficult not to notice.

[…]

There is just one problem with this, everybody is dancing around the same fire. The ‘issues,’ whatever exactly that means, are a narrow set of disagreements over one resounding consensus: how to reduce the deficit.

[…]

The Democrats and Republicans are disputatious members of the same tribe. The collective effervescence of the election is, above all, the reconstitution of elite consensus around a very limited set of differences on political economy.

My only problem is with this last bit, which seems to be yet another incarnation of the notion that there’s really no difference between Democrats and Republicans.  This isn’t true, but it’s also false that there’s a world of difference between the two parties.  For me, what it comes down to is this: there are many issues that, generally speaking, the Democratic and Republican parties and their voters disagree over.  Abortion rights, tax policy, and, roughly speaking, levels of economic or environmental regulation and same-sex marriage.  Yes, there is greater diversity of politics among the Democrats than the Republicans, and opinions and actions of the national parties don’t necessarily correspond exactly to the opinions of their constituents, but as generalizations I think these hold up pretty well.

The problem, as TCM points out with the deficit reduction issue, is that these differences of opinion coalesce around a very limited set of issues, and they’re only two among many possible opinions.  Our current version of two-party politics means that there are many issues on which there is bipartisan consensus and many that are just never addressed at all by either party.  And there are many other policy positions and possible solutions to social and political issues that are never raised because they lie outside the very limited realm of our two-party universe.  (My friend Jacob has discussed problems with the two-party system at greater length here and here.)

Another way to look at this is to think about to whom these parties are responsive.  Increasingly, both are gearing their platforms and their actions toward voters and organizations with money.  There is some overlap in party support–many corporations, for instance, donate to both Republican and Democratic legislators in hopes of getting favorable laws passed either way–but there are definitely distinct groups of people who support one party or the other.  But neither the Dems nor the Republicans are going to be responsive to the interests and preferences of a majority of Americans.  (I don’t know how to put a number on this “majority,” but I will say that the median household income in the United States is somewhere between $45,000 and $50,000–i.e., half of all Americans make this amount or less–and the parties are generally not going to give a whiff about what any of these people want when it comes down to it.)  Historically, politics, even nominally democratic politics, has almost always been an elite affair, excluding large chunks of the population from the process and the benefits thereof.  So while there may be substantive differences between both main parties, these differences may not mean much to a majority, even a large majority, of Americans, to whom these differences mean relatively little.

Basically, I think discussions of the differences between the parties could use both a little more nuance and some perspective.  Yes, there are substantive differences between the two parties, but would these differences, if implemented in policy, mean a lot to most Americans?  In most cases and in general, probably not.

Image by Bearman2007