Archive for September, 2011

It’s a Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

“As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around Globe”

So goes the front-page headline in today’s NYT. The gist is that Millennials around the world, from Spain to Israel to India, are rising up in direct protests within regimes that were meant to have afforded democracy. “They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box.”

All right, it’s time to review the difference between procedural and substantive democracy. Procedural democracy means that the rules are in place that can guarantee fair outcomes, substantive democracy means that fair outcomes do happen. It’s no accident that procedural democracy is the version that people have in mind when they talk about “democratic capitalism,” as the NYT article does. The heart of procedural democracy is free and fair elections. (Don’t get me wrong – this is a huge achievement in human history. The voting booth is like a pew, you should be reverent and grateful in there.) Freedom of expression, freedom of religion. But that’s basically it.

It’s a sham. When the outcomes don’t go your way, that is. Substantive democracy means that the rules point in a certain direction. (You know, toward justice.) There’s an analogy to dimensions of human rights. Just as democratization has generally meant the installation of procedural democracy, the most progress on human rights has been on civil and political rights – the right to vote, etc. But many human rights advocates have been pushing for while for a further dimension of human rights: economic and social rights – the right to a living wage, health care, etc. These are part of substantive democracy.

Again, don’t get me wrong – go procedural democracy. One thing at a time, gradualism, politics as the art of the possible, etc.

Except, bullshit. That’s what the people on Wall Street and in the tent cities in Israel and Spain, and the hunger striker in India are saying. Bullshit. Why wait? Justice now, economic and social rights now, substantive democracy now. Especially when the capitalism side of “democratic capitalism” is so manifestly rigged. Makes the other side feel rigged too.

Who are we to say any different?

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Only a Fool Would Say That

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

This has to be the most bizarre case of “I told you so” ever, but here goes.

Interesting piece in the NYT (hat tip to Bowen Chung) about a speech at a Tea Party convention where Sarah Palin (!) trotted out an coherent (!!) set of ideas (!!!) that actually make sense (!!!!) and some of which I agree with (the ! key just broke). As I wrote exactly a year ago today:

I think the privileging of local knowledge is a bipartisan issue, or a cross-cutting cleavage, one that elements of left and right can agree on.

From the right: lefty-liberal plans for social engineering are based on the fallacy that human nature is perfectable, and subject to rational planning and persuasion. But the truth is man is flawed by nature (or by original sin), and top-down approaches don’t take into account local realities. “Unintended consequences” are the inevitable byproduct of social engineering, and can be avoided by greater reliance on market dynamics. It’s hubris and folly for a central government to try to plan an economy, much less dictate cultural norms that have developed idiosyncratically over time in local communities. As Ronald Reagan said, “The ten most dangerous words in the English language are, ‘Hi, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” (Quote from this New Yorker article, toward the end.)

From the left: the corporatization of culture, food, and everyday life are a homogenizing force that threaten to erase the diversity that make our communities and nation great. “Grassroots community organizing” is a way to empower everyday people to make their voices heard and have a positive impact on the conditions of their lives through obtaining changes in policy, whether local, state, or federal. To be a locavore is to reject the evils of factory farming, which is an environmental disaster, an animal-welfare nightmare, and a public-health time-bomb. Eat local, know your farmer, avoid GMOs, celebrate the diversity of a specific place.

What they agree on: Top-down solutions are bad, bottom-up initiatives are morally and practically preferable.

Now comes that word that Sarah Palin argued, at a Tea Party event, that there’s a permanent political class, that it’s in the pocket of big business and big government, and that “corporate crony capitalism” is choking economic and political progress in this country by keeping small business down.

I doubt that as the author goes on to suggest, these are signs of a political realignment, but geez, wouldn’t that be something?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to deal with the pigs that just flew out of my, um, symbol for the Democratic Party.

[post title/song title in honor of the great Steely Dan concert we went to last night.]

Cuts Both Ways

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

Last time, I was fretting about the counter-majoritarian nature of philanthropy, coming to the conclusion that maybe it’s not such a bad thing. There are such things as democratic failures, and it can be good to have a corrective element in the ecosystem – albeit not in a dominant position.

The latest kerfuffle in the nonprofit space is about the for-profit company GOOD buying the non-profit social network Jumo. People have fretted about it, said “get used to it,” said, “actually, there’s something more interesting going on over here.” There are valid points made in this discussion about getting beyond the superficial discussion of tax status.

But the real issue is remembering why there’s a “nonprofit” sector in the first place (however you want to label it). And that’s because there are some things for which there are no “natural” markets. Robert Kuttner pointed this out years ago, that the “markets” for health care and labor are fundamentally different from markets for other kinds of commodities because the former are about human beings and the latter are generally about physical objects. Human beings have a unique moral status, so it simply doesn’t work to treat them like any other widget, no matter what the textbooks say. Those markets will always be different and always inherently political.

It follows that there are areas of human endeavor where market dynamics will not function in the same way. Think of it like the upside-down mountains in Avatar whose magnetic field throws off conventional instruments. Our basic assumptions about how markets function – rational actors optimizing utility defined in terms of immediate material gain, etc – are called into question. Our tools – our business plans – don’t work in the same way; input A, instead of generating output A, leads to output Q. Behavioral economics helps here, but there’s something more needed.

I’ve written about the imp of the perverse, that dark impulse that leads people to do things against their own self-interest. And about how our theories of human behavior are just so boring.

The problem is, there are just some areas of human endeavor where money isn’t the point. The profit motive isn’t enough to motivate action. Something more has to get people to do it. And that something else is like a flame; it can grow, it can spread, but it can also go out. It may endure as embers, waiting to be rekindled, but its going out spreads a chill, dims light, causes the huddled crowd to disperse.

The [insert a better word for nonprofit] sector is where that flame is kindled. My mentor Jeff Weintraub points out that what gets called “civil society” or the third sector actually has two components: civil society, the realm of private business for private gain, and political society, the realm of collective action for collective gain that is not as all-encompassing at the state. Political society is where advocacy happens, where organizing happens, where (shudder) political parties exist. We conflate civil society and political society – however we label them – at our peril.