A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Intergenerational Discounting

Generational burdens
There is one ethical issue that has always fascinated me since I was an undergraduate philosophy student, and which still perplexes me today. It is the problem of intergenerational justice, of what duties one generation may owe to another.

I was recently brought back to it by an odd letter I read written from Thomas Jefferson in Paris, to James Madison in America, dated 6 September 1789. In it Jefferson writes:

“The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government. The course of reflection in which we are immersed here on the elementary principles of society has presented this question to my mind; and that no such obligation can be transmitted I think very capable of proof. I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self evident, ‘that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;’ that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by an individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society.”

Jefferson intended this to mean that future generations ought not to be beholden, indebted, or enslaved to past generations. It was, therefore, an anti-conservative argument. Each generation has the absolute right to forge its own path unencumbered by the past. Notable in Jefferson’s formulation of intergenerational justice is his concentration on what future generations owe past generations. In his opinion, they owe very little. It is this repudiation of regard for the past that makes his argument essentially anti-conservative (but more on this later).

However, in our times, and especially in the shadow of environmental degradation and resource scarcity, the concern more commonly points in the other direction, towards what the present generation owes future generations. For example, you don’t have to be a hard core environmentalist to be of the opinion that we owe certain duties of resource stewardship to future generations.

Libertarians, at least in the popular mind, are typically not thought of as environmentalists. And they certainly can’t be accused of believing that the earth’s resources are the inheritance of all, to be held in common ownership. And yet, sound arguments can be made even on a libertarian basis for claims of intergenerational justice. To take one example, John Locke, whom Robert Nozick acknowledged a large debt in devising his own theory of property, held that appropriation of land and resources for private use in the state of nature was justified only so long as “enough, and as good” was left over for others. Nozick called this the “Lockean Proviso”. When you stop to think about it, this would be a pretty stringent requirement were it to be taken seriously. And while Locke was concerned with leaving enough for those currently sharing the planet with us, the argument can easily be extended ― nay, likely requires extension ― to those yet unborn. Furthermore, claims of intergenerational justice are often at the heart of libertarian arguments against public debt and fiscal irresponsibility.

So socialists, environmentalists, and libertarians all have reasons for paying some moral concern to future generations. However, we mustn’t leave conservatives off this list, for they too have their own peculiar concern for the future. For conservatives, in addition to whatever rights future generations may have to wealth, resources, and a clean environment, they also have a right to the less tangible but no less real treasure of our shared cultural heritage. According to conservatives, the present generation has the duty to pass on their knowledge, wisdom, culture, and institutions intact to future generations.

Overall then, it is very hard to find a reputable writer who denies claims of intergenerational justice altogether. Even Jefferson’s argument, that future generations owe past generations nothing, still implies a duty of the living to not hinder the freedom of those yet to be born. And such freedom may very well require that those future generations be left with the material preconditions for exercising that freedom, in the form of some fair share of the world’s resources. This, incidentally, was why Jefferson backed legal reforms barring practices like primogeniture and entails: the former tended to engross too much land in the hands of a few, while the latter quite literally gave the dead power over the land of the living for generations. It also partly explains his suspicion of corporations, and other forms of mortmain ownership.

Here is a side question: What would it mean for future generations to owe duties to past generations? Conservatives have answers to this question. Such duties might include honoring the last wills and testaments of the deceased, seeing to their burial and that their graves and monuments are maintained, their memories honoured, their traditions respected, their cultural inheritance to us preserved and passed on to future generations in turn.

It must be admitted that some of these duties are metaphysically problematic, at least insofar as they leave unexplained how it is that one can owe duties to beings that do not exist (because they are dead). Notice too that the metaphysical problem also runs in the other temporal direction: How one can owe duties to beings that do not exist because they are yet unborn, and may never be born?

In any case, many of these conservative intergenerational duties would presumably be anathema to Jefferson, which is why I characterized his position as anti-conservative. On the other hand, Jefferson left a will when he died, so he couldn’t have taken his own ideas too seriously.

What Duties? And How Extensive?

To reiterate, nobody seems to doubt that present generations owe at least some duties to future ones. So the real argument is over what precisely those duties are and how far they extend.

Whether the issue is the environment, resource scarcity, public debt, or wealth redistribution, we can give at least a partial answer to the question of what duties we owe to future generations by subsuming them under one very general duty, which we can call a duty of preservation. From the exploration thus far, I conclude that all the concerns brought up by the various approaches to political philosophy seem to centre on this duty of preservation. They mainly differ on what exactly is to be preserved, or where they believe more than one is to be preserved, they may disagree on which is to be given relative priority. None of this is to say that there aren’t other possible duties owed to future generations that can’t be so easily subsumed under the concept of preservation, but I’m confident that preservation covers most of them.

(Note that even Jefferson’s argument can be framed in terms of a duty of preservation, in this case a duty to preserve the freedom and autonomy of future generations by not saddling them with debts, entails, or economic externalities brought about by our exercise of freedom and autonomy. In which case, it might be tempting to view freedom as a kind of resource, which can be over-exploited, leaving not as much or as good for future generations. The liberty-as-resource analogy should be taken seriously if liberty rests upon a material foundation, requiring adequate access to resources to be meaningfully exercised. Let libertarians chew on that one for awhile.)

Stoicism and Degrees of Concern

The other question remains, of how extensive the duties to future generations are. We can visualize this by thinking in personal rather than temporal terms. I owe duties to some existing persons based on the kind of relationship I have with them. For example, parents owe special duties to their children, public officials owe certain duties to their constituents, and doctors owe certain duties to their patients. This type of role-dependent duty was described in Cicero, De Officiis.

In addition, the Stoics believed that there are duties that we owe to all people, though in varying degrees based on their nearness or relatedness to us. This was the view of Hierocles, the second century BC Stoic philosopher, as preserved by Stobaeus (Florilegium 4.671). Hierocles imagined the self of the moral agent as a series of concentric circles emanating from a central point. Should I help people in distress? Generally, yes. How much should I be expected to sacrifice to help them? Well, if they are my children, I am rightly expected to sacrifice nearly everything. If they are friends, then maybe almost as much. If they are my countrymen, a little less. And if they are total strangers, then maybe I should donate some money to a relevant charity. As one moves from the inner to the outer circles of selfhood, moral ties become less strong and duties less demanding. We are never absolved of all responsibility for those outer circles of concern, Hierocles held that one of the objectives of Stoic ethics was to exercise one’s character and moral powers in such a way as to draw those outer circles inward as much as we can. The Stoics called this process οικείωσις, often translated as “appropriation” but which I prefer to call “integration”. The end result of οικείωσις is a sort of oneness with the universe, which is the essence of Stoic cosmopolitanism, or citizenship in the universal city (the “cosmopolis”). While it is natural to feel more concern for that which is near to us, it is also healthy to extend that sphere of concern, to grow the self in accordance with one’s realization of the interconnectedness of everyone and everything.

Considerations of intergenerational justice add a temporal dimension to the Stoic cosmopolis, extending it immeasurably. And just as there may be varying degrees of concern for our fellow existing human beings based on their nearness to us, so too there may be varying degrees of concern for future generations based on similar considerations of relatedness, as well as on their proximity to us in time. We tend to have more concern for those generations immediately following us that for those living five hundred or a thousand years from now, and more concern for our unborn children and grandchildren than for our unborn great-great-great-grandchildren or for the unborn grandchildren of others.

But again, we are led to the question already posed: How far should we be extending our concern into the future? The problem here is obvious: Given the limitless number of future people and generations we could end up owing duties to, might we be required to sacrifice so much for future people that we neglect our own wants and needs? Just imagine having to give money to the outstretched hands of an infinite number of panhandlers. That’s what we’re faced with when we talk about the wants of future generations. Obviously a line must be drawn somewhere.

Applying Intergenerational Justice

In case you think talking about duties to people living a millennium from now is purely abstract metaphysical speculation, reflect for a moment upon the very real decisions that have had to be made in Canada regarding the management and disposal of nuclear waste. How much money are we willing to spend to dispose of dangerous radioactive materials that will still be capable of causing mass death and destruction hundreds or thousands of years from now? After many years of discussion and consultation, apparently the Government of Canada is willing to spend several billion dollars. The waste will be buried deep underground in bedrock somewhere, in a secure facility.

The exact site has yet to be decided on, and will only be chosen after extensive consultation with the various stakeholders, after which it will be constructed somewhere that will inevitable please nobody, since I imagine nobody will want it anywhere near where they live. Given that they settled on this plan almost four years ago and still haven’t decided on a place for it, I suspect that consultations are not going well. This is probably why the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is trying to spin this as an opportunity for economic development for the host community. To quote their website:

“A centre of expertise for technical, environmental and community studies will be created at or near the site. It will become a hub for national and international scientific collaboration. This multi-billion-dollar project will generate thousands of jobs in a host region and hundreds of jobs in a host community for many decades. It will be implemented through a long-term partnership involving the community, the larger region in which it is located and the NWMO, in a way that fosters the long-term well-being of the community.”

This is truly impressive alchemy, for instead of base metal being turned into gold, a toxic waste dump will become a “centre of expertise”. Sexy stuff, no? Who wouldn’t want a “centre of expertise” to be located in their town? Seriously though, why doesn’t the NWMO simply approach a suitable community and offer its citizens a large cash bribe, instead of spinning this complicated web of high-tech fantasy?

And of course, more to our point, this plan is predicated on the assumption that there will still be nuclear expertise, or people, or a civilization able to administer this facility a thousand years from now. Perhaps it should be turned over to an organization like the Catholic Church, which has an impressive track record of being able to perpetuate itself throughout such a timeframe.

On the other hand, if nobody wants the waste, or is willing or able to do what is necessary to protect future generations from being saddled with the very onerous and dangerous externality that is nuclear waste, then perhaps producing it in the first place is unethical.

Returning to the issue of intergenerational justice, the issue of nuclear waste disposal leads us to the need to figure out how important it is to us, in dollar terms, that in the year 2300 the local warlord of the breakaway Republic of Moose Factory is not able to dig up and weaponize our spent nuclear fuel rods.

Schelling on Intergenerational Discounting

In the remainder of this post I would like to consider one argument that has been offered for limiting rather than extending the sphere of concern for future generations. The argument was presented by Thomas Schelling, winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize for Economics, in a paper entitled “Intergenerational Discounting” (Energy Policy 23 (1995), 395-401). It is offered as a contribution to environment and resource economics. I think it is a flawed argument, but it’s usually very flawed arguments that are the most instructive.

To begin, Schelling points to what he takes to be a relevant analogy between future generations and different cultures or nations. We naturally discount the suffering of others when they are geographically or culturally distant from us, a phenomenon which manifests itself in how little we give in foreign aid to other nations. In a similar way, we discount the well-being of generations the more distant they are from us in time.

This is correct as far as I can see; we do in fact behave in these ways, and there does seem to be a relevant similarity between the way we treat other nations and the way we treat future generations. However, to say that we in fact do this is not to say that we should do this, or that it is rational or moral to do it. We might after all be wrong to do it.

However, Schelling’s argument does not rely on this analogy alone. He also claims that, extrapolating from past trends, each future generation can expect to be wealthier than the one before it. Since generations are like other nations, and since we are justified in not giving foreign aid to nations that are well off, we are also justified in sacrificing little for future generations who will be wealthier than we are. And since wealth is a function of increasing futurity, very distant future generations are owed less by us than more proximal generations are.

In criticizing this argument, I will not go after what I take to be the low-hanging fruit, namely Schelling’s quite dubious claim that we are warranted in assuming that each successive generation will be wealthier than the one that went before. The claim is weak at best. I have a different objection to his argument, which turns on a significant disanalogy between generations and nations.

What exactly might Schelling mean when he claims that our generation does not owe a future (wealthier) generation anything? The only plausible interpretation I can come up with is that he means we are entitled to take a bit more than our “fair share” of the world’s resources for our present consumption (or to generate more than our “fair share” of pollution, which is much the same thing). But what is our “fair share”? Perhaps it means something like the Lockean Proviso, leaving “as much and as good” for future generations. If a future generation is wealthier than we are, then other things being equal, this would imply that we have actually left more and better to future generations, in which case, we are entitled to increase our consumption up to that fair share. At least, that is the most plausible way of interpreting Schelling’s argument. In other words, the argument seems to justify the drawing down of resources (up to some undetermined amount) from future generations to use now.

Now, here is where the disanalogy I spoke of comes in. Whereas we may have a moral duty to transfer some quantity of wealth to poor nations, poor nations have absolutely no right to simply take that quantity (or any quantity) of wealth from us. To use philosopher’s jargon, the duty here is an imperfect one, a duty without a corresponding right. If we were to take his analogy seriously, Schelling seems to say that we are entitled to take wealth away from future generations. But poor nations are not allowed to do this to rich nations.

What’s worse, future generations don’t get a say in how much wealth they will have taken from them. Returning to Schelling’s analogy, it would be as if Burkina Faso were to be made the ultimate judge of how much foreign aid it should receive from the US, and were then permitted to simply take it. This could be described as taxation without representation. It could alternatively be described as a form of robbery. And robbing from the (supposedly) rich is still robbery.

There are other things wrong with Schelling’s argument besides the false analogy. For example, let us grant the dubious premise that each generation is wealthier than the one that went before it, along with his nations/generations analogy. Now, Schelling frames his argument in terms of what we owe to future generations (very little, he says). But isn’t he actually more concerned with what future generations owe us? He is saying that since our generation is like a poor country requiring foreign aid, we are justified in drawing down more resources to even out the wealth imbalance (which I’ve shown to be a non sequitur anyway). If so, then how much can we take? Well, I suppose we could take an amount not exceeding what would make that future generation no wealthier than we are. We cannot make them poorer than us, but otherwise, anything is fair game.

Furthermore, according to this logic, not only are we permitted to draw down resources from that distant generation, but by the same logic every intervening generation can draw down from them too. And, being the first generation in line, we are in the unique and fortunate position of seemingly being permitted to draw down some amount of wealth from each and every generation that will follow us for our current consumption. And each following generation would be able to draw down from those generations following them… and so on. This would make us very prosperous indeed. But pity the poor generation who is last in line! This would obviously be a very unfair way of arranging things.

Instead, perhaps we could arrange all this intergenerational drawing down in such a way that each generation draws down just enough so that the end result would be a smoothing-out of inequalities between the generations, with no generation any wealthier or poorer than its predecessors or successors. In other words, read this way, Schelling’s argument would justify putting a halt to material progress, which I doubt very much was his original intention. Future generations might rightly complain that we have unjustly held them back, given that the status quo would have left them wealthier. And again, this is done without their having a say in the arrangement.

Also, isn’t there something ugly in the notion that it is somehow illicit for a generation to hope to do better than its ancestors, and that they ought therefore to be effectively taxed to pay for present consumption? This begins to sound less like intergenerational justice and more like intergenerational theft. Schelling seems to treat future generations as a source of present revenue, or as a goose to be squeezed for its golden eggs.

Two Alternatives

I believe there are at least two alternative approaches to intergenerational justice that make more sense than Schelling’s, and they may even complement each other. One involves redefining what we mean by “wealth”. Schelling and other economists often treat such wealth as if it’s purely resource-based and zero-sum: I am wealthier the more oil, gas, or food I have available for present consumption. And since these are more or less finite, the more wealthy in this sense that I am, the poorer future generations must be.

But what if it were the case that the present generation’s consumption of resources can subsidize advances in knowledge and technology that can increase the wealth of future generations? In such a scheme, the wealth of future generations is tied to our prosperity. This makes more sense even on Schelling’s own view: How else can we account for his odd assumption that future generations will be wealthier than ours? If all wealth boiled down to resources, and resources are more or less fixed, then if a generation is wealthier than us, this can only mean they are using more than their fair share. It also means that sooner or later, there must be a generation that will be poorer than the one that went before.

The second alternative involves spreading the intergenerational obligations around. Let’s imagine that there are three successive generations: Generation X (which is us), Generation Y, and Generation Z. Arguments about intergenerational justice seem too focused on what Gen X owes to Gen Y and Gen Z. But we must also take into account that by the logic of intergenerational justice, Gen Y also owes duties to Gen Z. Since there are effectively two generations (X and Y) looking out for Gen Z, then the burden can be divided between them and the obligation is to that extent diffused. And the greater the number of generations intervening between Gen X and Gen Z, the more Gen X’s obligation to Gen Z is diffused.

There are two advantages to this latter approach. First, it provides some rationale for why it is that we feel a greater obligation to generations closer to us in time than to those far off in the future: those far-future generations have others to look out for their interests (so long, at least, as the generations in between live up to their obligations), so that we can focus on those immediately following us. Second, it puts reasonable constraints on what we can be expected to sacrifice for future generations. If we bank on there being an infinite (or at least indeterminate) number of future generations, and if we had to share fairly with all of them, then our “fair share” of present resources would be correspondingly infinitesimal (or indeterminately small). We wouldn’t be entitled to enough to live on, which seems absurd.

It is an unrealistic burden to be expected to care for every generation that will ever come after us from now into the indefinite future. To return to Schelling’s foreign aid analogy, we don’t calculate how much aid we should give to poor countries on the assumption that we will be the only ones giving, because, after all, we are not the only ones with a duty to give.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Adam Ferguson, "Essay on Civil Society"

Since I realized that there hasn't been one for some time, here is a review of another of my favourite books.

Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) was one of the lesser lights of the Scottish Enlightenment. I don’t mean this in the sense that he is not equally deserving of respect as David Hume or Adam Smith. I believe that in their own way, Ferguson’s writings can profit a modern reader just as much as Smith’s Wealth of Nations or Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. Thus, when I refer to Ferguson as a “lesser light”, I mean that he is in fact little read, not that he is not well worth reading, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this.

The work for which Ferguson is best-known, both in his own time and ours, is his An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767). The book is largely what its title implies: In typical Scottish style, the author traces a sort of moral history of humankind, structured within the four-stage framework of social development that was fashionable at the time. The four stages are: 1. hunting and gathering society, 2. herding or pastoral society, 3. agricultural society, and 4. commercial society. In places he refers to the first and second stages in more normative language, as the “savage” and “barbaric” states, respectively. It is worth noting in passing that Ferguson would have considered himself fairly knowledgeable about less advanced societies: although he was a celebrated man of letters at the centre of the Enlightenment, and was a professor at one of the world’s great universities (Edinburgh), he was also a Highlander, and spoke Gaelic. More polished lowland Scots considered the Highland clans to be in a transitional stage somewhere between the barbaric and civilized stages of social development (i.e. between stages 2 and 3). Having served as chaplain of the Black Watch Highland regiment, he saw the fierce battle prowess of “barbaric” society firsthand and according to accounts did not lack martial spirit himself.

Now, one must be careful of misunderstanding Ferguson’s stadial theory of social progress. He is merely saying that those societies that display progress do so through these four stages. He does not say that every society will progress through them. Indeed, history shows that societies are just as likely to regress, to move backwards. This happens especially when a society experiences a “relaxation” of its public spirit and civic virtue, losing its energy and its ability to exert itself for greater projects. Thus, as we’ll see, there is a profound pessimism at the heart of Ferguson’s philosophy that distinguishes him from an Adam Smith or a David Hume.

In many ways, Ferguson’s stadial view of human progress is the part of the book least worth reading. It certainly wasn’t very original, for other Scots had come up with variations of this theme before, for example Lord Kames’ Sketches of the History of Man (1734). In my opinion, the most important contributions of Ferguson’s book to the history of ideas were two.

The first was his idea of the organic development of order, and of what we might call the “law of unintended social consequences”. The basic concept is well expressed in the following passage, which was to have a profound effect on Friedrich Hayek in the 20th century when he wrote his magisterial three-volume Law, Legislation, and Liberty:

“Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design. If Cromwell said, That a man never mounts higher, than when he knows not whither he is going; it may with more reason be affirmed of communities, that they admit of the greatest revolutions where no change is intended, and that the most refined politicians do not always know whither they are leading the state by their projects.” (An Essay on the History of Civil Society, Pt. III, §2, italics added)

Hayek took this idea and ran with it. For him, it was pointless for socialists to try to plan a society and economy along rational lines, for society is the complex outgrowth of the individual decisions ― some conscious, but most of them unconscious ― of billions of individuals, alive and dead. We might say that social institutions are emergent properties of individual action and decision. They are not always the result of a plan. Indeed, planned societies usually end up being very different from what their planners intended, as do planned institutions.

However, Hayek chose to largely ignore the darker side of Ferguson’s insight, which was that just as humans stumble upon order without intending it, so too they just as often stumble upon disorder:

“Mankind, when they degenerate, and tend to their ruin, as well as when they improve, and gain real advantages, frequently proceed by slow, and almost insensible steps. If, during ages of activity and vigour, they fill up the measure of national greatness to a height which no human wisdom could at a distance foresee; they actually incur in ages of relaxation and weakness, many evils which their fears did not suggest, and which, perhaps, they had thought far removed by the tide of success and prosperity.” (Pt. VI, §6)

As the conservative essayist Theodore Dalrymple quipped: “Rome wasn’t destroyed in a day.” Things may actually be going wrong just at that very moment when they seem most to be going right. There is a normative prescription in Ferguson’s observation. We should not allow small symptoms of weakness or lethargy in the body politic to go untreated, for though they seem benign or barely perceptible at first, they quickly become a disease untreatable. Such inattention has been the downfall of many a prosperous and polished civilization. Social rot has its beginnings during apparent health, so by the time the rot is first noticed, it has likely already been progressing for some time.

This observation leads to what I consider to be the second great contribution of Ferguson’s book. His stadial theory of progress aside, Ferguson’s genius lay not in his account of human progress, but of its decline. If you read no other part of this book, I would recommend that you at least skip ahead and read the Essay’s final Part VI, entitled “Of Corruption and Political Slavery”. It is in my opinion the wisest account of political corruption ever written.

One of the ways a society goes off the rails involves giving in to the temptation to discount the future in the service of current projects (or indeed, mere current pleasures). The following passage illustrates this, and when read in the light of the current fiscal situation of developed nations, it has an eerily contemporary ring to it:

“States have endeavoured, in some instances, by pawning their credit, instead of employing their capital, to disguise the hazards they ran. They have found, in the loans they raised, a casual resource, which encouraged their enterprises. They have seemed, by their manner of enacting transferable funds, to leave the capital purposes of trade, in the hands of the subject, while it is actually expended by the government. They have by these means, proceeded to the execution of great national projects, without suspending private industry, and have left future ages to answer, in part, for debts contracted with a view to future emolument. So far the expedient is plausible, and appears to be just. The growing burden too, is thus gradually laid; and if a nation be to sink in some future age, every minister hopes it may still keep afloat his own. But the measure… is, with all its advantages, extremely dangerous, in the hands of a precipitant and ambitious administration, regarding only the present occasion, and imagining a state to be inexhaustible, while a capital can be borrowed, and the interest be paid.” (Pt. V, §5)

Here, as elsewhere, Ferguson displays a deep-rooted ambivalence to commercial culture. He recognizes the possible benefits of such instruments of public finance as paper money and a national debt, but is very aware of how easily these may be manipulated and abused by short-sighted and self-interested leaders. Funding national projects through public debt seems to be working so far, he seems to say, but for how much longer?

There are other worries lurking under the surface of this passage: The system will work only so long as the “great national projects” the debt funds continue to bring in a sufficient return to pay off accumulated debt plus interest. What are these projects? Will such a system naturally lead to the temptations of dangerous imperialist adventures, of the sort that contributed to the Roman decline into despotism? In Canada at least, we have been lucky in that those great national projects have largely consisted of social programs such as a publicly-funded healthcare system. As suspicious as I am of “progressive” attempts at social engineering, at least our great national projects have not involved large expenditures of blood in addition to treasure (the current Afghanistan adventure excepted).

In public finance, when future consumption is brought forward, and present payment pushed back, a moral hazard is created (thus, Ferguson’s reference to states that “have endeavoured, in some instances, by pawning their credit, instead of employing their capital, to disguise the hazards they ran”). For politicians who resort to this kind of finance, the rewards of risk are present and are enjoyed by the risk-taker; but the penalty for failure is a future burden shouldered by others. Given such a perverse incentive structure, is it any wonder that governments have a marked propensity to overspend?

This is a particular example of Ferguson’s more general tendency to see corruption in “polished” societies as a sort of moral complaisance. In describing this phenomenon, Ferguson deploys a rhetorical vocabulary of “energy”, “exertion” and “vigour” on the one hand, and “relaxation”, “ebbing”, and “languor” on the other. When a polished society’s national “vigour” becomes “relaxed”, the future is discounted while the present is spent eating up all the low-hanging fruit, enjoying luxuries purchased on credit, and avoiding decisions that require too much effort. Again, such moral complaisance often takes the form of a short-sighted discounting of the future.

War is a subject about which, like public finance, Ferguson displays a deep-rooted ambivalence. On the one hand, he dislikes imperialism and believes war to be a waste of human and material capital, especially when conducted in the service of immoral ends. On the other hand, nations face real dangers, and in order to protect itself the state must have a citizenry capable of making war. Not only that, but because of the constitution of human nature itself, struggle and aggressive competition play a vital role in the moral economy of a society: “To overawe, or intimidate, or, when we cannot persuade with reason, to resist with fortitude, are the occupations which give it most animating exercise, and its greatest triumphs, to a vigorous mind; and he who has never struggled with his fellow-creatures, is a stranger to half the sentiments of mankind” (Pt. I, §4).

Too long a period of peace may lead citizens to become weak, and a republic to lack vigour and energy. This effect may be mitigated to some extent by the sort of economic competition found in commercial societies. However, economic competition narrows the minds and moral horizons of citizens, as they struggle after private rather than common interests. And too much wealth tends to lead to luxury and civic apathy, which spell the death of a republic.

Another factor contributing to the decline of a healthy commonwealth stems from a certain mistaken view of politics, a view which I am afraid is all too common in our own time.  I have quoted the following passage more than once in this blog, but it will always be worth quoting again:

“[O]ur notion of order in civil society is frequently false: it is taken from the analogy of subjects inanimate and dead; we consider commotion and action as contrary to its nature; we think it consistent only with obedience, secrecy, and the silent passing of affairs through the hands of a few. The good order of stones in a wall, is their being properly fixed in the places for which they are hewn; were they to stir the building must fall: but the order of men in society, is their being placed where they are properly qualified to act. The first is a fabric made of dead and inanimate parts, the second is made of living and active members. When we seek in society for the order of mere inaction and tranquility, we forget the nature of our subject, and find the order of slaves, not that of free men.” (Pt. VI, §5)

In a healthy republic, citizens are active. They are not supposed to be passive spectators who vote every four years for new masters.

Some time ago, a former mayor of the city in which I live demanded from the provincial government that he and other mayors be given “strong mayor powers” to forward certain favoured projects. Beware the leader who claims to require more powers in order to be able to “get things done” and acts as if the constitutional order is a mere obstacle to his ends. The very purpose of a constitution is precisely to thwart ambitious politicians. It is supposed to be an obstacle.

A constitution is often the only thing that separates a free people from political slavery. Thus, beware too those politicians and citizens who bemoan a supposed excess of liberty. Free expression is often ugly, and democratic politics is often just as ugly. It is tempting to prohibit what is currently unpopular, while delegating political power to administrative bodies in the name of governmental expediency. This is a dangerous tendency: “subjects, as well as their princes, frequently imagine that freedom is a clog on the proceedings of government: they imagine, that despotical power is best fitted to procure dispatch and secrecy in the execution of public councils; to maintain what they are pleased to call political order, and to give a speedy redress of complaints” (Pt. VI, §5). This is precisely the phenomenon that Lord Hewart, in his 1929 book of the same name, famously described as “the new despotism”.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a wise and virtuous elite who always deliberated and acted for the common good? Wouldn’t it be grand to be able to spend all day drinking beer and watching hockey, safe in the knowledge that our security and prosperity were in the capable hands of our benevolent masters, and overseen by a scrupulous and efficient civil service? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we simply had no need to attend to politics?

For Ferguson, this would not be desirable even if it were feasible: “When we suppose government to have bestowed a degree of tranquility… such a state, like that of China, by throwing affairs into separate offices, where conduct consists of detail, and in the observance of forms, by superseding all the exertions of a great or a liberal mind, is more akin to despotism than we are apt to imagine” (Pt. VI, §5). It is in activity that the mind is exercised, talents are made use of, and the commonwealth flourishes. A society cannot be in good health if its forms of political life have been routinized to such an extent that citizens and officials have little to do except to mindlessly follow procedures.

Habit is the great deadener, as Samuel Beckett once observed. A thoroughly bureaucratized political order is the order of slaves. In Democracy in America (1835-1840), Tocqueville warned of a similar sort of “soft despotism”, where the minds of citizens were (unwittingly) cramped by innumerable and often pointless rules and procedures, and where the government takes care of all the wants of the citizenry (or indeed decides what the citizenry’s wants are), to the extent that they look to it for everything. This is every bit as much a form of slavery.

Tocqueville characterized soft despotism as a tyranny of petty rules and procedures, which relieves the citizen of the burden of thinking. Ferguson would caution us not to mistake the rule of such petty administrative rules (now euphemistically referred to as “administrative law”) for the rule of law proper. Law is not a collection of mechanical procedures. It is a living thing, whose breath comes from the activity and wisdom of those subject to it and those who administer it. When virtue ceases to give it life, law becomes the exercise of naked power and nothing more:

“When a basha, in Asia, pretends to decide every controversy by the rules of natural equity, we allow that he is possessed of discretionary powers. When a judge in Europe is left to decide, according to his own interpretation of written laws, is he in any sense more restrained than the former?... If forms of proceeding, written statutes, or other constituents of law, cease to be enforced by the very spirit from which they arose; they only serve to cover, not to restrain, the iniquities of power…. And the influence of laws, where they have any real effect in the preservation of liberty, is not any magic power descending from shelves that are loaded with books, but is, in reality, the influence of men resolved to be free…” (Pt. VI, §5)

For Tocqueville, the only difference between soft despotism and the hard variety is that the latter breaks the spirit of citizens into whatever form the despot desires, whereas in the former the spirit is bent imperceptibly but inexorably. The end result is the same. And it matters little whether the despot is benevolent; either kind of despotism stamps upon the citizenry the moral character of slaves or children. What worried Tocqueville especially was that, while hard despotism or tyranny is incompatible with democracy, soft despotism is perfectly compatible with some reasonable facsimile of it. It takes vigilance and activity to prevent the slow rot of soft despotism. Ferguson foresaw the danger of soft despotism some seventy years before Tocqueville wrote.

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Modest Proposal

Click to view.
The report below was leaked to me from a City Hall insider. I here publish it for the edification of my readers.

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The Way Forward: A Proposal to the Mayor and Council of the City of Toronto for Increasing City Revenues without Increasing Taxes or Reducing Services

Prepared jointly by:

The Committee on Resources, Allocation, and Planning

The Committee on Oversight, Commercialization, and Knowledge Services


The Challenge:
It is common knowledge that Toronto faces a budget challenge, even if there is disagreement about the exact nature of this challenge. The city either spends too much money or takes in too little revenue, or both. The mayor has asked for increased funding from the provincial government. On the assumption that such funding is unlikely to be forthcoming, we submit the following report, which outlines a proposed method of generating revenue without cutting city services or increasing taxes.

A Unique Strategic Asset:
Many Torontonians are unaware of the fact that their city has for some time now been making limited use of a proprietary technology that, if marketed, could revolutionize human societies around the world and generate untold sums for the city’s treasury. This technology consists of a device that has the ability to produce highly localized bends or warps in the space-time continuum. It is in reality a kind of time travel machine, though not quite as outlandish or impressive as the one H. G. Wells envisioned ― at least not yet.

How It Works:
As any of its operators will tell you, the device referred to is very complicated, and each operator has a different explanation of precisely how it works.  However, they all agree in calling it “transit”, an advanced technology by means of which bodies are shifted from one spatio-temporal location to another. But as this report will outline, “transit” is an inadequate descriptor of this technology’s true potentialities.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, we should provide an explanation of what precisely the device does. When someone, call her Alice, enters this machine (in reality, it is more a system of interlinked machines) at, say, time A, she will reach her appointed spatial destination at time B. However, if she were to leave at time A minus10 minutes, she would arrive at her spatial destination at time B plus 15 minutes.

An example will make this clearer. One user, call him Bob, reports that the machine has opened one particular portal through the space-time continuum that extends from his home to his place of work. Thanks to this portal, if Bob enters the machine at 7:10am, he will arrive at work at 8:15am. But ― and this is the important part ― if he enters the machine at 7:00am, he will arrive at work at 8:30am. In other words, with the assistance of this unique device, the earlier Bob sets out on his journey, the later he arrives at his destination.

It sounds like science fiction. People will naturally be led to ask, “What is this device called?” Those who are familiar with it call it “TTC”. This is an acronym for “Toronto Transit Commission”. In reality, TTC has existed for many decades, but its time-warping capability has only been developed relatively recently. TTC was originally designed for mundane surface or below-surface travel only, with the time dimension constrained as a direct function of distance, in a strictly linear fashion. However, at some point during the 1990s TTC researchers discovered that these two dimensions, time and distance, could be uncoupled, allowing for the amazing feats accomplished by TTC on a now daily basis. Humankind need no longer be slaves to linear time. A person can now leave early to arrive late, an achievement that was never contemplated by our primitive ancestors.

So the question at the heart of this report is: Can we not sell this amazing technology to other cities or organizations, and thereby increase the flow of revenue into the city’s coffers? We believe the city is sitting on a potential gold mine.

Some Obstacles:
Unfortunately, there are a few obstacles to be overcome before we can begin to leverage this unique strategic asset and aggressively market TTC.

First, TTC has thus far been unsuccessful in attempts to create portals that work the other way around from the one described above. What is still required is a type of portal in which the earlier one enters it, the earlier one arrives at one’s destination. Optimally, TTC researchers hope for the day when Bob can leave for work 10 minutes early, and arrive 10 or even 15 minutes early. At present, this is only a dream. But it is precisely this kind of portal for which there is greatest demand. Experts tell us that it will be years before TTC has this capability. But research continues apace. (At the moment, this research is being done by hired consultants. These intrepid researchers work night and day, sequestered in weekend retreats, or participating in frequent spa-based brainstorming sessions).

Another obstacle is that regular users of TTC have noticed some anomalies in its functioning. Some report that, over the years, the curvatures of the time warps created by TTC portals have been increasing. For example, at the current rate of curvature increase, using his home-to-work portal, in 2013 it is estimated that if Bob enters TTC at 7:00am, he can expect to arrive at work at 8:40am, and if he enters at 6:45am, he can expect to arrive at 9:00am. This will be problematic, since he must be at work at 8:30am. The good news is that if he were to leave much later, at say 7:30, he will be able to make it to work on time. Even more promising, if this curvature continues to increase at its present rate, Bob can look forward to being able to leave for work after the time at which he is supposed to arrive, while still getting there on time. H. G. Wells’ vision would finally be reality. However, such a development is still at least a decade away.

Another difficulty is that clients who have used TTC extensively note that it seems to have opened some highly unstable portals, ones in which there is no direct relationship at all between time and distance. These are portals where on some occasions the earlier Bob leaves, the later he arrives, while on other occasions the later he leaves, the later he arrives. It is speculated that this is caused by fluctuating convexity and concavity in the portal-induced time-space warps.

Even more unsatisfactory, one now hears frequently of portals where one enters TTC and simply doesn’t arrive at all. Worse still, these portals shift around, so that one cannot tell beforehand whether one is entering one’s regular portal or one of these black holes, known colloquially as “portals of the disappeared”, or PODs for short (the technical name for them among TTC researchers is “service disruptions”). Since nobody really knows what causes them, when PODs  or “service disruptions” occur, even experienced operators of TTC have little information to convey to those travelers who get sucked into them. Those who can escape must walk the rest of their journey, while others who aren’t so lucky must simply wait in the dark until they are spit out at some indeterminate location many hours later. TTC researchers have reportedly been working on “shuttle” technology to create temporary patches in TTC during these POD episodes, but the existence of these “shuttles” has yet to be verified by the authors of this report, while TTC researchers are declining to comment.

Since these problems are highly technical in nature, and since we are not highly expert in this field, those who work closely with TTC technology have thus far been unable to provide the Committee members with intelligible explanations of their causes. However, they assure us that with more funding these problems are soluble.

On the other hand, other parties have advised Committee members of a further problem arising from TTC technology that gives us cause to be less optimistic. It seems that another unintended effect of TTC technology is the development of an inverse relationship between funding and performance. Just as entering TTC earlier means leaving it later, so the more funding it receives, the less efficiently it performs. In other words, there has been a decoupling of the relationship between resource input and performance output. It is speculated that TTC has begun opening portals in the laws of economics, as well as in the space-time continuum. At present there is no solution for this emergent problem. On the other hand, as will be outlined below, we believe that this otherwise troubling phenomenon can be turned to the city’s advantage.

An Ideal Opportunity:
Due to the obstacles outlined above, it is our belief that it will be some time before TTC can be successfully applied in a civilian setting. However, we believe that TTC currently has very promising military applications that are worth exploring. For example, we are convinced that TTC could be very useful in disrupting or even completely paralyzing an enemy’s industrial and economic base, while leaving buildings and other strategic assets largely intact. Once it is integrated into an enemy city’s infrastructure, it is conjectured that TTC would create mounting costs and inefficiencies, until eventually urban settlement is rendered non-viable and is abandoned entirely.

Enemy civilians under TTC attack will flee to those remaining outlying areas where it is still possible to travel using stable car-based portals, and where time is still coupled with distance in the older linear way. Put simply, used militarily, TTC would have the ultimate effect of reverting an enemy’s standard of living to mid-20th century levels. Furthermore, since such car-based portals make less efficient use of fossil fuel resources, the enemy’s war-making capability would be constrained by the need to make a choice between whether to deploy its limited petroleum supplies for military or civilian purposes.

Based on the above considerations, the Committees submit to the mayor and council the following recommendations.

Recommendation 1:
That TTC be renamed “Slow Hypertemporal Interstitial Transit” (SHIT).

Recommendation 2:
Moving forward, as part of the city’s strategic plan, it is recommended that the mayor and council offer, for a substantial fee, to license the use of TTC technology to the Department of National Defence.

Recommendation 3:
In aid of recommendation 2, it is further recommended that, for an additional surcharge, the services of experienced TTC personnel be offered as an added inducement to such a sale. Their expertise is indispensable, as they are literally the only agents in existence for whom the arcane workings of TTC seem to make any rational sense. Furthermore, it is anticipated that their fierce and aggressive manner will prove useful in intimidating the enemy, whatever theatre of war they are deployed in.

Recommendation 4:
In the long term, it is recommended that a committee be struck to explore possible ways in which TTC technology can be further developed with a view to civilian application.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Mad in Madison

This public servant needs a dikshunary.
Judging from recent activity on Facebook, events in Wisconsin (i.e. the state government’s campaign to take collective bargaining rights away from public sector unions) have roused the fury of many of my progressive friends. More than one of them has posted a certain piece from the “progressive” blog Daily Kos, which, from what I can make of it, is a sort of left-wing opinion dump. Nothing wrong with that necessarily, After all, many would say that this is a right-wing opinion dump (with the difference that only one person does the dumping here). As the author of the piece says, everyone's entitled to their opinion. Anyway, the piece I refer to is called “Top Ten Myths About Wisconsin Debunked” by someone styling himself “Jeff from Wisconsin”.

I flatter myself in thinking that my friends are pretty smart cookies, despite the fact that just about all of them probably think I’m a political loony. I value intelligence, so I’d have a hard time respecting them if they weren’t intelligent. Nevertheless, to be frank, I’m rather disappointed to see so many of them taken in by the kind of shoddy argument purveyed in this piece. There is absolutely nothing new in it. Mr. Wisconsin mostly offers the same tired canards that get dusted off and paraded about during episodes of labour strife, along with the songs, slogans, and placards.

I have more than a few thoughts of my own on the subject of the piece, many of which can be gathered from some of my previous writings. Instead of repeating them ad nauseam, I thought instead that I would reproduce the Daily Kos post, with my animadversions inserted at appropriate points [in bold between square brackets]. Unfortunately these have swelled to the point that they are longer than the original essay. I would have preferred to employ footnotes, but alas, the web has yet to catch up with Pierre Bayle.

I confess to feeling a little bit of guilt while writing this, because after I had proceeded to set down my thoughts, I began to realize that perhaps Mr. Wisconsin is not a worthy enough adversary on which to waste my darts. But since I get the impression that he would feel no similar compunction towards someone like me, I decided to lay my scruples aside.

Without further ado, here is Sir Jeffrey de Wisconsin’s piece, glossed by yours truly.

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Ten Myths About Wisconsin Debunked
By Jeff from Wisconsin

I've been listening to a number of people who have been expressing some wildly wrong-headed opinions about the protests in Madison. As the man says, You're entitled to your own opinion, but you're not entitled to your own facts. Here's my attempt to correct some of my fellow citizens.

1.  There’s a budget crisis in Wisconsin.

Like virtually every other state in the country, Wisconsin faces significant budget challenges, most of which will disappear as the economy improves. [This begs the question that many like myself would like answered, which is: what makes you so sure that, unless measures such as these are taken, the economy will recover? Not even Keynes would make such an assumption. Recovery is not something that just happens on its own, by magic. To believe so, as this author seems to think, betrays a puerile ignorance of basic economics. The plain fact is, many jurisdictions must get a handle on their overspending. Deficit finance only pushes back costs to future taxpayers, who, conveniently, don’t get a say in current political debates. It’s a form of taxation without representation, which is an injustice. And it only delays (and exacerbates) the inevitable.] You see, the main culprit in Wisconsin’s economic woes has been the loss of employment. [This is only partly true. The budget woes have been made worse by current high unemployment. But in most jurisdictions, Wisconsin included, deficit spending has gone on unabated in both good times and bad. Wisconsin ran up much of its current debt long before 2008. Wisconsin law requires its legislators to run balanced budgets, but for over a decade this has been “achieved” through various accounting shell games. Thus, its current budget problems started long before the recent downturn. The deficit didn’t just come out of nowhere. And if nothing is done, overspending will not magically go away once the good times are back. If history is any indication, it’s more likely to get worse. If you think governments lack fiscal restraint in tight times, wait until you see how they spend in good times. I will say this, though: the governor was ill-advised to push through tax cuts in such a situation.] This has caused people to stop paying income taxes (because they have no income) and to rely heavily upon the state-funded healthcare plan. [The author here makes an interesting empirical claim, but without providing any evidence: Is it true that the current deficit is made up solely or even mostly of claims on the state healthcare plan? I don’t know, but the author seems to imply it.] As the economy recovers, tax revenues will return and public health costs will decline. [Again this assumes that the economy will magically recover while we do nothing to change it. Even if this were the case, the author gives no indication of how long this recovery is expected to take. How long should Wisconsin be expected to run deficits? And when the magical recovery finally happens, the government will at some point have to start paying off accumulated debt and get its financial house in order. Maybe ― maybe ― this can be done using accumulated surpluses from the coming good times, right? But given how hard governments have found it to run surpluses even during good times, let alone putting those surpluses towards debt retirement, I won’t hold my breath.]

2.  Wisconsin state workers are paid too much. [This is very misleading phrasing. Saying “X earns too much” seems to make the common socialist mistake of assuming there is some divinely determined “just price” for a given person’s labour. If, in an open market unaffected by the coercive power of unions, public sector workers would earn less than they currently do, then yes, they earn “too much”. On the other hand, insofar as that open market for labour has been distorted by other non-union coercive powers (say, large rent-seeking corporations), then “progressives” have a valid point here.]

If you compare the salaries and benefits of public employees covered by the collective bargaining agreements in question with their counterparts in the private sector, you’ll see that Wisconsin public employees are actually paid slightly less. Their cash compensation is significantly less, but that is nearly counterbalanced by the values of their benefits. Nearly, but not quite. Most state workers could do better by working in the private sector. [Some actual numbers and references would be helpful here. In their absence, I can only retort, “Bullshit”. In any case, this outrageous claim naturally begs the following question: If these public sector workers could make more in the private sector, then why don’t they go and work there, instead of fighting tooth and nail to keep their supposedly “low” current remuneration? Plus, there’s a degree of self-refutation in this claim ― “Most public employees would do better in the private sector” to me seems incompatible with the earlier claim that the private sector suffers from a loss of employment and wage erosion.]

3.  Wisconsin state workers don’t pay for their pensions.

Not true. The collective bargaining agreement calls for the state to pay the equivalent of 5% of a state worker’s salary into a pension fund, which is professionally managed on behalf of the workers. What the state pays into the plan is part of the employees’ compensation that would be otherwise paid to the employee. [This is disingenuous, to say the least. Yes, they get some of their compensation in the form of a pension contribution. It’s still compensation. If the workers got paid in-kind, in the form of pigs and chickens rather than dollars and cents, this would still be compensation and counts towards total pay. The only difference is that with a pension, some of the payment to the worker is deferred to some future time, with further money added to it as compensation for foregoing current consumption. This pension contribution comes from the employer. In that sense, worker’s don’t pay for it. However, they do work for it (let us assume).  To say that they pay for their pension contribution is like saying that they pay for their own compensation, which is rather an odd locution, no? The worker “pays” for his pension contribution in the form of labour. If he thinks his labour is worth more than what he receives in wages, then he’s welcome to test this hypothesis out by shopping his labour around somewhere else. He’s not welcome to use coercive powers to make others pay him what he thinks he deserves to get for his labour.] This is the workers’ own money, just as what you contribute to your 401(k) is your own money. It’s not some “gift” from the taxpayers – it’s taxable income.

4.  Wisconsin state workers need to step up during this crisis.

Representatives of the state employees’ unions have, in fact, offered to make all the concessions asked for in the budget repair bill. Every fiscal request being made by the Walker Administration has been agreed to by the unions. To whatever extent there is a fiscal crisis in Wisconsin, the unions have proven themselves willing to bear their share of the load. [I don’t know enough to be able to comment on this. If the author is factually correct, then this is an interesting argument, possibly the only one in the entire piece.]

5.  I don’t have a pension plan at my job, so why should they get one?

This is a morally troubling argument. If my house burns down, should I go next door and torch my neighbor’s house because, darn it, if I have to suffer then everybody should have to suffer? Taking away the pension from a seventh grade math teacher isn’t going to make your retirement any more secure. The better question really ought to be, if those people over there can have a pension, why can’t I have one? [This argument would have the makings of something convincing if it weren’t for the behaviour of unions themselves. During collective bargaining, they’re always the first to demand that they should have X, because some other group of workers get X. Thus, it’s more than a bit rich of them to chide the public for doing exactly the same (but with much more justification).]

6.  Hey, I’m paying their salaries!

Yes, you are. And every time you buy a loaf of bread at the local supermarket, you’re paying the salaries of every employee in the store. Every time you fill up at the gas station, you’re paying all the salaries at the oil company. This is how capitalism works. Everybody is always paying everybody else’s salary. That doesn’t give you the right to demand that the produce manager take a pay cut to keep the price of cabbage low, or the guy behind the country at the gas station doesn’t deserve a health plan. [The author should be ashamed of himself for trying to pass this “argument” off on the reader. If I don’t like the price of the cabbage at the grocery store, I have the option of not buying cabbage, or buying it somewhere else. That’s how I demand that the produce manager keep the price of cabbage low. In fact, that’s why economists call it demand. And that, Mr. Jeff from Wisconsin, is how capitalism works. The analogy simply doesn’t fly, because unlike unionized labour, the grocery store manager does not have the option of dictating the price and then forcing me to buy cabbage at that price. Not only that, but I am forced to pay for the government “cabbage” even if I don’t want any, and at the dictated price to boot. So if for once the government is competent enough to use its leverage to get me a discount, I’m all for it.]

7.  The Democratic Senators ought to come back to Wisconsin to do their job.

The state senators who fled to Illinois to prevent a quorum are taking the only action they can take to prevent what they feel is a patently unfair and unwise bill from becoming a patently unfair and unwise law. [Then hopefully they are willing to give up their paycheques and position as well. They were elected and are paid to play a certain well-defined role within the institutions of government as they exist according to the constitution of the state of Wisconsin. Once elected, it thereby becomes their duty to play this role. They are not entitled to shirk this duty simply because a vote threatens not to go their way. They simply lack the courage to vote against a measure they know has considerable support among the people of Wisconsin. They should either vote their conscience or resign their seats. They are in dereliction of duty, and they are cowards. This is not a partisan comment. I would be saying exactly the same thing if party roles were reversed here.] If the Walker Administration showed any indication that it would negotiate in good faith to reach a compromise, the senators would return. [If Governor Walker doesn’t want to negotiate, that is his prerogative, whether you happen to like it or not. Woe to the conquered.  He was elected to play a certain role, and to carry through those policies he thinks would be best for the state, even if he is mistaken. The place to debate those policies is in the legislature. That is what lawmakers are supposed to do. The public business must go on. I imagine that many among the people of Wisconsin might even be happy that their governor refuses to engage in such backroom dealings. The action of the “Democratic” senators betrays a remarkable lack of respect for democracy.] But as last week’s “punking” of Governor Walker demonstrated, the administration has no intention of working with the Democrats and would resort to lies and chicanery if given the opportunity. [I confess I don’t know what the author is referring to here. The dictionary I have at hand doesn’t contain the word “punking”, so I can only conjecture. Maybe he’s referring to the prank phone call to the governor by a radio personality pretending to be one of the Koch brothers? In which case, I heard only a portion of it replayed on CBC radio, and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what the governor said that was so bad, unless you already disagree with his position in the first place. If I’m supposed to have contempt for the governor because he was fooled into believing he was speaking to someone he wasn’t, then it was a puerile gag that adds little to the political debate. Therefore, I would advise Jeff from Wisconsin to be careful about accusing others of “lies and chicanery”. On my opinion regarding the Koch brothers, see below.]

8.  The protestors at the Capitol Building are union thugs.

Given the massive groups that have assembled at the Capitol Building (100,000 last Saturday alone) [Wisconsin has close to six million citizens, most of whom do not belong to well-organized groups such as these unions. Therefore, I warn the reader to beware of the author’s rhetorical implication that the protesters represented some kind of broad-based consensus, especially since a considerable number of them are coming to these demonstrations from out-of-state (not that there is anything against that). My online trolling among various polls on the issue seem to indicate that half of polls show majority support for the governor’s measure, and half show a majority opposing it, depending on the bias of whoever is doing the polling in a given instance. In almost all cases, the margin for either side is slim. In other words, I suspect the public is about evenly divided. I get the impression that a solid majority favour the idea of public sector workers being subjected to some kind of austerity, but are not so favourable to outright revocation of their right to collective bargaining. In this latter regard, I recognize that mine may be the minority opinion among Wisconsinites.] the complete lack of anything remotely resembling a disturbance reflects well upon the citizens of the State of Wisconsin. Even on the day when a Pro-Walker counter-protest occurred side-by-side with the Pro-Union protest, the Madison Police Department reported no incidents. Those who are protesting are teachers, students, government workers, and in a profound display of union solidarity, fire fighters and police officers. Hardly the makings of an ugly mob. [This is fair comment on the author’s part, and I have nothing to add, except perhaps to emphasize that both sides, both pro- and anti-Walker demonstrators, should be commended for their general restraint and civility. If there were no incidents reported, then that means that pro-Walker protesters were well-behaved too.]

9.  The mob is full of out-of-state agitators.

This is virtually impossible to prove or disprove, but unless busloads of people from Illinois are stopping at the border and buying Badger and Packer sweatshirts and stocking hats, the crowd at the Capitol Building appears to be almost completely home-grown. The same cannot be said for the Koch Brothers, the multi-billionaires who stand to make a(nother) fortune if the budget repair bill passes. From Utah, the Koch brothers have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Wisconsin politics – from direct contributions to the Walker Campaign to their funding of shadowy “advocacy” groups that ran attack ads almost non-stop during the last election season. If you’re worried about out-of-state influences on our politics, look over there. [Again, the author makes a fair point. I would only add one thing: From what little I know of the Koch brothers, I don’t personally like them. But much of the criticism I’ve heard about them seems based on the fact that they’re rich (vide the author’s gratuitous and ad hominem reference to “plutocrats” further on). No one complains if a poor or middle class person chooses to spend some of her meagre funds to advocate for a political cause. I think the same right should be extended to those who happen to have more money to spend. We cannot in fairness stop one group of people from advocating for their cause simply because we happen not to agree with what they advocate (barring certain extreme and legally prohibited “causes”, of course). It simply means that their opponents will have to be more vigilant in making the nature and motivation of such advocacy known, so that “shadowy” groups (among whom I would certainly classify unions) can be rendered a little less shadowy.]

10.  This is not a big deal.

What happens in Wisconsin is going to have a large impact on what happens in Ohio, then in Indiana, then in Michigan, and then in Florida. Once politicians and their ultra-wealthy owners crush public-sector unions, the task of crushing private-sector unions becomes just that much easier. And when unions have been destroyed, every worker in America will be reduced to taking whatever job at whatever lousy pay and with whatever lousy benefits (like none) that corporations decide we deserve. If the past few years have shown us anything at all, from Enron to Lehman Brothers to British Petroleum, it’s that large corporations are simply cannot be trusted, and there needs to be some force in our public lives that counter-balance their power and influence. [I would put unions in precisely the same class as Enron, etc. As far as I’m concerned, they’re all rent-seeking parasites, coercing or bribing governments into giving them profits that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them in an open market, profits which come at the expense of the public in general.] With governments at every level being bought and sold by plutocrats of all sorts, labor unions have never been quite so vital to the survival of the Middle Class. [Unions are vital to the survival of union leaders only. They do precious little good for anyone else. My personal experience with them has been that unions aren’t even vital to the survival of their own members. When the chips are down, a union will abandon its members at something approaching the speed of sound.] Thanks for reading!