Thursday, November 29, 2007

In Three Weeks

Representing Slums

Dionisio Gonzalez, Buraco Quente II, 2006
Bryan Finoki writes,
One of the most intriguing facets of Dionisio Gonzalez's photographic constructions is that they immediately question the viewer's knowledge of what a "slum" actually looks like and what are the political forces that shape slums. To that end, he asks us if "slum" is even an appropriate term at all. Viewers less familiar with these spaces may not detect the careful nuances of his work and instead simply digest these as neither appropriate nor inappropriate images of global poverty, but rather as ones that are simply real...

In my opinion, what is most important about any work of art is the actual effect it will have on culture and public perception. In this case, we are forced to ask what messages about squatter communities are being transmitted through these images? How are we supposed to view them in the first place? Despite the way they may look to us, how is it that those from the outside want to view these images in some way, and digest them as accurate portraits of squatter settlements? More importantly, how does one even responsibly represent global poverty anyway? It's a delicate subject and we need to be mindful whenever a representation like this is asserted for any group, especially one as politically charged as global poverty.

Trouble in Manila?

Possibly. These things are usually incremental, no matter how much ex post facto accounts focus on the more dramatic elements.
Philippine troops and police SWAT teams stormed a five-star hotel occupied by dissident army officers Thursday, arresting a senator, a former vice president, a Catholic bishop and several journalists.

A seven-hour standoff began when about 30 officers and soldiers on trial for attempting coups in 2003 and 2006 walked out of the courtroom and commandeered the Peninsula Manila Hotel nearby, demanding the removal of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and calling for an uprising against the government.

About an hour after a deadline for the men to surrender elapsed, the police fired tear gas into the hotel lobby, then rammed an armored personnel carrier through the front entrance, transforming one of the country's most opulent hotels into a war zone. Shots were fired, though it remained unclear by whom.

At least two people were wounded, the police said. Most of the hotel guests and staff had been evacuated.

Antonio Trillanes 4th, the leader of dissident officers and the soldiers supporting them, said they had ended the standoff for fear that the violence would escalate and put the lives of civilians in danger...

This time, however, few supporters appeared at the Peninsula Manila, despite the officers' attempts to foment a popular uprising through text messages and media releases.

Some members of the political opposition and the left, including Guingona, and a couple of Catholic bishops, rushed to the hotel to give their support to Trillanes and his companions, saying that this could be another "People Power" uprising similar to those in 1986 and 2001.

Brigadier General Danilo Lim, who is accused of leading a failed coup attempt in 2006, defended the takeover of the hotel, citing Arroyo's "theft" of the presidency in the 2004 elections and the failure of impeachment proceedings in the legislature.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

DC on the Relatively Cheap

Or... reality. From here.


Prague and Other Tragedies

The nightly local news squirms muted in the background, a suited man in a helmet of ink hair attempting to sell the latest i-phone/pod/GPS to give to your loved ones at the holidays. It's a handheld GPS system he's fondling and now waving. Everyone must have one because everyone should absolutely know where they are. You can find yourself over and over, checking every ten feet, if you so desire. You will never be lost again.

I moved to France in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall was chipped and sledge-hammered away. It was an exciting time for everyone, but life in Paris pretty much proceeded as normal. There did seem to be an influx of Eastern Europeans to Paris during the ensuing years.

A Polish photographer friend of mine, now a filmmaker, gave my coordinates in Paris to two of his cousins coming to Paris for the first time. They arrived at my front door with a giant army bag and one much smaller bag. The large bag was bursting with hundreds of colorful foam lizards. The cousins had been stopped at the border and the bag opened. They had said that they were in a circus. The lizards, though, were their roundtrip tickets to Paris. They spent the week in touristy Les Halles selling the foam lizards - little toys attached to a thin wire that they jiggled around. They didn't sell them all, but simply enough to pay for their trip and lots of drinking. For their trip home, the cousins cleaned out my already paltry refrigerator and, curiously, took every plastic grocery bag in the kitchen. I came home and was less worried about the food, but pissed that I would have to go shopping just for a trash bag. I wondered if they had shown up at the Polish border and explained away their abundance of plastic bags as a circus act.

But... at the time, in the early 90s, Prague was the place to be. People I knew left Paris to find their true bohemian souls in Prague. The famous philosophy/literature journal, Le Magazine Littéraire, which I read closely, published a special issue on Prague and its writers. Everyone was reading Milan Kundera. One grand city was the buzz of another grand city.

Prague had been a dream of mine for a long time. Part of my family is Czech, and I felt a special attachment to this relatively unknown side of the family and the fiercely loving, intelligent, feminist grandmother who died when I was two. I loved Kafka, Kundera, and Škvorecký, and read most of their works. Prague was the city I wanted to visit and it became a near obsession. Writers, painters, philosophers, very cheap beer, an ancient city of beautiful architecture and an archaeological culture always creating its own layers of history, even in response to the powerful Soviets.

I would visit in winter. It had to be winter: cigarette dangling from lips as I walked in solitude along the snow-lined Charles Bridge collar turned up against the cold. I had just published a piece on Baudelaire in a Japanese magazine, but I told myself that post-1989 Prague would truly be the place to write about at the time, not Paris.

Unfortunately, I was broke. Constantly. I couldn't even make it from Paris. I told myself to go anyway - hitchhike or something - but then I would come into some little job or a new girlfriend and would stay in Paris. Prague thus remained a dream for the time-being and I consoled myself with the suggestion of one writer whose name I forget, "it's best to dream of Prague for a long time before going there."

Then I started to hear complaints from the bohemians that Prague was filling up with American exchange students looking for a good party. The city was changing rapidly, becoming crowded with foreigners and the various services that pop up to cater to foreigners.

I moved back to the US a few years later. By that time, Prague was booming as a tourist destination and becoming more expensive. Brits took over, and took advantage of the copious alcohol and abundant Czech models. In the latter 1990s and early 2000s, the city became truly cosmopolitan. Today, a travel writer in The Guardian asks, "is Prague the new Prague?" She writes,

Happily, things in this picture-perfect capital are changing. The stag parties have, mostly, moved to cities that offer an edgier, cheaper weekend away. Prices in Prague have risen steeply, and although a night out will cost you considerably less than in, say, Paris or Barcelona, the days when a pint of Staropramen cost 60p are long gone. So much the better for those of us who like a weekend pottering about, indulging in a spot of shopping, a little history, a cocktail or two and some slap-up suppers.

It's in these last two areas where Prague has really improved. Slick new eateries and classy stag-free cocktail joints have opened up around the Old Town, alongside a clutch of new 'design' hotels which offer a more stylish option than the big hotel chains. Perla opened in September, and its sleek, minimalist bedrooms and cosy breakfast room were made all the more appealing by its fantastic location, mid-way between Wenceslas Square and the Old Town.

Dear God. Have I dreamed of the city so long before going there that there's now only the inside of the dream? The quote in which I took consolation had turned into a sham. The right moment had closed off forever.

I'll go to Prague... Next summer, in fact. I'll be speaking at a conference in Bratislava and plan to toodle up to the grand, dreamt city afterwards. Not the person I was in a city that's not what it was. And that's that.

This is the lesson. When you have the desire and the opportunity, however slight, always go. Even if you're essentially lost, wandering, without a clear objective. Our places and histories are eternally shaped and reshaped in front of our eyes. Much of the reshaping has more to do with impersonal economic circumstances than any particular decisions on the part of a society or individuals. My going to Prague would have been a drop in the wave that eventually changed the city into something other than what it was. Always moving beyond reach; moving further away as I grasp at it. When you do go, understand that this is the same for you. You change it, it changes you and there is nothing that can be done about that. None of us are truly located after all.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Google 2008

Via Next Nature, created by Randy Siegel for the NYT.

Be-Enemying Friends

Scott Horton:

When Bush’s presidency is written up for the history books, one aspect will merit a special chapter, and that is the amazing alchemy by which Bush turned America’s staunchest allies around the world into disaffected onlookers, if not in fact enemies. He is gifted with the opposite of the diplomatic Midas touch.

Another story out on Sunday, following right on the heels of the crushing defeat Australian voters dealt to John Howard, showed the depth of the problem, which most Americans underassess.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Cantebury and Anglican Primate, is not exactly a radical priest. He’s been solidly on the traditionalist side of the debates within the Anglican Communion on issues such as the ordination of women, the consecration of homosexuals as bishops and he has no equivocation in condemning abortion. But Williams’s conservatism had led him repeatedly to question the wisdom of Prime Minister Blair’s alignment with the United States in the War on Terror. And in an interview published this weekend, he unloaded. In fact, he called George W. Bush’s America a threat to Christian civilization. The Sunday Times (London)reports:

The Archbishop of Canterbury has said that the United States wields its power in a way that is worse than Britain during its imperial heyday. Rowan Williams claimed that America’s attempt to intervene overseas by “clearing the decks” with a “quick burst of violent action” had led to “the worst of all worlds”.

In a wide-ranging interview with a British Muslim magazine, the Anglican leader linked criticism of the United States to one of his most pessimistic declarations about the state of western civilisation. He said the crisis was caused not just by America’s actions but also by its misguided sense of its own mission. He poured scorn on the “chosen nation myth of America, meaning that what happens in America is very much at the heart of God’s purpose for humanity”. . .

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Tasering Is Torture

The UN Committee Against Torture has concluded that tasering is a form of torture.
"The use of these weapons causes acute pain, constituting a form of torture,'' the UN's Committee against Torture said.
And, after a series of recent deaths and ongoing general abuse of taser guns, we have this laughable remark from the company that makes the device.
The company that makes the weapons has said that similar deaths have been shown by "medical science and forensic analysis'' to be "attributable to other factors and not the low-energy electrical discharge of the Taser".
You see, it's like any conventional gun. The fact that people's internal organs and skin are not impermeable to bullets is the all important "other factor."

Image via Undomundo


More here from James Wolcott and Arthur Silber.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Mp3 Find of the Day

Very sweet pop from Thailand from about 1970. This is The Impossibles, courtesy of Scott at the fabulous mp3 blog, Crud Crud. The songs from the album are listed in Thai, which neither Scott nor I can read. I have only been able to add one extra bit of info: song 1 is "Nai Wa Ja Jum" (ไหนว่าจะจำ). Anyone who can name the other two songs is more than welcome to comment both here and chez Crud Crud.

This music is really lovely. A sweet voice, gentle pop melodies, and a mood that runs between sunshine pop, early US R&B/Soul, and Thai pleng phua cheewit (a special variant of this brand of Thai pop called "String"). The second tune adds samba guitar and a soft Stan Getz-like sax. Available cds can be found here.

The Impossibles were from Bangkok and, Scott surmises, must have been especially popular with US GIs in SE Asia at the time. This was also when I lived in Thailand, but I just don't remember the band. I'm sure I heard them at some point but, like most youngsters at the time, I was still into the Beatles and, as I've mentioned before, the bubblegum group Pilot (who is a guilty pleasure to this day).

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


I need to go see a man about a goose. But I wish to give thanks to readers at this little blog. We don't have tons of traffic, but I'm honored to have the regulars and occasionals we do have. I don't know all of you either. I know there are some of you who "lurk," as they say in blogurglese. Feel free to drop a comment any time, or lurk....

As for those I do know whether virtually or non who visit Phronesisaical at least on occasion, my heartfelt thanks to David, MT, SteveG, Elizabeth, Wes, Professor Pea, Bryan, Catherine, Kitu, Cheryl, Jonathan, Erik, Mark, Troutsky, Rob, Rodger (and here), Jim, Neddie, Carlos, Abbas, Lindsay, Geoff, ae, Elyas, Gordo, Eric, Graeme, Mark, Evan, Tim, Soumya,....

Have a great holiday.

Sartre guavas for all!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Dear Mr. President

Dear President Bush,

Please find enclosed fifty cents. I am a lobbyist, this is a campaign contribution, and now I own you. The first thing I want you to do is pass a law against bathtime. I HATE BATHTIME! Do it before supper and there is another fifty cents in it for you.

Zack, age 8

Monday, November 19, 2007


Epistemological Presidencies

Here's a contrast of epistemologies that runs deeper than their proponents likely know: those of George Bush and a priori thought, Mitt Romney and instrumental managerial rationality, and John Edwards and public deliberation. By "epistemology" here is meant not that industry in which many philosophers ply their trade, but methodologies of identifying and understanding problems and of how best to solve them collectively (since a president is acting ostensibly in the name of the collective). It's an interesting contrast not merely because it reflects different management styles and thus gives us insight into what the boss or would-be boss is like. The big media loves to speculate on personalities. It's interesting because it shows how these presidentists think of the people for whom they work.

Bush fits a few molds, from the epistemology of just-plain-stupid to a priori ideological methods of so-called "leadership" (a big term again these days in the policy world - like the term "success," it's basically insipid). Bush has been called a "compassionate socialist" and a communitarian. Regardless, Bush is the "ideologue." One who has put ideology over health, over government protection, over science, over prudence in general, over the natural environment, over decency, and of course over competence. He himself sees "ideology" everywhere else but the White House (unless it's the conceptually incoherent "ideology of hope") - since the world is generally in disagreement with him, the world is ideologically constituted and must be struggled against.

"Ideology" is a term of historical complexity. Generally, it suggests false consciousness in the holder of whatever ideology, a world-view that is incorrect and damaging. It thus implies a correct world-view, a true consciousness - the true ideology-that-is-not-mere-ideology - missed by the benighted ideological soul which shows us the way the world really is. In this sense, Plato was an ideological thinker. He thought only the specially trained, the philosopher, could contemplate the realm of the pure forms of what in experience were tarnished, imperfect, changing copies. This way of dividing the world runs through the history of thought from Plato, Descartes, Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche and so on to even the language of many contemporary scientists who confuse the relation between facts and values by suggesting values have nothing to do with science.

We don't need to be clear on ideology for our purposes here, however. The point is in the pattern. Bush's style is a muddled a priori one, combined with a knack for what Charles Peirce called the "method of tenacity" in fixing belief. That is, Bush faces any problem or decision with an unquestioned set of background assumptions - perhaps based in his religious views and in neoconservative influence - that he apparently steadfastly refuses to examine, and reexamine. It's not necessarily that the background assumptions are wrong by their very nature. It's that they're shown repeatedly in practice to lead to failed policies and to severe disagreements with others in this pluralistic world. Bush's typical reaction is to push ahead anyway and then proclaim the virtues of sticking to "principle." This is a real problem when it's a failed principle, and the US and the world have suffered for it. He doesn't possess the intellectual apparatus needed to engage in self-critique and to navigate the terrain in which a priori principles come up against the contingencies and exigencies of experience.

Tenacity then kicks in like the famed ostrich with its head in the sand. As Peirce wrote, "the instinctive dislike of an undecided state of mind, exaggerated into a vague dread of doubt, makes men cling spasmodically to the views they already take. The man feels that, if he only holds to his belief without wavering, it will be entirely satisfactory." Thus is the source of the faith-based community. But this also suggests a personal sense of infallibility which, in the face of the realities of counter-evidence and different knowledge and understandings, returns us to the ideological judgment that everyone else is ideologically blinkered. Tenacity in a priori thinking amounts to the fundamentally undemocratic judgment that one is in sole possession of the truth. There is therefore no reason to listen to anyone else other than to maintain the illusion that you're listening.

Michael Kinsley suggests that Romney is essentially Taylorist, in contrast to our known ideologist. Romney said that, if elected, he will hire the consulting firm McKinsey or some other consulting firm to reorganize the government. Kinsley comments,
What exactly do management consultants do? I asked this of a McKinsey recruiter many years ago. He said, "We provide expertise." I said, "But you're thinking of hiring me, and I have no expertise." He said, "We'll train you." Nothing about that interview dissuaded me from the view that consultants spend at least as much energy and brainpower selling themselves to clients as they spend doing whatever the client pays them to do.

In the beginning, at about the turn of the last century, what management consultants offered was much clearer. It was called Taylorism, after its inventor, Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor called it scientific management, and it involved slicing up industrial processes into bite-size tasks and then doing detailed time-and-motion studies to determine the most efficient way to perform them. Described in hindsight as "the first big management fad," Taylorism was widely criticized--from the right as a step toward totalitarianism, from the left as soulless and alienating...

All that's left of Taylorism among management consultants today is a pretense to scientific precision in whatever it is that consultants do, which generally involves parachuting into some situation, being smarter than everybody else, coming up with a solution--or at least a PowerPoint presentation--and then leaping onto their horses and galloping away...

If big-shot CEOs are happy to hire McKinsey and then do whatever its 25-year-old hotshots recommend, why shouldn't voters do the same? If you're looking for a reason, look no further than the Times of London, Oct. 29, in which the head of McKinsey, one Ian Davis, addressed the topic of "government as a business." We "must enter the dialogue on how to help resolve" disputatious issues, he recommends. Well, isn't that the definition of politics?...
Romney's version is a bit more sophisticated. Above, I called it "instrumental managerial rationality." It's also akin to what Peirce called the "method of authority." Instrumental rationality reduces policy questions to efficiency and production issues. The organization of social, political, and economic life around whether various configurations are efficient or not - begging the question of efficient for what - is at the core of such an approach. Efficiency and productivity, however, are characteristics of means - of instruments - by which we may do something (from fixing a car to organizing political life). Some old-timey technological determinists (Marcuse, Ellul, for example) thought that efficiency and productivity had come to constitute ends in themselves in technological society, thus transforming society into a kind of machine. We don't have to go this far, however, to understand that such values say little or nothing about the ends societies ought to try to achieve. The managerial mindset views politics as a management problem for which the answers are judged in accordance with the values of efficiency and productivity.

Presumably, Romney is concerned about individual and social ends. He's a religious man, after all. But by handing off political/policy problems to consulting firms (taking his statement at face value), he implicitly suggests that politics is not about a democratic give-and-take. It's about not only the efficiency of policy, but also ends articulated by the supposed authority of the managerial class. Since Romney obviously would not hand over religious questions to be decided by managerial consultants, the religious realm then becomes the sole sphere of questions of ends-values. Management of the means, on one hand; religious ends, on the other. In both cases, political society relies on authority: the consulting firm and the church. Of course, the managerial class and the church both have their own interests, which may have little to do with those of the public. This is pre-democratic modernism at its most schizophrenic.

John Edwards has recently promoted deliberative frameworks of policy decision-making (see also here for further commentary). Populists use similar language, but there's a difference between typical populism and the idea of deliberation here.

While unveiling a government reform agenda in Keene, NH, former Senator Edwards said that Americans need a new voice in the policy making process. “I believe in the wisdom of the American people, and I think the more power they have in our democracy, the better our country will be,” said Edwards.

“That’s why every two years, I will ask one million citizens to come together to tackle our toughest issues in local forums across the nation. These Citizen Congresses will combine old-fashioned town halls with 21st century technology. They will give regular Americans a chance to speak to each other, and to their elected officials in Washington, without the filters of interest groups and the media.”

Edwards wants a more deliberative approach through which those affected by institutional changes are also involved in the formation of those institutions as well as what they are a response to. The epistemology of democratic deliberation is basically that of the public articulating its needs through the process of public reasoning. The public use of reason, ideally, is a process of learning: of the needs we collectively have as a public, of the unreasonable parts of our own beliefs (that is, unjustifiable to others), and of what institutional options we might have for solving collective action problems. Basically, as Hilary Putnam has put it in describing John Dewey's view on the matter, "without the participation of the public in the formation of such policy, it could not reflect the common needs and interests of the society because those needs and interests were known only to the public." The point is not that experts have no role in public deliberations, but that the public at least senses what it needs, and the process of deliberation as a public can give concreteness to those needs and their resolution.

An evolving society needs means of political expression; a pluralistic society needs more sophisticated means of political expression. The appeal to a priori authority, whether government by The Tenacious One or by sheer managerial expertise or by the Church on questions of value were all already rejected by the Founders. Do we have to prove to ourselves again that these routes are bunk? Or do we take up the difficult task of articulating good public reasons for better public policy in democratic forums that may never come to final conclusions?

What else is democratic society for?

Inflatable Pollution Cloud

Here at Oobject. Browse for more.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Toy District, LA

Lovely, austere photos by James Bucknam at Polar Inertia.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

"Post-Apocalyptic Seed Vault"

Photo: Mari Tefre for Getty Images, via the Guardian

A first photograph from near Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Go here at BLDGBLOG, which cites The Guardian:
Engineers last week finished work on one of the world's most ambitious conservation projects: a doomsday vault carved into a frozen mountainside in the archipelago of Svalbard, a few hundred miles from the North Pole. Over the next few weeks, the huge cavern – backed by the Norwegian government and the Gates Foundation – will be filled with more than a million types of seed and will be officially opened in February next year. "This will be the last refuge for the world's crops," said Cary Fowler, of the Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust, which is building the vault. "There are seed banks in various countries round the globe, but several have been destroyed or badly damaged in recent years. We need a place that is politically and environmentally safe if we are going to feed the planet as it gets hotter."

Corruptive Globalization, Globalized Corruption

Branko Milanovic here suggests that globalization increases corruption - the bug-a-boo of much recent international development work at places like the World Bank and IMF. Corruption is a serious issue when it redirects distribution of assistance and distorts necessary processes of institutional reconstruction. But it's an accusation that's also used as a crutch, or a smokescreen for other failed policies. In fact, agencies such as the IMF often get great PR mileage out of blaming their own failures, when they do fail, on the internal corruption of the states they're trying to help. As I think Milanovic rightly points out, the problem is misdiagnosed.

Once organized crime and its supporters become the largest employers in the country, they play the same role that a more conventional business plays in other countries. They try to influence the political process. Moreover, they need to control the political arena - election of presidents and parliaments - even more tightly than "normal" business people because their very existence depends on having a government willing to tolerate violation of international rules as the country's main activity.

The government structure that emerges is "endogenous": It reflects domestic social and economic structure, which in turn is the outcome of greater international trade and economic incentives, much like other countries, except that the governance structure is, almost inevitably, more corrupt. The recent World Bank and International Monetary Fund's insistence on reforming governance in these countries is bound to fail because the cause is misdiagnosed.

Governance is viewed by the international organizations as something "exogenous," something that a country just happens to have and which - through a better electoral process, more transparent laws and more honest lawmakers - can be improved. Thus the international organizations are in a permanent, and fruitless, search of an "honest" lawmaker, an Eliot Ness who will bust corruption and illegality. They fail to notice that governance structures respond to underlying incentives, and to expect an honest person to rise to power in a corrupt state is akin to expecting a person with no financial backing from big business to be elected president of the US. In both cases, the outcome of a political process reflects the country's underlying economic conditions.

A different approach is necessary: legalize the currently illegal activities like prostitution and drug use and modify the often draconian US and European immigration laws that stimulate human trafficking. If prostitution and drugs indeed became like haircuts and candies, their production would obey the same rules: Countries that export beauty services and confectionary products are not notably more corrupt than others. Some of the current entrepreneurs would remain in these activities, others would move to others. In either case, there would be a general "normalization" akin to what was observed after prohibition on alcohol sales was lifted in the US. Thousands of "bootleggers" became normal producers of alcohol, alcohol-linked criminality decreased, and only a minority of those with preference for high risk and crime moved to other illegal activities.

I've suggested here several times before in various contexts that corruption is more complex (and more interesting as a problem) than the usual linear focus on the "bad" foreign government leader(s) or, as Milanovic says, a "corrupt state." But how does "organized crime and its supporters become the largest employers in the country"? One focus may be on traditional, informal economic transactions in a given country (baksheesh, etc.). When these are elevated to the status of official ways of getting things done in a country on a larger scale, we've got what international agencies generally think of as corruption. But these transactions may remain - at least on the small scale - important parts of social life and the daily distribution of goods and services. In tackling corruption defined in these terms, an international agency necessarily - though perhaps unconsciously - is taking on important elements of the culture which may have deep historical roots. Indirectly disrupting these processes in the name of stemming large-scale corruption by replacing them with "proper" forms of market transaction often requires deeper transformations of a society that the international development agencies, complex as they are, are ill-equipped to handle. When they fail, they blame the corrupt leader.

Corruption is sustained through at least three further systematic elements: various structural conditions of the global system with diverse concrete effects (such as the international borrowing privilege); structural adjustments that put market assumptions first at the expense of goods and services desperately needed on the ground in the short term, whatever the particular political system or government's effectiveness; and incentive packages structured around the age-old economic assumption of individual self-interest, especially in countries with strong communitarian values. There's much more to say here than I can right now. But when we take into account these and various other system-focused elements of corruption (conceptualizing corruption as misdirected distribution of material assistance and undemocratic distortion of ongoing processes of institutional reconstruction), anti-corruption policies shake off their linear assumptions and become self-critical as well as at least potentially more experimental when policies fail (which they do, over and over).

Milanovic concludes,
The key is that meaningful reforms do not begin in the corrupt states themselves, but in the rich world that is the main consumer of illegal goods and services. This requires a total overhaul in our thinking about the root cause of a corrupt state. Many of the most corrupt states are "corrupt" because they specialize in goods and services that are deemed illegal. But what is illegal today is not necessarily illegal tomorrow. "Illegality" is a historical category, as the long history of accepted prostitution and drug use shows. Thus if illegality is the main cause of corrupt governments, then the best way to root out corruption is to remove illegality.
Milanovic suggests that a little linguistic legerdemain can get rid of the problem. While I think there's actually a profound point embedded in here regarding our own institutionalized conceptions of propriety, it's lost through his cavalier framing of the solution, reminiscent of older libertarian proposals to legalize drugs and thus subject them to the market and minimal regulation (assuming that illegality is maximal regulation). But corruption is not merely about a blackmarket trade in "illegal" goods and services. Theft from public funds, for example, can hardly be legalized and subject to market mechanisms. In the developed nations, public funds used for dubious purposes may seem like stealing but these processes aren't usually subject to public market forces either. Corruption is, however, a product of economic and noneconomic structural conditions outlined above, and incentives based in undemocratic features of governance (such as lack of transparency and accountability, rather obviously).

Corruption often takes place in the space provided by severely weakened institutions of governance. Focusing on economic incentives may very well contribute to our understanding of corruption, and the political problem is not merely endogenous. Milanovic rightly points this out in his criticism of the IMF and World Bank. But in the end the problem is more political than economic, and so both the development agencies and Milanovic have only partially correct views: the IMF/World Bank because of the linear view that corruption is endogenous, and Milanovic because of the view that corruption is a matter of stunted market forces. A clearer understanding of the exogeneity of corruption would lead us to understand how various economic and political assumptions shared by the international development agencies recreate structural conditions that allow corruption to flourish at cross-purposes with their own stated objectives.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Justice and Climate Change

This guest essay by V. Balaji at Tony Karon's Rootless Cosmopolitanism, "Global Warming as White Man's Burden," points out that the novel, experimental approaches under development for dealing with climate change are nonetheless patterned on an old ideology: that the West has the answers, especially since those answers are technological.
Not only is the science now deemed settled, but that set of technical and policy responses is also now fast gaining acceptance. A story about a scientific controversy has now changed into one where the white-coated scientist, against long odds, has finally isolated the serum that will save the remote village from the mysterious disease that has laid it low, and now our heroes are in a desperate race against time to save the dying villagers. That, at least, seems to be the message of this week’s CNN special (which I confess I haven’t seen, but for which I had glossy promotional material delivered in my mailbox). Many of the stories center on remote places dealing with environmental catastrophes of various kinds, which are explained by metropolitan scientists, along with proposed solutions. Sanjay Gupta, part of CNN’s team, makes it very explicit on his blog that noone, including the victims of climate change, are expecting anything less: the lead quote, from a Chadian fisherman on the shores of that disappearing lake, has it that “the white man will bring us water. Only, the white man has power.” Is global warming then the white man’s burden this century? Sure enough, many of the solutions currently being touted, involve exotic new technologies, advanced ‘green’ materials, planetary-scale geo-engineering, and the like, which only the advanced industrial nations could possibly provide.
From my perspective in a policy school known for its environmental policy program, the above seems certainly on target. Most policy approaches - even some of the most innovative - use technical tools designed at their intellectual foundations to eliminate uncertainty.

But Balaji's claim is not entirely on target. And while Balaji mentions Davos (and Al Gore as Davos Man) over and over (in contrast to Bandung), Davos has very little to do with the nuts and bolts of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Davos has always been one giant quasi-intellectual country club with an impressive membership roster of people who speak in sweeping generalities. That's the wrong target. A more accurate target would be the existing and developing mechanisms for tackling global climate change. Namely, the UNFCCC. But then, the UNFCCC has taken up some of the key concerns.

The fundamental injustice of anthropogenic climate change is that many of the countries least responsible will suffer the most harmful effects. Furthermore, many of those countries that will suffer the most severe effects are least able to adapt to the effects, let alone contribute to mitigation. The developed, industrialized countries which are most responsible for accumulated carbon emissions and other GHGs are also most able - financially and technologically - to put in place mitigation and adaptation measures. This is what makes US resistance to genuine climate change measures fundamentally unjust and unacceptable (for more on this, see here).

Balaji may sarcastically call this "the white man's burden," but I don't see how it can be otherwise if by "white man" we mean the industrialized, developed countries, as well as rapidly developing countries like China and India. Anthropogenic climate change is due to a combination of the historical use of certain kinds of high-energy-use technologies by economies that encourage production and consumption as the engine of individual and social well-being. There's no way to tackle climate change without tackling both the technologies and normative assumptions of the good life conceptualized in economic terms at the core of these societies.

In this sense, while one might worry about the Chadian fisherman above as a symbol of aloofness on the part of developing and least developed countries' own economic aspirations and how they would achieve them, the Chadian fisherman is indeed irrelevant to the process of mitigating climate change in the short-term timescale we have in front of us. The only way I can conceive of where that might not be the case would be in possible positive and negative lessons about local practices and traditions that are more sustainable or, in the case of Chad, unsustainable. For their own sake, they'll have to change their own practices. But for the sake of mitigating the global problem of climate change, this is a small drop in the bucket. Yet, the Chadian fisherman and others around the world in similar positions may also suffer some of the more severe effects of climate change.

It's not as if such considerations are not included in UNFCCC deliberations. They are. We can even frame much of the ongoing UNFCCC dialogue in terms of justice: distributive justice, procedural justice, and the politics of recognition. Distributive justice generally looks to the fair distribution of goods and services, and harms, generated by a given institutional arrangement, whether in the past, present, or future. Procedural justice focuses on the processes by which which decisions about appropriate institutional arrangements are made. It's one thing to determine a distributive scheme according to a particular set of interests and judgments; it's another to determine it through processes of fair, democratic participation on the part of all those who will be affected by the new institutional arrangement. And justice as recognition demands that institutional practices themselves recognize how some communities and individuals may be traditionally excluded or marginalized from dominant methods of creating policy, reconstructing institutions. There's nothing simple about any of this, however, perhaps especially when it comes to climate change.

For instance, in UNFCCC deliberations, distributive justice is central to thinking about how the effects of climate change fall on "vulnerable" countries and groups, how the costs of mitigation and adaptation may fall in somewhat different patterns on vulnerable countries and groups, and what responsibilities high-emission countries have for paying the costs of mitigation and adaptation as well as how the costs are shared among developed countries. The UNFCCC has been developing basic principles based in such concerns: common but differentiated responsibilities, intergenerational equity, and burden-sharing (noted in Article 3 of the UNFCCC and reappearing in all the Conferences of the Parties (COPs)). The procedures of the COP system attempt to be inclusive of varying concerns from different parties. Representation from groups traditionally excluded from such deliberations has increased, often through the participation of NGOs representing these groups.

Yes, it's true that technology transfer, funding mechanisms such as the Global Environmental Facility (the GEF), and capacity-building are all central elements of the redistributive patterns by which developed nations take up responsibility to developing and least developed nations. Such approaches seem generally to be typical of developed nations - solve problems with technical fixes. And, when put as such, only technologically advanced wealthy nations hold the answer to a problem that they have framed as largely a technical problem. But we shouldn't ignore the ethical dimension to climate change that is already embodied in many of the articles of the UNFCCC and ensuing COPs. These assumptions may yield feeble tools for the instant, but this is not all a matter of simply the technical fix. Too many people here are too cognizant of the fact that they don't have a nice, neat techno-economic answer to climate change. Too many well-intentioned people want to tackle climate change as something other than the "white man's burden" precisely because they're wary of the fact that many of the norms and values and practices that got us into this predicament are still predominant. I can't think of anyone who thinks we have the ideal system, ideal knowledge, and ideal norms in place except those who line their pockets through the status quo ante.

If someone has a better option than the international treaty system with its various mechanisms grounded in increasingly articulate concerns about global justice, new experimental technologies, and ongoing scientific studies of the complexity of ecosystems, for dealing with a problem of such inherently global magnitude, I'd like to hear it. And while it's clear that responsibilities are indeed "differentiated," I can't see how the language of a "white man's burden" does anything for anyone.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Thousands of Bananas

Photo: Helmut, cellphone

I used to have a copy of Joni Mitchell's lp tribute to Charles Mingus titled Mingus. I recall in the liner notes, interpreting loosely from faulty memory, that Joni says that the day Mingus died in 1979 a thousand whales washed up on the beaches of Mexico (he died in Cuernavaca). But Mingus was a genius - we can allow the mysticism.

Helmut, however, on his birthday has thousands of bananas wash ashore in the Dutch North Sea.
"I think everybody on the island has a bunch now," said Gossen Buren, a shipping official at the local lighthouse...

Plenty of beachcombers came early Wednesday for a look, said Buren, "but not as many as when we had the sneakers."

Saturday, November 10, 2007


It can't be any better said than this by Wolcott:
For those of us who grew up in his literary thrall, losing him is like losing a planet, a fire sign of the Zodiac. But the initial sadness upon seeing the news of Norman Mailer's death--his headshot flashed on cable news, followed by a few stingy words of explanation segueing into an update about a homicide case; in such high regard is American literature held by our media--gave way to a renewed gratitude and admiration for all that Mailer accomplished and the forward-ho ferocity of his life-force that fed and fueled everything he did. He had a great life, a multi-storied career, a molecular-altering impact on postwar culture, and he never tamped down his iconoclasm and risk appetite for a cozy fade into the sunset as a senior statesman of letters. "The fact that Mailer continued writing up until the very end says more about him as a creative being than anything that any critic could offer," observes reviewer and blogger Laura Axelrod. Infirm as he was, "Mailer was clearly as curious and alive as he was in the 60s." As a writer and man, he went down fighting to the end, courting turbulence, willing to look foolish and willing to wage big, his body ravaged but his mind still keen and serrated. Mailer believed in karma, and may his transmigration be the voyage he was seeking.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Climate Change vs. Surfing

Powerful storm North Sea kicks up surging waters
Waves up to 20 feet (6 meters) high rolled up against sea defenses in Lowestoft, England, the most easterly point in Britain, about 120 miles (190 kilometers) northeast of London on the North Sea coast early Friday.
Surf Report, East Coast, Cayton Bay:
It looks like the big northerly storm has come a bit early and has just avoided the absolute peak of the spring tides. Although it will still stay windy the winds should moderate and the swell clean up a bit but stay large all weekend. A change of direction to north westerly may allow offshore conditions at some spots for a while but they will also tend to push the waves over the other side of the North Sea - SoulSurfer

The Coming Intellectual Freedom


United States:
The National Security Higher Education Advisory Board, launched in 2005, consists of 20 university presidents around the country who are working with the FBI on matters of campus security and counter-terrorism to identify threats to students and staff. But the board is also being asked to guard against campus spies who might be out to steal not-yet-secret secrets. According to this report from NPR, the presidents are being advised to think like "Cold War-riors" and be mindful of professors and students who may not be on campus for purposes of learning but, instead, for spying, stealing research and recruiting people who are sympathetic to an anti-U.S. cause...

The NPR report doesn't say how universities would accomplish this without clamping down on their ordinarily open, information-sharing nature. Presumably, one possible way, not discussed in the NPR piece, would be to simply bar some foreign students and academics from entering the U.S. Another possible solution, used in the past, would be to bar U.S. academics from publishing or otherwise publicly presenting research that the government deems sensitive....


Friday Dinner Party Conversation Stopper

Moments when history is made, and extraordinary adventures often render those who have lived them taciturn.

- Claudio Magris, Microcosms

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Stroque d'ego

What a silly Congress this one is. Tell them how great America is and policy or philosophical differences are batted away with their fluttering eyelashes and unstill hearts. We love you because you love us (plus, we're really in need of a little loving right now).
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was greeted with cheers and standing ovations in the United States Congress today, a sign that France was forgiven for opposing the American-led war in Iraq.

In a speech to a joint meeting of Congress — a rare honor for a visiting head of state — Mr. Sarkozy spoke of his love of the American dream and the cultural icons of the 20th century, from Elvis Presley and John Wayne to Ernest Hemingway and Marilyn Monroe.

He expressed admiration for Martin Luther King Jr. He thanked the United States for saving France in two world wars, rebuilding Europe with the Marshall Plan and fighting communism during the Cold War.

When he called France “the friend of the United States of America,” the hall, packed with lawmakers, many of whom only a few years ago held France in disdain, burst into applause...

But Mr. Sarkozy, who has always stated clearly that France was right to oppose the war in Iraq, did not utter the word Iraq. France has refused to help the United States on the ground in Iraq.

So the extraordinary embrace of the French president by American lawmakers reflected their approval of a new European leader who actually likes America and the reality that support for the Iraq war is no longer the acid test of French-American friendship.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Photo of the Day

This is a photo of the Aiguille du Midi, France. I've nothing to add - just thought the photo was very cool. Via BLDGBLOG, who does have more to add.

Sunday, November 04, 2007


Resource Curse

Most often, nationalization [of oil and gas resources] is a reaction to the idea that the thief is a foreign company. For populist leftists, El Petroleo es Nuestro! — the oil is ours — is an alluring slogan. Now as the record high price of oil has made exploitation worthwhile even in places that are remote or geologically complicated (Chad comes to mind), more underdeveloped countries have to choose what to do with their oil. Those that have long held oil must decide how to spend the incomprehensible amounts of money oil is now bringing them.

Historically, almost every country dependent on the export of oil has answered this question in the same way: badly. It may seem paradoxical, but finding a hole in the ground that spouts money can be one of the worst things to happen to a nation. With one or two exceptions, oil-dependent countries are poorer, more conflict-ridden and despotic. OPEC’s own studies show the perils of relying on oil. Between 1965 and 1998, the economies of OPEC members contracted by 1.3 percent a year. Oil-dependent nations do especially badly by their poor: infant survival, nutrition, life expectancy, literacy, schooling — all are worse in oil-producing countries. The history of oil-dependent countries has produced what Terry Lynn Karl, a Stanford University professor, calls the paradox of plenty.

Oil not only creates very few jobs, it also destroys jobs in other sectors. By pushing up a country’s exchange rate, the export of oil distorts the economy. “Oil rents drive out any other productive activity,” Karl says. “Why would you bother to produce your own food if you could buy it? Why would you bother to develop any kind of export industry if oil makes your money worth more and that hurts all your other exports?” The most successful societies develop a middle class through manufacturing; oil makes this extremely difficult.

Oil concentrates a country’s wealth in the state, creating a culture where money is made by soliciting politicians and bureaucrats rather than by making things and selling them. Oil states also ask their citizens for little in taxes, and where citizens pay little in taxes, they demand little in accountability. Those in power distribute oil money to stay in power. Thus oil states tend to be highly corrupt.

This article is mostly about Venezuela's oil industry. And it's a good one, a fair one; a real analysis for once that's not dominated by either a dull hatred of the country's socialism or a romantic, leftist boosterism. More importantly, however, it's a parable about what to do when a poor country is sitting on vast resource wealth.

Resource exploitation tends to create injustices in a state no matter what form of government or what kind of economy. I'm not so sure it's all simply an efficiency question, as the article suggests. That is, whether a state's resources are privatized or nationalized seems to make little difference to what the resource exploitation means in concrete terms to the citizens of a state. The distinction between a liberalized economy or socialized economy tends to entail only qualitatively different forms of injustice (assuming resources on national territory should be used for the benefit of the people), and not the absence or presence of injustice. It's all a matter of what injustices your political-economic ideology blinds you to.

A socializing economy may, in the name of solving poverty or other injustices, overlook features of economic policies that actually work at cross-purposes to the supposed goals. Venezuela's oil seems to be such a case. If we grant the genuineness of the drive to eliminate poverty by redistributing oil revenues, the apparent beneficence of the ideology may create blinders regarding whether or not nationalization of a resource actually does make such goals possible. It sounds good for a country to take control of its resources in the name of the people, but it becomes a vapid slogan when the capacity to extract redistributable rents from the resource dries up. Politics then becomes a matter of louder and louder sloganeering.

Whether or not one actually cares can also be ideologically preordained, as we see in many aspects of the US economy when the emphasis is on economic growth and efficiency with little or no reflection on what the goals - the ends - of growth and efficiency are. In the name of sustaining the growth of an economic environment in which self-maximization can flourish - in the name of an abstract conception of the individual - such economies can allow real citizens who don't or can't play the game to spiral into ever worse circumstances. A society that then claims that this is because these citizens don't work hard enough is a society that has eaten its own heart.

Perhaps economies based on material resource exploitation are inherently regressive. Perhaps Locke - and Marx, for that matter - were wrong. It's not so much that labor injects value into otherwise valueless natural resources, that labor creates value, and that a society with abundant material resources can potentially generate vast amounts of value through its labor. Perhaps it's that economies of material resource exploitation - and not necessarily with a concomitant assumption of non-scarcity - generate a dependence on a base, uncreative form of labor, and base, uncreative political-economic forms.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Difficulties of Good Works

This article from the Washington Post, "Fulfillment Elusive for Young Altruists In the Crowded Field of Public Interest," is depressing. It's nonetheless important to read, especially for my students.

As you know, I teach some of the philosophically-inclined courses in a school of public policy. My students are all grad students, both Masters and Ph.D. students, and a diverse, international group.

The doctoral students often have their careers already up and running. They usually come from some experience in government or international agencies such as the World Bank, and are earning Ph.D.s as an extension of theoretical research or fieldwork they've already been doing.

The Masters students also often come from work backgrounds, but they're often less sure about what they're going to do, and even want to do, after the degree. They're all very sharp and motivated. The Masters students, especially, are often quite activist and idealist. They're doing environmental policy or social policy or international development not because they've spied some self-interested fit into a good job and salary. They all want these things and rightly so. But they're taking these routes because they've seen a real, existential problem, and want to work on solving or at least mitigating it: poverty, climate change, economic development within fragile ecosystems, welfare reform, biodiversity loss, etc. They sometimes do go on to do precisely what they want to do. Sometimes, however, they find themselves beholden to the ways and means of Policy World, which constantly carves away at their intentions and goals, reshaping them into disposable, substitutable policy workers. The former is much less a matter of intelligence and motivation as it is luck. It's luck because, as the WaPo article points out, the world in which you can put to use an intelligent mind committed to good causes is tightly constricted.

One might say that the problem is the competitive surplus of such graduates in a limited market. I say that the limited market itself is the problem - it suggests a climate of unhealthy social, political, and economic priorities. And I think this runs even to those agencies, NGOs, and so on ostensibly committed to good causes. Much of the international development world, for instance, is dominated by large grant-seeking outfits committed more to perpetually funding themselves than to thinking imaginatively about how to solve the problems that ostensibly give their existence any meaning at all or to actually doing the work. Creative ideas, genuinely good work, and moral commitments are at a serious disadvantage in this basically corrupt environment.

Curiously, the grad students generally take to the more philosophical courses. One is required of all students, but the others are electives. Every semester, I can count on teaching small-ish seminars of some of the best and brightest students we have at the school. It's not as if philosophy has much of a role in the Policy World. It doesn't. The Policy World bumps along with the usual unexamined sets of assumptions, axioms, and methods - many or most of them drawn from economics - even when philosophical analysis could help in determining where these assumptions, axioms, and methods lead to unwanted policy outcomes for reasons beyond the orthodox assumptions, axioms, and methods. I see the students engage in intelligent reflection (often publishable!) on the philosophical features of policy.

Philosophy and idealism, in the non-philosophical sense of the term, don't necessarily go together. Read your Emil Cioran if you doubt this. But philosophy can help in reconstructing institutions, assumptions, axioms, and methods when one suspects that there's something awry in the going institutions, assumptions, axioms, and methods. I don't approach this in an a priori way, where all we have to do is get our philosophical theory right and then apply it. I approach it as an ongoing project of thought thinking about both the problems of experience and the means of description and interpretation that we have at any given moment for understanding those problems. Through this experimental process, we might be able to do some re-descriptive and re-interpretive work towards better understanding the problem at hand and how we might move towards resolving it, always looking for diverse conceptual and normative tools to put to use or trying to create them when they're not at hand. The students' idealism suggests that they've already done quite a bit of philosophical reflection and so I seek to help analyze it, critique it, refine it, nurture it, and put new epistemological and ethical tools at their disposal.

These students head into the policy world. They're smart and motivated and not unwisely idealistic. Now, I understand fully that idealism is always going to be tempered by the realities of the workaday world, economic realities, feasibility considerations, and the structures and goals of institutions through which we live and work. But these are also all alterable, even if such reconstructions take place slowly. My worry is when people with good minds, thoughtful goals, and who are driven to contribute in meaningful ways to society discover that the inherited world has little space for such things. Further, future generations won't inherit a world of decency and opportunity because the people who could help create such conditions encountered insurmountable barriers to doing so.

Mp3 Find of the Day

...And it's a monster of a find. I would venture to say that this is the greatest blog post of downloadable Brazilian music ever, and will probably remain so long into the future. I've been following this fine blog, Som Barato, for some time now. SB links us to O OMEdI, which, based on Rolling Stone Brasil's listing of the 100 greatest Brazilian records of all time, has made the albums available to download. O OMEdI is responsible for the work here. If you want an instant collection of the finest of Brazilian music, here you go.

If you know Brazilian music, the list won't be surprising. It's heavy on Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Os Mutantes, Jobim, and Jorge Ben. A lot of one-time wonders aren't on the list. Nonetheless, here's a chance to fill in the blank spots in your collection.

If you don't know Brazilian music well, I suggest starting with a handful of important classics: the magnificent, gentle samba album Elis and Tom; Chico Buarque's psych masterpiece Construção; Os Mutantes' A Divina Comédia ou Ando Meio Desligado; Elizeth Cardoso's lovely 1958 album Canção do Amor Demais; Tom Zé's psych-samba classic Estudando o Samba; and, of course, the mighty, late Chico Science's Afrociberdelia. But, really, you can hardly go wrong with this list (although I tend to stay away from Roberto Carlos). It's a fun ride through a diverse and beautiful musical heritage.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Good Readings from Readers

One Reason for Intelligence Failures. A failure to communicate.

Intelligent Plants. Not just pretty.

ZNet Interview with Emmanuel Todd. He thinks it might be a good thing for Japan to have nukes.

From Rollo: Pilfered Scholarship Devastates General Petraeus's Counterinsurgency Manual.

From David: Krugman on a theme we've discussed at length: political fear (see here too, from 2005).

And Francois Furstenberg on how the administration is really French, in Bush’s Dangerous Liaisons.

Confronted by a monarchical Europe united in opposition to revolutionary France — old Europe, they might have called it — the Jacobins rooted out domestic political dissent. It was the beginning of the period that would become infamous as the Terror.

Among the Jacobins’ greatest triumphs was their ability to appropriate the rhetoric of patriotism — Le Patriote Français was the title of Brissot’s newspaper — and to promote their political program through a tightly coordinated network of newspapers, political hacks, pamphleteers and political clubs.

Even the Jacobins’ dress distinguished “true patriots”: those who wore badges of patriotism like the liberty cap on their heads, or the cocarde tricolore (a red, white and blue rosette) on their hats or even on their lapels.

Insisting that their partisan views were identical to the national will, believing that only they could save France from apocalyptic destruction, Jacobins could not conceive of legitimate dissent. Political opponents were treasonous, stabbing France and the Revolution in the back...

Robespierre — now firmly committed to the most militant brand of Jacobinism — condemned the “treacherous insinuations” cast by those who questioned “the excessive severity of measures prescribed by the public interest.” He warned his political opponents, “This severity is alarming only for the conspirators, only for the enemies of liberty.” Such measures, then as now, were undertaken to protect the nation — indeed, to protect liberty itself...

Though it has been a topic of much attention in recent years, the origin of the term “terrorist” has gone largely unnoticed by politicians and pundits alike. The word was an invention of the French Revolution, and it referred not to those who hate freedom, nor to non-state actors, nor of course to “Islamofascism.”

A terroriste was, in its original meaning, a Jacobin leader who ruled France during la Terreur.

Finally, from CM: Rumsfeld on the run from the French.