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Saturday, November 5, 2011

On the Allure of Popular Suffrage

In the European singing contest/show in which Susan Boyle competed, she lost the top spot to a teenage rap group. The method of selection made all the difference. Rather than having a three-judge panel of experts on singing determine the winner, the general public could “text” via cell phone or other device to vote. That one of the judges explicitly advocated for Boyle after her final performance (just before the voting) was no never mind to the general public that submitted a majority of the votes. To be sure, there were certainly non-music reasons to vote against her. Most notably, the suggestive comments she made on stage just before her first performance, including, “I’m 48, and that’s not my other half” (as she was swinging her hips as if she were sexy), were downright emetic, if not utterly bizarre. So it is possible that the voters put her personality defect above her excellent singing. It is also possible that the “texters” responsible for a majority of the votes simply preferred rap music. I do not like rap “songs” that include shouting and swearing; I do not even regard such “songs” as music. Otherwise, I could sing a song simply by yelling at you. From what I saw, the rap group in the competition was not swearing, but the “singing” did sound at times like shouting to me. Moreover, the group members seemed more oriented to dancing than singing. It is possible that the votes for that group went for any of the fads being represented rather than to singing per se.

A tension, or even an outright contradiction, can exist between meritocracy and direct democracy, or popular sovereignty. Plato and Aristotle both claim that there is a dark side to each system. Meritocracy can slide into aristocracy and democracy into mob rule: government by a selfish and uninformed mob swayed by the passions of the moment over even the people’s own best interests. What struck me about the results of the singing contest was that the rap singing wasn’t good singing whereas Susan Boyle sang very well, yet even so, the group won. It can be safely assumed that most of the voters probably were not experts on good singing. They were not trained to separate their own tastes from a critical perspective focusing on the singers’ voices. The judges presumably could have done this, but they were relegated to proffering their views before the voting—views that the voters could ignore without any imprecation. Indeed, the selection method itself—popular sovereignty—tacitly "disvalues" expertise. In one person, one vote, no one is assumed to be any better qualified to render a decision than anyone else. Differences in effort and talent among the electors are irrelevant unless particular voters care to take them into account.

Lest it be assumed that people in Western democracies necessarily privilege popular sovereignty or the will of the people refracted through elected representatives, it should be noted that power-elites are tacitly permitted to run our political, commercial and non-profit sectors. When Greece’s prime minister, George Papandreou, proposed a referendum in which the Greek people would decide whether to accept the latest debt-deal negotiated at a meeting of the European Council (consisting of heads of the E.U.’s state governments), leaders of France and Germany as well as E.U. appointed officials bore down on the prime minister, perhaps even undercutting his influence with members of his own party in the Greek legislature. Although defending the euro currency from a collapse assumed likely without the implementation of the latest debt deal, the E.U. leaders (including Merkel and Sarkozy) sent the message that direct democracy, ironically in Greece, could not be tolerated given the severity of the economic challenges involved. Experts at the E.U. level, such as the head of the European Central Bank, were included as the E.U. leaders met with Papandreou to pressure him to drop his proposal or change the question to being on the euro zone (rather than on whether to accept the latest E.U. debt deal). Disrespect for direct democracy, or popular sovereignty, was very much implied in the stance being taken at the impromptu E.U. meeting before the G-20 meeting. Yet strangely, the “gang” got away with it. Europeans did not stand up for the voice of the Greek people to be heard directly. Not even the Greek parliament resisted the E.U. “gang” by sufficiently backing the prime minister’s proposal. Instead, leaders of some of the E.U.’s big states and maybe even some E.U. appointed officials may even have pressured members of Papandreou’s own party to bring him down lest he not relent and do what was being deemed necessary to save the euro and the E.U. itself.  Indeed, even Papandreou, when he was caving on the referendum, betrayed his earlier appeal to popular sovereignty by stating that the referendum had value only as long as the opposition was opposing the debt-deal.

I contend that in the E.U., as well as in the U.S., all too often lip-service is given to popular sovereignty and representative democracy, when in fact people still look up to expertise. The Oscars, whose awards are decided by members of the film academy who have expertise in the various fields of filmmaking, is more esteemed than are the People’s Choice Awards. The Oscars are more likely to recognize Maryl Streep’s acting ability than is the People’s Choice.  I would argue that the results of the Oscars are more credible because expertise is not chucked for a flavor of the month. For instance, in the 2010 Oscars, Hurt Locker beat Avatar for Best Director and Best Picture. Hurt Locker was largely an Indie (i.e., on the fringes) film, whereas Avatar broke box office records and was no doubt much more popular with the general public. The Academy members were able to weight improved 3D effects, story and direction without allowing the technical dazzle to overshadow. Indeed, Avatar did receive the Oscar for its development and use of new 3-D technology, even as the members of the academy recognized that the most technologically-advanced film is not necessarily the best.

Of course, Oscar voting is not perfect. The 5000 plus membership may be sufficiently small that cronyism or, its opposite, grudges, may play a role. Avatar’s David Cameron, for example, was apparently not the best-liked man in Hollywood at the time, and his ex-wife just happened to be the director of Hurt Locker. I saw a television clip a few months before the 2010 Oscars showing Cameron being very rude to a fan who simply wanted an autograph at LAX, so I was rooting for his ex-wife and her movie even though Avatar was one of my favorite movies at the time. The lesson is perhaps that no selection process, or person for that matter, is perfect.

My point is that the case of Susan Boyle and the Oscars both point to there being drawbacks to popular suffrage. The E.U. suggests that efforts to bracket direct and even representative democracy are tolerated by the general populous even in democracies. Maybe we are not as much the democrats as we think we are. Maybe there is good reason to leave some things to experts. Even so, at least with respect to political judgment, there may be good reason not to cut off the will of the people. Hence, the U.S. has its Electoral College and the European Council appoints its president, while the U.S. House of Representatives and the E.U. Parliament have elected representatives of the people. In binding the Electoral College to popular vote, the U.S. has moved to the democratic pole, even while tolerating the influence of “big money” in politics. In looking the other way while E.U. leaders undercut state government vetoes and referendums, the E.U. have moved subtly away from the rule of law as well as democracy, even while the salience of state-level elected officials at the EU level (via the European Council) emphasizes “first order” representative democracy (over “second order” selected by the first order). Ideally, neither expertise nor the will of the people are eclipsed, with the rule of law protecting both. The E.U. and U.S. could both take a lesson.

Click to add a question or comment on the trade-off between democracy and meritocracy.


 Richard Corliss, “Oscar Wrap-Up: Why Avatar Lost,” Time, March 8, 2010. http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1970502-1,00.html

Marcus Walker and Alkman Granitsas, “Greece Blinks on Euro Threat,” The Wall Street Journal, November 4, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203804204577016213985874218.html

Having It Both Ways: American Culture or Merely Congress?

Under the terms of the debt-ceiling budget agreement enacted during the summer in 2011, members of a joint Congressional committee, evenly divided between the parties as well as between the two chambers, had until Nov. 23 of that year to recommend ways to reduce budget deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Both houses had to vote on the package by Dec. 23, 2011. If no legislation is enacted, the government would automatically cut almost $500 billion from military spending, with an equal amount from nonmilitary programs, between 2013 and 2021.

As negotiations in the “super committee” were becoming mired in November, some Democrats were becoming “increasingly concerned” that some Republicans on the committee, in declaring that they would not be able to accept new revenues toward deficit reduction, were calculating that they would be able to reverse the triggered cuts. Not just any cuts—only those from military spending were loathed by the Republicans. Even as the joint committee was still meeting, Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees were “readying legislation that would undo the automatic across-the-board cuts totaling nearly $500 billion for military programs, or exchange them for cuts in other areas.”

“Republicans should not count on taking the easy way out if they continue to resist a balanced deficit deal that includes revenue increases,” warned Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York. Representative Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland and a member of the joint committee, said the attempt to undo the triggers “reflects a total lack of seriousness.” Adding that such efforts would not be successful, he said they were “the result of people trying to escape the fundamental choices before us, and one of those choices is whether or not we are willing to end special interest tax breaks to pay for defense.” Interestingly because he is a Republican, the House speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio, said he wanted the joint committee to succeed, but that he would not tamper with the mechanism for automatic cuts. “I would feel bound by it,” he said. “It was part of the agreement. The sequester is ugly. Why? Because we don’t want anybody to go there.” That’s just the point; the default of automatic cuts was put into the agreement as an incentive for the joint committee to reach an agreement. Consisting of both parties equally, both sides would have to give. I contend that the Republicans were much less used to giving, so they were less tolerant to the hard choice that the default they had voted for foisted on them.

The porous path of least resistance is often easy to spot. Republicans being forced to choose between agreeing to tax increases and defense cuts found themselves between a rock and a hard place—that is, between anti-tax lobbyists such as Grover Norquist and defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin. “There is more fear this time,” Representative Mo Brooks, Republican of Alabama, said about the anxiety being expressed by military contractors in his district. Simply put, the Republicans were used to being able to satisfy both Norquist and Lockheed, so the lawmakers went after what they perceived as a false choice. The Speaker was being a statesman in refusing to support such efforts.

When all of a sudden getting things all one’s way is no longer possible, perception itself can be affected—such as in viewing the defense cuts as unfair or disproportionate even though they were equal to the non-defense cuts that the Democrats would have to swallow in the absence of an agreement in the joint committee. In other words, that the Democrats were not trying to change the mix of sequestration cuts even though half of those cuts were politically noxious. This suggests that the Republicans may have felt more entitled to getting things all their way than did the Democrats. Tolerance for being in a tight spot is easier if one is not used getting one’s way and thus does not necessary expect it. In other words, respect for even one’s own rules tends not to hold up to a mentality that privileges getting 100% of one’s position.

That more Americans are conservative than liberal may have been providing the Republicans in Congress with a “playing field” leaning in their favor. Hence, they could typically avoid being the side to blink. For example, during the summer of 2011, they successfully kept raising taxes off the table. When suddenly faced with pressure to give even a bit on this point, the ongoing mentality seeks to deconstruct the default giving rise to the pressure rather than to respect the hard choice and the structure undergirding it.

Beyond partisan politics, it is legitimate to ask whether the American cultures (and there are several, as in Europe) unduly support or even value the mentality wherein a person demand his own way. “My way or the highway” is a common expression in the U.S. I contend that it is particularly salient in American business. Perhaps Republicans coming from or representing that sector of society are so used the self-serving rigidity of “corporate policy” that they won’t even sit down to discuss a deal unless it fits with their “ground rules.”  I suspect that the instinct to deconstruct anything that pressures a choice that involves not getting everything one’s own way is engrained in American managerialism and corporate culture.

I suspect that people reading this essay who have visited the U.S. and are from other regions may be nodding in agreement, Yes, that’s how the rest of us see you guys, but you don’t see it. Americans are perhaps so used to the entitlement of my way or the highway and so used to evading rather than respecting even self-imposed hard choices the mentality within is hardly even recognized, much less expunged in any meaningful way. I see my fellow Americans so used to the rigidity and selfishness of employees (and managers) in retail sectors of American business that it can scarcely be imagined that customer (or, falsely, “guest”) relations in the states might be severely dysfunctional in terms of social psychology.

If I am correct here, then the way the chronic deficits are dealt with may be as problematic as the fiscal imbalances themselves, for both evince a jejune mentality that refuses to grow up and face adult decisions.

Jennifer Steinhauer and Robert Pear, “Lawmakers Aim to Stop Defense Cuts if Debt Panel Fails,” The New York Times, November 5, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/05/us/politics/lawmakers-aim-to-stop-pentagon-cuts-if-deficit-panel-fails.html

Friday, November 4, 2011

GlaxoSmithKline: Born Again Ethically?

GlaxoSmithKline, a drug company based in the E.U., agreed in 2011 to pay $3 billion to settle the U.S. Government’s civil and criminal investigations into the company’s Medicaid pricing practices and sales practices, including illegal marketing of Avandia, the diabetes drug linked to coronary problems. The settlement amount surpassed the previous record of $2.3 billion paid by Pfizer in 2009. Even so, it is doubtful that $3 billion proffered enough of a punch to motivate either Glaxo’s board or CEO to do what would be necessary to extirpate a corporate culture perhaps too comfortable with cutting corners.

Although $3 billion is a lot of money, the settlement removed “legal uncertainty”—something particularly important to investors. Les Funtleyder, a health-care strategist at a brokerage firm, explains. “I know $3 billion sounds like an astronomical number, but when you live in the world of worst-case scenarios, like investors do, $3 billion is a welcome relief. At least you have certainty.” Accordingly, the drug company’s stock rose 2.96% on the day of the announcement (November 3, 2011) to $44.55 (near its 52-week high) amid a broader market advance of about 2 percent, according to the New York Times.

The market’s verdict may give one pause in believing the statement of the company’s CEO, Andrew Witty. He said that the matters that had been under investigation no longer “reflect the company that we are today.” He went on to say, “In recent years, we have fundamentally changed our procedures for compliance, marketing and selling in the U.S. to ensure that we operate with high standards of integrity and that we conduct our business openly and transparently.” So why did a spokeswoman for the company say on the very same day that negotiations were continuing with the government over whether to include a corporate integrity agreement in a separate case regarding complaints about manufacturing quality at a plant in Cidra, P.R. that had since closed? To be sure, the agreement could provide further penalties for other violations in manufacturing, but prime facie, why should a company’s management that had come to see the light on the importance of business ethics not also see the importance (from at the very least a PR standpoint!) of embracing an integrity agreement?

Just one year before that of the $3 billion settlement announcement, the U.S. Justice Department had accused Lauren Stevens, vice president and associate general counsel of the company, of obstruction of justice and making false statements. To be sure, Stevens was subsequently acquitted of all six charges, but the charges alone point to the possibility of a corporate culture existing that disvalues business ethics. It is very unlikely that such a noxious culture can be eviscerated and replaced wholesale in a year without an extensive replacement of executives on down.

Suggesting that the company’s management would not have had sufficient incentive to radically challenge the operative values at the company, Patrick Burns, the spokesman for Taxpayers Against Fraud, asked, “Who at Glaxo is going to jail as a part of this settlement? Who in management is being excluded from doing future business with the U.S. Government?” For a company with a market value of more than $110 billion and sales of $43 billion in the year ending September 30, 2011, $3 billion with “legal certainty” does not proffer the sort of disincentive that is necessary to get major stockholders on the backs of a board to clean house in terms of a new management. To expect an existing staff (including upper echelons) to suddenly value integrity contradicts the nature of the human personality; replacing the managers wholesale would be necessary. So rather than settling for “legal certainty” on one of the legal matters then facing the company (questions of whether Glaxo violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act were still at issue), investors should have taken note of whether Glaxo’s board had demanded a corporate cleaning of management or simply taken the CEO’s words of least resistance at face value, as if adding procedures and announcing a newly discovered interest in integrity were sufficient.

How often do corporate boards prioritize, much less even mention the need to do what is necessary to radically change a sordid corporate culture? Given that the financial benefits of an ethical climate can be fuzzy while the costs of unethical practices can be discounted mentally due to their apparent low probability (which hides the high risk, which includes bankruptcy), a real kick is typically needed to commence real change sufficient to shift a corporate culture to a new ethical equilibrium. Typically, this requires a transfusion of new blood in and old blood out. Merely adding new blood while retaining even just some of the old can enable the stygian infection to spread to the new. Given what is required to expunge a squalid culture, it is indeed much easier to simply accept at face value the PR-ready asseverations of a seemingly-contrite “born-again” CEO and be done with the matter.

Duff Wilson, “Glaxo Settles Cases with U.S. for $3 Billion,” The New York Times, November 4, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/04/business/glaxo-to-pay-3-billion-in-avandia-settlement.html

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Downfall of MF Global: Implications for Banks Too Big To Fail

Here is an alphabet-soup of regulatory agencies that let MF Global, a financial services company that specialized in futures-trading, engage in much, too much, risk: SEC, CME, CFTC and FINRA. On one level, regulators will never be able to stop practitioners from making risky or simply bad decisions; a business system populated only by firms above average is by definition impossible. As long as their managers have any freedom of movement at all, some firms, including some in the financial sector, will inevitably fail. The question I want to pose is whether this means that firms too big to fail (TBTF) should be allowed to exist at all. In short, although MF Global itself was not TBTF, the risk Corzine (who had been chairman of Goldman Sachs) permitted suggests that human nature might be insufficiently disposed to support mammoth concentrations of private capital whose fall could mean the collapse of the financial system itself. Ultimately, I suppose, human nature can only go so far, organizationally speaking.

MF Global admitted to $630 million in missing customer funds. Although accounting errors and bank-cushions could account for the discrepancy, MF Global used customer funds to loan itself money. To be able to do so, the former U.S. Senator and Governor of New Jersey, Jon Corzine, met personally as head of MF Global with federal regulators to get them to relax their proposed rule that would have forbid such a loan. According to the New York Times, financing by borrowing customer funds is not unheard of on Wall Street, but is “carries substantial risk.”

Corzine’s influence with the regulatory agencies may have been similar to the role that Madoff’s status played in his dealings with the SEC. It would seem that regulators are readily “captured” by high status alone—never mind relying on the regulated firms for information and possibly even being influenced by political contributions via elected officials acting on the behalf of big donors. Given the riskiness in borrowing customer funds without the traditional banking oversight of lending, the regulatory “status lapse” syndrome is dangerous—particularly if a firm TBTF is involved. In other words, might we be rolling the dice in Dodd Frank by relying so much on regulators? The possible mix of duplicity and risky multi-billion dollar bets at MF Global should drive home this point.

People at an exchange that cleared trades for MF Global have indicated that Corzine’s firm might have moved money out of customer accounts “in a manner . . . designed to avoid detection” as the firm headed toward collapse. CME Group, the parent company of the Chicago and New York Mercantile Exchanges, indicated that it appears that MF Global dipped into customer accounts after CME finished an onsite review of the securities firm during the last week of October, 2011. The CME statement read in part, “It now appears that the firm made subsequent transfers of customer segregated funds in a manner that may have been designed to avoid detection insofar as MF Global did not disclose or report such transfers to the [Commodity Futures Trading Commission] or CME until early morning on Monday, October 31, 2011.” CME served as a clearing house for trades that were made through MF Global, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, questions regarding MF Global’s $6.3 billion bet on E.U. state debt and the scrutiny by regulators were mounting, according to the Journal. That any bet would be for such a sum ought to raise a red flag for the firm making the bet. Although MF Global was not TBTF, the managers’ willingness to take on such risk suggests that the mentality to take on extraordinary risk carries on in the financial industry. This finding may render the very existence of financial firms deemed too big to fail as something we might want to revisit through legislation. In other words, if bets worth billions of dollars on European government debt were going on through the E.U. debt crisis, the risk alone (to say nothing of the utter stupidity) may suggest that financial-sector firms that are too big to fail are also too big to exist—especially if regulatory scrutiny is insufficient. The risk and the numbers may have reached a dangerous level, given how human nature treats risk (and the limits of human cognition).

Paul Volcker admitted on Charlie Rose in late October 2011 that he never thought he would talk in terms of trillions of dollars, but there it is, that day had arrived and with it, the horrendous risk of banks being too big to fail. Whereas Citigroup had $1.63 trillion in total assets at the end of June 2006, the bank had $1.94 trillion at the end of the third quarter 2011. Comparable figures for Bank of America are $1.45 trillion and $2.22 trillion. JP Morgan Chase: $1.33 trillion and $2.29 trillion. Wells Fargo: $500 billion and $1.3 trillion. Where is the lesson on TBTF from September 2008? It is as if the credit crisis and fall of Lehman Brothers had not happened. Thomas Hoenig, former Kansas City Fed chairman, said in a speech in February 2011, “We must break up the largest banks.” He said the government could do so by restricting the activities of government-backed banks “and significantly narrowing the scope of institutions that are now more powerful and more of a threat to our capitalist system than prior to the crisis.” According to the Wall Street Journal, regulators “can ultimately force a firm to sell off parts of itself if they don’t believe a firm could be wound down without threatening others.” Although Hoenig said he is not against BIG, just too big to fail, so it is possible that the biggest banks could show that “they are manageable, that their risk will not impact the taxpayer in the future,” I contend that the mere existence of concentrations of $1.94, $2.22, $2.29 and $1.3 trillion is inherently dangerous to the financial system and the greater economy. If even one of those should go under all at once, assuming losses are involved, investors, business managers, bankers and even consumers would surely hear a subtle fiscal “thud” and react aversely, even if in a self-fulfilling prophesy. If Wall Street bankers did not learn a lesson from September 2008, however, that “thud” could be far more than psychological. The example of MF Global may suggest that the bankers on Wall Street did indeed continue on in being all too willing to make risky multi-billion-dollar bets, having “slept through” the shrieking “wake-up call” of the financial crisis of 2008. The resumption of the extravagant bonus culture strongly suggests that the bankers still had an incentive to bet big with little regard for risk.

Treating the mega bank as too big to exist as a mega bank does not depend on regulatory scrutiny, which can be subject to the “status syndrome”; rather, once a firm hits the pre-established threshold, the regulators would simply come in and orderly “smash the atom” such that smaller firms result (with different owners, managers and employees—unlike the case of the companies coming out of Standard Oil, which had the same ownership and whose executives were even allowed to continue working in the same building!).

I think perhaps we presume too much regarding human nature, given the edifices we build ever higher and higher, as if in testament to the self-idolatry of our presumption that we cannot be wrong. Lest we come too close to the sun and turn our cities into deserts, we might want to fly our chariots a bit closer to the ground.
                                                 Jon and Sharon Corzine at the WH     AP

Click to add a question or comment on MF Global and too big to fail in the financial sector over allhttp://thewordenreportcomments.blogspot.com/2011/11/lesson-from-mf-global-tbtf-tbte.html.


Jean Eaglesham, Aaron Luchetti, and Jacob Bunge, “Regulators Enter the MF Fray,” The Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203716204577013753464771104.html

Azam Ahmed and Ben Protess, “As Regulators Pressed Changes, Corzine Pushed Back, and Won,” The New York Times, November 4, 2011. http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2011/11/03/as-regulators-pressed-changes-corzine-pushed-back-and-won/
Victoria McGrane, “Banks’ Critic Poised to Be Head of FDIC,” The Wall Street Journal, November 18, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204517204577044461881272398.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

Just the Facts: Empirical Social Science Overplayed

Tilburg University in the E.U. is known to have an emphasis on empirical studies in the social sciences (including business). With this bent, the university is typically considered to be closer to the American academic tradition than that of Europa. So when Dr. Diederik Stapel, a psychology professor at Tilburg, acknowledged to having committed academic fraud in several dozen published articles in academic journals, the academic status of empirical research itself was thrown into question. Experts point out that Stapel “took advantage of a system that allows researchers to operate in near secrecy and massage data to find what they want to find, without much fear of being challenged.” Indeed, it is rare even for peer-reviewers of potential articles to demand to see the raw empirical data supporting a given study’s conclusions. According to Dr. Jelte Wicherts, a psychology professor at the University of Amsterdam, the problem of data being misused by the scholars who collect and analyze it is widespread in the discipline of psychology.

In a survey of more than 2,000 American psychology professors, Leslie John of Harvard Business School found that 70 percent had acknowledged (anonymously) to cutting some corners in reporting data. Add to this the problem of unintended statistical errors and the problem of being able to rely on scientific results becomes acute. Dr. Joseph Simmons, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business says, “We know the general tendency of humans to draw the conclusions they want to draw.”

Indeed, the “academic” field of corporate social responsibility has been rife with “scholars” writing to impose or justify their critical ideology of the modern corporation. For example, at Amiti Etzioni’s conference at Harvard Business School on his theory (or movement?) on socio-economics, one professor demanded that the participants form a labor party. The Harvard professors in attendance pointed out that Etzioni was simply trashing the neo-classical economic paradigm (economic liberalism, or free-market competition) without proffering an alternative theory. This did not stop Dr. Etzioni from continuing to advance his agenda, which I submit was precisely to condemn the neo-classical economic theory. Similarly, “scholars” of CSR tend to presume that corporations have an obligation to share corporate governance with stakeholder groups and give more philanthropically. Never mind that the purported obligation is typically not justified beyond the “scholar’s” own ideology. I would be surprised if the empirical research was not highly skewed in the direction of that ideology.

Of course, the problem of empirical science is not limited to disciplines such as psychology and business & society, which are particularly subject to ideology. Once I sat in on a doctoral seminar on strategy. The professor, who would go on to get tenure at a major business school, advised the doctoral students to check with the managements of the companies they are surveying before publishing the results in case any of the managements do not like the conclusions. Otherwise, the “professor” observed, consulting opportunities might be diminished. That several of the students had been bankers and would be conducting empirical studies of the financial sector ought to concern anyone who has heard of “too big to fail” and the related over-reliance on models designed to manage risk.

So whether in dealing with human psychology or huge financial firms, skewed empirical research can be dangerous. Politically, the CSR agenda could result in too much power being amassed by stakeholder groups at the expense of property rights. Moreover, the discipline of psychology (and that of business ethics) suggests that the emphasis on empirical studies, particularly at American universities, is ahistoric. Before the twentieth century, psychology was part of philosophy. Perhaps the problems with empirical science might lead to a re-consideration of the value of philosophical psychology in terms of knowledge as well as practice. Similarly, the interlarding of business ethics (a subfield of ethics, which in turn is a field of philosophy) with empirical surveys—as if what is counts for what ought to be—can be questioned. Rarely does a business ethicist stop to wonder why philosophers do not send out surveys as part of doing philosophy. David Hume’s naturalistic fallacy provides a good explanation for why they do not.

My overall point is that the value of empirical studies in the social sciences (and applied philosophy) have been overstated, particularly at American universities, while theory development and the historic housing in philosophy have been relegated or dismissed outright. Along with the hypertrophy in empiricism has come a “cubby-hole” mentality wherein Frederick Taylor’s specialization of labor has somehow been applied to scholarship. One could excuse business schools for conflating what they are studying with what they are. The problem is when the academic enterprise itself comes to resemble enterprises that make widgets. It is no accident, I submit, that the twentieth century will not be known for many bright spots in the social sciences or philosophy. One could say that Plato and Nietzsche make good book-ends, with engineers and natural scientists taking over to produce a technological and information revolution. Yet who asks what the opportunity costs have been in reducing progress to the technological variety? What cost was there in the twentieth century in having technicians and ideologues for philosophers, rather than thinkers capable of seeing the big picture and proffering unique vistas? If the case of Dr. Stapel comes as a surprise, it might be because we have become too ensconced with “facts” at the expense of meaning.

Click to add a question or comment on Diederik Stapel’s fraud and on the excesses in empirical social science more generally.

Benedict Carey, “Fraud Case Seen as a Red Flag for Psychology Research,” The New York Times, November 3, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/03/health/research/noted-dutch-psychologist-stapel-accused-of-research-fraud.html

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Europe's Political Elite Takes on Popular Sovereignty in Greece

As October 2011 was coming to an end, George Papandreou, prime minister of Greece, “stunned Europe by announcing a referendum” on the latest bailout from the E.U. and set the vote for January 2012. Shocked E.U. leaders were doubtless shaking their heads with a mix of incredulity and frustration, as they had not even been consulted on the prime minister’s proposal. Meanwhile, the yields on Italy’s bonds continued to increase, as did the spread between German and Greek 10-year bonds. The world was left to whether the Greek voters would reject their government’s austerity plans and, relatedly, whether the E.U. would augment its bailout of the state as per the agreement reached only days before the prime minister’s announcement.

                                     Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou announcing the referendum    AP

Even just a day after the prime minister’s announcement, enough legislative members of his Socialist party were balking at the “reckless” move for the proposal not to survive the parliament’s approval (the parliament must approve any referendum). I suspect that E.U. leaders, including Merkel and Sarkozy, had been circling the wagons in a furtive effort to undercut the Greek prime minister within his own party. Any threats made publically are portrayed as unfortunate ramifications. For example, Jean-Claude Juncker, prime minister of the E.U. state of Luxembourg and chair of the eurozone finance ministers, “warned that the plan to hold a referendum endangered an $11 billion loan that Greece was to receive under the bailout deal, and that Greece urgently needed to avoid a default.” José Manuel Barroso, president of the E.U. Commission, told Papandreou just before the G-20 meeting in Cannes that the referendum proposal threatened Greece's lifeline of aid.

Barroso’s threat would have been fair had he been referring to the additional funding arranged by E.U. leaders in October 2011, for it was that debt-deal that Papandreou had proposed be ratified by the residents of Greece. But the leaders of the E.U.’s big states had lost their patience with Greece (which implies a lack of respect for popular sovereignty, at least in Greece). The Wall Street Journal reported that “French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the Greeks would get no more euro-zone rescue aid—‘no French taxpayer money, no German taxpayer money’—until the question is answered.” Accordingly, Barroso and Sarkozy were including the latest payment of €8 ($11) billion from the €110 billion program agreed to back in 2010 even though the Greek referendum being proposed was on the additional austerity in exchange for additional funds negotiated at the E.U. Summit in October 2011. Regarding the 2010 debt-deal, the Wall Street Journal reported, “that aid is distributed in quarterly tranches, and the next tranche was expected to be paid imminently. But that was before the referendum call, and it is now clear that aid is contingent on resolving the political crisis. Failure to make the next aid payment, valued at some €8 billion, would likely mean [Greece] running out of money in December, officials said, potentially causing an unplanned default on bonds that come due that month.” However, a spokesman for the German Finance Ministry said Greece didn’t need urgent bailout payments at the time and would not require the next chunk of aid until mid-December.

Regardless of whether Greece needed the November payment (i.e., regardless of whether the threat could deliver on its intended punch), the E.U. “leaders” going back on the prior deal can be interpreted as yet another instance of E.U. “insiders” treating the rules as optional for themselves (and the E.U.) when ignoring them is expedient (even if at the expense of a small state). I have in mind here statements the emanated from certain E.U. officials that even if Slovakia’s parliament were to vote against expanding the EFSF, using the state’s veto in expanding the E.U. competency, “where there is a will, there is a way.”

When a small state “acts out,” the big guys, who are really running the E.U., apparently do not feel constrained to observe E.U. procedures and agreements. The British chancellor had reason to warn the House of Commons that Britain should definitely not allow itself to become a “second-class citizen” in the E.U. Such “citizens” are easily relegated—even attacked—by the E.U.’s political elite that does not extend to even the leaders of small or non-euro states.

                                                Merkel and Sarkozy before meeting with Papandreou      
                                                                                                 Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse/Getty

Hence, I wonder whether Merkel and Sarkozy, as well as Van Rompuy and Barroso, were working behind the scenes to undercut Papandreou in his own legislative party—eradicating him so to block the referendum from even being approved by the Greek parliament. As a subtle “back-up” manipulation, the E.U. “leaders” meeting with Papandreou before the G-20 meeting sought to get the referendum parlayed into a question on whether Greece should drop the euro. A story in the Wall Street Journal begins on this very point: “Europe's leaders, making it plain that they've reached the end of their patience with Greece, demanded that the beleaguered nation declare whether it wants to stay in the euro currency union—or risk going it alone in a dramatic secession. ‘Does Greece want to remain part of the euro zone or not," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. "That is the question the Greek people must now answer.’" The chancellor sought to have the possibility that the Greeks might reject the October 2011 debt-deal yet approve retaining a euro wiped from the map because a new arrangement—one presumably more generous to the Greeks—would have to be negotiated and Merkel would have to face her state’s electorate who were fed up with having to bail out the profligate Greeks. Erlanger of the Times distinguishes Merkel’s “interpretation” of the referendum by noting, “There is also the possibility that an election or a popular referendum would pose the question more bluntly, with Greeks essentially deciding whether they want to stick with the euro or not—if they want to put sovereignty over their own affairs ahead of membership in the common currency” (italics added).

Were Papandreou to have caved into the E.U. leaders in formally shifting “the question” to this possibility, both governmental and popular sovereignties in Greece would be compromised because 1) the state legislature would have been manipulated in what question it was approving to send to the people and 2) the people would not be able to opt for the continued use of the euro and against the October 2011 debt-deal. By essentially “redoing” the Greek prime minister’s proposed referendum, the E.U. cadre was encroaching on the state in a way that subtly undercut the democratic foundation of the E.U. in its states.

Beyond whether Greece might leave the euro and possibly default, moreover, the legitimacy of the rule of law itself was at the very least being stretched by the politics of the E.U. “leaders.” The democratic basis of the union was once again being exposed as all too tenuous for a viable political union of semi-sovereign states. It can thus be readily understood why New Jersey’s delegates proposed The New Jersey Plan in the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1786 in order to protect the small states from the “big guys.” The E.U. needs a similar protection by which states like Slovakia and Greece can stop leaders from big states such as France and Germany from getting the E.U. to ignore its own rules or procedures when doing so suites the big states at the expense of the less-powerful states.

The inherent fault-line between monetary union and fiscal “states’ rights,” rather than efforts to involve popular sovereignty, was likely the real culprit behind the frustration of E.U. leaders. Specifically, faced with the disjunction and the refusal of states to let go of their respective vetoes, E.U. leaders have been pressured to make deals with something less than full democratic legitimacy; Papandreou’s proposal for a referendum can be viewed as a reaction against this stygian atmosphere at the European Council. Erlanger of the New York Times observes that “(c)omplex bailout packages are hammered out by officials [at E.U. summits] in secret, then are usually sent to parliamentary majorities for approval, without much recourse to the democratic voters of the 17 European Union [states] that use the euro, all of which must approve each package. . . . The combination of back-room deals and ad-hoc parliamentary approvals is necessary because the European project is essentially incomplete. The 17 [states] that use the euro do not have common fiscal policies or political leadership, and have widely varying levels of development.”  It is perhaps because the combination is thought necessary that the E.U.’s political elite attacked Papandreou’s proposed referendum.

                             Merkel and Sarkozy on the right and Papandreou on the left

In fact, I wonder whether Merkel and Sarkozy were trying to run Greece in going after its prime minister as well as the popular sovereignty of the Greek people. Papandreou’s decision to press for a popular referendum on the bailout was the inevitable result of Greece’s loss of sovereignty to Brussels—this according to Jean-Paul Fitoussi of the Institute of Political Studies, according to Erlanger of the New York Times. “It’s as if the Europeans—or Merkel and Sarkozy alone—believed that they were in control of the people of Greece,” he said. “But this is a democracy. In Greece, and even in Italy, you cannot expect to rule without the support and consent of the people. And you can’t impose an austerity program for a decade on a country, and even choose for them the austerity measures that country must implement.” The E.U. leaders could have been telling Papandreou in person just before the G-20 meeting that they could live with a referendum set for early December while they actively worked against there being a referendum by pressuring Socialist legislators in Greece to turn on their prime minister as well as on popular sovereignty itself. Mohamed El-Erian, chief executive of investment management firm Pimco, hinted that a certain prime minister had lost the confidence of Europe’s elite. "We have entered a new phase with greater doubts about the ability of certain European leaders to commit to policy measures in a decisive manner," El-Erian said. After hearing this, Papandreou could be excused for heading home to make sure there was not a bloody horse’s head in his bed (as in the film, The Godfather).

As nefarious as underhanded power-plays that disrespect the sovereignty retained by E.U. state governments are, keeping the decision on the October 2011 debt-deal within the Greek parliament’s purview rather than allowing a popular referendum would have the benefit of buffering any knee-jerk resentment percolating in the masses from undermining the Greek people’s own best interest (i.e., avoiding a default). This is a major benefit of representative democracy. On the other hand, democratic legitimacy on such an important matter as draconian austerity might have required the direct voice of the people.

A “no” vote on accepting the E.U.’s latest plan could have meant that the E.U. would agree to more generous terms concerning Greece’s taxes and austerity plans. Angela Merkel would have faced the ire of the German voters who view the Greeks as having been living beyond their means, though she would be able to weather the resistance with the political capital that she gained from her choice to confront the European on taking a 50% (rather than 21%) haircut on their holdings of Greek bonds. The more dire scenario sported by the press and the E.U. leaders had Greece declaring bankruptcy and dropping the euro as a result of the referendum. It is doubtful, however, whether the E.U. would refuse to offer more generous terms if this scenario were likely. It would be ironic if the E.U. leaders’ trumpeting of the worst case scenario and “getting to” certain Socialist lawmakers caused Papandreou’s government to collapse and be replaced by one led by the New Democracy Party, which was not in favor of the austerity program (and thus the then-current debt deal). Accordingly, the Greek prime minister suggested that early elections would be the greater threat to Greece’s solvency. If so, the E.U.’s political elite may have been undercutting themselves and the E.U. itself were they behind the revolt in the Socialist party.

Papandreou was arguing that a “yes” vote on his proposed referendum “could deflate the massive street protests and strikes that threaten to paralyze Greece.” Of course, such a vote would not have harmed Papandreou himself politically. Approval of the austerity plan would also have taken pressure off Papandreou’s government, for the majority of the people would have given their direct approval to the austerity program. A poll at the time of the announcement showed that 54.2% of the state’s residents favored holding the referendum, while only 40% thought the parliament should decide. Considering the gravity of the austerity (and tax proposals), it is surprising that more Greeks were not in favor of exercising their popular sovereignty on the question. In any case, any pressure from E.U. leaders such as Merkel and Sarkozy on Socialist state legislators would have contravened the 54.2 percent—the will of the majority of the popular sovereign to have a direct say.

Of course, the Greek lawmakers themselves faced a conflict of interest of sorts simply in being required to approve submitting the referendum to the people because the approval would mean that the legislature (and thus the legislators themselves) would lose the power to decide on the question (though not on what the question would be, unless the E.U. leaders from other state could succeed in interlarding their preferred question).

I take it as a maxim that it is in the best interest of a people for the governmental sovereignty that is lodged in a republic’s legislature to be balanced with the people’s own residual popular sovereignty. The balancing itself can be tricky because both types of sovereignty are legitimate and beneficial. Even though a legislature’s prerogative typically dominates popular sovereignty on policy questions (i.e., major policies are decided by legislatures enacting laws rather than by voters through binding referendums), reducing a republic to a direct democracy can mean little more than mob rule reflecting the passions of the moment. At the same time, voters deciding for themselves vital matters of policy would have more democratic legitimacy than even their representatives' legislative votes. 

Voting for particular policies through voting for a candidate is too broad because any given candidate has positions on any number of issues. It cannot be assumed, for example, that a majority of the voters are "anti-abortion" simply because the candidate who wins is "anti-abortion." Some pro-choice voters might have voted for that candidate based on the candidate’s position on another issue. Indeed, the citizens of Mississippi voted on November 8, 2011 by over 55% against a measure that would have outlawed abortion and some forms of contraception by declaring "personhood" as beginning at fertilization. Yet the same electorate elected a stridently "anti-abortion" Republican Phil Bryant as governor (i.e., head of state and chief executive, combined) and voted to tighten Mississippi's election laws to require some form of government-approved identification, which Democrats had opposed. This is a good case study for why it cannot be assumed that the majority that puts a candidate into office necessarily supports his or her position on a particular issue. By having both the abortion policy and the candidate on the ballot, the electorate's will could be better expressed than would have been the case had the ballot contained merely the governor's race--with it being generally assumed that the majority of the electorate supported the winning candidate's position on abortion. For this reason, I contend that popular sovereignty should be expanded to include important policy measures (not relatively narrow special-interest-group measures!) on the ballot. It is important to distinguish here between a few major propositions being considered by a legislature, such as whether to withdraw from occupying another country and whether to reduce a deficit by spending cuts alone or with revenue too, and an interest-group-sponsored litany of relatively particular, technical, or limited-scope "issues."

Even with the enhanced precision in including major policy questions on election ballots, government officials may try to block the practice. The elected officials’ desire to retain their legislative power may be what ultimately forestalls ballots from including policy questions. Anticipating self-interested objections, I contend that expanding popular sovereignty to include a few major policy questions would not mean mob rule, or rule by idiots. Nor would the benefits of representative democracy necessarily be lost. It would still be the case that the expression, the people have spoken, would pertain to the election points rather than to the intervening periods of governance. The use of referendums within a term is more problematic. One virtue of a republic over direct democracy is that elected representatives can vote contrary to momentary pressure and thus act in the best interest of the citizenry rather than in what it wants immediately.

For example, a survey published at about the time of Papandreou’s announcement showed that roughly 60% of Greeks opposed the latest E.U. plan. The fear was that the planned debt restructuring would bring further hardship without yielding much benefit for Greece. At the same time, 72.5% of the Greeks wanted to retain the euro. This is why the E.U. leaders showed political calculus in portraying the referendum as being on whether Greece should retain the euro. The referendum would be more likely to pass, and were it to fail, Merkel and Sarkozy would not be under pressure to negotiate a new debt-deal more generous to Greece (while still presumably holding the banks to a 50% write-off of Greek bonds). If the “actual meaning of the referendum is a choice between the euro and the drachma” as one senior Greek official said, then the 72.5% could essentially trump the 60% such that a “yes” vote results.

Were the referendum to take place, the issue might have been whether the popular sovereign (i.e., the people directly) would consent to endure economic sacrifice for a longer-term benefit. Were voters oriented to giving such consent, the chief advantage of representative over direct democracy would be reduced. In announcing the referendum, Papandreou was essentially saying to his people: You ultimately run the government, and I am trusting you to act here as the governor. “It is a difficult choice but people have to make it,” he said. “I believe the Greek people are wise enough to make the right decision.” Perhaps in having their sovereignty recognized, the people would indeed have decided from well-considered arguments and accepted any harsh medicine willingly, whether from continued austerity or from default (should it go along with returning to the drachma).

The voluntary self-restraint that rational nature can provide over otherwise unrelenting passions of the moment is vital to popular sovereignty having legitimacy and being able to function viably. For a prime minister or governor to kneel to his people and claim to see the virtue of their wisdom involves principle, or virtue, itself even if power-aggrandizement is also in the mix. Indeed, Papandreou’s motive is open to question. Although I contend he caved due to direct and indirect pressure from E.U. leaders (including Merkel and Sarkozy), he claimed to have cancelled the referendum because it was no longer necessary with the added support of the New Democracy party. “If the opposition comes to the table and accepts the [debt] agreement, then there is no need for a referendum,” he said. This statement contradicts his earlier contention that the people should decide (i.e., popular sovereignty), so either that contention was a ruse or his cancellation-rationale was a subterfuge—or both!

Similar to how democratic legitimacy in the E.U. was strengthened as the Bundestag was tasked by the German Court to vote on whether Angela Merkel could have the authority to negotiate to expand the E.U. bailout, popular sovereignty was augmented merely by Papandreou’s announcement of a referendum on the debt-deal negotiated just a week before at the E.U. summit. In a federal system such as the E.U., both democratic legitimacy and popular sovereignty are essential to effectively mitigating the widespread perception of a “democracy deficit.”  Accordingly, any pressure from E.U. “leaders,” such as Merkel, Barroso, Van Rompuy and Sarkozy, that was geared to sabotaging the Greek referendum proposal from within Greek politics risked undercutting not just Greek democracy, but that of the E.U. itself.

It could be argued that enduring the added market and political uncertainty was a cost worth paying so the Greek people, whose role was frustrated to being limited to passively protesting, could have a role in actively deciding the question that so much concerned them. Given the changes being contemplated, Papandreou had a strong case that the people deserved to make the decision. Under his way of thinking, the E.U. leaders should have applauded him for his attempt to strength democracy. Furthermore, those leaders should have been willing, along with the Greeks themselves, to face any possible adverse economic consequences occasioned from the result of the referendum. It could be that Greece owning up to the de facto default that may have already happened would be in the E.U.’s best interest in terms of re-establishing a fiscal equilibrium among the states. It could even be that Greece could have decided to leave the euro with that currency actually strengthening as a result. On the other hand, if austerity and being bailed out were in Greece’s interest, then its people could have raised themselves to make that call; otherwise, the republic’s virtue of a legislature-as-buffer would have been important to the people’s best interest being served. In any case, the Greek prime minister placed a heavy task on his people, yet he received pressure rather than praise from his counterparts in the E.U. This does not bode well for the European Union or the E.U. citizens themselves.

My overall point in this essay is simply that it is generally in the long-term interest of a republic that popular sovereignty not be relegated or dismissed when it might be expedient to do so. In fact, it is perhaps even advisable to extend the electorate’s decision-making to major (and broad) binding questions of policy on election-day and rarely even between elections instead of big legislative votes. In this view, the role of legislators as agents is salient. The challenge lies in coming up with how to balance the virtue of strengthening the people’s power with the virtue of self-restraint in the republic form of representative democracy. A healthy democratic polis gives space to both without letting either one dominate the other. The “republic” virtue, wherein representatives are given some “breathing room” between elections to vote contrary to popular passions for the greater good, has been ascendant in modern democracy thus far, so we might want to concentrate on expanding the virtue of popular sovereignty. As Merkel told the Bundestag before the vote giving her authority to work for the expansion of the bailout at the E.U. level, this is a risk we must take. Yet in changing the Greeks’ proposed referendum question to one more in her own state’s interest, she was not willing to risk the debt-deal’s expansion in turn by allowing for popular sovereignty in another state.

Click to add a question or comment on the Greek referendum on the E.U. bailout and austerity programs.
See related essay on democracy and leadership in Greece and Italy during the debt-crisis.


Alkman Granitsas, Marcus Walker, and Costas Paris, “Greek Vote Threatens Bailout,” The Wall Street Journal, November 1, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204394804577010091283798750.html?mod=ITP_pageone_0

Rachel Donadio and Niki Kitsantonis, “Greek Revolt on Bailout Vote May Oust Prime Minister,” The New York Times, November 2, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/02/world/europe/markets-tumble-as-greece-plans-referendum-on-latest-europe-aid-deal.html

Steven Erlanger, “Political Test for Austerity,” The New York Times, November 2, 2011.

Alkman Granitsas, Marcus Walker, and Costas Paris, “Greek Premier Faces Revolt,” The Wall Street Journal, November 2, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204528204577011452028738504.html

Charles Forelle, David Gauthier-Villars, and Marcus Walker, “Europe’s Greece Ultimatum,” The Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203804204577014371119242492.html

Steven Erlanger and Rachel Donadio, “Greek Premier Pledges Vote in December on Debt Deal,” The New York Times, November 3, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/03/world/europe/greek-cabinet-backs-call-for-referendum-on-debt-crisis.html

Marcus Walker and Alkman Granitsas, “Greece Blinks on Euro Threat,” The Wall Street Journal, November 4, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203804204577016213985874218.html

Katharine Seelye, "Voters Defeat Many G.O.P.-Sponsored Measures," The New York Times, November 9, 2011.


Monday, October 31, 2011

7 Billion People: Humanae Vitae Compromising the Transmission of Human Life

According to the Huffington Post, “Amid the millions of births and deaths around the world each day, it is impossible to pinpoint the arrival of the globe's 7 billionth occupant. But the U.N. chose [October 31, 2011] to mark the day with a string of festivities worldwide, and a series of symbolic 7 billionth babies being born.” I contend that the milestone is nothing to celebrate; rather, it should serve as a wake-up call for us all, lest the species continue to maximize itself right out of existence. Both the slope and its relative abruptness in a historical perspective ought to give us all pause in our assumption that our species will go on without either self-regulation from us or a drastic correction from nature. 

                                            Source: UN Population Division

It may simply be human nature to focus on putting out individual brush fires without pausing to ask whether one person set them all and to look at the fires in a larger, historical perspective. It could be that the fires are fueled in large part by decades of built-up deadwood from "no fire" policies. In other words, it could be that we are more complicit than we know. Our presumption that absolves us of any role and our assumption that we can't be wrong may be the death of our species. Before getting to the role of religion as illustrative of this presumption and assumption as applied to over-population, I want to briefly discuss the relevance of global population to several problems facing the world so the gravity of the problem can be better grasped.

Other things equal, more people on Earth means more consumption and thus more pollution. In other words, a species that does not self-regulate its size may alter the ecosystem (i.e., climate) beyond the range of that specie’s own habitat. In academic terms, a schizogenic (maximizing) variable can breach the “ecologizing” constraint that is an ecosystem. Still less understandable, a schizogenic variable within a system can destroy that system’s homeostatic nature. In short, the 7 billion milestone (and still counting) portends baleful consequences for our species.

In addition to climate change, one could point to commodity supply, such as foodstuff and energy. The increase in the price of corn, for example, could be attributed to the increasing use of ethanol (made out of corn). Going further, an increasing population means increasing demand of both, so the explanation should not rest with “alternative energy sources” as an issue. Both food and energy can be expected to be stretched as the global population increases. Oil companies going to more high-risk extractions of oil (e.g., deep-water wells in the Gulf of Mexico) can be viewed as still another manifestation of what happens when energy supplies are relatively fixed. Fundamentally, increasing global population magnifies the disconnect between the maximizing variable and finite resource supplies. If we as a species refuse to regulate ourselves as a species, we do so at the peril of our progeny. Indeed, the transmission of human life may hang in the balance ironically as people and certain organizations enable the maximizing tendency in order to transmit human life.

As the world’s population was thought to surpass 7 billion, Eric Tayag of the Philippines’ Department of Health warned, “Seven billion is a number we should think about deeply. We should really focus on the question of whether there will be food, clean water, shelter, education and a decent life for every child," he said. "If the answer is 'no,' it would be better for people to look at easing this population explosion." I contend that Tayag was understating the problem and thus the need for corrective action at the global level. Problematically, however, some influential international organizations have priorities that exacerbate rather than solve the problem.

The Huffington Post reports that in the Philippines, “much of the population question revolves around birth control. The government backs a program that includes artificial birth control. The powerful Roman Catholic church, though, vehemently opposes contraception.” The vehemence itself may be a problem for the Vatican. The teaching itself may evince an overreach from the vantage point of a religion. As such, the foray may unnecessarily compromise the Vatican’s credibility even to the Catholic laity.

According to the Huffington Post, “The Catholic clergy opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, stem cell research and all artificial contraception and sterilization methods, including birth control pills and condoms. But according the 2008 National Survey of Family Growth, 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women over the age of 18 have used some form of contraception banned by the Vatican. Even among more religious Catholic women, who attend Mass on a weekly basis, 83 percent use some form of contraception. In 2009, 63 percent of Catholic voters said they support health insurance coverage for contraception, including birth control pills, according to a Belden Russonello Strategists poll.” Essentially, the laity have been saying that the hierarchy has been overstepping its proper domain, given the Catholic Church is a religious organization and morality is not theology. Ironically, the overreach has diminished rather than extended the clergy’s influence. The root of the clergy’s error may be their conflation of morality and religion.

The “transmission of human life,” and, moreover, “the happiness of human beings” referred to as the basis of the humanae vitae encyclical have at best an indirect relation to religion or theology, which, being about God’s nature, transcends the human domain. In other words, the encyclical has a rather secular basis. It is at best peripheral to worshipping God. To claim the transmission of human life is somehow like God being the Creator obfuscates the human and the divine. It is thus to make a category mistake.

Even in terms of humanae vitae as an ideal, acting only when one can act in the ideal can be criticized. Indeed, this dictum is inconsistent with the very notion of ideal. For example, to say that one should ideally eat fruits and vegetables is not to say that one must never eat a cookie. Likewise, to say that a man and woman being in love and actively involved in the transmission of human life is an ideal in married life is not to say that one should limit oneself to it. Rather, it is to say that making love with the possibility of transmitting human life is better than making love in marriage without transmitting human life. It is a fallacy to go from this to claim concerning an ideal that “therefore” one should never act other than in the ideal.

It would be unfortunate if the transmission of the human species were compromised rather than sanctified by a religious organization whose clerics mistake the very notion of ideal and apply it in a domain that is only indirectly related to religion. In other words, even well-meaning maximizing (i.e., over-reaching) can function as a catalyst in the downfall of the human species. The underlying culprit may be individual self-interest, whether by individuals or organizations, that is inherently partial and thus puts the part ahead at the possible expense of the whole. Beyond the self-interest may be the intractable assumption that one cannot be wrong, for this assumption alone can blind one to the harm of which one is unknowingly complicit. The end of the transmission of human life may come down to human stubbornness and presumptousness--that is, human pride, ironically perhaps most strident in religious garb.

Click to add a question or comment on global population, climate change, food supply, energy, and “religious” prohibitions on contraception.


Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae, Paul IV.

Jim Gomez and Tim Sullivan, “World Population Hits 7 Billion: Babies Celebrated Worldwide,” The Huffington Post, October 31, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/30/world-population-7-billion_n_1066475.html

Laura Bassett, “The Men Behind the War on Women,” The Huffington Post, November 1, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/01/the-men-behind-the-war-on_n_1069406.html