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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.


 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.

The full essay is in Casesof Unethical Business: A Malignant Mentality of Mendacity, available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.

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.

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

The full essay is at "Essays on the E.U. Political Economy," available at Amazon.

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.


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