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Friday, August 16, 2013

Day of Rage

Friday, August 16, 2013: A day of anger as proclaimed by Morsi supporters in Egypt. A day of death and carnage. A day of intransigence on both sides. Just a day earlier, the U.S. government had cancelled planned joint military exercises. Besides being largely symbolic rather than real sanction, the exercises were due to be downsized anyway due to the ongoing, across-the-board, sequester of the U.S. Government’s budget. Can something so convenient be counted as even “sending a signal?” Meanwhile, American foreign aid to Egypt, $1.3 billion—second only to what the U.S. gives Israel—continued, as if there were no sequester. As a direct result of the financial complicity, thousands of protesters in Turkey were shouting anti-American slogans. The protesters were so well informed that they were protesting the decision of the Obama administration not even to decide whether there had been a coup in Egypt when the military deposed Morsi. Turkey had emerged as one of the fiercest critics of what it has called an “unacceptable coup.”[1]

It is not as though the American aid gives the U.S. much leverage with the Egyptian military; aid from Middle East states, including Saudi Arabia (whose statement on the Day of Rage voiced support for the military), dwarfs that of the United States. Meanwhile, the U.S. Government, fearful of something worse (for the U.S.) in Egypt than its military, was not fooling the Turks or the rest of the world. The sad truth is that Americans could be harmed as a direct result of their government’s attempt to hold onto whatever leverage existed.
                                           The Egyptian military's "No Tolerance" in action on the Day of Rage.  AP/Hassan Ammar 
It is not as though cutting off foreign aid to Egypt would be so “radical” that the option was not realistic. On the Day of Rage, Germany, ein Land—wirklich Staat—auf die Europäische Union, suspended $25 million in aid to Egypt for climate and environmental protection projects.[2] Meanwhile, Germany, Egypt’s largest trading partner, joined with the French Government in calling for a federal response from the E.U.’s Council of Ministers and presumably the E.U.’s Foreign Minister. Indeed, one of the reasons for creating the E.U. had been that the states would have more influence together than separately. The states’ rights ideology was yet again obstructing Europe from attaining that goal.
I suspect that the difference in the respective reactions of the E.U. and U.S. with respect to foreign aid have to do with the power of the Israeli lobby being greater in the U.S. than the E.U. The U.S. Government was thus vulnerable to the accusation of hypocrisy on its democratic principles out of a rather obsessive concern for Israel’s safety. Had both unions withheld both foreign aid and trade with Egypt, the question would be whether the foreign aid from within the Middle East would be sufficient to sustain the Egyptian military in power. Ich weiß es leider nicht. At any rate, it is unfortunate that democracy and human rights can be so eclipsed by politics in the U.S. and even the E.U., the latter behaving as though it had one arm tied behind its back.

1. Clare Richardson, “Hundreds in Turkey Protest Against Egyptian Crackdown,” Reuters, August 16, 2013.
2. Associated Press, “Germany Suspends Egypt Aid As World Continues To React To Crisis,” The Huffington Post, August 16, 2013.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Income Inequality: Natural vs. Artificial

In the United States, the disposable income of families in the middle of the income distribution shrank by 4 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the OECD.[1] Over roughly the same period, the income of the top 1 percent increased by 11 percent. In 2012, the average CEO of one of the 350 largest U.S. companies made about $14.07 million, while the average pay for a non-supervisory worker was $51,200.[2] In other words, the average CEO made 273 times more than the average worker. In 1965, CEOs were paid just 20 times more; by 2000, the figure peaked at 383 times. The ratio fell in the wake of the dot-com bubble and then in the financial crisis and its recession, but in 2010 the ratio began to rebound. According to an OECD report, rising incomes of the top 1 percent in the E.U. accounted for the rising income inequality in Europe in 2012, though that level of inequality was “notably less” than the one in the U.S.”[3]  Nevertheless, in both cases the increasing economic gap between the very rich and everyone else was not limited to the E.U. and U.S.; a rather pronounced global phenomenon of increasing economic inequality was clearly in the works by 2013.

Accordingly, much study has gone into discovering the causes and making prognoses both for capitalism and democracy, for extreme economic inequality puts “one person, one vote” at risk of becoming irrelevant at best. One question is particularly enticing—namely, can we distinguish the artificial, or “manmade,” sources of economic inequality from those innate in human nature? Natural differences include those from genetics, such as body type, beauty, and intelligence. Although unfair because no one deserves to be naturally prone to weight-gain, blindness, or a learning disability, no one is culpable in nature’s lot. No one is to be congratulated either, for a person is not born naturally beautiful or intelligent because someone else made it so. This is not to say that artifacts of society, as well as their designers and protectors, cannot or should not be praised or found blameworthy in how they positively or negatively impact whatever nature has deigned to give or withhold. It is the artificial type of inequalities, which exist only once a society has been formed, that can be subject to dispute, both morally and in terms of public policy.

A society's macro economic and political systems, as well as the society itself, can be designed to extenuate or diminish the level of inequalities artificially; it is also true that a design can be neutral, having no impact one way or the other on natural inequalities. How institutions, such as corporations, schools, and hospitals, are designed and run can also give rise to artificial inequalities. In his Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues that to be fair, the design of a macro system or even an institution should benefit the least well off most. Under this rubric, artificial inequalities would tend to diminish existing inequalities. Unfortunately, a society’s existing power dynamics may work against such a trajectory, preferring ever increasing inequality because it is in the financial interests of the most powerful. Is it inevitable, one might ask, that as the human race continues to live in societies the very rich will get richer and richer while “those below” stagnate or get poorer? Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) distinguishes natural and artificial (or what he calls “moral”) inequalities with particular acuity and insight. He answers yes, but only until the moral inequalities reach a certain point. Even if his “state of nature” is impractical, we can make more sense of the growing economic inequalities globally but particularly in the U.S. by applying his theory.

1.Eduardo Porter, “Inequality in America: The Data is Sobering,” The New York Times, July 30, 2013.
2. Mark Gongloff, “CEOs Paid 273 Times More Than Workers in 2012: Study,” The Huffington Post, June 26, 2013.
3. Kaja B. Fredricksen, “Income Inequality in the European Union,” OECD, Economics Department Working Paper No. 952, 2012.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Food as a Human Right: A Basis in Rousseau

The natural right to food unconditionally in society is based, I contend, on the assumption that it is because a person without food is in society that he or she is going without. In other words, were he or she in the state of nature, acquiring enough food would not be a problem. Rousseau makes this point in his Discourse on Inequality.[1]
                                                         Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)  Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Basing a human right to food on Rousseau’s philosophy risks the criticism that rights cannot possibly exist in the philosopher’s beloved state of nature, as rights depend on there being a government. However, Rousseau adopts wise Locke’s notion that one’s labor added to land makes it one’s property as a matter of right even without the institution of government. For my purpose here, it is enough to claim that a food-sustenance is a human right in political society. It is precisely on account of how that society differs from the state of nature than the human right is necessary only in society.
“As long as men remained satisfied with their rustic cabins; as long as they confined themselves to the use of clothes made of the skins of other animals, . . . ; in a word, as long as they undertook such works only as a single person could finish, and stuck to such arts as did not require the joint endeavours of several hands, they lived free, healthy, honest and happy, as much as their nature would admit, and continued to enjoy with each other all the pleasures of an independent intercourse.”
In other words, with people being limited in production or collection to their own needs, there is likely to be enough for all. From “the moment one man began to stand in need of another's assistance; from the moment it appeared an advantage for one man to possess the quantity of provisions requisite for two, all equality vanished.” From natural differences between people even in the state of nature, as soon as some people of superior strength and industriousness desire food enough for many, perhaps to sell or give away the surplus for money or power, more scarcity than is due to nature is apt to set in for other people not so constituted.
With more labor necessary to produce or collect a surplus beyond one person’s own needs, “boundless forests became smiling fields, which it was found necessary to water with human sweat, and in which slavery and misery were soon seen to sprout out and grow with the fruits of the earth.” With artifice being superimposed on nature’s provisions that otherwise are open to all, the output is skewed in distribution toward some.
Furthermore, with the economic interdependence that comes with society and an economy of different sectors and specialization of labor, the connection that everyone has to nature’s fruits is broken for many and fewer hands remain to work the land even though everyone must eat. “The more hands were employed in manufactures, the fewer hands were left to provide subsistence for all, though the number of mouths to be supplied with food continued the same.” The natural right to food as unconditional kicks in, and is due to, the fact that the must eat continues, being based on nature, even as instituting an economy puts the supply of food at risk for some. Hence, the right is natural because we must eat on a regular basis, even if people establish and superimpose an economy on nature’s fruits, distorting their relatively equal distribution. The right is a right because it is only necessary once society, including an economy and government, has taken people out of the state of nature.

On Securing the Human Right, See: "Should Charities Replace Government?"

1. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Harvard Classics, Charles W. Eliot, ed., Vol. 34 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,1910).

Business, Government, and Society: Making Humans Less Humane?

Richard Rinaldi, an innovative photographer in New York City, devised an interesting photo series, titled "Touching Strangers." It provides an answer to the following question: If brought together literally through touch, will two people who have never met begin, after some initial discomfort, to feel comfort, even a feeling of caring for the other person? Richard traversed the streets of Manhattan looking for pairs to put together. Seeing one person, and then another, who together would make an interesting picture, he would ask them simply to stand together. The  resulting picture would depict any initial reluctance. Then, he would arrange the two so they are touching each other in a friendly way.

A curious thing came out in the resulting pictures: a feeling of caring. Astonished, the subjects invariably reported that merely from the touching they actually had actually begun to care about a stranger! Reflecting on this feedback, Richard said in an interview that his “experiment” reveals humanity that lies within us, that we wish there were more of in the world, and that existed in the past. By “the past,” the photographer was referring to the photo shoots.

                                                            Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)  Source: Wikimedia Commons 

If we are willing to go a bit farther back in our reflection, say to the state of nature, whether mythic or historical, we can profit from the theory of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which can explain why we do not feel more caring and compassion as we inhabit great edifices of modern business, government, and society. Indeed, it may be that those tremendous artifacts within which we work, argue, and live may have gradually changed human nature itself—and not for the better.