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Saturday, February 4, 2012

Is Syria’s Sovereignty Absolute?

“Fundamentally, the argument over Syria reflects a deeper divide between those who would use the Security Council to confront nations over how their governments treat civilians, versus those who consider that it has no role whatsoever in settling domestic disputes.” On the one side, Sheik Hamad, the prime minister of Qatar, reported to the Security Council, “The government killing machine continues effectively unabated.” The implication is that people running a government do not have legitimate authority to kill over 5,000 fellow citizens.

                                    The Arab League taking on Syria at the Security Council.           Mario Tami/Getty

On the other side, the Russian envoy, Vitaly Churkin, adopted a “where will it all end” argument. The Council, he said, will start saying “what king or prime minister needs to step down. The Security Council cannot prescribe recipes for the outcome of a domestic political process.”  The Russian foreign minister added that the “Russian policy is not about asking someone to step down; regime change is not our profession.” He might have well have said, “it is none of our business whether Assad kills his people.” He did say that “the decision should be made by Syrians, by the Syrians themselves.” What he did not say is that, according to the New York Times, “Russia’s long ties to Syria generate billions of dollars in weapon sales, plus the relationship gives Moscow the entrée it needs to be at the table for Middle East peace talks. In addition, the Russian Navy deploys some ships from the Syrian port of Tartous, widening Russia’s sphere of influence into the Mediterranean.” Of course, the West has a strategic interest in toppling Assad to weaken his ally, Iran, as well as Hezbollah, which backs Assad.

Strategic interests, regardless of which side they happen to be on, should not be determinative, even as the existence of the veto in the Security Council allows them to be. The fundamental issues go beyond what fascinates an analyst, and thus should not be cut short by momentary concerns. The basic question has to do with whether “the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity” of a country, including Syria, is absolute. Can human rights legitimately counter the claim of absolutism? In other words, does a ruler have the right, internationally-speaking, to use a government’s monopoly (or at the very least, advantage) of force to kill non-violent citizens? If not, should the U.N. have the right to intercede?  These were the questions before the world in 2011, and they were no closer to being resolved as 2012 got underway at the U.N.’s Security Council.

Perhaps compromise can be found, such as having the International Criminal Court, rather than the Security Council, decide whether a ruler has violated human rights. An international code of human rights violations sufficient for a ruler to be vacated by the court would need to be formulated. Contributing forces to the enforcement effort would be required of any country that has signed onto the Court’s jurisdiction, so the U.N. need not be the instrument. However, as this compromise will have kept the Security Council from being in the regime change profession in terms of making the decision, perhaps Russia and China would agree to the U.N. serving in some capacity following the Court’s verdict.

Absent such a compromise, the question may be whether the U.N. or a new organization should limit national sovereignty where human rights of citizens are being sufficiently violated. The self-interest of rulers sitting on the Security Council may dictate that a precedent applying an international check on the power of current office-holders is undesirable. As with strategic interests, such a conflict of interest should not be allowed to interfere with, or obstruct, a decision on the fundamental question: Is national sovereignty absolute, and, if not, should the U.N. play a role in limiting it?

I suspect that “we’ll just have to agree to disagree” would be as far as discussions between the E.U. and Russia would get on the question. If so, then—and Europeans should recognize this from their own differences on the Union-level—members of the U.N. who are no longer willing to recognize national sovereignty as an absolute could form a separate “track” from the U.N. that would include a new United Nations. Members of it would of course be subject to that organization as a check. Additionally, that organization could decide to support efforts to defend human rights with military force in a country that is not a member.

I do not believe that the philosophical difference between the “absolutists” and the “human rights” camps in the Security Council is such that anything short of a split can answer the question. Lest this appear too pessimistic, a wider time-perspective could allow for a different perspective in both Moscow and Beijing. In the meantime, a coalition of the willing should not lose any time in setting up a new U.N. that includes “human rights-justified regime change” in its mission, because the existence of the veto means that the existing U.N. will remain stuck—which essentially means led by the few holdouts rather than the majority of the members. Rather than being stymied by a few members of the Security Council, each of whom retain a veto-right, the forces willing to act against peers who are systematically violating human rights should step up to the plate—assuming there really is an interest in putting human rights before absolute national sovereignty.


Neil MacFarquhar, “At U.N., Pressure Is on Russia For Refusal to Condemn Syria,” The New York Times, February 1, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/01/world/middleeast/battle-over-possible-united-nations-resolution-on-syria-intensifies.html

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Direct and Representative Democracy: Colorado on the Hot Seat

In ancient Athens as well as Renaissance Florence, direct and representative democracy co-existed. The representatives elected or chosen by lot were viewed (and viewed themselves!) as standing in for the people assembled. From a practical standpoint, it is difficult even to legislate by town hall meeting or by a series of referendums on election-day. Accordingly, power in democracies has been delegated to representatives and even appointees. In February 2012, this principle, and direct democracy itself, were set to be challenged in a federal lawsuit against Colorado. In my view, the principle is valid whereas the suit is not. Direct democracy outranks representative democracy—the latter having been created not to save a people from themselves but out of sheer practicality.

                            Colorado's Capitol (seat of government)                                   Matthew Staver/NYT

The object of the lawsuit is Colorado’s 20-year-old taxpayer-controlled budgeting process known as Tabor, which requires that tax increases (and presumably spending increases) be passed by referendum rather than legislative vote. The 33 plaintiffs argue that Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights “blocks the ability and jurisdiction of the . . . Legislature to properly do its job.” The rationale is that subjecting tax increases and budget figures to popular referendum usurps Colorado’s legislature’s prerogative. In the early U.S., James Madison had “pushed strongly for a barrier between the passions of the popular will and sober governance . . . through a legislative branch.” Representative governance, in other words, has the benefit of acting as a check on popular passions in the best interest of the people. This objection could be obviated by requiring a revote in a year or two to make the referendum’s results final.

I submit, however, that Madison’s concern is trumped by a more basic relationship that undergirds the relationship between direct and representative democracy: that between the popular sovereign and government. Arguing on the basis of a benefit such as checking passions, for example, is not to furnish a rationale for prerogative. In other words, that the popular sovereign may not always be wise or prudent does not mean that its agents therefore trump their principals—the people. Even if an agent has expertise that his or her principal does not have, this does not, as in the business judgment rule, necessarily mean that the agent becomes the principal (and the principal, the agent). In the case of corporations, maximizing profit is merely the default—something the owners should be able to deviate from and their hired hands (e.g., executives) would be obliged to devise strategy in line with the new mission.

If, as the plaintiffs claim, Colorado’s legislature is “unable to raise and appropriate funds” and thus “cannot meet its primary constitutional obligations” under the “guarantee” clause of the U.S. constitution, it is because the principal has taken that constitutional role back, through fully constitutional means, which the popular sovereign, as the principal, has the right to do. Remember, the people as a group have delegated authority to representatives.

In other words, popular and governmental sovereignty are not incompatible. Constitutions are ratified not by the member governments, but, rather, by the people, precisely because the authority of the people goes beyond that of their agents. The popular sovereign does not have to continue even with its constitutions. Indeed, that sovereign could change any American constitution in any way that sovereign desires, as per the Constitutional Convention of 1787. We could even hold a convention proposing a totally new constitution and with its ratification the current one would instantly be dust. Remember that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 tossed out the guidelines set by the Continental Congress limiting the convention to amending the Articles of Confederation. The convention started over and invented modern federalism in the process. I raise this point only to show that a popular sovereign trumps its government—really by definition. Yet it seems that the legislators in Colorado have their arrows crossed concerning this relationship—most likely a case of good old-fashioned arrogance.

Rather than the Colorado legislature being hamstrung, it is the obligation of the dutiful agents to furnish their master, the popular sovereign, with options that do not privilege the agents themselves or their body over the principal. General tax policy and overall budget numbers decided by the popular sovereign are more legitimate than had they been decided by legislative means even if the people are stupid and willful. This difference in legitimacy exists because the popular sovereign is politically superior to its agents. It is not really a question even of getting the best policy—“best” at this level involves judgment rather than the expertise of a legislator, professional or scholar, anyway.

Instead of being usurped by agents who take themselves as principals and thus somehow illegitimate in a democracy, direct citizen lawmaking is an ideal toward which we should strive to the extent that it is practicable. The agents have too often succeeded in limiting the actual sovereign to speaking once every two or four years, and then only on the vague decisions of filling offices, leaving policy decision to themselves. All too often, this means nothing gets decided, which I submit reflects the tenuous authority of the agents to be definitive for the people. One reason why the Congressional vote on health-care did not settle the matter is because the people themselves did not have a direct say on such an important, life or death, matter. Similarly, the ongoing controversy on abortion partially reflects the “limbo” status from how it was decided (i.e., not by us, as in direct democracy).

Policies like declaring war (in a non-emergency), abortion, whether to extend a tax cut, overall deficit spending, overall drug policy (e.g., legalization), and especially constitutional amendments bearing on government should be up to the people, with the judiciary stepping in when needed to protect individual rights against either legislative or popular encroachment via majority rule. Should abortion be decided by the states? Should the Bush tax cuts be extended for all or excluding the rich? Should the U.S. get out of Afghanistan?  (Should the U.S. have invaded Iraq?)  Should pot be legalized?  Should financial regulation be strengthened or is deregulation the general principle we want to follow? Considering health-insurance, should it be by a public single-payer, a public option with private options, or exclusively by existing private insurers? Should everyone be covered or just those who can pay? The questions would have to be very basic and oriented to basic judgment calls, rather than requiring expertise; our legislators could see that it is incorporated under the rubric of the general principles decided by us.

Along this line, constitutional questions bearing on our system of government are particularly legitimate for direct decision—such as on the role of the states and whether we should have more of a federal or consolidated system. Should corporations be considered as persons, politically? Should money be deemed as “speech” politically? A degree in law is not required to make a judgment on such basic governmental questions. Even the Greek slave Meno knew geometry without being taught, according to Socrates. In fact, experts, like legislators, are properly agents of the popular sovereign, rather than being an alternative wiped out by direct democracy but somehow integral to the legislative process. Federal constitutional amendments in the U.S. could be ratified by referendums (as is already the case in some of the E.U. states in ratifying amendments to E.U. basic law). Amendments could even be sourced in referendums. As it stands, the American people have no direct say on changes to the U.S. Constitution—either in proposing or ratifying amendments. Nor do we have the opportunity to have a say on the existing planks—something Jefferson thought every generation has as a right. Would it be so traumatic were sections of the U.S. constitution forced to compete with a few alternatives, taking say one Article every four years? This is just one of many ways the American people could decide on what binds us.

Admittedly, such changes expanding direct democracy would indeed alter the nature of legislative business; it would more closely resemble what one would expect to find from agents (e.g., technical working out of broad policies already decided and working on submissions for further “instructions”). As a people, we have allowed ourselves to be hoodwinked into viewing our agents as our principals, and this is reflected in the power they have with respect to a near-monopoly on decisions. It is no wonder that the Colorado legislators feel threatened by something that is decided by others. Those legislators suffer from a rather basic category mistake: conflating themselves with their principals. Out of this error has come the representatives’ assumed false entitlement to the near-monopoly that they have enjoyed while the rest of us have been asleep. I can’t even add “at the wheel,” for we have ceded that to our driver without even supposing that we have the right—as the owner of the car—to tell him where to go. We are Ms. Daisy sleeping off a hang-over in the back seat while Morgan Freeman decides where we’ll go. We even expect him to decide, as if it were his job. We are indeed quite asleep. Perhaps we don’t deserve direct democracy?

Kirk Johnson, “Colorado Lawsuit Challenges Wisdom of the Ballot Box,” The New York Times, January 31, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/31/us/legal-challenge-to-colorados-tabor-amendment.html

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

State Fiscal Governance in the E.U.: Toward Balanced Union

At the end of January 2012, 25 of the 27 E.U. states (all but Britain and the Czech Republic) indicated at a meeting of the European Council that they would accept in principle (i.e., subject to ratification) a new limit of 0.5% of gross economic output over a complete economic cycle for the states’ “structural budget deficits” and strengthen the E.U.’s enforcement mechanism on states that breach that limit on deficits and 60% of gross output for accumulated state debt. The Wall Street Journal reported at the time that the “0.5% deficit limit would, if obeyed, mark a revolution in [the states’] fiscal policies, ending more than 30 years of steadily rising [state] debt.” This statement is immediately undercut, however, as the Journal describes the extent of the loopholes in the amendment.  The reader is left wondering whether the E.U. will use the proposed enforcement mechanisms, such as the ECJ imposing fines on states already hard up for cash, as well as whether fining a state government would make any difference.

                                       Sarkozy, Merkel and Monti at the European Council Meeting          
                                                              Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

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

Monday, January 30, 2012

A Dangerous Method

The method being referred to in A Dangerous Method (2011) is psychoanalysis, as pioneered by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). The danger referred to is that of freeing people from their sexual repressions. The film revolves around the relationship between Freud and his younger colleague, Carl Jung (1875-1961), and the relationship between him and Sabina Spielrein, his former patient and eventual lover and colleague. She also had an affair with Freud, but it was not shown in the film. Keira Knightley plays the Russian woman a bit too strongly in the first few scenes. In terms of the acting, Knightley exaggerates facial contortions as if fishing for an Oscar out of sheer emotionality. In terms of the narrative, Spielrein’s “transformation,” or cure, is hard to take as credible because it is so drastic within a year or two. Before long, she is behaving completely normal and even attending medical school. The film’s merits lie not with the acting, but, rather, with the intellectual content, whose salience and integration into a good narrative is rare in Hollywood. It is due to this feature that the film is apt to stay with a viewer for some time.

For example, the Russian woman had been beaten by her father when she was a girl. She tells Jung that the experience of being beaten used to excite her sexually. When she and Jung began their affair, she told him to punish her, which he dutifully did (though he did seem to enjoy it, as the sex with his wife was always “tender”). Perhaps Jung’s own animus and anima had each found a home. One of the issues explored in the movie is whether freeing up the woman not to repress what excited her constituted progress toward mental health. A rather free-spirited colleague of Freud and Jung provides the affirmative argument, while Jung is more hesitant (even as he moves from spanking to a belt).

I was surprised that none of the psychiatrists in the film voiced the view that the woman’s “excitement” in being beaten might be a misdirected or misinterpreted desire to recover her father or have the father she never had, emotionally speaking. In other words, the feeling of being hit represented that of her father that she had, so she was drawn to it. If I’m right, the underlying desire was not sexual.

How many women are “attracted” to “bad boys” without realizing that the desire is to recover a father by means of the only thing “father” had meant? Ultimately, the alley is a dead-end. The woman does not get her father back, or even the feeling of having one, emotionally-speaking. Is freeing up a woman from repressing a dead-end a good thing? Does it help her get what she really wants? I think the answer is rather obviously no.

Aside from the questions revolving around Jung’s former patient and lover, the film discusses the interesting question of whether a new field can afford to “take risks,” such as in Jung’s interest in parapsychology and religion. His contribution to the psychology of religion is significant—more so than Freud’s Totem and Taboo. However, Freud voices a legitimate point that the emphasis on sexual explanation in psychoanalysis would be than more than enough scandal in the second decade of the twentieth century, so soon after the Victorian era. At about the same time, or a decade or two earlier, Nietzsche’s controversial writings had been very controversial, particularly on religion. Adding a plethora of sexual interpretation to dreams would indeed arouse plenty of resistance. This debate played out as relations between Freud and Jung became increasingly strained before they parted company altogether.

Both with regard to the question of repression and a “cure” and that of how a new firm should develop, the filmmaker did an excellent job in grounding the ideas to characterization. While I would have enjoyed a PBS special on the ideas themselves, integrating theories around narrative and characters is useful both in terms of understanding and as a fruitful avenue for Hollywood, which could be accused of putting out too many mindless action flicks that catch the biggest market segment and allow for merchandizing. Another film from 2011 that effectively integrates theory with narrative and characterization is Hugo.