The Francises, Pope and Saint

Francis of Assisi by Cimabue

Francis of Assisi by Cimabue

Pope Francis Bergoglio’s encyclical Laudato Si’  “on care for our common home” is the first SFIK to have an Italian rather than a Latin title. It is also more significantly unusual in being addressed to “every person living on this planet” (§3). So non-Catholics like me are invited to react.

The praise part is easy. It’s a solid exposition of a theology of creation that most Christians and many followers of other faiths would endorse. The application to climate change and the call to action (§169) is clear and excellently timed, in the runup to the critical Paris climate conference in November. At times it transcends mere soundness and achieves prophetic force:

  • “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.” (§11)
  • “We can note the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness. … This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.” (§59)
  • “The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God…” (§83)

The Pope, channelling Francis of Assisi, condemns the instrumental view of animals of Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas:

We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. (§67; see also §221)

Thomists get a consolation citation of their hero in §86. We can expect to see more and stronger Catholic condemnations of factory farming.

The encyclical is far from perfect, and I have my little list of complaints, for what they are worth. Continue Reading…

The German Problem is back

Ever since 1945, it’s been a cardinal principle of German foreign policy to look harmless. Merkel and Schäuble’s mishandling of the Greek eurozone crisis has changed all that. The genie of fear of German power and self-righteousness is out of the bottle.

Comparisons with the Third Reich are as ridiculous as they are offensive. But raise the Second Reich, and you may have a point. Consider the Belgian atrocities.

American bond poster, 1917-18

American bond poster, 1917-18

The accusation implied by this skilfully understated wartime American poster is false. The Reichswehr did not make a habit of raping children, or bayoneting babies. Any large body of men includes some psychopaths (like Feldwebel Adolf Hitler), but there is no reason to think these were any more numerous in the German army than in its adversaries, or its discipline more tolerant of them. For most of the war, the trenches kept the armies largely insulated from the civilian population.

After the war, right-thinking opinion in the Allied countries became ashamed of the excesses of the propaganda like this manufactured by Northcliffe and friends: to the extent that the core of truth in the accusations was forgotten.

What happened was this. Continue Reading…

“Liberalism as Drama”

My review of Edmund Fawcett’s Liberalism: The Life of an Idea has just been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. I like both the book and, well, the review. An excerpt from the latter:

… Fawcett faces unflinchingly what too many of liberalism’s historians and defenders ignore: liberalism was, at its origins, an elite and elitist position. It was cool at best towards democracy and consistently determined to define equality in ways that prevented it from entailing political equality. Between about 1880 and 1945, this changed for good. Judith Shklar once wrote, in terms that Fawcett might endorse, that liberalism and democracy shared a harmonious and monogamous marriage — but one of convenience. Fawcett chronicles the courtship and the prenuptial agreement. Liberals “silenced,” though never “abandoned,” their doubts about democracy. Making an effort to shed its paternalist, improving disposition — swapping the schoolmasterly temperament of a Humboldt for that of the libertine, perpetually indebted Benjamin Constant — liberalism dumped its old favorite word, “character,” for a new one: “choice.” Democracy, for its part, changed substantially as well, from a radical and populist doctrine to one that made its peace with representation, elite-staffed bureaucracies, private property, and a definition of popular sovereignty that rendered it fairly empty rhetoric.

One could summarize Fawcett’s story like this: liberals kept their core ideas and gave up their deep, vicious prejudices regarding who could be trusted to live by them. Democrats, in turn, gave up the demos: they would no longer dream of “the people” acting, only of discrete people speaking and voting. The bargain seems, in good liberal style, mutually beneficial.

Read the whole review here. And buy the book.

Toleration: As American as George Washington

Writing a book about toleration is a funny thing. There are some political values that everyone claims to be for while arguing about what they are: e.g. freedom, justice, and since 1945, democracy. There are other values whose meaning seems relatively clear (meaning that there’s room for several books about what they mean but not several thousand) but which seem mostly good to some people and mostly bad to others, depending on ideology: solidarity, authority, social justice, and so on. And then there are a very few concepts that seem to mean something clearly bad to one group of people but clearly good to another for reasons having involving neither ideology nor an endless argument about political life (as with “democracy,” an essentially contested concept). Essentially, there’s a heated and permanent disagreement over deep connotation among people who seem not to disagree profoundly over value but probably disagree on how the world works. Some people think that concept X simply means something that would be generally agreed to be bad; others, the opposite. Perhaps “civility” is a little like that. “Toleration” definitely is.

More precisely: a great many people who write about toleration think it’s obviously something hierarchical and condescending: a political authority arrogates the right to define which creeds or ideologies are wholesome, approved, and recommended as ideals but out of its infinite and self-congratulatory magnanimity chooses not to interfere with those who uphold different beliefs (while reserving the right to do so and clucking disapprovingly all the time). Another, equally respectable group, assumes that it’s synonymous with liberty and equality. On this view, toleration is what citizens of a diverse liberal polity practice towards one another all the time; we dislike many things about one another’s beliefs and practices, but indignantly, equally, and reciprocally reject the idea that interfering with others over them is our business.

When it comes to conceptual care, I can’t improve on Rainer Forst’s work, which traces and distinguishes the two connotative dogmas with great wisdom and erudition. What I can do is debunk the very common belief that George Washington employed the former. In fact, the opposite is the case. He distinguished toleration from indulgence, and applauded the equality inherent in toleration, American style. This matters. For if we think a liberal and democratic society can do without toleration, we’ll make fundamental mistakes about how it works.

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Liberalism doesn’t just displace arbitrary power. It reduces it.

Paul Krugman in a recent post argues that opposition to the welfare state is rooted in attachment to “traditional hierarchy”:

Both social insurance and civil rights are solvents that dissolve some of the restraints that hold people in place, be they unhappy workers or unhappy spouses. And that’s part of why people like me support them.

Samuel Goldman in the American Conservative responds with a charge of hypocrisy. While he admits to favoring traditional hierarchies, he claims that liberals like Krugman support meritocratic, technocratic hierarchies of their own:

The conservative position has never been simply that a hierarchical society is better than an egalitarian one. It’s that an egalitarian society is impossible. Every society includes rulers and ruled. The central question of politics, therefore, is not whether some will command while others obey. It’s who gives the orders.

Radical leftists understand this. That’s why Lenin’s “who, whom?” question became an unofficial motto of Bolshevism. The Bolsheviks promised that a classless society would one day emerge. In the meantime, however, they were open and enthusiastic practitioners of power politics.

Modern liberals find this vision upsetting. So they pretend that their policies are about reducing inequality and promoting freedom rather than empowering some people at the expense of others. …

Krugman doesn’t see the énarques [the French technocratic elite] as a ruling class that need to be knocked down a peg because their authority isn’t traditional. They wield power over other people’s lives because they got good grades, not because they have a lot of money or are heads of households or leaders of religious communities. But academic meritocracy is not the same thing as a fluid and fairer society. It’s certainly no fairer that some people are lucky enough to be smart than that others are good at making a fortune.

There are serious arguments in favor of rule by a highly-trained administrative class within a moderately redistributive capitalist economy. … What modern liberals really want, however, isn’t freedom or equality—terms that have no meaning before it’s determined for what and by whom they will be enjoyed. As conservatives have long understood, it’s a society in which people like themselves and their favored constituencies have more power while the old elites of property, church, and family have less.

True, if I had to choose between giving great power over my life-choices to Cardinal Dolan and giving it to Cass Sunstein, I would, with the greatest reluctance, choose Sunstein. But I think Goldman is mistaken: that’s not the choice I face. Liberal governance doesn’t just mean replacing one set of rulers with another. It means taking many matters out of the sphere of “ruling” altogether—by leaving some of them up to individuals, and making others a matter of law and non-discretionary policy rather than arbitrary decision.

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How a Jazz Legend Handled Discrimination

dizzy gillespie-1-thumb-473x439The recent Indiana controversy over whether businesses have the right to refuse service to gay customers reminded me of one of my favorite jazz stories. This one was told by one jazz legend (Oscar Peterson) about another (Dizzy Gillespie).

“We were traveling down South, in some of the bigoted areas. So it was two o’clock in the morning, or something like that, and we pulled up to one of those roadside diners. And I looked, and there was the famous sign: No Negroes. And the deal was, we all had duos or trios of friendship, so one of the Caucasian cats would say, ‘What do you want me to get you?’ And they’d go in, and they wouldn’t eat in there, they’d order and come back on the bus and eat with us. But Dizzy gets up and walks off the bus and goes in there. And we’re all saying, ‘Oh my God, that’s the last we’ll see of him.’ And he sits down at the counter—we could see this whole thing through the window. And the waitress goes over to him. And she says to him, ‘I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t serve Negroes in here.’ And Dizzy says, ‘I don’t blame you, I don’t eat ’em. I’ll have a steak.’”

On doing bad things, being a bad person, making a living, and having a voice

The torture report hit the streets today, and John Yoo is teaching in my university, with a named chair.  I have a real problem that we are putting him in front of a classroom, especially a law classroom, no matter whether the course is international criminal law, constitutional law, or even civil procedure. That the law school permanently displays four canvases from the Botero Abu Ghraib series doesn’t make it OK, it just puts in doubt the efficacy of art as moral improvement.

I could be wrong, or inconsistent, about this. In the last three weeks, I’ve assigned my students leadership “cases” by Richard Wagner (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) and T.S. Eliot (Murder in the Cathedral).  I make a point of recognizing that these authors are a pair of notorious anti-Semites and misogynists, that Wagner was adopted as a Nazi poster boy, and make sure they attend to Sachs’ nasty little xenophobic speech at the end of the opera. I also point out that while this is a fairly long assignment, as a freebie they get to spend time with some of the most glorious music of the 19th century and poetry of the 20th.

This morning we learned that MIT has taken down Walter Lewin’s online physics lectures, because he sexually harassed one or more students taking an MITx  course that he is no longer offering.  There’s no suggestion that the lectures contained sexist physics, whatever that would be, or sexist anything else. Over the last few weeks, Bill Cosby has had what appear to be all his gigs pulled, including reruns of a TV show more than 40 years old that no-one ever complained about, because of offstage behavior that is invisible in his paid work. The football news is all about whether players whose on-field performance is completely unsexist  and sober should lose employment because they hit their lady friends or drive drunk.  I’m writing this on a computer made possible by the invention of William Shockley, who was just awful both personally and politically, but his transistor works fine both for harmless bloggers and ISIS recruiters. My college organic chemistry professor invented napalm that helped win World War II, and did so with that end in mind, but he took a lot of heat when it was used in Vietnam.

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The Pyroholic Brethren II: Kant and the fine print

My earlier post with a sermon on five steps to carbon sobriety fell flat and attracted no comments. I promised a wonkish follow-up on the underlying principles. A small ethical problem: is a promise made to the empty air still binding? Bentham would no doubt have said no, Kant yes. I’ve written the thing anyway, so, any gentle readers, here it is.

I won’t defend the particular numbers I gave; they are only relevant to my family’s particular circumstances.

I A collective action problem – but what sort?

Carbon reduction is usually discussed here as a collective-action problem.

Let me see if I get this idea. It helps to distinguish between strong and weak versions. Continue Reading…

Cliffs Notes for a Carbon Charge

The conversation in comments at Andrew’s post indicates it might be useful to go over the workings of a climate tax charge.  I like to call it a charge rather than a tax because it is much more like what we uncontroversially pay when we take potatoes from the supermarket, than what we pay government whether or not we use the fire department or the courthouse.

The moral case for charging people when they warm the planet is pretty simple. The world has a fixed capacity to process greenhouse gases (GHG’s) while staying habitable for polar bears and people: when you let CO2 loose, you are denying some of that capacity to everyone else, exactly like the potatoes you deny to others by eating them. When you do either without paying, you are a no-good lousy goniff stealing thief taker, a species despised by all.  Much better to drive your car, or heat your house, without making your kids ashamed of you, right?

Is it right to let people pollute the planet — take GHG capacity away from everyone else if they pay for it? Well, is it right to let people take food out of the mouths of the hungry just because they are willing to pay for those potatoes?  Um, yes, it is. Poverty, hunger,  and inequality are big important problems, and public policy is needed to deal with them, but that policy is not in the climate department. If you’re worried that some people won’t be able to afford to drive when gasoline carries a carbon charge, by all means let’s do something about it, but the “it”  is not gas prices, it’s poverty, because the same people are having trouble with the rent and feeding their families.

The technical case is a little more complicated, and  recognizes that burning fossil fuels (and fertilizing food crops; N2O is a potent GHG) is useful and creates real value as well as causing damage.  The liquid fuel in a medevac helicopter has no practical substitute because (i) two thirds of the “fuel”  is oxygen from the air that the helicopter doesn’t have to carry, so it  has an energy-to-payload ratio that beats existing batteries, wound-up rubber bands, and any other current possibility (ii) the stoker and boiler equipment to burn coal, or the pressure vesssel to hold hydrogen, are very heavy, while liquid fuels can be managed with an ordinary tank and a few pipes. This use of fossil fuel is a good decision.  The same fuel burned in a car that could have used electricity from a wind farm is much less valuable; if it’s going on a half-mile trip on a nice day next to a bicycle path to pick up a quart of milk, even less.  However, all of it does the same global climate damage at current atmospheric CO2 levels.  When the latter go up more, and we are flirting with putting seaboard cities under water, the damage per pound of CO2 will be higher.

It is not the purpose of a carbon charge to make everyone stop emitting any CO2: the right level of global GHG emissions is some, not none.  The policy goal is that we only emit the GHG whose benefits exceed its costs, the Goldilocks level: not too much, but also not too little.  This is the same policy goal we seek for all sorts of pollution and other kinds of bad behavior.  We don’t want people to never practice the trumpet, we want them to do it with the windows closed, at reasonable hours.  We don’t want no crime, we want the amount that suppressing further would be too costly in other ways.cc001

OK, I need to draw on the blackboard.  I’ve graphed the marginal benefit of each additional ton of fossil fuel (MB) and the price people pay for it, marginal private cost = MPC. Some uses, like the helicopter, have great benefits relative to possible substitutes or going without; others, like sitting in traffic with the engine idling, have very little value.  In the usual way, the world has settled down at point D.  But the real cost of emitting that GHG is additional to the current price of gas; the problem is that decisionmakers don’t see the climate damage they cause, marginal social cost (MSC).

According to what we know now, this system should be operating at point B.  We can get there if we impose a carbon charge of MSC so the last gallons of gas cost more than the users benefit from it. The right charge for now is (experts tell us) about $30/t, the social cost of an additional ton of CO2 where we are now; as emissions fall, that charge should probably fall as well.  What we have to know to get it right is the MSC curve over a reasonable range, and where we are now on the emissions axis. What we don’t have to know is where point B is: lay on the carbon charge and the world will show it to us.

We can get to B by a regulatory cap set right below it.  But to do that we have to know both the MSC curve and the MB curve, and the latter is even harder to see than MSC.  When we set out to put a stop to automobile smog emissions, the industry experts swore up and down, and probably believed, that a clean car would cost a fortune and be undrivable — that is, that the benefits of a dirty car relative to a clean one were very large. But they were wrong.  A cap also has to be allocated across emitters somehow; we could do it administratively by some sort of rationing, but most people come to see that letting emitters trade the rights to release GHG will lead to a much more efficient system.  It’s possible to show that a charge and a cap-and-trade system will get to the same sweet spot, at least in theory.  But what if we’re wrong about what the right cap level is, for example if the MB curve in fact is much lower than we think?  We’re already seeing it fall, as wind, solar, and conservation get cheaper so the advantages of fossil fuel (for lots of things) become less.  A carbon charge makes the whole world look for ways not only to pass up the fuel that’s not actually worth what it costs, but also to move that MB curve down by finding good substitute energy sources, so B moves to the left.

Actually implementing either a carbon charge or a cap-and-trade system is not a simple matter, what with making it work internationally (tariff?) and playing whack-a-mole with new schemes to cheat.  But the carbon charge is the way to go, all things considered. It’s easier for us to lay a charge on Chinese steel to account for the coal used to make it than to impose a cap on Chinese steel plants, but its big advantage is not having to pay attention to the fossil fuel industry’s bleating about how uniquely essential their products are to prosperity, freedom and the American way.  Just impose the charge, as well as we can calculate it, and the MB curve and point B will reveal themselves.

 

Mr Smith goes to Katoro

Mark rightly gives points to Gordon Brown for providing arguments for Scotland to stay in the Union (as it in the end chose to do) based on principle and sentiment, not merely interest. Contrast the absence of Tony Blair, junketing with Davos Man (or worse) and Menton Girl  somewhere sunnier than Scotland. Brown’s argument was based on shared battlefields and domestic glories like the NHS rather than Hume and Hutton. But it was fair of Mark to say that it reflected the cosmopolitan, outward-looking values of the Scottish Enlightenment. Its leading lights, apart from Burns, were SFIK all Unionists and anti-Jacobites. The mathematician Colin McLaurin actually supervised, though unsuccessfully, the defence of Edinburgh against the Jacobite army rampaging its way south. The Scots’ combination of physical courage, industry, and respect for learning have made the world their oyster.

So here’s a small salute to the whole gang, represented by Adam Smith, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University. (Scotland had four universities by 1600 to England’s two). His best known sentence must be this, from Book I, Chapter 2 of The Wealth of Nations:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

(The website is libertarian. They might try reading a bit more of him; he isn’t Rand at all.)

Perfectly illustrating the point, here’s very nice and cheering photograph of Mr. Edward Buta’s flourishing solar shop in Katoro, Tanzania (pop. 11,925). (H/t Tim McDonnell at Mother Jones.)

katoro-shop
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