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Times Change, You Better Change Too

Tuesday, December 16, 2014
If human history is any guide, Vladimir Putin's foreign adventures are plausible, perhaps even admirable. Adopting the standards typically applied to historical figures, Putin successfully established Russia's influence in its "near abroad" and even made a significant territorial acquisition. If he'd been ruling in the 16th century, he'd probably be considered a success.

Unfortunately for Putin, he's living in the early 21st century, and it's becoming increasingly clear that his political approach is kind of a disaster. You see, there's a reason why there haven't been a many major changes in the political boundaries of states in the last 50 years, with the notable exception of states growing smaller ( crack-ups & secessions like Yugoslavia or Eritrea) and a couple of fairly equitable mergers (Yemen & Germany). Outright annexations of neighboring territory - which we used to call conquest - has happened much since WWII.

And why is that? There are lots of reasons, of course, but to me one of the more salient is that in the modern world conquest is stupid. Look at Putin - he's wrecked his economy and has politically isolated himself. The rise of nationalism has made direct occupation of a foreign population totally counterproductive - you're never going to get a return sufficient to pay for the costs of occupation and your restive, probably very unproductive captive work force.

These days the smart imperialists have relied on establishing client states instead - intervening to install friendly governments with at least a patina of legitimacy. That's what the U.S. tries to do, and even THAT really doesn't work that well (see: Iraq, Afghanistan).

So, sorry notsorry Putin, I'm afraid that your anachronistic policies are resulting in a well-deserved comeuppance. There's 99 things about the modern world that is depressing, but the goofiness of foreign conquest ain't one of 'em.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:42 AM

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On Ferguson

Tuesday, November 25, 2014
In his Discourses, Machiavelli had this idea of "salutary justice." The idea was that every so often the people had to try & execute a public servant in order to remind the rest who they worked for. I'm less concerned about what Wilson did or didn't do than the message this lack of an indictment sends to the country. As it stands today police officers can shoot anyone they like without any accountability. Hardly a recipe for a free society.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:32 AM

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Profound Words

Wednesday, June 25, 2014
A wonderful piece by Charles Pierce at Esquire reminds me of when I was immature enough to confuse cruelty with strength. Alas that insight is altogether lacking in too many of my fellow citizens.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:38 PM

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Catching Up

Monday, March 10, 2014
Wow it's been a million years since I wrote anything here. Some updates:

1) I've been keeping quite busy, between the research I do as part of my job, my own research projects on the side, learning the piano, writing, and (of course) roller derby.

2) This was originally a blog oriented to commenting on politics, much like the 1000's of other similar political blogs. I never really found my own voice, or much of a large audience, and most successful political bloggers joined up with larger institutions. This was probably inevitable, although I still find it pretty sad. I write a lot less about politics now, obviously, and my personal engagement in is less than it's been in, well, forever. What's interesting is that I probably pay nearly as much attention to political news as I always did. I remain pretty well plugged in to what's going on, with the national and international scene at least. I've fallen out of the habit of blogging about it, but I'm still very much attuned to the events of the world. One odd thing about taking an emotional and professional step back, however, is that I feel that I'm better capable of detached analysis of what I see. When I was all consumed with what was happening, it was very difficult to keep things in perspective. I'd never have thought that doing less of something might help you cultivate better judgment about a sphere of interest.

3) One political tidbit: there's been a series of articles questioning a) why Democrats don't do more to push economic populism, although it's a clear political winner; and b) why Democratic officeholders were suddenly willing to embrace gay rights. To me the answer to both question is essentially the same: the need for fundraising. In the wake of Citizens United, left-leaning candidates for office are under enormous pressure to secure sources of campaign funds. Since even pro-Democratic campaign contributors are suspicious of labor unions and generally opposed to redistribution, it's just too risky to adopt a bold stance against inequality. It is however quite easy to do something about issues like gay rights. If you're wondering why a politician is or isn't doing something logical, always ask yourself - how does her decision affect her ability to raise campaign funds? Suddenly a lot of otherwise counter-intuitive actions will make a great deal more sense.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 11:21 AM

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Mandela and Autonomy

Friday, December 06, 2013
I've spent a lot of time this year trying to figure out how much control we have over our lives. Indulging in Stoic philosophy during times of emotional stress has become something of a habit, and beyond this I've been trying to reconcile my withdrawal from political life with my convictions and my psychological well-being. As far as I can tell, the nub of the problem lies in what sort of life you're living. We're restricted by our native capacities, be they intellectual, emotional, or physical, but of far greater import is the degree to which our immediate social context gives us meaningful opportunities. People from wealthy backgrounds always have considerable flexibility, but in modern middle-class democracies that freedom is extended much further. It seems to me that one of the real consequences of the depressed economy, to say nothing of the generation-long decline of middle class economic security, is the diminishing of those personal opportunities. One doesn't have time to take up the violin if one is working two jobs in order to stay out of poverty.

Parenthetically, I think that this basic realization - that freedom is contextualized by circumstances - has important consequences for how we approach the world. Take the discussion in the wake of Nelson Mandela's death. Joshua Tucker at WaPo argues that we should avoid "great man" theories of history and recognize the degree to which other factors shaped the end of apartheid. To quote:

But of course there are myriad factors that political scientists have identified that contribute to democratization in addition to the actions of particular individuals. These include:
- Broad structural factors such as socio-economic development in the country, especially focusing on GDP per capita
- The extent to which opposition forces in a country are unified and/or connected to or isolate from the broader mass public
- The extent to which the regime itself remains unified in the face of demands to democratize, or splits into different factions (often referred to as “hard liners” vs. “soft liners”)
- Pressure from forces outside the country — including foreign governments, NGOs, intergovernmental organizations like the European Union, and international financial organizations like the IMF or World Bank — to democratize, often as conditions for future aid and/or membership.
- Removal of external forces that had either directly exerted pressure not to democratize in the past (e.g., glasnost in the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe), or that had previously restrained from criticizing an authoritarian regime because of geo-strategic considerations (e.g., the end of the Cold War)
What strikes me is that with the exception of the first one, each of these factors were not only exogenous forces. Mandela reacted to these objective circumstances, of course, but he also shaped them. What he did or didn't do had an effect on how unified the regime or its opponents were and the degree of international pressure. We have to recognize that it is precisely how a leader understands and works to change external conditions is precisely what makes that leader "great."

And it's the same thing in our own lives. We have to make decisions about what is feasible, and then choose how much we want to push against the world, to try to shift it just a bit, either for our own sake or for others. Where I'm beginning to part company with the Stoics is that it's not enough to say "the world is outside of my control, I can only choose how to react to it" because we are part of that world. How we behave within the bubble and trouble of life has something to do with what that world looks like. Whether it's choosing to sit on the top of a column and ponder the divine or zoning out in front of the TV are fundamentally unsociable stances towards the world. They are ways to alienate ourselves from life, and the more I consider the question the more I think that this is a terrible mistake.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:56 PM

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The founders didn't believe in sex without procreation?

Wednesday, September 04, 2013
Really? Well, I suppose there's an argument as long as you exclude Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin from the list of founding fathers.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:08 AM

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Why Care About Inequality

Thursday, August 15, 2013
Over at Ezra Klein's blog, Dylan Matthews suggests that inequality in the United States isn't as big a deal as we might think. Yes the gap between rich and poor in the US is growing, but even the poor in America are relatively wealthy by international standards. If we take a cosmopolitan perspective, then global inequality is decreasing, not increasing. At the end of his piece, Matthews says the following:
"Humans have an unfortunate tendency to care more about those physically and/or socially proximate to them and to severely discount the well-being of those whose pain they don’t see. Milanovic’s data is an important reminder of just how dangerous a blinder that is."
Matthews data is all very interesting, and entirely besides the point.  Many thinkers of the cosmopolitan persuasion disagree with me, but I don't find global inequality terribly relevant. What we should mainly be concerned with is the very "local" inequality - if one can consider a nation-state with 300 million people "local" - Matthews is downplaying. I won't bore you all with an involved analysis, so let me boil it down into two propositions:

1. Empirically speaking, most economic activity happens within a country, and is regulated by the government within that country. Therefore if we are concerned about exploitation and the very distribution of rewards, then the nation-state is the right frame of reference. Any contribution by some middle class citizen in Madison, Wisconsin towards the poverty of somebody Bogata is pretty tenuous. National legal and economic structures are far more salient than global ones.

2. My main interest is in the preservation and extension of democracy, which is permanently menaced by the specter of oligarchy. In every country there is a group of rich people trying to skim off the social surplus and subordinate every economic, social, and political institution. When a democratic nation's wealthy elite grows too powerful, there is a very real risk that the democracy will be overthrown so they can protect (and extend) their privileges. Inequalities in India don't threaten the American republic - it's the home-grown ones you have to worry about.

So from my point of view, whether we are talking about moral questions of social justice or empirical questions of democratic stability, Matthews has it precisely wrong. For Americans, inequality in the United States is a  problem second only to climate change.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:43 PM

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