Archive for the ‘current events’ Category
The Koch brothers are, of course, a favorite liberal bugaboo. And while they bankroll a wide range of right-wing institutions, more recently they’ve shifted their focus to the world of higher education. Most recently, the Koches made the news when UNCF (formerly the United Negro College Fund) accepted a $25 million grant to provide scholarships to students interested in entrepreneurship, economics and innovation—a decision that was followed by the union AFSCME cutting its own ties to UNCF.
Now, UNCF is a nonprofit, not a university. But the Koches support universities as well. George Mason is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the largest recipient of Koch largesse. Overall, in 2012, Koch foundations gave $12.1 million to 163 U.S. universities and colleges.
On the one hand, this is small potatoes. A single hedge fund manager gave Harvard $150 million this year. On the other, it raises important questions about when colleges should say no to money.
“Radical chic” is an old term from the 70s indicating that a politically liberal person is trying to look cool by promoting radical causes. I think we are now seeing a similar phenomenon among conservatives. Many call themselves libertarian to sound cool, but they don’t actually endorse many libertarian positions except for free trade.
Case in point: The person who defeated Eric Cantor is David Brat, a professor of economics who uses the term libertarian to describe himself. But on a range of issues beside economic deregulation, he appears to be a standard issue social conservative. Immigration? Against it. Abortion? Against it. Foreign policy? Vague. Cutting the military? Nope. Gay rights? Silent. And like many conservatives, cutting government means just cutting the programs that conservatives are upset about, like Obamacare, rather than across the board cuts. If you think that libertarians are socially liberal but economic conservatives, he seems to be very close to a social conservative.
My theory? Social conservatives don’t have a very positive image outside of their movement. Social conservatives have been tarnished by anti-immigration hysteria, anti-Black attitudes, and a strong emphasis on abortion. In contrast, libertarianism is a small movement but has some high status adherents (e.g., many well known economists are libertarians, a number of Silicon Valley billionaires, even a Harvard philosopher). It might also be a political term that is less familiar, so there is less risk in using it.
One of the biggest news stories from last week is that a militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has quickly captured key cities in Iraq. CNN asked if ISIS is the first terrorist group to build an Islamic state? Well, the answer is no, as long as you define “terrorist” as “armed political group that targets civilians.”
The have been states founded by organizations that, at one time or another, targeted unarmed civilians. For example, Irgun, a militant Zionist group, included people who would become important in Israeli politics. The nation of East Timor was partially founded by an armed revolutionary group, FreTiLin, which morphed into one of the ruling parties. In terms of Islamic states, one could make the argument that the Taliban was a terrorist group that conquered the secular Afghan state and made it Islamic. There are also various Islamic groups in Africa and Southeast Asia that have conquered territory and have acted like states.
Perhaps what is shocking is that ISIS is doing something uncommon – literally ripping territory from two existing states. Normally, armed revolutionary groups or terrorist groups topple existing elites but otherwise leave boundaries unchanged, or maybe lead a secession. But otherwise, armed, civilian targeting groups are fairly normal aspects of state formation. The relative peace of post-WWII Europe is an anomaly in world history.
I recently reviewed Joshua Busby’s book social movements and foreign policy. He uses a number of case studies from American and European politics to show how moral pleas, in certain contexts, can move policy. From PS: Perspectives in Political Science:
Busby asks a simple question: How do activists affect a state’s foreign policy? He answers with a two-part theory. First, there is the balance of values and costs. Activists may demand something that is expensive or cheap. Similarly, activists may demand policies that have low or high resonance with moral values. Second, activists must successfully interface with gatekeepers, such as legislators or policymakers, who have the power to legitimize the movement’s demands. The author then goes on to support his theory with empirical studies of a range of policy domains, such as AIDS policy and the international courts.
The importance of Busby’s argument is that it is an alternative to the interest-based view of foreign relations, which asserts that states do what they must to protect a narrowly defined resource such as trade, military power, and so forth. His view is that the beliefs of citizens are very important, not because political leaders follow the whims of voters but because domestic public opinion defines a spectrum of possibilities. The moral resonance of an issue defines the political cost of taking an action.
Works like Moral Movements and Foreign Policy illuminate the relationship between sociology and political science. This book is an example of the use of sociological theory to enrich a topic typically associated with political science. The international relations field has been dominated by arguments among realists, liberals, constructivists, and others over state behavior. Social movements have not usually been at the center of this debate. By itself, Busby’s book does not upend these theories, but it does suggest that there is still unexplored territory in IR theory. Social-movement activists are now recognized as a group of actors who are not state elites, nor are they average voters, nor are they marginalized cranks. Rather, they are specialized political entrepreneurs who use tactics ranging from lawsuits to protest to promote their causes. Research on transnational activism documents a global network of actors who influence and create the policy environment for states. By showing when and how activism leads to changes in foreign policy, Busby shows one way that sociology and political science can enrich each other and expand a research area that may appear to be well covered.
The NYT reported on Sunday about horrid conditions among the 6,000 construction workers, mostly migrants, responsible for building a new campus at NYU Abu Dhabi. According to the Times,
Virtually every one said he had to pay recruitment fees of up to a year’s wages to get his job and had never been reimbursed. N.Y.U.’s list of labor values said that contractors are supposed to pay back all such fees. Most of the men described having to work 11 or 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, just to earn close to what they had originally been promised, despite a provision in the labor statement that overtime should be voluntary.
The men said they were not allowed to hold onto their passports, in spite of promises to the contrary. And the experiences of the BK Gulf strikers, a half dozen of whom were reached by The Times in their home countries, stand in contrast to the standard that all workers should have the right to redress labor disputes without “harassment, intimidation, or retaliation.”
Some men lived in squalor, 15 men to a room. The university said there should be no more than four.
“Not happy,” Munawar, a painter from Bangladesh who only gave one name declared, speaking in limited English. Back home, he said, they have lives, families. “Come here,” he concluded, “not happy.”
News about harsh labor conditions in the UAE is nothing new. But news that NYU is supporting it raises a whole new set of questions.
It looks like international branch campuses are here to stay. Major American and European universities realize that they have become not just educational institutions but “global brands.” NYU has perhaps gone farthest on this front, calling itself the “Global Network University,” but there are now more than 200 such campuses, with the center of gravity shifting from the Middle East to Asia.
These campuses raise a number of issues — about academic freedom, educational quality, and simple economic payoff. But what, outside of pulling a William F. Buckley and standing athwart history, yelling Stop, should those of us who care about universities do, when news like this comes along?
Certainly we should be holding NYU’s feet to the fire on this and other issues. The administration has apologized for the “troubling and unacceptable” abuses, but its plan “to try to correct, to the extent still possible, any lapses in compliance” sounds…well, less than compelling.
But it is hard to find points of leverage when the incentives for universities to look the other way — not just on this but on a whole host of issues — are so great. My thought at the moment: challenging universities’ tax-exempt status or access to federal aid are the ways to really get their attention.
One of the interesting features of post-WW2 international politics are tribunals that punish those who conduct genocides. The New Yorker has an interview with Thierry Cruvellier, who has a new book on his work documenting tribunals. For me, the most interesting part was the politics and incentives of these tribunals. On why genocides foreign sponsors escape:
Then, of course, there’s a more embarrassing reason these courts don’t go after foreign responsibility: judges and prosecutors don’t want to get into trouble with permanent members of the U.N. Security Council or Secretariat, which pays most of their salaries. It’s an obvious weakness of these tribunals, but perhaps it’s just not their function. Their credibility problem may lie much more in the poor quality of the investigations, and in the fact that only the weak are prosecuted.
The most shocking part of the interview was when they pointed out some thing I had never though of, but is obvious – the massive tendency to focus on right wing or authoritarian regimes and the near silence on left wing regimes (e.g, Maoism, the Soviets, etc):
You make the key point that the Duch trial was the first international tribunal case to address the crimes of Communism. The Rwanda and Yugoslavia courts, like the prosecutions at Nuremberg and Tokyo, dealt with crimes of ultra-nationalist regimes, which you identify as ideologies of the right. Only the Cambodia tribunal has addressed the crimes of the left, and you say that made human-rights lawyers notably uneasy. You say they had great difficulty addressing the connection between Communist ideology and systematic mass murder. You say that much of the tribunal crowd preferred to imagine the Khmer Rouge as noble until it went awry and became vile—and that some were outright fellow-travellers. For instance, the woman hired by the U.N. to handle Khmer Rouge victims at the Duch trial was an unrepentant Maoist. Why was that? And how did this sympathy for the left affect the general atmosphere of the trial?
There is a historical lineage between the far left and the human-rights movement. In the nineteen-sixties, after Stalin’s terror was widely acknowledged; in the seventies, after Solzhenitsyn’s denunciation of the Gulag; and then, finally, in the eighties, after the horrors of Pol Pot were fully revealed, many Western intellectuals moved from the discredited and disgraced Marxism-Leninism to the ideals of universal human rights. As opposed to the boredom of prosaic reforms, advocating for human rights is, in its own way, another grandiose and poetic enterprise where we, as a people, fight against exploiters. As the French philosopher Raymond Aron astutely noted, human rights, as a political philosophy, is based on a notion of purity. It’s not about taking responsibility for a decision “in unpredicted circumstances, based on incomplete knowledge”—that’s politics, said Aron. Instead, human rights function as a refuge for utopia.
What was interesting to observe at the Khmer Rouge tribunal was that former Western Maoists or fellow-travellers were not transformed, when they became disillusioned with Communism, into skeptical minds. They now presented themselves as human-rights defenders. The appeal of “pure” ideologies seemed irresistible to them. Revolutionaries get indignant about police abuse or ruthless capitalism, and then forgive, in the name of the revolution, every injustice they had otherwise denounced. Interestingly, the moral indignation of human-rights activists can suddenly be silenced when institutions that they helped create and that were supposed to exemplify their ideals—such as international war-crimes tribunals—start violating the very principles they have claimed to stand for. They say that criticism would serve the “enemies” of justice. They begin to accept that the end justifies the means. Double standards widely apply. The drive that often made them efficient when they worked in a hostile environment now, when they are empowered, transforms into an intransigence that can make them very insensitive to realities that don’t fit their ideological paradigm. International tribunals can be a harsh reminder that injustice and unfairness are not incompatible with humanist intentions.
At the Cambodia tribunal, a surprising number of Westerners who did not come from the far left also showed a level of sympathy for the “good intentions” of the Communist project. As a result, the trial was never going to be a trial of Communism as a political philosophy. Instead, it was all about Pol Potism, circumscribed and vilified as a despicable betrayal of a genuine revolutionary ideal. Such leniency would not be seen at trials against ideologies of the right.
There is much more. Highly recommended.
Gary Becker passed away this weekend at the age of 83. Becker was among the most influential economists in sociology. He was one of the first economists to use economic theories to explain social phenomena, leading the way for contemporary scholars like Steven Levitt. Interestingly, I think Becker was less influential in organizational theory, despite doing important work on human capital. Over on the evil twin blog, Peter Klein pays a nice tribute to Becker, mentioning his relationship to organizational economics.
Sociologist are fond of citing Becker for saying that he thought about transferring to sociology in grad school but that he found the subject “too difficult.” One thing that made Becker stand out from sociologists was that could simplify very complex problems/social phenomena – like discrimination – using a equilibrium model. This is not the sort of thing sociologists would do, and I suspect that most sociologists found the language he used to describe preference maximization offensive, but in a world of formal modeling and rational choice theory, Becker’s perspective was elegant. He helped create a tenuous bridge, along with Jim Coleman, between mathematical sociology and economics.
Reading his Nobel speech this afternoon, I was struck by this insight about the impossibility of Utopian dreams. Becker reminds us just how precious and valuable our time is, especially in a society where so many of our other wants and needs are satisfied.
Different constraints are decisive for different situations, but the most fundamental constraint is limited time. Economic and medical progress have greatly increased length of life, but not the physical flow of time itself, which always restricts everyone to twenty-four hours per day. So while goods and services have expended enormously in rich countries, the total time available to consume has not. Thus, wants remain unsatisfied in rich countries as well as in poor ones. For while the growing abundance of goods may reduce the value of additional goods, time becomes more valuable as goods become more abundant. Utility maximization is of no relevance in a Utopia where everyone’s needs are fully satisfied, but the constant flow of time makes such a Utopia impossible.