From the monthly archives:

June 2015

Happiness and unhappiness

by John Q on June 30, 2015

I have a chapter in a newly released book on happiness, extracts of which have been published in The Conversation. My argument, summed up as Measures of happiness tell us less than economics of unhappiness, is a reworking of points I’ve made in the past. In particular, I argue that it’s more useful to think about removing avoidable sources of unhappiness, and that has been the great success of social democracy and the welfare state.

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Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson,<em> <a href=”;ie=UTF8&amp;qid=1435596133&amp;sr=1-1&amp;keywords=Strange%20Justice”>Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas</a></em>:
<blockquote><span data-reactid=”.1kn.1:4:1:$comment874301359302253_874303012635421:0.0.$right.0.$left.0.0.1.$comment-body.0.0″><span data-reactid=”.1kn.1:4:1:$comment874301359302253_874303012635421:0.0.$right.0.$left.0.0.1.$comment-body.0.0.$end:0:$text0:0″>What she remembered most vividly, however, was the way [Clarence] Thomas woke up each morning. He had a theme song which he would play at high volume in his room at the start of every day, “kind of like a mantra.”</span></span>

<span data-reactid=”.1kn.1:4:1:$comment874301359302253_874303012635421:0.0.$right.0.$left.0.0.1.$comment-body.0.0″><span data-reactid=”.1kn.1:4:1:$comment874301359302253_874303012635421:0.0.$right.0.$left.0.0.1.$comment-body.0.0.$end:0:$text0:0″>”What’s that?” she remembered asking [Gil] Hardy [Clar</span></span><span data-reactid=”.1kn.1:4:1:$comment874301359302253_874303012635421:0.0.$right.0.$left.0.0.1.$comment-body.0.3″><span data-reactid=”.1kn.1:4:1:$comment874301359302253_874303012635421:0.0.$right.0.$left.0.0.1.$comment-body.0.3.0″><span data-reactid=”.1kn.1:4:1:$comment874301359302253_874303012635421:0.0.$right.0.$left.0.0.1.$comment-body.0.3.0.$text0:0:$text0:0″>ence Thomas’s roommate] when she was first rocked out of bed by it at an early hour. </span></span></span>

<span data-reactid=”.1kn.1:4:1:$comment874301359302253_874303012635421:0.0.$right.0.$left.0.0.1.$comment-body.0.3″><span data-reactid=”.1kn.1:4:1:$comment874301359302253_874303012635421:0.0.$right.0.$left.0.0.1.$comment-body.0.3.0″><span data-reactid=”.1kn.1:4:1:$comment874301359302253_874303012635421:0.0.$right.0.$left.0.0.1.$comment-body.0.3.0.$text0:0:$text0:0″>”Oh, that’s just Clarence,” Hardy replied with a laugh. “It’s his theme song.” The song, “The Greatest Love of All,” was a pop anthem celebrating self-love rereleased by Whitney Houston.</span></span></span></blockquote>
Clarence Thomas, <em><a href=”;ie=UTF8&amp;qid=1435605590&amp;sr=1-1&amp;keywords=my+grandfather%27s+son”>My Grandfather’s Son</a></em>:
<blockquote>I’d heard the song many times, but it had never meant more to me than it did now…I took heart from George Benson [who originally performed the song]: …<em>No matter what they take from me/ They can’t take away my dignity</em>.</blockquote>
Clarence Thomas, <a href=””>Obergefell v. Hodges</a>, dissenting:
<blockquote>The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.</blockquote>

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Sunday photoblogging: Clifton suspension bridge

by Chris Bertram on June 28, 2015

Five pictures of Clifton Suspension Bridge (5 of 5)

Danielle Allen seminar

by Henry Farrell on June 26, 2015

The seminar on Danielle Allen’s recent book, _Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality_, which is available from Powells, Amazon and Barnes and Noble is now concluded. The entire seminar can be found at this link. The participants in this seminar and their posts:

* Cristina Beltrán is an associate professor of social and cultural analysis and director of Latino Studies at New York University. Slow Reading as a Practice of Reckoning with Love and Loss.

* Henry Farrell blogs here. The Declaration as Patrimony.

* Heather Gerken is the J. Skelly Wright professor of Law at Yale Law School. The Craft of Interpreting the Declaration of Independence.

* Sam Goldman is an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University. You Might Have to Believe in God to Take the Declaration of Independence Seriously

* Chris Lebron is an assistant professor of African-American studies and philosophy at Yale University. Reading Our Declaration in Support of Black Radicalism.

* James Miller is a professor of political science and liberal studies at the New School for Social Research. What Is To Be Done?

* James Wilson is Collegiate assistant professor in the social sciences at the University of Chicago. The Declaration of Independence Isn’t Egalitarian Enough

* Gabriel Winant is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Yale University. To Carry The Past Around With You.

* Danielle Allen is the UPS Foundation professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies’ school of social science, and the incoming director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.
* Post I – Responses to Gerken, Winant and Lebron.
* Post II Problems of Consensus: Responses to Goldman, Farrell, Wilson, Beltran and Miller.

Sam Goldman’s analysis of my treatment of religion in the Declaration is the most astute I’ve seen to date. Consequently, his criticism is also the most subtle. He rightly recognizes that the core of my argument is that the Declaration can be the object of an overlapping consensus in which citizens endorse the same basic laws or principles for different reasons. He then raises questions about the value of the secular component of that overlapping consensus, which is to throw doubt on the value of overlapping consensus as such when it comes to matters of religion. [click to continue…]

Response to Gerken, Winant and Lebron

by Danielle Allen on June 25, 2015

Response to Heather Gerken

Heather Gerken has launched this seminar on Our Declaration with an elegant exposure of my method. Like Constitutional lawyers, I focus on a single fragment, one utterance, crafted in a particular moment of time under the most unusual and trying of circumstances, and develop “a robust set of democratic commitments from a thin textual guarantee.” How did the words of the Declaration come to be expressed? How can we still access the intentions of those who wrote these words and interpret their evolving meanings for our own generation? “When constitutional lawyers turn to a text, they look not for precision,” Gerken writes, “but what Ronald Dworkin calls ‘fit’ and ‘justification’ – a normatively attractive account that fits within the extant interpretive landscape.” As in the work of constitutional lawyers, there is a marriage in my book of historicism and pragmatism (by which I mean the school of philosophical thought bearing that name). This marriage is effected through a theory of language and its place in politics.

Language has always been, for me, the strangest and most cunning unifier of past and present, a deep ever-flowing stream passing from mouth to ear and ear to mouth and on again, across millennia, shifting yet durable, transporting visions and perspectives from the deepest recesses of history to the present, under layers of silted accretion, accumulated through a confounding blend of social accident and logic. These layers give way to a form of archaeology, and reveal the secrets of the past.

Why does it become reasonable, as you will read in Our Declaration, to introduce the divorce decree dis-uniting Prince Charles and Princess Diana in order to explain the dissolution of the political bands between the colonies and Britain? This isn’t just the teacher’s trick of using something present, something already known, to lead the students from what is familiar to what is more distant. Among genres, legal language is distinctively durable. This durability in effect shrinks the time span between the Declaration of Independence and the royal divorce decree of 1996. This stands in contrast to the temporal distance between the popular speech, images, and metaphors of eighteenth-century almanacs and what now gushes forth abundantly on blog pages, Pinterest, and Instagram. Popular speech is volatile and changeable. Set an almanac’s maxim and a blog’s self-disclosure side-by-side and the two periods will look more rather than less distant. [click to continue…]

An optimistic view on climate change

by John Q on June 25, 2015

We had an interesting discussion in comments recently about the usefulness or otherwise of optimism in relation to problems like climate change. I’m a card-carrying optimist, as can be seen from this article for Australian magazine Inside Story arguing that the prospects are good for stabilising global greenhouse gas concentrations at 450 ppm.

On the whole, excessive pessimism is a bigger problem than over-optimism. As I’ve argued before, lots of people have locked themselves into positions (eg advocacy of geoengineering, or belief in the end of industrial civilisation) that are based on the assumption that stabilisation is impossible. Many of these people are not open to evidence that stabilization is feasible, and even likely.

There’s a strong case that we should do better than 450 ppm, with a common ‘safe’ figure being 350 ppm. Since we passed that level some time ago, that requires a long period of negative net emissions, which cannot easily be achieved with current technology. Still, if net emissions are reduced to zero in the second half of this century, and some technological advances are made over the next fifty years (a plausible assumption if we put in some effort), even 350 ppm might be feasible.

Since this was written we’ve seen the Dutch court decision mentioned by Ingrid. Also, the development of one of the biggest coal deposits in the world, in the Galilee Basin in Queensland, is looking a bit less likely. The main developer, Adani, has halted engineering work on the project. Adani didn’t announce this, but since it’s been reported, their spin is that it’s a tactical move to pressure governments to speed up regulatory approvals. My take from a while back is here.

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In 2014, the Dutch NGO Urgenda, together with 886 citizens, filed a law suit against the Dutch state for not taking sufficient action to limit climate change. Today, the court gave its verdict, which could live be followed on internet (in Dutch, without subtitles). The court has also immediately put an English translation of the ruling online. And the court has ruled:

The Hague District Court has ruled today that the State must take more action to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions in the Netherlands. The State also has to ensure that the Dutch emissions in the year 2020 will be at least 25% lower than those in 1990.

Many parties have called this a historical ruling, and no doubt this may inspire citizens and activist NGOs in other countries to take their States to court. Few commentators expected that the court would come to this ruling. Many believed that the court would not want to burn its fingers on what is essentially a political process; indeed, some have even gone so far to question whether the division of powers of the Trias Politica would be violated. Yet the court provided an answer to that worry:

With this order, the court has not entered the domain of politics. The court must provide legal protection, also in cases against the government, while respecting the government’s scope for policymaking. For these reasons, the court should exercise restraint and has limited therefore the reduction order to 25%, the lower limit of the 25%-40% norm.

The fact that the ruling only concerns 25% of CO2 reductions highlights that this is not the end of our struggles. A 25% reduction may be fanastic since it’s a court ruling (and that gives it a special kind of political status), but it is not enough. We should also not forgot the sadness of the situation – that we had to go to court to force the government to take action, in a country where legal action is generally not considered a way to do politics or bring activist concerns into the political arena.

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What Is To Be Done?

by James Miller on June 24, 2015

Danielle Allen has written a beautiful brief for equality, and the proper place of egalitarian ideals, not only in the Declaration of Independence, but in America’s political culture more generally. Pierre Rosanvallon has made a similar case, with France as its focus, in his important book, The Society of Equals, first published in French in 2011.

Yet both Allen and Rosanvallon acknowledge a curious paradox: that a stress on liberty as the essence of liberal democracy has in our own day apparently triumphed over – even trumped – the egalitarian convictions of the activists and intellectuals who forged the first democratic republics.

The empirical evidence on this matter seems unambiguous. A variety of economists, from Joseph Stiglitz to Thomas Piketty, have shown that America, like France, and most European countries, has become ever more unequal in recent decades.

Both men have also proposed a number of policies that might help reverse these current economic trends. “Simple changes,” writes Stiglitz, “including higher capital-gains and inheritance taxes, greater spending to broaden access to education, rigorous enforcement of anti-trust laws, corporate governance reforms that circumscribe executive pay, and financial regulations that rein in banks’ ability to exploit the rest of society – would reduce inequality and increase equality of opportunity markedly.”

Still, it’s a striking feature of our present moment that policies like these at first glance seem politically out of reach. As Stiglitz puts it, “The main question confronting us today is not really about capital in the twenty-first century. It is about democracy in the twenty-first century.”

I think Stiglitz is right – but herein lies a further problem. Few American politicians dare advocate the kinds of policies Stiglitz proposes – and this, remarkably, in a nation explicitly “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” in the words of Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, quoting the key phrase from the Declaration of Independence that Danielle Allen makes a centerpiece of her analysis.

In other words, our democracies today seem paralyzed in the face of rising inequality.

As a hopeful sign, one might point to the attacks on financial elites launched by various populist parties and movements of both the left and the right, in both Europe and the United States – Occupy Wall Street in 2011 did manage to bring inequality back into America’s political conversation. Yet in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, individuals and families in the advanced industrial societies still seem wary of any policies that might jeopardize whatever wealth they currently possess. Many seem skeptical that we should even aspire to becoming “a society of equals.”

Hence my question to Danielle Allen: What is to be Done?

How can we renew and revivify our founding egalitarian ideals? How should we approach the problems of both capital and democracy in the twenty-first century?

Slow Reading as a Practice of Reckoning with Love and Loss

by Cristina Beltrán on June 23, 2015

Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration is a generous and meticulous work of democratic theory. The book’s origin speaks powerfully to its ambitions: Allen’s decision to teach canonical works to elite students at the University of Chicago while simultaneously teaching the same texts to working-class Chicagoans attending night school demonstrates the author’s belief that no one is ineligible or exempt from theorizing — from reflecting on and thinking with others about the principles and values that ought to guide our individual and collective existence. This democratic conviction — that our collective flourishing is tied to the capacity of individuals and collectivities to think wisely, act creatively, and judge well — is central to the book’s subtitle: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. [click to continue…]

The Declaration of Independence isn’t egalitarian enough

by James Lindley Wilson on June 22, 2015

One of the pleasures of reading Our Declaration is encountering Danielle Allen’s thoughtful expression and development of an ideal of political equality. The book not only argues that political equality was a central component of the Declaration of Independence, but argues—powerfully, I think—that this democratic ideal ought to compel us, the readers of the Declaration and of Allen’s book.

Allen gives strong voice to the argument that political equality is valuable in its own right, and valuable because of other goods it brings, like liberty or prosperity. But what exactly is this ideal? Roughly, as I understand it, the idea behind political equality is that all citizens are, and ought to be treated as, equally authoritative over matters of common life. Even more roughly: in a democracy, we’re all supposed to be equally in charge. But what does that mean? What kind of equality is this? Why should we care about it? Over the course of Our Declaration, Allen addresses all of these questions, explaining the “multi-faceted” ideal of equality presented by the Declaration, and—in part by explaining just what this equality is—showing us why it matters.

For all of Allen’s meticulous interpretive work, however, I have doubts about the extent to which the Declaration expresses a vigorous conception of political equality. Accordingly, any democratic ideal we develop on the basis of a reading of the Declaration will need much more egalitarian amendment and elaboration than Allen suggests. First, I am not sure that the most clearly egalitarian aspects of the Declaration’s text involve a strong commitment to political equality, as opposed to other forms of equality less connected citizens’ equal authority over their common life. Second, some of the facets of equality Allen identifies strike me as better described as norms of political inclusion than political equality. Inclusion is a weaker norm than equality because inclusion of citizens in decision-making can (and did) occur on unequal terms. Finally, any argument about ideals of political equality expressed by the Declaration must deal with the outright exclusion of some people from the process of “democratic writing” that issued in the Declaration and from subsequent application of its ideals in independent America. Allen is well aware of these exclusions, and she treats this issue in some of the book’s most searching, thoughtful, and even moving passages. But perhaps more than Allen, I believe that such exclusions limit the extent to which we can identify the Declaration of Independence as expressing a fully egalitarian ideal even for the people it does clearly include within its vision of freedom and equality. [click to continue…]

Thoughts on Charleston

by Corey Robin on June 21, 2015

So much excellent stuff has been written on the murders in Charleston, I hesitated to weigh in. But one part of the story that I thought could use some amplification is the politics of safety and security in this country, from the backlash of the GOP through 9/11 and today, and how that intersects with the politics of racism. So I took it up in my column for Salon. I’m not sure I said exactly what needed to be said or what I wanted to say: for some reason, the precision and specificity I was aiming for here proved to be more elusive than usual. So if you find that the article misses its mark, I’ll understand.

Here are some excerpts:

In response to Wednesday’s murder of nine African Americans at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, President Obama said, “Innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”

I’ll admit: When I first read that statement, I thought Obama was talking about the police. Unfair of me perhaps, but it’s not as if we haven’t now been through multiple rounds of high-profile killings of African Americans at the hands of the police.

Indeed, until Wednesday’s murders, it seemed as if the national conversation about public safety had dramatically and fruitfully shifted. From a demand for police protection of white citizens against black crime—which dominated political discussion from the 1970s to the 1990s—to a scrutiny of the very instruments of that presumed protection. And how those instruments are harming African American citizens.

It’s tempting to seize on this moment as an opportunity to broaden that discussion beyond the racism of prisons and policing to that of society itself. In a way, that’s what Obama was trying to do by focusing on the threat posed not by the state or its instruments but by private guns in the hands of private killers like Dylann Roof.

But that may not be the wisest move, at least not yet.

So long as the discussion is framed as one of protection, of safety and security, we won’t get beyond the society that produced Dylann Roof. Not only has the discourse of protection contributed to the racist practices and institutions of our overly policed and incarcerated society, but it also prevents us from seeing, much less tackling, the broader, systemic inequalities that might ultimately reduce those practices and institutions.

To assume that the state can provide for the safety and security of the most subjugated classes in America without addressing the fact of their subjugation is to assume away the last half-century of political experience. If anything, the discourse of safety and security has made those classes less secure, less safe: not merely from freelance killers like Dylann Roof or George Zimmerman, who claim to be acting on behalf of their own safety and that of white society, but also from the police. As [David] Cole writes, the proliferation of criminal laws and quality-of-life regulations that are supposed to make poor and black communities safer often serve as a pretext for the most intrusive and coercive modes of policing in those communities.

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Sunday photoblogging: Dalmatian, Chipping Campden

by Chris Bertram on June 21, 2015

Dalmatian, Chipping Campden

The Declaration as Patrimony

by Henry Farrell on June 19, 2015

I was born in Ireland, not America. This country’s habit of conducting its national conversation through its founders and founding documents still seems a little strange to me. The closest Irish equivalent to the Declaration of Independence, the Proclamation of the Republic, has a vexed status in Irish historical memory. This was in part because the republican promises made were never quite delivered on, in part because of Ireland’s civil war, where the losers declared themselves the true heirs of the Proclamation and took up arms on its behalf, and in part because the proclaimers have not been dead sufficiently long to acquire the incorruptible odor of sanctity. Instead of a civic religion centered on my country’s founders, we grew up in the gaps of a conversation that never quite took form, tacit and tactical silences that carefully skirted a complicated history, and, rising up from somewhere below, the sweet aroma of bodies that hadn’t been buried quite deeply enough. [click to continue…]

Can you agree with the Declaration of Independence if you don’t believe in God?

Danielle Allen raises this question about halfway through her painstaking commentary, when she arrives at “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the Declaration’s first sentence. Allen acknowledges that many Americans would rather avoid thinking about the role of theology in the Declaration. But she insists—correctly—that the matter is too important to avoid: references to God are not only obvious features of the text, but also “ground zero for discussion of how religion and politics intertwine.” (115)

Over the next few chapters, Allen argues that the Declaration is open to readings that leave out a deity. Belief in God helps justify its claims about the origin and purpose of government. But it’s not the only way of supporting those conclusions, provided that you strongly endorse the premise of equal basic rights. In Allen’s words, “You do not need to be a theist to accept the argument of the Declaration. You do, however, require an alternative ground for a maximally strong commitment to the right of other people to survive and to govern themselves.” (138) [click to continue…]