A Surprising “No” Vote

On Sunday, the Times-Dispatch editorialized against passing the marriage amendment in Virginia, which would restrict future legislatures not only from approving same-sex marriage but also from recognizing or conferring marriage-like benefits on other “relationships of unmarried individuals.

The newspaper’s reasoning in the case is quite different from that of the Commonwealth Coalition and other groups opposing the amendment as a matter of civil rights and equality. Instead, the newspaper argues that the amendment is not needed given existing state legislation, and might lead to unpredictable, unintended rulings in the future from activist judges. Finally, the newspaper urges a general restraint and caution with respect to amending the Constitution.

What the newspaper didn’t argue is that a constitutional amendment now would impose an undemocratic restriction upon future legislative majorities in Virginia which might (in the full measure of time) come to see the value of conferring public respect upon committed same-sex relationships. Public opinion on this question has shifted substantially in recent decades, and will surely continue to shift in the future, in a more progressive and inclusive direction. The fact that so many conservative groups feel compelled to sponsor so-called “defense of marriage” amendments is a sign of weakness, not strength, and can be seen as an attempt to lock-in law based on current opinion to constrain future change.

To its credit, the Times-Dispatch editorial does mention the civil rights argument for opposing the amendment, but does not explain why it does not think that argument is not in itself sufficient grounds to defeat the amendment. Indeed, the editorial almost studiously avoids any discussion of the substantive issue, instead confining itself to a procedural argument. (Addendum #1: Just to be clear, the RTD editorial more or less takes for granted the idea that same sex marriages and partnerships are wrong.)

But opponents of the marriage amendment will probably be happy enough to overlook such details for now, and be glad to welcome another “no” voice. Maybe, just maybe, the Times-Dispatch‘s refusal to join the amend-the-constitution crowd will play a part in defeating Ballot Measure #1 on November 7.

Addendum #2: for a somewhat more incisive brief against the marriage amendment, see Michael Paul Williams’s fine column on the issue from last week.

Published in: on October 29, 2006 at 3:22 pm  Comments (2)  

Do Immigrant Children Have the Right to Eat?

This morning the Richmond Times-Dispatch offers a shot across the bow of anyone inclined to regard immigants as human beings worthy of basic respect. In an editorial titled” Four Hour Obscenity,” the newspaper criticizes a California program designed to increase immigrant enrollment in food stamp programs in which (under federal law) they are legally entitled to participate. A little research reveals that the real obscenity is not in California’s program, but in the sheer mean-spiritedness of the RTD’s stance.

Two background points are in order. First, it is estimated that less than 60% of persons in the United States eligible for Food Stamps actually claim such assistance. Given the negative impact of poor nutrition on child development as well as numerous other outcomes, there is a clear public interest in minimizing the number of Americans who are inadequately nourished. Consequently, the general idea of outreach programs to expand use of food stamps is a sound one that both advances the public interest and can help alleviate both short-term suffering and long-term negative consequences of hunger and malnutrition.

Given that federal law (under the Food Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002) specifically provides that adult aliens living in the U.S. for at least five years are eligible for federal food stamps and thatall children of legal immigrants living in the United States are eligible for support (regardless of length of residency), and given that enrollment rates for legal immigrants typically are lower than among U.S.-born residents, it makes perfect sense that there be outreach and education programs specifically targeted at immigrant populations–if we accept limiting hunger as an important public goal.

Second, administration of food stamps programs, including oversight of outreach programs, is left to the states, with the Department of Agriculture playing a supportive role. It’s unclear why a Virginia newspaper should be so agitated by another state’s decision on how to implement its own program. Apparently it’s not enough for the RTD’s editorialists to have influence in Richmond and Virginia politics; they want and policy and administrative decisions in the other 49 states to conform to their editorial stance as well.

Be that as it may, it would be wrong to suggest (as the RTD editorial might lead you to believe) that the California program is some wild deviation from the intent of federal law. In fact, the federal government itself publishes materials aimed at educating immigrants about food stamps similar in spirit and content to the California program.

But the real kicker is this: the RTD editorial fundamentally mispresents the California program by suggesting that one of its key aims is to help illegal aliens. As the Los Angeles Times explains, California does not in fact offer food stamp assistance to illegal alien adults, who are ineligible under federal law. Rather, California (like other states) permits illegal aliens to apply for food stamps on behalf of their American-born children who (under the 14th Amendment) are citizens and hence entitled to such assistance under federal law. In its eagerness to crack down on illegal immigrants, the RTD is willing to deny not just adults but also their American-born children access to nutrition.

There is no compelling argument for denying such residents benefits to which they are legally entitled–or for criticizing efforts to ensure such persons obtain the benefits for which they are eligible. The very desire to deny such benefits reflects, at best, a lack of humanity.

Couple that hard-heartedness with a fundamental factual error, and the result is a disgraceful piece of commentary.

The RTD’s real objection is not to the outreach programs in California, which in fact represent a quite intelligent application of federal law fully consonant with the legislative aim of minimizing hunger. Rather, what the RTD objects to is the idea that children growing up in the United States should not go hungry, regardless of where their parents come from.

Published in: on October 27, 2006 at 7:16 am  Comments (6)  

Rebuking Rush

The Times-Dispatch this morning uses one of its editorials to criticize Rush Limbaugh and his “serial vulgarisms.” Inspired by the recent Limbaugh-Michael J. Fox controversy, the newspaper writes that “A conservatism that took itself seriously would not lionize Limbaugh and his ilk.”

That may be true, but a Republican Party that is serious about winning elections is not likely to disassociate itself from Limbaugh and his millions of listeners anytime soon. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, and (most recently) Dennis Hastert all have been on Rush’s show, and there is no question that Rush has served the GOP’s agenda well over the years. Limbaugh has been a key factor both in branding conservatism as a populist ideology, and in putting into circulation literally thousands of soundbites, half-truths, and put-downs designed to advance conservative aims. It is seriously disingenuous for conservative Republicans to now portray Rush as some sort of a renegade crazy cousin, when in fact he has been an integral part of the party propaganda machine for over a decade.

The RTD also uses the editorial (for the second time in a week) to celebrate the apparent financial downfall of Air America, the liberal talk radio network. Two observations: first, one should be deeply skeptical of the RTD’s attempt to assert a moral equivalence between the way Rush talks about his political opponents and the way even the most strident liberals depict leaders like Bush. I’m sure folks on the air at Air America sometimes have gone overboard the bounds of civility, but they’d have a tall order to attempt to match Rush’s well-established jargon for belittling opponents.

Second, count me as one not deeply surprised by Air America’s problems. It may be that liberals prefer reading and making their own efforts to form their own opinions rather than have them presented ready-made for them by a radio show host. There probably is a market out there for informative, news-based radio and commentary from a left-liberal perspective aimed at relatively well-educated audiences, but it’s unrealistic to think such shows are going to generate millions of listeners or obtain a wide populist following (particularly to the extent that such shows comport themselves according to norms of decency which have never much troubled Rush et al). Going mass market and populist would require an entirely different approach (and set of expectations as to the quality of content), I suspect. Currently Air America is not planning to go off the air, but once they get squared away with their creditors they are going to have to reorganize themselves and adopt a more realistic near-term business model.

Air America itself is claiming that its financial problems are hardly unprecedented in this field, pointing out that conservative broadcasters in the past often ran at a loss for many years without the plug being pulled by patient investors–the kind of patient, politically commited investors the network now lacks.

Published in: on October 26, 2006 at 10:36 am  Comments (1)  

An Exercise in Tautology: The RTD Endorses Allen

Stop the presses! The Richmond Times-Dispatch has shocked the world by endorsing Senator George Allen for re-election next month.

The paper’s reasoning goes like this: We have always endorsed Allen in the past. Allen supports George Bush “even in [his] most confunding moments,” and the paper has endorsed the President in the past. Because Allen supports the President, therefore we support Allen.

What’s missing in that circular logic is a strong independent reason why Bush should be supported in the first place. The editorial emphasizes Allen’s support for the President’s venture in Iraq, despite “the manifold difficulties.” In particular Allen is quoted saying that the goal should be an Iraq that “by their own backbone . . . does not become a safe haven for terrorists.” Webb, in contrast, says we should never have gone into Iraq in the first place.

Yet Allen’s statement and Webb’s opposition to the war are not in logical contradiction. Those who oppose the war in Iraq  and opposed going in in the first place don’t want an Iraq that is a safe haven for terrorists, either. Rather, they can cogently argue that the war has created a terrorist-friendly space in Iraq, and that the continued American presence there is  exacerbating the  ongoing  violence.

Even more tellingly, Allen’s call for Iraqis to “take control of their destiny,” if it is anything other than a nice-sounding rhetorical flourish with no substantive meaning, would seem to imply that American policy should 1) bow to the will of the Iraqi people and 2) turn over the work and responsibility of reconstruction to Iraqis, with the U.S. playing a supportive, not a decisionmaking role. The practical implication of both those maxims is that the U.S. needs to find a responsible way to get out of Iraq: the Iraqis certainly don’t want us there, and they certainly are not going to assume sovereign power (and the responsibility that goes with it) so long as America maintains continued military oversight.

Those are the logical conclusions of Allen’s own statement, yet it appears that he (and the RTD) are more interested in vagaries such as showing that the U.S. has “will and resolve” rather than dealing with the reality of the situation in Iraq.

The truth is, serious conservatives who care about the actual problem and not about rhetoric realize things have gone very, very wrong in Iraq and that continuing down the same path on the basis of very general rhetoric is both unhelpful and irresponsible. As George Will points out in a column on the opposite page, the Iraq study group led by Bush 41 wiseman James Baker is expected to recommend a major course change in Iraq in its report, conveniently timed to appear after the election.

On a side note, the RTD describes Webb’s concern about economic inequality and giving “a voice to people who have no access to the corridors of power” as “mishmash.” Since when is supporting equal democratic voice for all citizens mishmash? Does the RTD endorse an alternative theory of governance, in which it is right and proper that some people have access to power and others don’t, and if so what justification can they provide for that theory?

Published in: on October 22, 2006 at 2:53 pm  Comments (1)  

Um, Ever Hear of Plan 9?

The RTD today devotes nearly half its editorial space to commenting on the demise of the Tower Records chain and the imminent closing of its branch in the Willow Lawn shopping center on Broad Street. (In case you haven’t been by there lately, they’re in the midst of a going-out-of-business sale with everything 10-30% off.)

The RTD editorialists seem particularly disturbed that this means there’s no longer a great place to buy classical music in the Richmond area. Fair enough I suppose, though (as the editorial acknowledges), this is surely largely down to the growth of Internet retailers who can send classical connoisseurs any recording they want within days. (Other sites offer instant downloads of recordings, and there are also free online classical radio stations.)

But the RTD leaps to an illegitimate conclusion when it writes, “Once upon a time Tower and other record stores served as community centers and gathering spots . . . . No more.”

Um, ever hear of Plan 9 Music? The locally-based retailer’s Cary Street store serves exactly that purpose. There’s an extensive collection of rock and other contemporary music, rock videos, music magazines from around the world, posters, and most of the other accessories you could find in a Tower. Plus, there’s a strong emphasis on promoting local musicians and concerts, and periodically concerts are actually held in the store.

Beyond all that, the store is a hang-out spot and something of a community center, with its checkout desk doubling as a billboard for upcoming local events. Without question, Plan 9 is a key Carytown landmark for anyone between 14 and 35. Maybe the RTD editorialists might check it out sometime (though it has to be admitted that the store’s a little weak on classical).

The truth is, big chain record stores located in strip malls were only ever going to serve as meaningful community spaces incidentally. Plan 9, located in the city’s signature district for the locally-owned and the original, does it by design.

Published in: on October 19, 2006 at 1:28 pm  Comments (5)  

Inaccurate Attributions of Activist Attitudes, Etc.

Sometimes I get the feeling that the RTD editorial staff doesn’t spend a great deal of time hanging out with Democratic Party or other liberal activists.

Take today’s column by Barton Hinkle, discussing Mark Warner’s decision not to run for President. The overall point Hinkle makes is perfectly valid and eloquently expressed, that being a presidential candidate must be an exhausting experience in which you are confronted with demands from a hundred different sides and are always liable to being misrepresented in the media or by your opponents.

In the process, however, Hinkle takes satirical potshots at almost every core constituency in the Democratic Party, from workers to the elderly to urban poor to gays. (The inference seems to be that, unfortunately, running for president requires one to deal with people like that instead of just being able to hang out with other middle-aged, college-educated white guys–you know, “normal people”–all the time.)

But that’s not the surprising part. The surprising part is when Hinkle writes that liberal activists “seriously think Al Gore is a capitalist running dog and Hillary Clinton is Karl Rove’s sock-puppet.” Now, surely Hinkle (if not all of his conservative readers) realize that in fact almost no one on the American left actually uses the pseudo-Maoist rhetorical style he is mocking, but perhaps we can excuse the barb as a self-conscious exercise in satiric hyperbole not intended to be taken literally.

But what Hinkle doesn’t seem to be aware of is that Al Gore’s reputation has made a sensational comeback among the activist wing of the Democratic Party that he intends to mock. A straw Presidential poll of 13,000 readers of the left-liberal site http://www.alternet.org conducted in late June found that a Gore candidacy would command suppport of 35% of those voters, far more than any other candidate.

In national, representative samples of Democrats, Gore is tracking well behind Hillary Clinton, but ahead of all other candidates. What’s interesting in juxtaposing those two polls is that to the extent that Gore has a “base,” it’s among liberal activists, many of whom didn’t like some of the barbs he tossed Jesse Jackson’s way in the 1988 nomination race or chose to vote for Ralph Nader in 2000 rather than support Mr. Gore’s perceived centrism.

Those attitudes have changed dramatically, largely because of the increasingly forthright critiques of the Bush Administration on a number of different issues that Gore has issued in a series of speeches over the past couple of years, as well as in response to his film An Inconvenient Truth. Gore is no longer perceived as what Hinkle terms a “corporate Democrat” (and if what Hinkle means to imply is that Warner realized he couldn’t win running as that kind of Democrat, perhaps he is on to something). Rather, he’s perceived as a truth-teller who’s no longer imprisoned by what the polls and the donors and the strategists say.

Just now liberal activists aren’t primarily worried about ideological purity. They’ll settle for competent, forthright, and far-sighted leadership–a bill that many think Al Gore might fit. Whether Gore can pull off (should he choose to try) the biggest political comeback since Nixon ’68 remains to be seen, but it won’t be the moveon.org crowd that stands in his way.

Published in: on October 17, 2006 at 8:55 pm  Comments (3)  

Why History–And Editorial Pages–Matter

What’s the most important book about Richmond and its history published in the past twelve months? I’ll give you a hint: the book has been favorably reviewed in the nationally read Boston Review, and the author has been designated by the History News Network as one of the nation’s “Top Young Historians,” but no review of nor reference to the book has yet appeared in the Times-Dispatch.

The book in question is Matthew D. Lassiter’s The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, published earlier this year by Princeton University Press. Lassiter, a historian at the University of Michigan, describes and critically assesses how the suburbanization of the 1960s and 70s affected local politics in Atlanta, Charlotte, and Richmond.

The crucial issue in that history, of course, is race, and in particular how whites responded to the reality of the end of formal racial segregation and the incorporation of African-Americans into the political process. Lassiter skillfully tells the story of how Richmond failed to create a regional political structure based on the idea that we’re all in it together, and instead opted for a system which perpetuates rather than alleviates racial inequalities.

The central episode of that failure, depicted at length in Chapter 11 of Lassiter’s book, was the busing crisis of the early 1970s and the Richmond region’s refusal during those years to create a system of effectively integrated public schools, achieved through the “consolidation of urban and suburban school systems.”

Lassiter gives particular attention to the role Richmond’s local newspapers played in defeating integration proposals. “In an extension of their enthusiasm for defiance during the massive resistance era of the 1950s, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Richmond News Leader maintained a shrill tone and encouraged an obstructionist stance throughout the three-year busing crisis. Expressing open hostility toward the black plaintiffs and the federal courts, the Times-Dispatch repeatedly invoked a doomsday scenario of coercive integration where ‘thousands of children ould be hauled away from their own neighborhoods to strange schools in strange communities miles away.’ . . .

The editorial pages launched a campaign of personal vituperation against [Governor] Linwood Holton after his refusal to exploit the crisis, which the Times-Dispatch attributed to the governor’s solicitation of black voters for the Republican party. The News Leader actively participated in the antibusing movement by circulating its own freedom of choice petition, signed by 29,122 readers and delivered to the steps of the Supreme Court by editor Ross Mackenzie and Senator Harry F. Byrd, Jr. . . . A community study of the Richmond crisis concluded that the editorial pages jointly created ‘an atmosphere of mass hysteria and defiance by fanning the flames of emotionalism and racial biogtry, which only served to poison race relations between blacks and whites at a time when understanding and mutual cooperation were desperately needed.'”

As Lassiter writes, the ultimate failure of efforts to create a unified metropolitan school system in Richmond “guaranteed an urban system debilitated by a fusion of race and class hypersegregation.” The disparity between Richmond public schools and those of the suburban counties, and the many consequences that follow from that disparity, remains the most fundamental structural problem facing the Richmond region.

Unfortunately, it’s also a problem that rarely gets acknowledged or addressed in the pages of the RTD in any meaningful way (other than in the columns of Michael Paul Williams). Indeed, there’s little in the pages of the RTD to suggest that the editorial board regards the educational disparities between its namesake city and the surrounding suburbs as a problem at all.

But there are one or two signs that just maybe the RTD is at least willing to revisit the legacy of white resistance to the civil rights movement. On October 3 and 10, the newspaper printed two letters regarding the massive resistance movement of the 1950s in Virginia, one by a Republican and one by a Democrat.

That’s a start. If the newspaper wants to go further and is wiling to take the difficult step of not only re-examing Virginia’s past but the paper’s own role in that past–and in creating the structure of inequality that characterizes the Richmond regions–they could do worse than taking the time to review Lassiter’s book or interview the author.

That would be a terrific step towards using the newspaper’s influence to address the sources of Richmond’s real problems, and might also mark a welcome turn away from the editorial politics of “personal vituperation” that still persist in good measure at the RTD. (Exhibit A: Sunday’s column by Mackenzie concerning Mark Warner’s withdrawal last week from the presidential race, which can only be characterized as a case study in ungraciousness.)

Published in: on October 16, 2006 at 6:49 am  Comments (5)  

Protesting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

What follows are two first-hand accounts of the sit-in Tuesday evening which led to three University of Richmond students being arrested in protest of the military’s ban on openly gay and lesbian citizens serving their country.

The sit-in took place at the Armed Forces Recruiting Center in Willow Lawn shopping center on Broad Street. Jacob Neal and Jessica Miller, two openly gay students, each attempted to sign up for military service Tuesday. Miller’s interview with a recruitment officer Tuesday morning ended when she revealed her sexuality.

Later that day, Jacob Neal had an interview with a recruitment officer from the U.S. Navy. Accompanied by about 20 supporters from the UR community (including students, staff, and faculty), Neal asked and answered a variety of questions regarding potential service in the Navy.

He then noted that he had one more concern, whether as a gay man that would present any issues in the Navy. The officer replied that he was not allowed to ask about any potential recruit’s sexuality, but now that the information had been volunteered, that he would not be able to process Neal’s application, thus ending the interview.

At this point Neal responded by briefly describing the injustice of this policy and some of the ongoing efforts to persuade the military to change the policy, and stated that the assembled gathering planned to sit-in in the office in protest. The recruitment officer responded that he understood what the group was trying to do, but that eventually the police would be called.

Neal’s interview lasted from roughly 6 to 6:15 p.m. By the time the police came and arrests were made at 9:30 p.m., there were still about 10 supporters on-hand in addition to the arrested students. It should be noted that the recruitment officers were very respectful and professional towards the protesters, and even asked questions of Neal about the history and progress of attempts to change the policy.

The students involved are affiliated with the national organization Soul Force. Jacob Neal provided additional details about the action in a note to supporters sent early this morning:

Yesterday, as the Soulforce Richmond City Campaign Organizer of the ‘Right to Serve’ campaign against ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ to lift the ban on open lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, I staged a nonviolent protest–a sit-in–at the naval recruitment center with the help of 20-25 University of Richmond community members. After I was deemed ineligible for service in the United States Armed Forces because of my sexual orientation, my supporters and I , unwilling to take ‘no’ for an answer, engaged in a nonviolent sit-in demonstration. We remained, seated on the floor of the office, from my 6pm appointment time until 9pm when we were warned that we would be arrested should we remain. The majority of supporters were not able to be arrested yesterday and left at this time, but Kristen Tilley and I remained, willing to put our bodies on the line for the estimated
64,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender service men and women who are forced to live every day in fear and hiding that their identities will be exposed. We were then greeted by 40 police officers, 2 police dogs, and a police ‘school bus’ which transported us to the Henrico County Magistrate’s Office with a 4 patrol car escort. After processing we were released on a personal recognizance bond of $1000 (each) around midnight last night and are required to appear before a judge this morning or risk warrants for our arrest being issued.

In court this morning, a trial date of November 13 for the students was set.

The best media coverage of this action so far has been on WRIC (ABC). The RTD carried a brief item about the protest which quoted none of the participants this morning, but an updated account by Peter Bacque with some brief quotes (and an inaccurate tally of participants) is now on their website. More detailed coverage in the Richmond Collegian (UR) and the Commonwealth Times (VCU) is expected to appear shortly.

Published in: on October 12, 2006 at 6:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Sense and Nonsense on Distributive Justice

It must be nice being a nationally syndicated conservative political columnist. As far as I can tell, the main requirement is being willing to spin the same basic arguments and stories over and over again, month after month, year after year, regardless of shifting circumstances.

Now of course I’m being a little unfair–there are important exceptions. I’m usually interested in what William F. Buckley has to say (anyone who was a skiing buddy of John Kenneth Galbraith couldn’t be all bad), and David Brooks of The New York Times makes a good faith effort to engage facts and social science. And while we’ve been a little hard on the RTD’s Barton Hinkle in this space, in reading his stuff one detects someone who is thinking for himself.

It’s difficult to be so generous towards long-time syndicated columnist Walter Williams, especially judging from his latest offering. (The article ran opposite a column by Paul Krugman concerning the causes of America’s stagnant wages.)

Williams addresses the topic of distributive justice. His basic claim, drawing on the metaphor of a poker game, is that no matter how unequal the distribution of income we witness in the economy, no one has any basis for complaint so long as the rules of the game generating that distribution have been fair.

That is a coherent argument, echoing that of Robert Nozick’s classic libertarian argument in the 1974 book Anarchy, State and Utopia. Unfortunately, Williams conflates that process-based conception of distributive justice with an entirely different distributive maxim, the notion that we ought to be paid according to how much individuals “serve their fellow man.”

But as Nozick recognized, rewards in the market often don’t correspond to objective merit or objective contributions to social welfare. For Williams, if someone is willing to pay me $1,000,000 and my brother only $50,000, it must be the case that what I am producing is in fact twenty times more valuable to society than what my brother is producing.

But what if my brother is a public schoolteacher teaching history to 120 pupils a year, whereas I am a history tutor who gives private history lessons to one child, the son of a wealthy industrialist? (Let’s assume the industrialist has identified me as the best possible tutor for his child, and that he insists on the best for his kid rather than on a lower-paid alternative. But I say that the work of helping the spoiled brat kid of a rich scion is so distasteful to me that I won’t do it for anything less than $1 million.) The extremely rich man is willing to pay me $1 million for my services. But that doesn’t imply I’m any more productive than my brother, much less that I’ve made a contribution to my fellow man larger than that of my brother.

Obviously, this example is extreme, but it makes an important point: what the market values and what objectively contributes the most to the common good are two different things. To take another of Williams’s examples, I suppose the invention of Google has helped my life and that of others in some small way, but Google doesn’t contribute nearly as much to my welfare as the sanitation workers who pick up my garbage and recycling each week.

The price of one’s labor depends not on one’s contribution to the public good, or even upon one’s productivity, but on the price at which the buyer of labor can find a suitable replacement for me. Sanitation workers are more easily replaced than skilled celebrity divorce lawyers, hence they get paid less–even though most people would probably admit the sanitation workers collectively make a greater contribution to society than the celebrity divorce lawyers.

Indeed, sometime the market rewards those whose activites damage social welfare–for instance, to take an example close to home, cigarette manufacturers.

Considerations such as these led Nozick to recognize that if you are going to make the fairness of the underlying process the standard of distributive justice, you shouldn’t rely on any other moral maxim, or expect that the results produced by your favored process will overlap with notions of desert, social contribution, utility maximization, and so on. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but that doesn’t matter as long as the process is fair.

This of course leads us to consider the Nozickean view proper, as opposed to the fallacious Williams version of it. There are multiple problems with Nozick’s full-blown argument that I won’t belabor here, and even greater problems with the assumption that the actual American economy corresponds to a fair game in which rules are fairly enforced for all. But I’ll content myself with pointing out two fundamental problems with the poker game metaphor.

First, as deployed by Williams, the metaphor totally ignores the question of what happens when poker players bring unequal initial resources to the table. A poker player with $10 million in chips has all kinds of advantages over a player with just $20 in chips, and other things being equal is going to last a lot longer in the game, barring spectactular stupidity or spectacularly bad luck. The well-endowed player can be more patient and wait for a sure winning hand. Or he can risk some of his resources on a bluff that frightens the less well-endowed players into folding on hands they might have won, so as not to risk losing everything.

The truth is, in the American economy people enter the “game” with vastly unequal resources; those initial inequalities then translate into unequal opporunities to develop one’s personal capacities, as well as into unequal bargaining power. The result? Ever larger and more entrenched inequalities, that in turn carry over to unequal starting points for the next generation. (And if you doubt that Americans have unequal life opportunities at the start of life, ask yourself how many parents of children in Henrico or Chesterfield County schools would be happy to have their children randomly assigned to a public school in the city of Richmond.)

The second point to make about the poker game metaphor is that, obviously, the possible outcomes the game generates vary greatly according to the ground rules of the game one agrees upon in advance.

If life really were a poker game, we might all agree to a winner-take-all policy in which one person gets everything and everyone else gets the shaft. But since these are people’s lives we are talking about, it seems more likely that we would want a set of rules that made sure that the winnings of the game were broadly shared, and that no one completely got the shaft (especially since we ourselves might turn out to be the one who goes broke). There are multiple ways one could go about doing that–devising “insurance policies” against bankruptcies, putting a “tax” on winning hands above a certain size, placing absolute limits on the size of bets, making sure everyone starts the game with an equal or almost equal stash of chips, and so on.

This observation is not at all original; it is derived from the landmark work of 20th century American political philosophy, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971). The fundamental claim of that book is that we should structure the rules of the game in a way that preserves liberty, upholds the levels of social equality required to maintain a democratic state in which everyone’s citizenship and civic voice is valued equally, and improves the lot of the least well off.

One can quibble (as many have) with Rawls’s ideas on the best way to do all that. But examining the depressing statistics about rising income and wealth inequality, stagnant and perhaps declining social mobility, and wages which have remained largely stalled for years even as productivity has increased reminds us that Rawls was absolutely right about one big thing:

We ought to be able to design a better poker game.

Published in: on October 12, 2006 at 1:33 am  Comments (1)  

Torture Forum Report, II

Still no RTD coverage or follow-up on the hugely successful public forum on “Torture and the War on Terror” put on by the Richmond Peace Education Center and Amnesty International at VCU last month and documented here in a previous posting.

Style Weekly, however, has printed a useful and informative follow-up interview with one of the stars of the forum, former Army interrogator Tony Lagouranis. This is a really interesting interview well worth checking out.

For what it’s worth, I’m reliably informed that at least one letter to the editor about the RTD’s non-coverage of the forum has been sent, but nothing has been printed yet.

Published in: on October 11, 2006 at 3:35 pm  Leave a Comment