Let the Pendulum Swing

Two social scientists predicted that America was facing the Turbulent Twenties, based on their study of historical patterns. History shows how to calm things down and improve people’s lives. Here’s most of their article from Noema magazine: 

Almost three decades ago, one of us, Jack Goldstone, published a simple model to determine a country’s vulnerability to political crisis. The model was based on how population changes [affected] state, elite and popular behavior. Goldstone argued that, according to this Demographic-Structural Theory, in the 21st century, America was likely to get a populist, America-first leader who would sow a whirlwind of conflict.

Then ten years ago, the other of us, Peter Turchin, applied Goldstone’s model to U.S. history, using current data. What emerged was alarming: The U.S. was heading toward the highest level of vulnerability to political crisis seen in this country in over a hundred years. Even before Txxxx was elected, Turchin published his prediction that the U.S. was headed for the “Turbulent Twenties,” forecasting a period of growing instability in the United States and western Europe. . . .

Our model is based on the fact that across history, what creates the risk of political instability is the behavior of elites, who all too often react to long-term increases in population by committing three cardinal sins.

First, faced with a surge of labor that dampens growth in wages and productivity, elites seek to take a larger portion of economic gains for themselves, driving up inequality.

Second, facing greater competition for elite wealth and status, they tighten up the path to mobility to favor themselves and their progeny. For example, in an increasingly meritocratic society, elites could keep places at top universities limited and raise the entry requirements and costs in ways that favor the children of those who had already succeeded.

Third, anxious to hold on to their rising fortunes, they do all they can to resist taxation of their wealth and profits, even if that means starving the government of needed revenues, leading to decaying infrastructure, declining public services and fast-rising government debts.

Such selfish elites lead the way to revolutions. They create simmering conditions of greater inequality and declining effectiveness of, and respect for, government. But their actions alone are not sufficient. Urbanization and greater education are needed to create concentrations of aware and organized groups in the populace who can mobilize and act for change.

Top leadership matters. Leaders who aim to be inclusive and solve national problems can manage conflicts and defer a crisis. However, leaders who seek to benefit from and fan political divisions bring the final crisis closer. Typically, tensions build between elites who back a leader seeking to preserve their privileges and reforming elites who seek to rally popular support for major changes to bring a more open and inclusive social order. Each side works to paint the other as a fatal threat to society, creating such deep polarization that little of value can be accomplished, and problems grow worse until a crisis comes along that explodes the fragile social order.

These were the conditions that prevailed in the lead-up to the great upheavals in political history, from the French Revolution in the eighteenth century, to the revolutions of 1848 and the U.S. Civil War in the nineteenth century, the Russian and Chinese revolutions of the twentieth century and the many “color revolutions” that opened the twenty-first century. So, it is eye-opening that the data show very similar conditions now building up in the United States.

In applying our model to the U.S., we tracked a number of indicators of popular well-being, inequality and political polarization, all the way from 1800 to the present. These included the ratio of median workers’ wages to GDP per capita, life expectancy, the number of new millionaires and their influence on politics, the degree of strict party-line voting in Congress, and the incidence of deadly riots, terrorism and political assassinations. We found that all of these indicators pointed to two broad cycles in U.S. history.

In the decades following independence, despite growing party competition, elites in office often compromised and voted together, and rising national prosperity was broadly shared. But that wave of positive conditions peaked around 1820; from there, political polarization and economic inequality rose sharply in the years leading up to the Civil War. The crisis indicators peaked in the 1860s but . . . they remained high until 1920 (the years of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Gilded Age, violent labor unrest, and the anarchists).

Then, the tide shifted, and a second wave of greater unity and prosperity began to gather strength. Contrary to expectations, World War I and the Great Depression did not produce a rise in political instability indicators. Instead, the country pulled together. The reforms introduced during the Progressive Era and clinched in the New Deal reduced inequality and strengthened the economic share of workers; during and after World War II, the country agreed on new tax policies and increased spending on roads and schools.

The 1950s were a golden age of worker progress and party cooperation; even in the 1960s and 1970s, despite serious racial conflicts, the country’s leaders were able to agree on remarkably far-reaching reforms to improve civil rights and environmental protection. However, the 1960s were a high point in our indicators of political resilience; in the 1970s and 1980s, things began to turn, and by the 1990s, a new wave of rising inequality and political divisions was well underway, exemplified by Newt Gingrich’s policies as speaker of the House. In the next two decades, the crisis indicators rose just as sharply as they had in the decades before the Civil War. It was not just that by the late 2010s, overall inequality was rising to the levels not seen since the Gilded Age; median wages in relation to GDP per capita also were falling to historically low levels.

Writing in the journal Nature in 2010, we pointed out that such trends were a reliable indicator of looming political instability and that they “look set to peak in the years around 2020.” In Ages of Discord, published early in 2016, we showed that America’s “political stress indicator” had turned up sharply in recent years and was on track to send us into the “Turbulent Twenties.”

The Political Stress Index (PSI) combines the three crisis indicators in the Goldstone-Turchin theory: declining living standards, increasing intra-elite competition/conflict and a weakening state. Growing PSI indicates increased likelihood of political violence. The Well-Being Index indicates greater equality, greater elite consensus and a more legitimate state.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic and the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police have delivered a double-barreled crisis to U.S. politics. America has reacted with a nationwide, months-long series of urban protests. But this explosion of protest is not just the result of this year’s events. The U.S. has weathered epidemics and racial protests before and produced legislation that made the country better as a result.

What is different this decade is that these events are occurring at a time of extreme political polarization, after decades of falling worker’s share in national income, and with entrenched elite opposition to increased spending on public services. These trends have crippled the U.S. government’s ability to mount an effective response to the pandemic, hampered our ability to deliver an inclusive economic relief policy and exacerbated the tensions over racial injustice that boiled over in response to the video of Floyd’s death.

Is the U.S. likely headed for still greater protests and violence? In a word, yes. Inequality and polarization have not been this high since the nineteenth century. . . .

American exceptionalism was founded on cooperation — between the rich and the poor, between the governors and the governed. From the birth of the nation, the unity across economic classes and different regions was a marvel for European observers, such as St. John de Crèvecoeur and Alexis de Tocqueville. This cooperative spirit unraveled in the mid-nineteenth century, leading to the first “Age of Discord” in American history. It was reforged during the New Deal as an unwritten but very real social contract between government, business and workers, leading to another age of prosperity and cooperation in postwar America. But since the 1970s, that contract has unraveled, in favor of a contract between government and business that has underfunded public services but generously rewarded capital gains and corporate profits.

While this new neoliberal [i.e., conservaive, pro-corporate] contract has, in some periods, produced economic growth and gains in employment, growth has generally been slower and far more unequal than it was in the first three postwar decades. In the last twenty years, real median household income has stagnated, while the loss of high-paying blue-collar jobs to technology and globalization has meant a decline in real wages for many workers, especially less educated men.

As a result, American politics has fallen into a pattern that is characteristic of many developing countries, where one portion of the elite seeks to win support from the working classes not by sharing the wealth or by expanding public services and making sacrifices to increase the common good, but by persuading the working classes that they are beset by enemies who hate them (liberal elites, minorities, illegal immigrants) and want to take away what little they have. This pattern builds polarization and distrust and is strongly associated with civil conflict, violence and democratic decline.

At the same time, many liberal elites neglected or failed to remedy such problems as opiate addiction, declining social mobility, homelessness, urban decay, the collapse of unions and declining real wages, instead promising that globalization, environmental regulations and advocacy for neglected minorities would bring sufficient benefits. They thus contributed to growing distrust of government and “experts,” who were increasingly seen as corrupt or useless, thus perpetuating a cycle of deepening government dysfunction.

How can Americans end our current Age of Discord? What we need is a new social contract that will enable us to get past extreme polarization to find consensus, tip the shares of economic growth back toward workers and improve government funding for public health, education and infrastructure.

This sounds like commonplace leftist discourse and a weak response to such extreme conditions. Let us therefore drive home both the urgency of the crisis and the possibility of changing course by looking at two historical cases where countries teetered on the brink of calamity but managed to pull back and forge a new path to progress.

The United Kingdom in the 1820s was coming apart. After defeating Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington became the leader of an elite group that sought to maintain the dominance of the traditional landlord elites. As prime minister and then leader of the House of Lords, Wellington sought to ignore, rather than adjust to, the new realities of the booming cities of Birmingham, Manchester and other burgeoning cities of the fast-growing industrial economy. Meanwhile, the workers of these cities demanded political reforms that would give them a voice in Parliament.

These workers particularly objected to the infamous “Corn Laws,” which, by placing tariffs on imports of foreign grain, kept the costs of food (and hence the profits of English landlords) high and the real wages of workers low. Following a major workers’ protest in Manchester in 1819, which was dispersed with a cavalry charge into the crowd that left an estimated 10 to 20 dead and hundreds injured (the so-called Peterloo massacre), politics in Britain became even more sharply polarized. This became one of the first incidents widely reported by journalists, and indignation spread across the country.

Nonetheless, Wellington not only refused any legal changes, he sought to clamp down on the agitation for voting reforms. New laws were passed to expand police power and block public assemblies; newspapers were closed; protestors and journalists were jailed. Still, popular agitation continued, and there was even an attempt to assassinate several cabinet ministers. The rapid growth of the industrial workforce and the new manufacturing economy produced similar pressures for radical political change across Europe, leading to waves of revolutions in 1830 and 1848. Many in Britain expected a similar outcome, yet the country avoided revolution throughout these years.

The solution was for leaders to accept the Reform campaign, which sought voting reforms that would reduce the power of the landlords and support the new industrial working class. After the growing confrontations of the 1820s, in 1830, Wellington’s Tories lost control of Parliament, and a Whig leader who supported the Reform campaign, Lord Grey, became prime minister. Grey’s initial efforts to pass a Reform bill were frustrated, and Grey threatened to have the King create enough additional Whig peers to force the bill through. The Tories then relented, and in 1832, Parliament passed the first Reform bill, which expanded the franchise, undermined the clientage of the landed elite and gave representation to the residents of the factory cities. Additional Reform bills followed, allowing Britain, despite continued large-scale workers’ movements, to avoid the revolutions that wracked the continent and emerge as the leading economy of Europe.

A century later, it was the United States that was coming apart. In the early 1930s, democracy was retreating in Europe while the U.S. economy had fallen into a depression, with a dust bowl in the Great Plains and millions of industrial workers losing their jobs. Prohibition had heightened cultural conflict and crime, while nativist demagogues (such as radio personality Father Coughlin and Louisiana Governor Huey Long) stirred fear.

Then in 1932, Americans voted for change. Franklin Delano Roosevelt replaced Herbert Hoover as president and undertook a sweeping reform program to restore work and shared prosperity. Labor organizations were strengthened, and public works programs provided jobs for construction workers, craftsmen and artists. The resulting buildings were decorated with monuments to the dignity of labor. It took years to transition to an economy based on mechanization, skilled labor, strong unions and public education, but the result was a country strong enough to fight the rising tide of global fascism and emerge as the world’s leading economy.

The formula in both cases was clear and simple. First, the leader who was trying to preserve the past social order despite economic change and growing violence was replaced by a new leader who was willing to undertake much-needed reforms. Second, while the new leader leveraged his support to force opponents to give in to the necessary changes, there was no radical revolution; violence was eschewed and reforms were carried out within the existing institutional framework.

Third, the reforms were pragmatic. Various solutions were tried, and the new leaders sought to build broad support for reforms, recognizing that national strength depended on forging majority support for change, rather than forcing through measures that would provide narrow factional or ideologically-driven victories. The bottom line in both cases was that adapting to new social and technological realities required having the wealthy endure some sacrifices while the opportunities and fortunes of ordinary working people were supported and strengthened; the result was to raise each nation to unprecedented wealth and power.

To be sure, the path back to a strong, united and inclusive America will not be easy or short. But a clear pathway does exist, involving a shift of leadership, a focus on compromise and responding to the world as it is, rather than trying desperately to hang on to or restore a bygone era.

This has already been, and will continue to be, a violent year in America. . . . It will take heroic efforts to rebuild the political center, to join businesses and workers in partnership and consensus, and to restore fairness in both taxation and public spending. Only if all sides can again recover a stake in our government, no matter which party controls it, can we avoid sliding into a crisis that will undermine our Constitution and pit Americans against each other in a way we have not seen for generations.

Unquote.

Yes, if more of us vote this year, the pendulum can swing and we can set this country on a progressive path.

Bad News (a Long Read)

Looking out the window in a pleasant neighborhood, you don’t see the problems. But they’re very real.

This is the headline of an article in Time written by a businessman and a former labor leader: “The Top 1% of Americans Have Taken 50 Trillion Dollars from the Bottom 90%”:

Like many of the virus’s hardest hit victims, the United States went into the COVID-19 pandemic wracked by preexisting conditions. A fraying public health infrastructure, inadequate medical supplies, an employer-based health insurance system perversely unsuited to the moment—these and other afflictions are surely contributing to the death toll. But in addressing the causes and consequences of this pandemic—and its cruelly uneven impact—the elephant in the room is extreme income inequality.

How big is this elephant? A staggering $50 trillion. That is how much the upward redistribution of income has cost American workers over the past several decades.

This is not some back-of-the-napkin approximation. According to a groundbreaking new working paper by Carter C. Price and Kathryn Edwards of the RAND Corporation, had the more equitable income distributions of the three decades following World War II (1945 through 1974) merely held steady, the aggregate annual income of Americans earning below the 90th percentile would have been $2.5 trillion higher in the year 2018 alone. That is an amount equal to nearly 12 percent of [Gross Domestic Product] —enough to more than double median income—enough to pay every single working American in the bottom [90%] an additional $1,144 a month. Every month. Every single year.

Price and Edwards calculate that the cumulative tab for our four-decade-long experiment in radical inequality had grown to over $47 trillion from 1975 through 2018. At a recent pace of about $2.5 trillion a year, that number we estimate crossed the $50 trillion mark by early 2020. That’s $50 trillion that would have gone into the paychecks of working Americans had inequality held constant—$50 trillion that would have built a far larger and more prosperous economy—$50 trillion that would have enabled the vast majority of Americans to enter this pandemic far more healthy, resilient, and financially secure. . .

At every income level up to the 90th percentile, wage earners are now being paid a fraction of what they would have had inequality held constant. . . .On average, extreme inequality is costing the median income full-time worker about $42,000 a year. Adjusted for inflation using the [Consumer Price Index], the numbers are even worse: half of all full-time workers (those at or below the median income of $50,000 a year) now earn less than half what they would have [if] incomes . . . continued to keep pace with economic growth. And that’s per worker, not per household.

The next article I read was written for the Times Literary Supplement by a Columbia University researcher. “The Rich and the Rest” is a review of three books. The first book describes how corporate America and the rich have waged a successful war on science for the past seventy years:

A succession of administrations have frayed the social safety net and dismantled regulatory controls. Corporate money has bought unprecedented influence in electoral campaigns and reaped unprecedented political power in return. In The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception, the epidemiologist David Michaels details many of the victories these corporate interests have won. Michaels, the former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under the Barack Obama administration, spent years weighing the survival of workers and citizens against the short-term profits of corporations. In his book, he documents not only a shocking disregard for human welfare on the part of big business, but also a co-ordinated effort to compromise the culture of knowledge itself.

Michaels painstakingly explains the way medical researchers have documented the dangers of certain consumer products and industrial processes, beginning with smoking. . . . One early study “found that heavy smokers were fifty times as likely as non-smokers to contract lung cancer”. This was terrible news for the tobacco industry, which had burgeoned with the wartime practice (in both world wars) of issuing cigarettes to soldiers as standard rations. And so the industry responded by commissioning a public relations expert to set up a “research committee” to contest the findings. Unfortunately, the findings were solid, so the mission became the manufacture of doubt. Did tobacco use cause lung cancer? The evidence suggested that it did. Was tobacco the only cause of lung cancer? Of course not. So carcinogens like asbestos and radon became excuses for quashing public health measures concerning tobacco. Over time, an army of publicists, lawyers and corrupt scientists was assembled to prolong the public agony in the interest of squeezing every last nickel from the trade.

. . . Chapter by chapter, case by case, Michaels marches through the many ways corporate greed has co-opted science, law and government, in each case following the model set by Big Tobacco. . . .

Michaels’s book follows in the distinguished footsteps of the historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, whose Merchants of Doubt (2010) described how Big Tobacco’s proxies segued into climate change denial. Once again, even when the science was near unanimous, the purveyors of fossil fuels and industrial contaminants saturated the public sphere with specious arguments and outright falsehoods. In recent years oil companies have busily diversified and invested in alternative energy, but they have simultaneously waged war against environmental regulations to maximize every bit of profit from the existing industry before they abandon it, regardless of the human cost.

The second book tells the story of the fabulously wealthy Koch family. It was Fred Koch, a chemical engineer, who saw a great opportunity during the Texas oil boom in the early 20th century:

Fred cleverly predicted that subsidiary industries such as refineries and pipelines would pave the way to great fortunes. He was more concerned with profits than with politics – he built refineries for both Stalin and Hitler – and, while a highly successful businessman, he remained a fairly ordinary oil magnate: it took his sons to transform the company into a political and economic powerhouse. As Christopher Leonard writes in Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America, Charles Koch, who was made company president in 1966, despised New Deal America.

His response was to create “a political influence network that is arguably the most powerful and far-reaching operation ever run out of an American CEO’s office … Charles Koch’s political vision represents one extreme pole in the ongoing debate about the role of government in markets; a view that government should essentially protect private property and do little else”. . . .

[Charles] turned the full beam of his method to politics in 2008, when the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress began to draft policies to respond to the climate crisis, endangering fossil fuel profits.

Koch and his associates have created a political assembly line to fund, organize and publicize an opposition. His donors’ gatherings . . . have collected millions of dollars, which have then funded organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which in turn have leveraged influence-peddling among state legislators, and funded faux “grassroots” (or “astroturf”) organizations, such as Americans for Prosperity. These have orchestrated demonstrations and door-to-door canvassing during elections. Koch-funded groups have subverted language with Orwellian flair: Americans for Prosperity promotes regressive tax policies and wage suppression; the Heartland Institute promotes the despoliation of the American landscape by sowing doubt about climate and environmental hazards.

The review’s third book deals with America’s “compound epidemic of addiction, alcoholism and suicide”, an epidemic that obviously predated Covid-19:

The Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton survey this tragic landscape in Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Case and Deaton call this situation the dark side of meritocracy, in which “the less educated are devalued and disrespected”. In this view, the collapse of social constructs, including marriage, institutional religion and trade unions, leaves people unmoored and their interests undefended. And while the elites of the past often regarded noblesse oblige and charity as the obligations of privilege and faith, modern American meritocracy, rooted in the founding religion of Calvinism, suggests that the happy “elect” are deserving of their good fortune, and that the “losers” are simply reaping what they sow. To help them is throwing good money after bad. Better to spend it on a sports arena.

The upshot is dire. The US has the highest infant mortality rate and the lowest life expectancy among industrialized nations – a situation that the Covid-19 crisis has cast into sharp relief. The US accounts for 4 per cent of the world’s population but more than 25 per cent of global deaths from the pandemic. . . .

Nowhere are the flaws of unfettered capitalism better illustrated than in the opioid crisis (here as in Michaels’s book). It is a tragically familiar tale: a powerful pharmaceutical company creates a new market for addictive painkillers by encouraging and incentivizing doctors to record pain levels as the fifth vital sign (after temperature, pulse, respiration and blood pressure). Once this subjective symptom is recorded, the drug can be prescribed, having been falsely advertised as unlikely to lead to addiction. Billions of dollars in profit are then realized, at a dire cost: to this day millions remain addicted; more than 67,000 Americans died from overdoses in 2018 alone. In this cycle of immiseration, a dysfunctional society breeds pain, then creates a revenue stream from a treatment that infinitely compounds it.

Yet millions of voters, in particular struggling White men with high school educations, support the Republican Party, the party of big business. They have their reasons, despite the fact — revealed by the study described in that Time article — that “by far the single largest driver of rising inequality these past forty years has been the dramatic rise in inequality  between white men”. Again from the Time article:

The $50 trillion transfer of wealth the RAND report documents has occurred entirely within the American economy, not between it and its trading partners. . . . [This] upward redistribution of income, wealth, and power wasn’t inevitable; it was a choice—a direct result of the trickle-down policies we chose to implement since 1975.

We chose to cut taxes on billionaires and to deregulate the financial industry. We chose to allow CEOs to manipulate share prices through stock buybacks, and to lavishly reward themselves with the proceeds. We chose to permit giant corporations, through mergers and acquisitions, to accumulate the vast monopoly power necessary to dictate both prices charged and wages paid. We chose to erode the minimum wage and the overtime threshold and the bargaining power of labor. For four decades, we chose to elect political leaders who put the material interests of the rich and powerful above those of the American people.

I’ll conclude this avalanche of dysfunction with a passage from a densely-written classic, Politics and Markets, by Charles Lindblom (I’m going to finish it this time). It was published, coincidentally or not, in 1976:

One obstruction to polyarchy [rule by the many] is the privileged position of businessmen [by which Lindblom means their tremendous control over the functioning of a nation’s economy]. It is a rival . . . to the polyarchal control of government [since government must induce businessmen to keep the economy going]. Another obstruction is the disproportionate influence of businessmen in interest-group, party and electoral politics. It permits businessmen to win . . . disproportionately in their many polyarchal struggles. . . But now suppose that the business influence strikes even deeper in a particular way. Consider the possibility that businessmen achieve an indoctrination of citizens so that citizens’ volitions serve not their own interests but the interests of businessmen. The privileged position of business comes to be widely accepted. In electoral politics, no great struggle need be fought [202] . . . 

. . . Despite universal suffrage, income distribution in the polyarchies [like the US and UK] has not changed greatly. . . In few of the polyarchies is there serious discussion, even among the politically active, of major alterations of the distribution of wealth and income. And citizens are extraordinarily ignorant on the issue. . . [208].

Two recent studies of British working-class attitudes and opinions agree in finding both a narrow range of opinion and widespread deference of working class to upper class — this in a society many of whose nineteenth-century leaders feared that universal suffrage would bring about demands for a more equal sharing of income and wealth, so obviously advantageous did they see such policies for the mass of voters. It is one of the world’s most extraordinary social phenomena that masses of voters vote very much like their elites. They demand very little for themselves [208-209].

Lindblom was calling attention to economic inequality before America became vastly more unequal. Now the public is more aware of inequality, but that’s because inequality is so much worse. Nevertheless, “masses of voters [continue to] vote very much like their elites”. What would the professor make of our situation in the year 2020? (I bet he’d recommend voting.)

A Starting Point for the Rationalists

I hear the president is on tape from months ago saying how dangerous the virus is, but that he didn’t want the public to know the facts (and protect themselves?). An impeachable offense, you say, if only his time wasn’t running out? He is also reported to have said that joining the military and possibly being killed or wounded is dumb. It’s the kind of thing losers do. And California has its worst wildfire in history as the globe keeps on warming. But I’m on a news vacation until November, so enough of that.

In May, I wrote about a philosopher, Michael Della Rocca, who argued in an interview that we should adopt monism, which I described as:

. . . the view that reality is somehow one thing; the universe doesn’t consist of many things (such as electrons and gluons, or apples and oranges). Neither does it consist of only a couple of things (like mind and matter).

I didn’t like his argument, which is why the post was called “Punished by a Philosopher”.

One of the things Prof. Della Rocca said was that the Principle of Sufficient Reason is crucial to understanding “rationalist” philosophers like Spinoza and Leibniz, and presumably Descartes, their predecessor:

Rationalism can mean lots of different things to different people, but for me the Principle of Sufficient Reason (the PSR) is central to rationalism. The PSR is the principle according to which there are no brute facts that obtain or no things that exist without an explanation. That is, each thing or each fact has an explanation. The PSR is the guiding force of Leibniz’s and Spinoza’s work. . . 

I was reminded of Prof. Della Rocca’s interview when I read an interview with another philosopher at the same site. John Carriero is also an expert on the rationalist philosophers. He doesn’t think the Principle of Sufficient Reason is as fundamental as Della Rocca does:

You ask about the secondary literature. I think scholars have become increasingly sensitive to the role that the First Principle Theory is playing in early modern rationalism. I think there sometimes remains a tendency, perhaps out of a principle of charity, to try to work around the First Principle Theory and extract something that feels less alien.

For example, sometimes scholars are more comfortable working with a (what seems to me ungrounded) “principle of sufficient reason”—or some other disembodied form of “rationality”—than thinking in terms of a really existing First Principle that is ultimate the universe’s intelligibility. Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz do hold that reality is deeply intelligible, but that’s because reality originates in a First Principle with certain features, and, for them, the intelligibility of the universe bottoms out in the First Principle’s essence. 

I don’t think Prof. Carriero denies that the rationalist philosophers endorsed the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Unlike Della Rocca, however, he just thinks philosophers like Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz believed there was something more fundamental. He calls it their (or a) “First Principle”.

I’m not 100% certain that I understand what this First Principle is supposed to be. But somebody named Uma who posts on the internet may have part of the explanation:

Aristotle defined a first principle as “the first basis from which a thing is known”.

A First Principle is a basic, essential, foundational truth that is “known by nature.” It is not an assumption or deduction based on another theory or supposition. A key element of First Principle thinking is that just because something is “known by nature” or true in the universe does not mean it has ever been articulated and described by humans.

Here’s what Corriera says about the rationalists’ First Principle in response to the interviewer (Richard Marshall aka 3:16):

3:16:  I think you position Descartes’ radical thinking in terms of a philosophical theology. So what’s the place of philosophical theology in Descartes’ work? You say something surprising (to me at least) when you say that it was probably more important to Descartes than it was to Aquinas! How come?

JC: Let’s think of philosophical theology as the theory of the universe’s First Principle: whether the universe has a First Principle, and, if so, the nature and character of that First Principle.

For Aquinas, First Principle Theory is the culmination of philosophy, what philosophy leads to. Each of the arguments for the existence of God in the Summa Theologiae —the so-called Five Ways—is based on each of the Aristotelian four causes . . .  Before you embark on philosophical theology you need to have studied the natural world, and learned what change or motion is, learned about . . . what form and matter are, and learned about the four causes and how they are related. So, for Aquinas, not only it is possible to do a lot of philosophy before you get to First Principle Theory, it is necessary to do so.

Descartes reverses this. A large part of the Meditations project is to position us as knowers within the universe, and for him that project is inextricable from philosophical theology. This means more than ticking off the “God exists” and “God is not a deceiver” boxes. It means understanding our position: this involves understanding what the First Principle is . . . , the nature of our dependence on God, how error enters a universe authored by a supremely perfect being, and, finally, seeing how all Scientia [knowledge] depends on the recognition of God. Descartes views the need to orient ourselves in this way as a sort of propaedeutic [preparatory study] that has to come before other disciplines; and so, for him, First Principle Theory does not come after natural philosophy, as it does for Aquinas.

But what is this First Principle? This is a long interview but I couldn’t find a precise definition. This comes closest:

[Descartes] thinks that Scientia requires a systematic understanding of our position as intellectual beings within the universe . . .  Achieving such an understanding involves knowing something about the First Principle of the universe (God), as the source of the universe’s intelligibility, the origin (or author) of our natures, and the Being that ultimately accounts for our minds’ being plugged into the universe’s order.

So, for the rationalist philosophers, the First Principle, apparently more fundamental than the Principle of Sufficient Reason, is God — or rather what the existence of God as a perfect being and creator of the universe means, as far as we human beings are concerned.

I think this makes a lot of sense. I don’t mean it makes sense for our intellectual starting point to be a perfect creator of the universe. I mean it makes sense that certain 17th century philosophers had that starting point. The rationalists began with their understanding of God and went on from there. Their writings are more understandable if they had God as their intellectual bedrock. It explains why God shows up in their arguments, sometimes seemingly out of the blue (like the most wonderful deus ex machina there could possibly be). Having this kind of philosophical/theological perspective explains why they rely on their understanding of God to justify so many other beliefs. 

Prof. Corriera’s view does explain a passage from Spinoza that he cites. Spinoza argues that empirically-minded philosophers or theologians who begin with the natural world and then draw conclusions about God have it backwards:

For the divine nature, which [philosophers like Aristotle and his followers, as well as, presumably, later philosophers as well] should have considered before all else—it being prior both in cognition and in Nature—they have taken to be last in the order of cognition, and the things that are called objects of sense they have taken as prior to everything. Hence it has come about that in considering natural phenomena, they have completely disregarded the divine nature. And when thereafter they turned to the contemplation of the divine nature, they could find no place in their thinking for those fictions on which they had built their natural science, since these fictions were of no avail in attaining knowledge of the divine nature. So it is little wonder that they have contradicted themselves on all sides. (Ethics, 2p10s)

The professors can argue whether God or the Principle of Sufficient Reason was more fundamental for the rationalist philosophers. Did God make things so that everything happens for a reason? Or does that fact that everything happens for a reason explain God’s presence and proclivities?

Or is there no God and stuff happens for no reason at all? That may be too cynical a view, but it’s definitely in the running.

By the way, I’m 100% certain the professors would agree that Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz would all recommend making every effort to vote for Democrats this year. God or no God, it’s the only rational thing to do.

The Light and the Dark in Christianity

Rev. William Alberts is both a Unitarian and Methodist minister. His article at Counterpunch is called “Christianity: Empathy Versus Evangelism”:

Christianity has built-in contradictions.

Certain Christians seek to empower people, while other Christians seek to gain power over them. Some Christians want to comfort people, while other Christians want to convert them. There are Christians who seek to love their neighbors as themselves, and other Christians want to make their neighbors like themselves. Certain Christians believe that people know what is best for themselves, while other Christians believe that they know exactly who and what is best for everyone. For some Christians, faith is about social justice and ethical behavior for other Christians, it is about theological orthodoxy. Certain Christians are committed to creating justice for people in this life, while other Christians stress justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone as the key to salvation in a future life.

Not that evangelizing-motivated Christians do not comfort or empower or want justice for people, but they want it on their “Jesus is the Savior of the world” terms. Their unconscious predatory paternalism prevents them from experiencing and honoring other people’s reality and beliefs and negates any real mutually respectful democratic give and take.

Christianity’s built-in contradictions are found in its scripture. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is recorded as saying that his mission was one of empathy: “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to “proclaim good news to the poor . . . liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” (4: 18,19) But the liberator was transformed into an evangelizer. In Matthew’s gospel, an assumed resurrected Jesus commissioned his disciples with, “All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you..” (28: 16-20) From identification with people to domination over people.

These contradictory biblical narratives are explained by a leap of three centuries after Jesus death. It was not until 325 A.D. that the Christian Council of Nicaea confirmed the oneness between the Father and the Son. And not until 381 did the Council of Constantinople add the Holy Spirit, finalizing the doctrine of the Trinity. . . . Evidently, the writer of Matthew’s gospel put words in the mouth of an assumed resurrected Jesus in recording him as telling his disciples: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit.” The New Testament itself contains no explicit reference to the doctrine of the Trinity.

Whatever happened to the Jews prophecy that a Messiah will come and liberate their nation and create peace on earth? Roman authorities arrested Jesus for sedition, and Roman soldiers crucified him on a cross, as they commonly crucified other would-be Jewish liberators. (See “Report of the Ad Hoc Scholars Group Reviewing the Script of the Passion”, May 2, 2003)  Instead of liberation and peace, the Jews continued to be brutally oppressed under Roman rule. Thus, obviously, Jesus was not their prophesized messiah, who would restore Jewish independence and bring them peace.

Along with his concluding emphasis on evangelism, the writer of Matthew’s gospel engaged in the horrible anti-Semitic act of blaming the victims. Roman ruler Pilate had complete power over the Jewish people, with a reputation for crucifying rebellious Jews who tried to stir up Jewish nationalism. (see “Blame Pilate, Not The Jews” by T. R. Reid, The Washington Post, April 25, 2000)  Jesus is believed to be one more such prophet. Yet Pilate supposedly made an exception of Jesus, giving in to the Jews who repeatedly shouted, Crucify him!” Pilate’s supposed next words branded the Jews with an unpardonable sin: he washed his hands of the matter, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility.” Then these words were put in the mouths of the occupied Jews, setting them up for their own persecution through the ages by Christians as “Christ killers”: “All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children.’ “ (27: 24-26) Blaming the Jews for their own historic persecution as “Christ killers” is an example of irrationality, dehumanization and violence — hardly an example of The Bible as the source of infallible truth.

Blaming the Jews, not the Romans, for Jesus’ death was timely. The Jews were turned off by Jesus’ crucifixion and their continued oppression. And blaming them for Jesus’ death would go over better in the Roman world, which became the fertile ground for baptizing people “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” In fact, the small Christian sect became dominated by Gentiles who had been pagans.

Not that these early Christians were welcomed by the Roman world. Their reported belief in Jesus’s resurrection, which led them to refuse to worship Roman gods, resulted in countless Christians being killed by wild beasts in arenas, beheaded, burned to death and crucified. The Christians’ steadfast faith in Christ in the face of death became a moving testimony to Romans, leading to Christianity being more and more rooted in Roman soil and souls.

In 380, “Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius I . . . signed a decree . . . that made Christianity the religion of the state and punished the practice of pagan rituals.” Ironically, also reported is that “non-believers were persecuted with the same fervor that was once reserved for Christians and Jews.” And, “during the coming centuries, it wasn’t just the poor that were fed in the name of Christ; critics and dissidents were murdered in the name of the Lord as well.” (“Christianity becomes the religion of the Roman Empire – February 27, 380” by Matthias von Hellfeld)

Empathy versus evangelism. Power over people, more than morality, is believed to motivate Christians who believe The Bible is literally the Word of God. Here faith is about authority, not authenticity.

The centuries following are replete with instances of evangelizing Christians using the power of the state to explore other lands and exploit their inhabitants. In 1495, Pope Alexander VI “issued a Papal Bull,” the Doctrine of Discovery,” which “aimed to justify Christian European explorers’ claims on lands and waterways they allegedly discovered, and promote Christian domination and superiority.” (“Doctrine of Discovery”, Upstander Project)

Howard Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States that, upon arriving in the Bahamas, Columbus reported: “‘The Indians are so naive and so free with their possessions . . .’ He concluded his report by asking for a little help from the majesties and in return he would bring them from his next voyage ‘as much gold as they need . . . and as many slaves as they ask.’ “ Zinn added that Columbus “was full of religious talk: ‘Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities.’”

The U.S. was “discovered” and expanded on the bodies of Native Americans – and on the backs of black Africans forced into slavery. Christians justified slavery with biblical passages, such as Paul the Apostle’s admonition: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” (Ephesians 6: 5)

The Doctrine of Discovery itself is reported to be “the inspiration in the 1800s for the Monroe Doctrine which declared U.S. hegemony over the Western Hemisphere, and Manifest Destiny, which justified American expansion westward by propagating the belief that the U.S. was destined to control all land from the Atlantic to the Pacific and beyond.” . . . This usurping of Native American land was justified in biblical terms, with a number of U. S. presidents equating America with Jesus’ teaching: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5: 14)

. . . Jesus is recorded as teaching, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7: 12) He is also recorded as declaring, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14: 6) The one path leads to human solidarity. The other path supports state imperialism. . . .

Unquote.

State imperialism, among other things, is on the ballot in November. Please vote and choose wisely.

Rev. Alberts included several paragraphs describing the Republican National Convention, which emphasized “the sowing of enmity toward other peoples, not the cultivation of empathy, and the use of evangelistic Christian nationalism to legitimize imposing America’s will on them”. For those who are interested: another link to his article.

On Attempting to Control the Extended Use of Authority

I’m reading a book I began reading 40 years ago, but never finished: Politics and Markets by Charles E. Lindblom. Page 130 is the last place I put a mark, an asterisk, next to an especially interesting passage.

I bet if Prof. Lindblom, who died in 2018, had lived to write a new edition, he would have described our current president’s actions with understanding, mixed with disdain. This is from chapter 9, “Politics: The Struggle over Authority” [pp. 129-130]:

People struggle ferociously, . . . first over who will win authority and then over attempts to control those who have won it. However, the struggle goes, the pattern of authority always remains to some significant degree uncontrollable because of ever present possibilities, open to anyone who holds authority, to give it what we have called extended use.

However much the exercise of authority is hedged about with constraining rules, people with authority can always find some loophole to make possible its extended use . . . 

In Western history, the liberal constitutional movement has to be seen as a multiple response to this state of affairs. It was — perhaps first — a movement to convert an often deadly struggle for authority into peaceful procedures so that non-contestants could escape the pillage common to armed contests for authority and losers could go on living and enjoying their property.

It was secondly an attempt to achieve some predictability in the struggle for the use of authority — that is, to move at least modestly toward making the machinery of government systematically controllable in a purposive way (not yet controllable by the masses but by a nobility, merchant group, or middle class). In this attempt, the movement sought to curb the extended use of authority by laying down constitutional restrictions on how rulers might use their authority — to forbid, for example, a ruler’s extended use of his taxing authority to persecute a political adversary.

This attempt to limit authority will perhaps never run its course. The ease with which authority can be given extended use was revealed once more in the history of the Nixon administration and will repeatedly be revealed again [you said it, professor].

A third response of the liberal constitutional movement is the audacious attempt to institutionalize through detailed rules a high degree of mass or popular control over top authority. Since . . . government is in large part simply uncontrollable, since everybody controls it in complex, unpredictable, and ever changing ways, this third aspiration will always be frustrated. But it persists. The democratic faith is that any significant accomplishment in this direction is greatly to be prized.

In the next chapter, we look at this audacious attempt at popular control. Democratic designs amend, though they never replace, the underlying struggle for authority described in this chapter.

Unquote.

We have our chance to exert some control over authority, especially its remarkably extended use, in our upcoming election. I’m convinced Prof. Lindblom would have voted and wanted you to vote too. 

PS: Not following the news is boring but restful. I did hear that the president said something about political provocateurs (or maybe it was snakes) on a plane, but that’s all that’s leaked through this week.