At the Edge

Commentary on the Big Issues

Month: December 2016

Anti-LGBT Laws

LGBT discrimination still exists today, even in the United States, despite the fact that Obergefell v. Hodges solved for a major portion of it. It’s disgusting and despicable, and with this (very brief) post, I hope to highlight a specific issue on LGBT rights: “religious freedom” laws. 

There are still 29 states in which individuals can get fired for being gay, or face similar abject discrimination just because of who they are. Take the case of Casey Stegall, a children’s social services worker who was fired just because of his sexual orientation. That’s the sort of thing that happens in America — progressive America. Why? The push from the Republican Party’s religious right, of course, in the form of bills such as the First Amendment Defense Act and Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

All of these bills claim to be for the “preservation” of religious freedom, but the real objective behind them is obvious — this is a push against the LGBT+ community. In other words, they want to give people the right to destroy other people’s lives — making them unemployed, denying them healthcare or education, etc. — simply because they’re against the “religious principles” of those people. And by “they are against,” I’m saying that their existence is against the reactionary religious beliefs of certain individuals (including this bunch of far-right politicians).

The classic example of this form of discrimination is the example of people refusing to bake the cakes of LGBT individuals. That is hardly the main focus here. The main focus is cases such as those when hospitals can turn away LGBT people even in cases of emergency, causing the deaths of individuals. It’s when huge corporations can exploit LGBT individuals because of their conservative inclinations, by firing individuals, and thus destroying their lives, because of their sexual orientation. This should be reason enough to reject such despicable laws: engineered to rid individuals that don’t fall into the far-right’s precepts of their lives.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. This is a vast threat to social justice that the conservative establishment wants. Because they don’t care about the people as much as they care about their pathetic principles. The way these laws form a crux of politics is despicable, and they should be rejected with the deepest fervor.

Campaign Finance Reform

I firmly believe in the freedom of speech, but I only believe in that liberty for individuals. Human rights do not apply to inanimate entities such as corporations — corporate personhood is a facile notion. Giving corporations rights to “free expression” by allowing them to exercise financial power over politicians is giving possession of capital substantially more political power as an attribute. In other words, in rules of law where there are no limits on corporations funding political campaigns to advance their interests, democracy is eroded. Rich individuals and corporations could simply be kingmakers by (1) directly funding political campaigns and essentially structuring the policies of politicians, (2) funding media institutions to influence public perception by deeply biased, and even false, political commentary and (3) generally manipulate the public by dumping their money wherever necessary.

This is a problem both in Asia and in the West. In the U.S., the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC essentially declared multiple campaign finance restrictions unconstitutional as violative of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech. The notion that some powerful corporation that simply wants to advance its interests must have its free speech prioritized over the people is fundamentally undemocratic.

The reason it is fundamentally undemocratic — as is the facile legal notion of “corporate personhood” — is that, in a democracy, political power must be decentralized. In other words, individuals should be able to play equal roles in democratic decisionmaking. When corporations can pay candidates as much as they want, then (1) there is no level playing field between various candidates because of the amount of money they have, as an extension of which (2) candidates essentially do whatever the corporations ask them to do, irrespective of whether they promised to do something of the sort, and irrespective of whether there’s a benefit to the people involved, and (3) people are deliberately manipulated in various ways, and their decisionmaking is infringed upon. Here, it is point (2) that is least obvious, and requires critical analysis.

For-profit institutions, generally, look toward short-term benefit or gain, over long-term stability of the market. Generally, public corporations have an ownership structure that requires them to impress their shareholders, so that there’s more investment, for which short-term profit is necessary. As such, corporations require the government to create conditions where their short-term goals are most profitable. That’s why corporate lobbies exist, and they’re willing to breach basic ethics to achieve their objectives. In the United States, the sugar industry has funded the deliberate publication of misleading scientific studies on the effects of sugar. In India itself, there was some level of advocacy to replace cooked midday meals with packaged biscuits under government midday meal schemes in schools. There are even larger corporate interests in question, and those are best fulfilled by placing candidates desirable to corporations in office.

The reason this is erosive of fundamental democratic values is that it is contradictory to the principle of “one person, one vote.” If each vote is to have equal value, then no corporation or individual should have greater political influence than any other. Of course, this is a utopian or quixotic ideal: but every step toward it is an objective social good. Erosion of democratic institutions is objectively harmful to social stability as a whole.

Thankfully, in India, we do have restrictions on the level of influence that individual or corporate wealth has on politics. But there have been multiple criticisms of these restrictions as “undemocratic.” I’m not qualified to do an in-depth analysis on the level of political influence campaign finance is used for in India, of course, but the notion that these restrictions are undemocratic is a myopic one. It is myopic because corporations are not people, and so don’t deserve the same legal rights. Money is not speech. At the point at which corporations looking to short-term financial gain have more power over government than the people, which they already do, what we’re looking at isn’t a democracy: it’s an oligarchy.

Campaign finance is not the only way corporations exert political influence — they will continue to use indirect, nefarious means to create conditions for their short-term objectives to be achieved. But at the point at which there are no restrictions on the structure of campaign finance, corporate managers can just buy elections directly. The enormous power of corporate lobbies, thus, is enhanced by such loose regulations. To be sure, none of this is a criticism of corporations or capitalism. I am not a socialist, or an anarchist. I’m a capitalist — a bitter one, but a capitalist nonetheless — so I am not opposed to corporations in principle. Most people aren’t. I am, however, opposed to the wreckage of the political system.

Issues such as health care costs (which affect both human welfare and long-term economic stability through their influence on productivity) and environmental protection (which is basically the most important issue of today) are affected by corporatist control: because there will always be vested interests against these long-term measures simply for the short term objective of profit. For example, lobby firms have spent millions of dollars fighting healthcare reform measures by President Obama. Similarly, multiple corporations back think tanks that deny the scientific consensus on climate change. At the point at which those very corporations gain the ability to exert direct and powerful influence over election, there’s no doubt they’ll push these interests — which are objectively harmful to long-term economic stability, and to society as a whole.

Every time a corporation buys an election, a battle in the war for democracy is lost. Only when the campaign finance system is reformed to prevent such intervention can true progress be made.

Reflecting on President Obama

It is official — successful businessman Donald Trump is the next President of the United States. In one month, President Obama will resign, and President-Elect Trump will take the oath of office. Let’s take this time to reflect on Barack Obama’s presidency, and how it has benefited both the United States and the world.

File:President Barack Obama.jpg

President Obama’s official photograph in the Oval Office on 6 December, 2012.

In 2008, everyone had high expectations of U.S. Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. He promised a strong recovery from economic recession, affordable and accessible healthcare, tax reliefs, and a strong, stable foreign policy. Unfortunately, he hasn’t fulfilled all those promises — partially due to a Republican-dominated legislature and general opposition from U.S. legislators; for instance, his proposed infrastructure investment and a minimum wage hike were both voted down by Congress.

Still, he has proven himself one of the most productive presidents the U.S. has ever had. He began by swiftly signing an $800 billion fiscal stimulus bill, and started tax relief measures, to boost competition and productivity in the midst of economic recession. In a span of two years, unemployment figures drastically dropped. With the heavily controversial Affordable Care Act, he ensured that the costs of health insurance dropped by 7%, the rate of price inflation of healthcare premiums dropped from 69% in the Bush administration to 27%, and millions of people gained health insurance. In his first term alone, he made substantial investments in clean energy, further strengthening his robust job creation schemes. Finally, his bailouts of the automobile industry ensured an end to the vicious cycle of private sector jobs in the auto industry being destroyed.

In terms of foreign policy, his accomplishments have been equally substantial. It has largely been conducive to advancing international stability, with the notable exception of intervention in Libya. Now, there’s little doubt that U.S. foreign policy has always been particularly ruthless — and has engaged in the destruction of lives — but President Obama’s foreign policy was substantially better in that regard. While Secretary Clinton’s stint as Secretary of State undoubtedly resulted in a lot of unnecessary military intervention, President Obama largely tried to prevent wars or other economic conflict, with negotiations that led to the hugely successful Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Agreement to deal with climate change, and the normalization of relations with Cuba.

Regarding social policy, he has strongly advocated — and succeeded, at least partially, in gaining — substantially greater inclusiveness for Americans belonging to the LGBT community, which began in 2010 with the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and climaxed with briefs to the Supreme Court that made illegal state-level same-sex marriage bans (Obergefell v. Hodges). His veto of the Keystone XL pipeline authorization and support for restrictions on hydraulic fracturing have, alongside the Paris Agreement, advanced the quest toward combating climate change at the domestic level.

There’s no doubt that, for instance, his foreign policy leaves much to be desired — but, I daresay, no post-WWII president has had a more stable and stronger foreign, economic, or social policy as President Obama. He didn’t live up to expectations, but he did give the people of America, and of the world, substantial change: change that we can believe in.

India’s Demonetization Gamble

The Indian government made news at the announcement at what they declared was “demonetization,” a “revolutionary” move in which 500 and 1000-rupee notes ceased to be legal tender in India after November 9, 2016. It was hailed as the beginning of the war on tax evasion and black money, with the aim of forcibly destroying a substantial amount of black money, requiring proof of the means by which amounts of wealth in five-hundred and thousand rupee notes were acquired at the time of bank exchange. The popular Indian opinion is also  overwhelmingly in favor of the move, and multiple businessmen and capitalists have hailed it. Businessmen Anand Mahindra, Sajjan Jindal, Kunal Bahl, Narayana Murthy, and others all hailed the move. But it also met with vast criticism from reputed figures such as Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and former professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University Prabhat Patnaik.

People gathered around ATM of Axis Bank in Mehsana, Gujarat. Credit: Nizil Shah (own work).

The above image is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. It has been taken from Wikipedia, which in turn credits the picture to Nizil Shah. 

While I disagree, often, with the foundations of this criticism, and am even willing to accept demonetization as a mechanism to combat black money in theory, I think the implemention of demonetization has left much to be desired, and has been counterproductive to the social welfare of the people, while failing to produce a net greater revenue. I argue that demonetization poses the following harms:

First, the rural poor who lack the infrastructure to set up deposit accounts have now had their money and finances — held in cash — completely devalued. But even the rural poor who do have access to accounts are struggling. As Padmapriya Govindarajan explains: 

Even those who do have access to accounts among them struggle with ill prepared banks and post offices, small and dispersed in number, and the need to take off several crucial hours from work – sometimes in vain.”

Second, socially ostracized communities, such as the transgender community and sex workers, are disproportionately cut off from banking systems. The level of systemic discrimination and marginalization against them has caused them a substantially greater hit from demonetization. The impact of demonetization on sex workers has been analyzed. Bindiya Chari of The Times of India explains by citing an example of a group of sex workers:

Half-a-dozen sex workers, who travel to Panaji from Vasco every day in search of clients . . . said their business has dwindled since the demonetization move.

Third, refugees, who are similarly cut off from banking systems because they lack requisite documents and are still undergoing a lengthy documentation process, see months of their savings go to waste. To quote examples from The Hindustan Times:

“Chetan Achu, a native of Tharparkar in Pakistan, is an engineer who moved to India four years ago [as a refugee]. He works on contract basis. ‘I used to get cash in instalments from my employers but now after this decision of demonetization, my employers say they cannot pay cash.’ Dileep Singh, another refugee, said they approached banks but because they do not have any bank account or identity proof, banks have refused to exchange cash for them. ‘We are shocked how we will be able to change our cash?’”

The reality: they can’t. And driving people who are already suffering to worse conditions lacks in even the thinnest veneer of justice.

Additonally, there are two glaring economic harms from demonetization. First, economic productivity. Workers are stripped of productive hours as they wait for hours in ATMs and banks wanting to exchange money, and failing to meet those very objectives. This has a direct impact both on the human welfare of these workers and on economic productivity. Second, the enforcement costs of demonetization are substantial. The need for ATMs to be filled more often and the burden on banks cannot be ignored. Note that this does not constitute a net harm, but cancels out the positive effect of gaining black money. For now, this is, of course, not quantifiable. But considering the substantial uncertainty here, it is impossible to deny that the effects of demonetization on minorities and marginalized groups is sufficient to justify the notion that the impacts might just be negative.

None of the supposed benefits of demonetization holds up to scrutiny. The benefit from regaining black money?—?government revenue?—?is small because it is substantially mitigated by the amount of money lost by the government in the process, and the definite slow in GDP growth.

In terms of “fighting terrorist networks,” the human cost still outweighs because terrorist networks can still gain money and resources?—?the impact is merely temporary and mild. And since terrorism does not rely way too much on operational costs, it was largely unaffected.

Demonetization has been a blow to the weak: the shameful, staggering human cost ignored by the elitists who proposed it. The certainty among the public following demonetization was mired by truth, and by uncertainty.

My Politics

In this post, I’m going to explain what my general political philosophy is, so that you guys (readers) can better understand what filters I’m applying when I articulate my opinions. So, here’s what I believe in terms of political philosophy:

I. Rule Utilitarianism

In broad terms, I ascribe to rule utilitarianism. Let me start by explaining what “utilitarianism” is, and then explain what the specific kind of utilitarianism I ascribe to implies.

Utilitarianism is a moral philosophy — that means it tries to explain what actions people, in general, should do, and what we shouldn’t do. In application to the government, what it does is evaluate, very broadly, the purpose of the government. In essence, utilitarianism states that the best action is one that maximizes “utility.” It defines utility as:

… the sum of all pleasure that results from an action, minus the suffering of anyone involved in the action.

It all began with a philosophy in Ancient Greece called hedonism, which held that all action has the objective of achieving happiness or pleasure. Aristotle articulated this as eudaimonia, which means “human flourishing” or welfare. In his works, Aristotle claimed that eudaimonia is the highest good. Much later, the Christian philosopher Saint Augustine wrote in his Summa Theologica:

All men agree in desiring the last end, which is happiness.

In essence, hedonism argues that all of us act in order to maximize our own positive mental states (i.e. we perform actions to fulfill our “desires,” and a positive mental state is the mental state when a desire is fulfilled) and minimize the negative mental states of ours (such as suffering).

This was first translated into a political philosophy by certain Confucian thinkers in China, and by Italian political philosopher Nicollo Machiavelli. In essence, they argued that the purpose of the state was to work for the people, and fulfill the objectives of the people. They created a political philosophy where the ends justify the means: the ultimate end being the *aggregate* good of the people (i.e. the aggregate desire of the people). As such, every action taken by the state had to weigh costs and benefits, and make decisions based on the net positive mental states produced as a result.

Utilitarianism was first developed as a moral philosophy by Jeremy Bentham, who defined morality as that which maximized utility. Bentham explained, defining the fundamental axiom of utilitarianism,

It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.

One radically different idea that Bentham brought out was the idea that pleasure and pain were the only considerations for moral action, and, as a direct result of that, all individuals that could feel or perceive any interest subjectively were considered actors to whom morality applied: not in terms that all those individuals have moral obligations, but rather, that all of them have moral rights. In other words, many animals and humans were, as per his philosophy, morally equal. But, at the same time, Bentham acknowledged that animals did not act based on their choice or considerations, and therefore, claimed that they were free from moral obligation. But, at the same time, humans had a moral obligation toward them.

The idea of utilitarianism was further expanded upon, and spread, by the works of influential 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill noted that the “maximization of utility” was not based solely on the number of people who faced a positive or negative mental state. It was also based on the magnitude of that mental state. If a single individual was being tortured, the pain would outweigh, for example, the pain felt if ten people underwent needle pricks.

Now, to better understand utilitarianism, let us consider a situation known to philosophers as “the trolley problem.” The situation is articulated by Wikipedia as follows:

“There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the most ethical choice?”

According to utilitarianism, the right choice is to pull the lever, because the interests of five people outweigh the interests of one person. Of course, we don’t have a lot of information (e.g. the sadness faced by a family, etc.), but assuming each person would generate an equal amount of suffering with their death, that would be the right thing to do.

Now, utilitarianism is divided into two forms: act utilitarianism, and rule utilitarianism.

Act utilitarianism looks to maximize pleasure and minimize pain in the short term, at a much smaller level. Under act utilitarianism, all moral rules are negotiable. By contrast, rule utilitarianism tries to establish certain clear moral rules that — in the long term — will act as a net benefit to humanity. Let me give you an example to illustrate the difference.

Say there are four people suffering from kidney failure, liver failure, respiratory failure, and cardiac failure respectively. The question: Would it be justified to kill one person in order to harvest their organs and save the lives of the four people? Under act utilitarianism, the answer is “yes.” However, rule utilitarianism takes a more nuanced approach. Rule utilitarianism holds that the answer is “no,” and the reason for that is that by allowing, morally, random individuals to die for more people to survive, you are creating a substantial sense of fear in society, since *anyone* could be picked. In addition, you are causing social instability by directly going against the aggregate *desires* of society, since — if any of us is asked that question — none of us is going to want to kill that one random individual. As such, rule utilitarianism establishes a moral *rule* to not kill random people to save others in society because it would lead to massive social unrest/instability. But, under rule utilitarianism, every rule has exceptions.

If you want to understand utilitarianism better, watch Crash Course Philosophy #36: Utilitarianism.

Why do I support utilitarianism in terms of the role of government?

The answer is simple. The purpose of government is to act according to what the people want, because the people *are* the government. The government was instituted in the first place to be a body that acted according to the wishes of the people. And utilitarianism weighs the aggregate interests of the people against each other by balancing the fundamental interests (i.e. rights) of every individual.

This leads me to two implications of utilitarianism, which become the second and third portions of my political beliefs.

II. Harm Principle

The first implication is that, under utilitarianism, the government should have its limits. Unless a clear limit is placed on the government, the state basically gets the moral power to do whatever it wants. At the small level, it could infringe on bodily autonomy by banning abortion… or it could go all the way to committing genocide. John Stuart Mill thought he had a way to prevent that. He articulated a limit on the government known as the “harm principle,” which, he explained:

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

In other words, it states that the government should *only* prevent “harm” to people who don’t consent to that harm. If someone wants “harm” to happen to them, then that’s their prerogative. For example, if someone makes a choice to have cosmetic surgery, or eat unhealthy food, then that’s their choice entirely and we can’t stop them from doing it. Harm, here, is defined as inducing a substantial negative mental state (e.g. suffering) weighed against the harms of preventing that mental state from occurring (e.g. excessive government control). For example, hate speech, in some contexts, would still be permitted. This is fundamentally utilitarian in nature because utilitarianism is about allowing the people to do what they desire, consistent with what other people desire, and the harm principle does exactly that. But there are also a few conditions that make the “choice” in question legitimate. For one, the person making the choice must understand the consequences of the choice (i.e. it must be an informed choice). In addition, the person making the choice must be mentally able to truly understand those consequences. That’s why we set age limits on choices such as consumption of alcohol, as well as why we try to get information regarding, for example, the effects of unhealthy food to the public.

A logical extension of this principle is simple: the best utilitarian end is liberty. Liberty is defined as the freedom to perform an action, or the absence of restraint. If people desire something, they act to achieve that desire. Thus, they should be free to achieve those desires insofar as they do not restrict the desires of other individuals. Therefore, by extension, the role of the government is to preserve the liberty of individuals, consistent with liberty of other individuals. But this liberty is not truly enjoyable unless the government has secured society from internal threats (e.g. poverty, lack of healthcare) and external threats (i.e. international relations). I think people should be guaranteed certain basic and fundamental rights (e.g. the right to life, the right to food security) so that they can enjoy said liberty. However, it is ultimately their choice as to whether they wish to *exercise* those rights (e.g. I would want to provide universal health insurance but would allow them to decline treatment if mentally able to make that decision).

Thus, the balancing of rights comes into play, and the role of the government turns to one, more specifically, of “justice,” i.e. giving each their due. A balancing of rights decides what policy decisions are to be taken.

III. Democracy

The second implication of utilitarianism is the need to ensure social instability. This is because, in a society or civilization, we are always at the risk of failing, due to multiple threats, both internal and external. And securing ourselves from these threats is of utmost importance regarding the purpose of government.

To prevent social unrest, therefore, democracy is the best means of government, and we must seek to employ as much public participation in the political process as possible. There are two reasons. First, without democracy, we fail to adequately reflect the values of society as a whole; lacking which, there is the risk of social and political instability. The long-term social stability of a nation, and to sustain a political system without backlash, is very important. Second, only a democracy allows the government to act based on what individuals desire. The democratic process is about individuals voting on referendums or elections based on their own self interest, and the *aggregate* of this self-interest is translated into the overall good of society. Third, democracy allows for the decentralization of political power.

The third point is the one that needs expansion. To maintain adequate liberty, the core principle under the maximization of said liberty has to be the decentralization and equal distribution of political power, as well as of property. The reason for this is that if power is concentrated among a few individuals, then there will inevitably be restraint on freedom exercised by those individuals. Monopolies of corporations, for example, restrain the freedom of individuals to buy products from separate dealers. Furthermore, to reflect the values of the people, only decentralized zones can sufficiently ensure said social stability. This is because the values of people and interests of them will differ based on region, and political power needs to be placed separately in the hands of separate communities. Finally, decentralization of power gives people control over economic planning that affects themselves, allowing, directly, for the maximization of liberty.

What is my political ideology?

My political ideology is framed based on the above three considerations. Ultimately, I believe in the absence of restraint, the decentralization of political power, and the preservation of social stability as a whole. As such, I identify with the ideology known as social liberalism, which believes in maximizing liberty of individuals consistent with liberty of other individuals, given the fulfillment of certain basic and fundamental rights by the government (e.g. healthcare, education, employment, and food security). I also believe in recognizing certain basic rights of nonhuman animals, including a right against needless suffering (see my post on animal rights for more expansion). That’s my ideology insofar as the practical needs of society are concerned.

However, the logical endpoint of the three above observations is a different, albeit unachievable, outcome known as anarcho-syndicalism or libertarian socialism. It is a society based on the principle of liberty, divided into various decentralized localities, where all individuals work and where there is no true monetary system. The workers control the planning of the economy and provide to all other workers healthcare, education, and employment. Private property either does not exist (i.e. socialism), or is distributed evenly (i.e. distributism). Unfortunately, this society is unattainable, so we need to work with what we have, the best means of ensuring which is social liberalism. I deviate from conventional social liberals today in many ways, but, broadly, I believe in maximizing social and economic liberty and justice. An unjust law is no law at all.

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