Friday, October 25, 2013

TBA readings 10.31

A quick note about paper 3: several people pointed out that I had the paper due a week earlier on the assignment than on the course schedule. Since the latter is our official calendar, let's go by it and have the paper due on the later date. The official schedule also has us doing peer editing again Thursday, and this will give us time to do another round of editing on this

In short: peer editing again this Thursday 10.31, paper 3 due Wednesday 11.6 at 12 pm.

For this coming Thursday, read this account of the recent kerfuffle surrounding revelations of spying on American allies.  Then check out this piece analyzing some of the implications of the story. 

Finally, check out this brief piece. It's very short, yet like the piece we read on socialism, it offers a broad based plan for a massive social change in very specific and precise terms.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Paper 3 - Theoretical Approaches to Issues

The goal of Essay #3 is to take us one step closer to producing our final term paper by going a little bit deeper into an issue of interest to you. In the last essay, we produced an informative argument that attempted to clarify misconceptions and highlight the most important aspects of an issue. Basically, you created a framework to help an intelligent layperson first approach an issue in a general way. In this essay, we will focus less on explaining the broad outlines of a topic and instead provide a slightly more in-depth, less introductory account that presents one or several theoretical, critical, ideological, or ethical approaches to a particular issue. Your paper should pick both a specific theoretical approach or critical tradition and a specific issue, and it should make these as narrow and focused as possible. 

A theoretical paradigm is not the same thing as a stance. Rather, a paradigm represents a way of understanding an issue, one that informs one or several sets of underlying stances. The same stance or position can arise from very different theoretical approaches, and different stances or positions can arise from similar theoretical approaches. For example: if I were comparing different paradigms regarding the reform of Social Security using private accounts, I might argue the following: "This dispute arises from the theoretical tension between the neoliberal and the social democratic understanding of what Social Security, and the welfare state more generally, are and should be. Whereas neoliberal proponents of private accounts see Social Security as akin to an individual investment, and thus have no problem with the system leading to radically different payouts to beneficiaries depending on the performance of those accounts, social democratic proponents of changing merely the financing of Social Security see the program as part of the safety net designed to provide a minimum standard of retirement income regardless of how much an individual may have paid into the system before retirement." 

As you can see, once again it is best to focus on an aspect of an issue, and a paradigm or paradigms related thereto, that are as specific as possible. You are free to explore the implication of one theoretical approach, or you can compare and contrast many approaches. You could explore, for example, the Austrian approach to monetary policy, or you could compare that with the Keynesian approach. You could explore how modern philosophers in the tradition of Smith and Hutcheson approach a moral issue, or you could contrast the modern and the original approaches. You could also, for example, examine the Marxist take on the recent financial crisis. If you compare different perspectives, they need not be from radically different ideological camps. It would be perfectly acceptable to demonstrate how the same ideology can also lead to different policy prescriptions as a result of subtler differences.

Bring a rough draft of the paper to class on Thursday, October 24th. The final paper will be due Wednesday, October 30th by 12pm. The final draft should be 4-6 pages in 12 point Times New Roman Font with 1 inch margins. Use MLA to cite your sources, and use at least 3 peer-reviewed sources. Make sure that you use parenthetical citation to indicate whenever you are using information from one of your sources, and do not cite a source in the works cited unless you refer to it in the body of the essay. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

TBA reading 10.17

Thanks again for your presentations this week. Here is the article on the so-called "Third Golden Age" of television. We can also use next Thursday's class to address any leftover questions and issues from the presentations, and we can continue to address the debt ceiling and other ongoing issues.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

TBA reading for 10.10

I forgot to ask for a discussion topic last Thursday, but with the news dominated right now by one thing basically, it seems like we might end up talking about the ongoing disputes over the government shutdown and the debt ceiling in any case. So check out the information and some of the links on this page, and bring your questions to class.

The other class also wanted to discuss the phenomenon of the so-called "golden age of television," and here's a good article  that discusses it. I'll check with you on Tuesday to see if this topic might be of interest, but in the meantime you can take a look at the article and see how you feel.

Finally, here's a suggestion for an optional audio piece, along with my analysis of how it fits in with the Ackerman piece. We can talk about the latter this week, and I'll be interested to get your take on my argument below.

For those interested in the article on a feasible socialism that we read for last week, the above podcast provides a useful counterpoint. Recall that one of Ackerman's main arguments for a type of socialism that goes above and beyond the traditional welfare state is that without the former the latter is ultimately quite unstable: as long as wealth inequality exists alongside the public investments and wealth transfers that constitute the welfare state, these benefits will face constant attack from powerful interests, even if they are popular. Ackerman, interestingly, flips the classic argument for choosing socialism over the welfare state on its head: instead of seeing the welfare state as a second best solution that bribes the populace into submission and prevents them from demanding a more radical form of socialism, Ackerman argues that socialism is necessary simply for the mass benefits of the welfare state to continue and expand. It is not false to believe that there really could be some better, more moderate alternative to a fully-fledged socialism; it is simply that this alternative needs a fully-fledged socialism to realize its full potential. The welfare state, in Ackerman's final analysis, is simply unworkable under our current economic system.

The interview with Tyler Cowen may lend credence to Ackerman's argument. Cowen offers what he understands as a mere impartial prediction of the future trends of the economy. However, when I contemplate his argument in light of Ackerman's piece, I start to see it as confirming Ackerman's argument that the welfare state will basically fall apart if current trends continue the way they have.

However, Cowen's argument is in a way even more pessimistic than Ackerman's, and actually offers a reason why Ackerman's solution could be appealing not simply to those on the left. Cowen suggests an outcome worse than the simple continuance of the welfare state: one in which the benefits of the welfare state itself become increasingly concentrated among the older and wealthier individuals. Cowen claims that inequality will worsen in the future as a larger share of economic gains accrue to those who have the skills necessary to design, repair, and work with sophisticated technology. Disproportional benefits will accrue to those who own capital, who can develop their human capital through sophisticated education, or who have rare and valuable talents and skills. Along the way, he says, this wealth concentration will erode political support for government policies that benefit a broad sector of the population without eroding political support for government policies that benefit relatively well-off sectors.

Now for some reading this, this may seem an exciting and hopeful prospect: demolishing the welfare state in any form is still an improvement. But Cowen is talking not simply about transfer payments and other forms of benefits--which by the way overwhelmingly go to the middle class under our current system, not the poor, and which Cowen thus argues will continue--but about public investments. Cowen actually thinks that things like Medicare will fare relatively well in the future since relatively well-represented and politically powerful groups rely on it. Even if those benefits continue, he argues that public investment in education will almost certainly decline, as the older and wealthier suck up a larger portion not simply of income but of government resources.

One of the scariest parts of his argument for me is the prospect that traditional education will increasingly become a luxury reserved only for those who can pay for it. Of course, public spending on education would not go away completely. The problem with this would be that education is not simply a benefit to the individual but to the society at large. An educated population is more productive and an essential part of  a modern, competitive economy. Investment in education will continue in Cowen's predicted world, but for the vast majority of people this will essentially represent a form of glorified self-help. They will have to struggle through online or computer-mediated education. Some will thrive, but others will not. The results will be that those who have the basic personality traits that allow them to complete self-directed educational programs will do well, as will those who have the financial means to afford higher education. Because many of the traits that encourage self-discipline and curiosity are a product of previous educational attainment, and because that will increasingly be linked with economic status, success in either of these tracks will essentially correlate highly with socioeconomic status.

What this will mean is that at a time when education is becoming more crucial for success, we will start erecting barriers for more and more students to attain it. What Cowen does not say, but which becomes clearer when comparing his argument to Ackerman, is that this outcome would be the result of a political choice and not simply of an economic necessity. We will be wealthy enough in the future to afford to expand traditional education while preserving much of the welfare state, even those portions that benefit the middle class. While some very narrow sectors of the economy might benefit from spending less on education--Cowen again cites older individuals with their disproportional political power--on the whole it will make us less well off. Perhaps we can "afford" to be less well off, in the sense that the future will already be quite affluent. But more affluence, and access to that affluence through widely available social investments like education, represent a possible alternative to Cowen's vision, or some hybrid welfare state version of it in which an educated elite redistributes income to the lower orders through taxes and charitable contributions.

Cowen's analysis of the political dynamics of this future suggests to me that Ackerman just might be right. If we are to avoid a future of stagnation for the vast majority, one which can only be ameliorated through a relatively vulgar system of redistribution of income, it might be necessary to disrupt the current structure of ownership of capital. This would not simply serve to underscore and strengthen a broader based welfare state. It might actually serve to head off a worse version of the welfare state, one in which the relatively rich and privileged extract benefits while the poor and lower middle rungs of society flounder.