David Kennedy on remaking our technocratic world

KennedyIn today’s world, expert opinion is particularly revered in political and economic life. But as experts engage one another on a terrain of irresolvable argument, a world of astonishing injustice and inequality is born.  David Kennedy’s new book, A World of Struggle: How Power, Law, and Expertise Shape the Global Political Economy draws on his personal experience working with international lawyers, human rights advocates, and an array of humanitarian strategists. The book reveals the power struggle occurring between those who have a stranglehold on the knowledge and those who don’t, arguing that expertise can be used to promote justice rather than inequality. Recently, Kennedy agreed to answer a few questions about his book.

Why a world of “struggle?”

DK: In this book, I try to reframe the international situation less as order or system than as a continual struggle, hence the title, A World of Struggle. When speaking about international affairs, the social sciences often start with conflict – a Hobbesian state of nature or the competitive market of Adam Smith – and then work to explain how things nevertheless turn out well ordered: through a “balance of power” or “invisible hand.” In my picture, thousands of conflicts undertaken by all sorts of people at once generate the world we live in, including terribly unjust things it seems impossible to change. Struggle and conflict are more prevalent and constitutive of our everyday world than we realize.

You write about knowledge and expertise – aren’t economic and military power more important in global struggle?

DK: It’s true, I am particularly interested in the role of ideas. I do think they’re more important than we realize. Although we think of international affairs as an arena of raw power, a great deal is argument and assertion. People drop bombs to “send messages” and transform economic power into a better deal through negotiation. In the shadow of coercion more often than through force.

People in places like Davos or Washington tell lots of stories about the world: stories about what an economy is, what politics can accomplish, about the limits and potential of law. Their stories make some problems visible, some actors central – and others invisible. The technical work people undertake as they struggle in the shadow of these stories arranges the world, distributing wealth, status and opportunity. In the book, I examine big ideas about things like economic development, international law or world trade to understand how they frame and fuel everyday battles for advantage among businessmen, bureaucrats, politicians and citizens.

Are experts too important in world affairs? Lots of people criticize the European Union, for example, as “technocratic” and decry the “democracy deficit.”

DK: Our world is a technocratic one. Experts have lots of authority and it is difficult to change things without speaking their language. And, as we all know, technocratic language is as prone to irrationality, confusion and conflicting objectives as any other. But “expertise” is not the exclusive province of specialists and professionals. All of us, from politicians, to entrepreneurs, to activists speak some vulgate version of languages once owned more exclusively by “experts.” As a result, it is not so clear there is a “political” or “democratic” alternative once democracy and rulership have themselves become technocratic practices.

To me, the problem is not experts run rampant, displacing more appropriate political, ethical or commercial ways of thinking. The problem is all of us – our human capacity for responsible decision and political engagement has been dulled. Or perhaps, like professional talking heads, we’ve all embraced the reassuring comfort of thinking we “know,” rather than face the anxiety of having to choose.

How does your work fit into the literature about “expertise?”

DK: Other studies of “expertise” focus on what makes expert knowledge distinctive. I focus on the continuities between their work and that of many others. Expert knowledge is human knowledge: a blend of conscious, semiconscious and wholly unconscious ideas, full of tensions and contradictions, inhabited by people who thing, speak and act strategically. If you think “expertise” is distinct from politics, you will worry about keeping experts and political leaders in their respective places. At the global level, this constitutional concern is less pressing because there is no constituted political alternative. It really is expertise all the way down. As a result, I worry less about the proper boundaries for expert knowledge and focus instead on the how of expert rule: the modes of public reasoning that arise where practices of power and the articulation of ideas intersect.

What about law? How important is law in world affairs?

DK: Very. People struggle over legal arrangements because they matter. The domain outside the nation is neither an anarchic political space nor a domain of market freedom immune from regulation. The basic elements of global economic and political life – capital, labor, credit, money and liquidity, as well as sovereignty and right – are creatures of law which could be put together in lots of ways. We forget how strange it is that if you own something here, you also own it when you get off the plane elsewhere. Yet, as businessmen and military leaders well know, our international world is the product of intense and ongoing projects of regulation and institutional management. A global production chain is a complex set of legal arrangements, cross-cut by all kinds of formal and informal norms, public and private regulation. Small changes in the rules can shift who wins and who loses.

Law is often at struggle because it distributes: allocating and protecting gains from economic activity or political conflict. Law is also a tool of struggle: I claim a legal privilege to put you out of business; you claim the legal authority to prevent me from combining with rivals to do so. I claim the right to overfly your territory or protect your minorities – or you claim the right to shoot down my plane and attack my humanitarian convoy.

Although we think of law as a source of order – the “legal order” – or as a vocabulary for criticizing government – as with human rights — I focus on the distributive role of law and the resulting push and pull about what it means and how it should operate.

Law does seem to be everywhere today – what has fueled its expansion?

DK: The ubiquity of law owes less to lawyers than to the appetite all kinds of people have for a common and malleable language of engagement. As law has become ever more diverse or plural, it has also become more prevalent. Law’s malleability both encourages people to assert their interests as legal rights – even when their interests are opposed – and opens numerous paths for settlement. The legal vocabulary today is widely available for both ethnical assertion and strategic pragmatism. In this, modern law is typical of many sophisticated expert practices: those who use it do so with a strange blend of confidence and disenchantment. Unfortunately, in the process, people can lose their ethical moorings: that, I believe, is the triumph and tragedy of global rule by expertise.

You offer “modern law and modern war” as an example of the contemporary powers and tragic consequences of expertise. What’s different now?

DK: Warfare has become ever more entangled with law as law has lost its distinctive clarity. Law now shapes the institutional, logistical and physical landscape of war and the battlespace has become as legally saturated as the rest of modern life. At the same time, law has become more malleable, the doctrinal materials used to distinguish war and peace or legal and illegal state violence ever more fluid. No longer a matter of clear rules and sharp distinctions, international law speaks with many voices. As it has become a more plastic medium, law has enabled a strategic management of war’s boundaries – when war ends, when it starts, what damage is collateral and what not. It now offers everyone a vocabulary for marking legitimate power and justifiable death. People everywhere can find reason to affirm their cause and decry the perfidy of their opponent.

When things go well, modern law can provide a framework for talking across cultures about the justice and efficacy of wartime violence. More often, the modern partnership of war and law leaves all parties feeling their cause is just and no one feeling responsible for the deaths and suffering of war. Law and war have become oddly reciprocal, communicating and killing along the boundaries of the world system, at once drenched in the certainty of ethics and detached from the responsibility of politics.

You end on an optimistic note – that people could pull back the dysfunctions of expert rule.

DK: I certainly hope they might. It would require inhabiting our expertise in a new way, less as pragmatic and sophisticated strategic actors than as people for whom, as Max Weber once wrote, politics is a vocation: with passion, with proportion and with responsibility in an irrational world that cannot be known or predicted. My proposal is not an escape from expertise or institutional recipe for its better use. It is a habit of mind, a personal and professional practice, to harness a long tradition of heterodox intellectual and political work to change the world. And to cultivate the ethical possibility of acting when we realize we do not know.

David Kennedy is the Manley O. Hudson Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for Global Law and Policy at Harvard Law School. He is the author of The Rights of Spring: A Memoir of Innocence Abroad; Of War and Law; and The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism, and the editor of The Canon of American Legal Thought (with William Fisher) (all Princeton). His most recent book is A World of Struggle: How Power, Law, and Expertise Shape the Global Political Economy.

Authors Matthew Gordon Lasner and Nicholas Dagen Bloom on the urban housing crisis

The Great Housing Squeeze

by Matthew Gordon Lasner and Nicholas Dagen Bloom

Affordable Housing in NY 2

4.16. Bell Park Gardens, Queens, ca 1949, courtesy Joe Lapal.

As American cities, especially along the coasts, have become centers of global wealth the high cost of housing has become an urgent problem. From Boston to the Bay Area and the South Bronx to Santa Monica, rents and sales prices are up. In New York City, housing inequality has become Mayor Bill de Blasio’s top priority, while in San Francisco several initiatives designed to cool the housing market appeared on this year’s ballots. In Los Angeles families now spend a record share of income on housing: an average of nearly 49% for renters and 40% for homeowners with mortgages. What caused this crisis and what, if anything, can be done about it?

Affordability problems in housing are deep-seated. The market has never housed most Americans well, especially in urban centers. As millions flooded into cities in the nineteenth century, two neighborhood archetypes quickly emerged: the Gold Coast and the slum. As early as the Civil War, observers worried that there were few decent options for working and middle-class families. By the 1920s critics like Lewis Mumford complained that what options there were unsuitable. Those who could afford to pioneered a third alternative: the suburb. Families who could not afford ownership or the commute, moved to row houses and steam-heated apartments in outer sections of cities.

The Great Depression, when millions lost their homes, prompted bold action. Since the 1910s East Coast reformers had argued that nothing short of government subsidies could improve living conditions for working families: tax breaks and low-interest loans for building rental housing, and long-term mortgages with low down payments for homeowners. With American resistance to government intervention at its nadir, President Roosevelt introduced these programs as part of the New Deal.

The impact was dramatic. Cities that wished received money to raze tenements and build public housing. Loans were made to non-profits for middle-income apartments. Most famously, the Federal Housing Administration guaranteed mortgages for modest single-family houses meeting certain social and physical requirements including, most egregiously, that they be racially segregated. Coupled with a robust postwar economy and progressive federal income taxes, the quality of housing for nearly all Americans rose substantially.

But commitment to government aid in housing was tenuous. Even many moderates questioned the value of public action, especially when it was seen, incorrectly, as chiefly benefiting poor people of color. This misconception was sustained by the fact that most beneficiaries, who in reality were middle-class and white, received housing aid that was largely invisible, through mortgage insurance and tax deductions for property taxes and interest payments.

As a result, directly subsidized housing became stigmatized, especially when it was highly visible, as in Modernist high-rises, whether public housing or middle-income complexes, like New York’s Co-op City. Los Angeles cancelled its public housing program entirely in 1953. Nationally, public housing, along with several middle-income programs, ended in the 1970s amid a deep recession and a racist backlash against spending on poverty programs. In an era of urban disinvestment and population loss, few alarms were raised.

Today, however, many U.S. cities have seen a reversal of fortunes. Surging immigration, new lifestyles, and the growth of specialized service industries like media, tech, and finance have meant an influx of people and money. Developers have responded with new construction. But intensifying market pressure at a time of growing income inequality has meant that much of this housing is out of reach of working and middle-class families, while competition for existing homes is pushing re-sale prices and rents to record highs, leading to displacement.

Affordable Housing in NY 5

5.25. Twin Parks NW, Bronx, 1973, courtesy Lo-Yi Chan.

Cities have responded creatively. Working in partnership with developers and non-profits, and with begrudging support from Washington — chiefly in the form of tax credits for private construction of low-income apartments — over the past 25 years builders have created more than 1.5 million affordable units in cities and suburbs. But subsidies are shallow and expire as quickly as after 15 years. And because programs are allocated to states on a per capita basis rather than by need, high-cost cities like receive insufficient support. Few programs benefit middle-class households.

Even though the federal government spends $46 billion a year on housing subsidies, many cities have been overwhelmed by the buoyant market. This is perhaps most evident in rising “rent burdens”: the percentage of income both tenants and mortgage holders spend on housing. But it is also apparent in unprecedented homeless populations (nearly 45,000 in Los Angeles County and 60,000 in New York City) and, at least in New York, the hundreds of applications made for each subsidized apartment that we manage to build, and in the long waiting lists for public housing, vouchers, and popular middle-income developments.

Worse yet, we see it in the proliferation of modern-day tenement slums. Hundreds of thousands — mostly uncounted — now live in illegally sub-divided houses and apartments in New York’s outer boroughs and in places like Fairfax County, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C., unprotected by tenancy laws and basic occupancy and fire codes.

Some might argue that families unable to make market rents should simply move: to cheaper suburbs like the Poconos or L.A.’s Inland Empire, or out of expensive regions entirely. Millions have. But many already face daunting commutes, particularly those who do not own cars. And often the best opportunities for upward mobility including good jobs, schools, and social services remain in expensive markets. Meanwhile, cities need diverse populations: bankers and businessmen, but also bakers and bartenders, teachers and artists.

To address these problems, we must renew our commitment to government aid for both low- and middle-income housing. The federal government spent untold billions during the foreclosure crisis bailing out the mortgage industry. It gives away $195 billion a year in income-tax deductions to homeowners — mainly, studies show, higher-income ones — despite the fact that this money has not been proven to boost rates of ownership. Cities would be better served if this windfall were used to stabilize neighborhoods through proven programs that create affordable housing. Urban change may be inexorable but as a society we have the power to manage it. What we need now is the dedicated political will to do so.

BloomLasnerNicholas Dagen Bloom is associate professor of social science and director of the Urban Administration program at New York Institute of Technology. His books include Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century. Matthew Gordon Lasner is assistant professor of urban studies and planning at Hunter College, City University of New York. He is the author of High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century.

Conversations on Climate: Economists consider a hotter planet on PBS Newshour

NEW climate picIn Climate Shock, economists Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman tackle the likely prospect of a hotter planet as a risk management problem on a global scale. As 150 world leaders meet in Paris for the UN Conference on Climate Change, both took the time to speak to PBS Newshour about what we know and don’t know about global warming:


Everyone is talking about 2 degrees Celsius. Why? What happens if the planet warms by 2 degrees Celsius?

Martin L. Weitzman: Two degrees Celsius has turned into an iconic threshold of sorts, a political target, if you will. And for good reason. Many scientists have looked at so-called tipping points with huge potential changes to the climate system: methane being released from the frozen tundra at rapid rates, the Gulfstream shutting down and freezing over Northern Europe, the Amazon rainforest dying off. The short answer is we just don’t — can’t — know with 100 percent certainty when and how these tipping points will, in fact, occur. But there seems to be a lot of evidence that things can go horribly wrong once the planet crosses that 2 degree threshold.

In “Climate Shock,” you write that we need to insure ourselves against climate change. What do you mean by that?

Gernot Wagner: At the end of the day, climate is a risk management problem. It’s the small risk of a huge catastrophe that ultimately ought to drive the final analysis. Averages are bad enough. But those risks — the “tail risks” — are what puts the “shock” into “Climate Shock.”

Martin L. Weitzman: Coming back to your 2 degree question, it’s also important to note that the world has already warmed by around 0.85 degrees since before we started burning coal en masse. So that 2 degree threshold is getting closer and closer. Much too close for comfort.

What do you see happening in Paris right now? What steps are countries taking to combat climate change?

Gernot Wagner: There’s a lot happening — a lot of positive steps being taken. More than 150 countries, including most major emitters, have come to Paris with their plans of action. President Obama, for example, came with overall emissions reductions targets for the U.S. and more concretely, the Clean Power Plan, our nation’s first ever limit on greenhouse gases from the electricity sector. And earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a nation-wide cap on emissions from energy and key industrial sectors commencing in 2017.

It’s equally clear, of course, that we won’t be solving climate change in Paris. The climate negotiations are all about building the right foundation for countries to act and put the right policies in place like the Chinese cap-and-trade system.

How will reigning in greenhouse gases as much President Obama suggests affect our economy? After all, we’re so reliant on fossil fuels.

Gernot Wagner: That’s what makes this problem such a tough one. There are costs. They are real. In some sense, if there weren’t any, we wouldn’t be talking about climate change to begin with. The problem would solve itself. So yes, the Clean Power Plan overall isn’t a free lunch. But the benefits of acting vastly outweigh the costs. That’s what’s important to keep in mind here. There are trade-offs, as there always are in life. But when the benefits of action vastly outweigh the costs, the answer is simple: act. And that’s precisely what Obama is doing here.

Read the rest on the PBS Newshour blog.

Wagner coverGernot Wagner is lead senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund. He is the author of But Will the Planet Notice? (Hill & Wang). Martin L. Weitzman is professor of economics at Harvard University. His books include Income, Wealth, and the Maximum Principle. For more, see www.gwagner.com and scholar.harvard.edu/weitzman.

 

Zimmerman talks sex education at the American Enterprise Institute

Zimmerman jacket

Too Hot to Handle by Jonathan Zimmerman

Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education is shaping up to be one hot book for spring. A long format conversation with author Jonathan Zimmerman recently appeared in Globe and Mail, and he was interviewed (live and available to stream) for WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show. Zimmerman published “Can Sex Ed be Universal?” in Foreign Affairs, the book was excerpted on PopMatters.com, and was the subject of a feature on Vox.com as well.

This past Thursday, the American Enterprise Institute hosted a conversation with Zimmerman. Taking a look at the differences in sex education between countries and throughout history, he explains how, as countries become more democratic, sex education has become more contentious.

Check out Zimmerman’s American Enterprise Institute talk here.

 

Congratulations Martin Ruhs, Winner of the 2014 Best Book Award for the Migration and Citizenship Section of the American Political Science Association

Martin RuhsThe Migration and Citizenship Section of the American Political Science Association has named Martin Ruhs’s The Price of Rights: Regulating International Labor Migration  the winner of the 2014 Best Book Award in the Migration and Citizenship category. The judging committee lauded Ruhs for his “innovative, rigorous, and very comprehensive treatment of the subject of international labor migration” saying additionally that his “command of knowledge and research skills demonstrates the best practices of scholarship.”

Martin Ruhs is an Associate Professor of Political Economy at the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education and a Senior Researcher at COMPAS. He is also an Associate Member of the Department of Economics, the Department of Social Policy and Intervention and the Blavatnik School of Government. Ruhs’s research focuses on the economics and politics of international labor migration within an internationally comparative framework, which he draws on to comment on migration issues in the media and to provide policy analysis and advice for various national governments and institutions.

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Martin Ruhs is the author of:

The Price of Rights The Price of Rights: Regulating International Labor Migration by Martin Ruhs
Hardcover | 2013 | $35.00 / £24.95 | ISBN: 9780691132914
272 pp. | 6 x 9 | 13 line illus. 16 tables. |eBook | ISBN: 9781400848607 | Reviews Table of Contents Chapter 1[PDF]