martedì 2 agosto 2011

Obama, the crisis and Rawls

In 1971, 40 years ago, John Rawls published a "A theory of justice", a fundamental book for political philosophy. Among other things, Rawls identified the "maximin" criterion, for which a society where the least advantaged are in a better position has to be chosen.
The USA are the greatest democracy in the world and a land for opportunity. They represent a model for most countries, thanks to the spirit of association of its citizens and to its well functioning institutions. But the agreement to avoid the default of the USA showed the strenght of lobbies, of self interest, of a limited vision of society. In the next 10 years the default will be reduced by cutting social spending, whereas President Obama was not able to increase taxes on the highest incomes.
I think it is a bad signal not only for the American democracy, but also for the Western world. When the biggest economy in the world cannot reduce some of the inequalities of its society, then there is something wrong. A terrible crisis has affected the world in the last years, mainly because of greed and lack of transparency, but the market fundamentalists have stated it was due to State intervention. The same people would tell us that a more fair distribution of wealth in the American society should be called "socialism". They are the same against whom Amartya Sen underlines that Adam Smith did not found its theory only on self interest (he, the father of political economy, was a teacher of moral philosophy).
This is not what liberalism should be. This is caused by the poor moral standards of our time. This is what utilitarists lead us to. Things should change, and Obama could still do it, even though he lost a great chance.

giovedì 30 giugno 2011

On our freedom.

An interesting thing to be observed is that new measures of welfare are explored today. E.g., there is an agreement on the fact that GDP cannot express the whole wealth of a country.
Some years ago Amartya Sen won the Nobel prize by introducing functional capabilities or substantive freedoms in the economic theory and it certainly has great merits in going beyond the utility approach, which can be unfair in terms of wealth distribution and rights. Martha Nussbaum has included in a list of ten capabilities the following: bodily health, bodily integrity, senses, imagination and thought, emotions.
On the other hand, when it comes to freedom, in my opinion the hardest part to get through is asking oneself: how much am I free? This leads to another question: is freedom desirable? And, as a first point: what is freedom?
To me, the surprising thing is that freedom is always used as an adjective, so that we have "free markets" or "free thinking", as if it had no specific connotation or its negative meaning (absence of constraints) was too much clear to be defined. A remarkable thing is that in English (but not in Italian), the word "free" is used both to indicate a "subject who has freedom" and "something for which we do not have to pay". Maybe the greatest bound in the Anglo-Saxon world is considered the economic value of an object, which reduces the subject's possibility to get it.
In the ancient world freedom had a deep interior connotation, for which it would be possible to become free by losing one's body (according to Plato) or also inside a jail. This had strong links with not being subject to passions, whereas today these are "masked" by constantly reshaping our often induced needs. Kant limited the freedom to a consequence of moral duty ("you must, then you can"), representing an even more distant model for the humanity of the 21st world, for which "freedom" and "morality" are often mutually exclusive.
But that leads us to the aspect that I consider more relevant: the liberal model that promised happiness through the limitations of public power in the private's choices did not live up to its proclaims, and not just for distributional problems.
In a world where most people can choose the best instruments to reach their own aims, too much indifference  is reserved to the choice of the latters, or to a rational definition of objectives. Maybe pollution or bubbles in the real estate sector are side effects of the fact that we are not asked to declare the reason why we spend three hours a day in a car or we have to sleep in a greater bedroom to feel good. But maybe we are not asked because it is too well known that having a job implies having to reach the place where we work, and having to consume implies having a job. So, to the extent that the reason why we get up in the morning is not well known, is decided by the others or left to the case, where is the world's freedom in 2011?
Someone said that "the truth makes us free", but if everyone has his own truth, then freedom is also subjective, and it is clearly delusional, momentary, debatable. The "tolerant" world where "everybody's freedom ends where the others' one begin" gave us a poor version of democracy, reduced to voting, a poor version of economy, limited to consuming, and maybe a poor version of life, confined to "doing what I (am forced by circumstances to) want" (even spending hours in a social network, if others do the same). That's why relativism (maybe) is a risky business, also for freedom.

lunedì 27 giugno 2011

On "same-sex marriage"

I am sure most celebrations in New York, related to the decision of Governor Cuomo on same-sex marriage, are moved by good faith and by a genuine desire of freedom.
I am also sure that gays and lesbians have been and are objects of terrible discriminations, connected with ill frustrations and violence.
Moreover, I am sure of a third thing. The reasons why this blog has not many readers (apart from its debatable quality, of course) has a lot to do with what I would like to say on same sex marriage: it has poor marketing. On the other hand, this is a space that I could leave tomorrow, and that is just a sign of my current thoughts on some issues.
Well, I think that celebrating too much same-sex marriage could imply the risk to forget its dark side (everything has got one).
Starting from the rights of individuals, and even considering that every union is founded on the will of two people, I do not see a serious reason why equality between single persons (hetero and gays) should lead to an equal valuation of their "families" or unions. This is a world where Catholics, e.g., are asked to leave their belief in a private sphere, because every other exhibition of their values would be a form of ingerence in society. Then, I do not see why love or every kind of affection between two people should have a public, formal approval (marriage) to have the same dignity of other unions. Is really love reduced by not being disclosed to the whole world?
This leads to my second thought on same-sex marriage. I think that concentrating just on "marriage as a right" could hide a risky conception of freedom, reducing it to the "freedom to follow the herd". Is really free and source of freedom the desire to encapsulate one's feelings in an exterior, particular shape as marriage? I think that the decision of Governor Cuomo did not have any influence on the equal dignity of gays and lesbians, which is the same also in States and countries where same-sex marriage does not exist. Or do we want to say that same-sex unions which do not lead to a marriage have less value than the others? I do not think that the freedom of gays and lesbians should consist in following the same, often empty and insincere rituals between a man and a woman.
The third aspect relates more to the other side of freedom: responsibilities. Of course, there is a huge amount of supposed "normal" families which are full of violence against children and between parents. But, keeping away any reference to religion, it would be difficult to say that a "same-sex marriage" is fully open to  the natural condition of becoming a parent and to the responsibilities that it implies. This is quite relevant for a society in which a lot of resources are invested in education of children.
Last but not least, I think that the same dignity of gay, lesbian and heterosexual individuals should made us look for a unique form of "freedom", which is really far from us. Even if the whole world thought that same-sex marriage is a right, how would be managed the difference between rich, gay or lesbian people on one side, and poor, gay or lesbian individuals on the other? The different possibilities of individuals have a lot to do with the material, materialistic dimension we live in, more than with the particular form of our sexuality and I do not think that someone may be a free gay or a free lesbian, until he or she is not a free human being. Well, how can we be really free when huge inequalities are in our societies, when workers are mainly "human resources", when helping the poor is just a "social activity" and when the greatest/untouchable right is the right to consume? If same-sex marriage is mainly a way to let firms sell their products to two men or two women, increasing their profits, or to let parties choose their leaders, preferring "married people" to the singles, then it's not a matter of right or wrong, of "true" marriage or something different: it risks to be just the usual, banal stuff.

mercoledì 22 giugno 2011

Marco Pannella: a really strange politician for Italian standards

I have been listening to Radio Radicale since the summer of 1999, with a few periods of interruption. I managed to know quite well most ideas of a radical politician who is really particular in the Italian context: Marco Pannella. He would talk of "life of rights" as necessary for the "right to live", of the last 60 years as an unique "regime", opposed to any supposed second republic, and other stuff.
Anyway, I am sure Italy could be known quite well for Berlusconi's adventures, or even Bersani's opposition, not so much for Pannella's ideas. But the story of a man, a former MP, who is now 81 and who has not been eating anything (apart from taking 3 cappuccinos per day) since last 20 April must be kind of unique. The current initiative of the radical leader is aimed at making people be aware of the terrible conditions lived by people detained in Italian jails and, more generally, the continuous violations of rights committed by Italian institutions, against their own laws. Marco Pannella has also stopped drinking in the night between last Sunday and Monday. Today Italian TV began to show him and listened to what he had to say, but this is one among several similar initiatives that Pannella has undertaken in the last 30 or 40 years.
Now, I do not share some of Pannella's ideas, but the strenght of his efforts, and his particular way of giving concrete consistency to what he thinks about law and rights is just -let's say it- amazing. In Italian politics, with the Italian politicians we have, it is a form of wonder, I would say, of which it would be a crime not to be fully aware.
So, thanks to Marco Pannella.

How much growth we could give up

The world seems always concentrated on growing, and any negative performance of GDP is a source of concern. It seems like patience and tolerance are considered important just because they make us accept economic figures for what they are, and years as a period of austerity, whereas they were supposed to be full of wealth and prosperity.
The biggest threat (and the most precious opportunities) for the Western world comes from China, because of its stunning economic performance. The sovereign debt crisis itself underlines the importance of growth in order to recover public finances and respect the conditions for stability.
At the individual level, the possibilities that most of us desire are connected with social mobility, i. e. the proportion of richness we are eligible to, improving our economic conditions, making our "dreams" true.
I am not convinced by the ones who criticize the GDP as an indicator of happiness, but without clearly identifying viable alternatives.
Nonetheless, I think there is a question that we should ask ourselves: how much growth could we give up in order to look for such alternatives?
I live in Italy, where entire decades have been lost in terms of economic growth, especially under centre-right governments. But just in the recent weeks some form of social cohesion has emerged, in representing the troubles of many families and individuals, made more difficult by the crisis. If solidarity, more reflection, and a sincere analysis of injustice could substitute egoistic and limiting attitudes, I would be ready to accept more stagnation in the following months, and even years. A society with mere consumption and without ideas cannot survive for a long time.

giovedì 16 giugno 2011

The Greek affair

There is a clear distance between the ones who would favour a restructuring of Greek debt - e.g. through a Brady Plan, as suggested by the Economist - and the European Central Bank, which keeps on underlining the need for further fiscal efforts in that country.
I think that a default would be a huge blow for the euro area, and a problem also for the US, as Obama said, but I do not know if we'll be able to avoid it at this stage. Apart from the economic consequence of the current situation, it seems clear that the states are considered just an instrument for reassuring markets and for their proper functioning. Their bonds are priced as private bonds, and what matters is just the sustainability of debt, and the risk it involves, not the origin of debt.
On the other hand, the State should also provide services and public goods to citizens, following principles such as transparency and accountability, whereas Greek accounts were clearly object of a fraud by the previous government. Any way should now be tried in order to avoid the default and to find the resources needed by Greece, but I think people protesting in Athens have good reasons. When someone wants you to pay for someone else's mistakes, I don't think you would like to  reflect on the importance of staying calm and reassuring investors. So, I  can really understand Greek people (and I hope there won't be any spillover to Italy and other "PIIGS countries").

mercoledì 15 giugno 2011

Thoughts for a total lunar eclipse

While I am writing (exactly now) the eclipse is at its maximum but I cannot see it because of clouds. I read in Wikipedia that "the next central total lunar eclipse will be on July 27, 2018".
Things change so fast that I would be curious to know how the world will be in 7 years. And I also think the possibility to know with great precision the time of future eclipses does not change the fascinating and endless beauty of such a phenomenon. In a way, we could live the time between two eclipses just to verify if our disappearing moon is more striking than anything we have happened to see since the last time.
I guess it would not be a great problem to understand that in our everyday life a few things are a real surprise, even though we had not foreseen them. The worst thing would be finding out that we do not miss the first eclipse we have seen, and, most of all, the silent astonishment that it gave us. 
Predicting is not dominating, and real things just happen.