"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Question Authority? Always!

A month ago David Brooks wrote an article for the New York Times (6.11.12)http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/12/opinion/brooks-the-follower-problem.html in which he described what he felt was an ambivalence concerning authority, and he gives as an iconic example the monuments that have been constructed to honor past American leaders:

If you go to the Lincoln or Jefferson memorials in Washington, you are invited to look up in admiration. Lincoln and Jefferson are presented as the embodiments of just authority. They are strong and powerful but also humanized. Jefferson is a graceful aristocratic democrat. Lincoln is sober and enduring. Both used power in the service of higher ideas, which are engraved nearby on the walls.

The monuments that get built these days are mostly duds. That’s because they say nothing about just authority. The World War II memorial is a nullity. It tells you nothing about the war or why American power was mobilized to fight it. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial brutally simplifies its subject’s nuanced and biblical understanding of power. It gives him an imperious and self-enclosed character completely out of keeping with his complex nature.

Instead of celebrating the power and authority that these men used to great ends, we diminish them by celebrating aspects of their life, character, and personality that had little to do with leadership.

As Michael J. Lewis of Williams College has noted, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial transforms a jaunty cavalier into a “differently abled and rather prim nonsmoker.” Instead of a crafty wielder of supreme power, Roosevelt is a kindly grandpa you would want to put your arm around for a vacation photo.

The proposed Eisenhower memorial shifts attention from his moments of power to his moments of innocent boyhood. The design has been widely criticized, and last week the commission in charge agreed to push back the approval hearing until September.

Even the more successful recent monuments evade the thorny subjects of strength and power. The Vietnam memorial is about tragedy. The Korean memorial is about vulnerability.

We are in an era where because of misplaced ideas of populism.  Both the Occupy and Tea Party movements have demanded popular rule over the rule of the elite and a return to rugged individualism and a citizen-run state.  The power rests with the people more than ever, the devotees of these popular uprisings insist, and that a trust in, let alone obeisance to privileged public and private authority is unthinkable.

Why are we in such a state?  Brooks first plucks the low-hanging fruit:

Some of the reasons are well-known. We live in a culture that finds it easier to assign moral status to victims of power than to those who wield power. Most of the stories we tell ourselves are about victims who have endured oppression, racism and cruelty.

Then there is our fervent devotion to equality, to the notion that all people are equal and deserve equal recognition and respect. It’s hard in this frame of mind to define and celebrate greatness, to hold up others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves.

This may in fact be true.  The signs of this so-called ‘equality’ are seen from the classroom to the boardroom.  Inclusivity, cooperation, and participatory behavior are the buzzwords of today.  Excellence, superiority, talent, and strength are not only not recognized, but demeaned in misplaced notions of social fairness.  But this does not really answer the question of why we are so mistrustful of power and authority:

But the main problem is our inability to think properly about how power should be used to bind and build. Legitimate power is built on a series of paradoxes: that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it; that great leaders are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs. The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials are about how to navigate those paradoxes.

This passage gets at important issues – the nature of power and leadership and its relationship between the governing and the governed.  However, history provides illustrative lessons that challenge some of Brooks’ assumptions.  It is questionable whether leaders wielding power are aware that they are being corrupted by it.  Shakespeare’s works tell us a lot about the nature of power and its use; and in no cases in his Histories, from King John to Henry VIII, do the kings reflect on their progressive corruption. While many reflect on what it means to be king (especially Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI) and to be isolated and a constant prey, all are consumed by the need to accede to power, to secure it, to defend it, and to extend its perimeters.  While Henry IV famously opined “Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown”, he was as ambitious in his quest for power as any, reflective as it was of the self-protective and acquisitive nature of Man, and necessary for survival. 

Regarding Brooks’ reflection on the dilemma of rulers – being of the people but ruling over them – Shakespeare has perhaps the most eloquent example.  Henry V in a number of well-known passages admits that he is only a man, and that without ‘ceremony’ – the pomp, dress, and court of a king – he would be no different from any commoner. Disguised, he sits with common soldiers from the working class and expecting to receive adulation, hears criticism.  Why, for a tenuous claim to the French throne, did he subject so many to death and mutilation?  Although Henry considers this, he goes on to his most heroic battle, Agincourt, winning against five-to-one odds and losing only 25 men to the French 10,000.  In other words, in Shakespeare’s mind, these more humble considerations are nothing compared to his singular quest for triumph.  

Brooks’ final suggestion, that the higher rulers rise, the more they consider themselves instruments of some higher power, is obvious.  Everyone from Napoleon to John Edwards has been guilty of this hubris – and just about every leader before, between, and certainly afterwards, are guilty of this. 

What Brooks ignores is the self-justification that goes on in the minds of rulers.  Henry V went through a torturous examination of lineage and international history to come up with the flimsiest reasons for him to take the French throne.  George Bush, Jr. had already made up his mind to invade Iraq and sought every possible excuse to justify it.  Everyone does it, and it is part of the arrogation of power that comes with power.

Brooks concludes with the following:

Maybe before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of following. Democratic followership is also built on a series of paradoxes: that we are all created equal but that we also elevate those who are extraordinary; that we choose our leaders but also have to defer to them and trust their discretion; that we’re proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority.

This is wrong-headed.  The responsibility of every citizen is to suspect, challenge, and doubt all leaders.  The President may be one of us, but because he has had the often blind ambition to see that office, and the venality and self-serving manipulation of others to get it, he is most definitely not ours.  There is no leadership problem, says Brooks, there is a ‘followership” problem.  Whereas he is right to question the ability of the common man to study the question of leadership, to assimilate the many lessons of history, and to reflect on the wisdom of the ancient Greeks; he is wrong to suggest that the populist sentiments of both the Left and the Right have no place in the debate.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf takes exception to Brooks http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/06/excessive-deference-to-leaders-corrupts-them/259164/

What cannot be squared, in my mind, is the insight that leader worship makes it harder for people in power to behave honorably, and the simultaneous argument that we need to be more admiring of our leaders. I do not mean that we should be disrespectful or them, nor of any other human being.  We ought to be skeptical of their intentions, knowing that power corrupts; and we ought to challenge them, for if having worshipful sycophants inflates one's self-importance, what better corrective than dissenters confident enough to convey that the leader has erred in his or her judgment? More than anything else, we ought to constrain the power leaders wield.

Gene Healy in a book called The Cult of the Presidency, agrees that we are ambivalent about the power of our leaders, but feels not because our conviction that power corrupts absolutely, but that we citizens have ascribed to them such a wide array of responsibilities and personae – without identifying the most important – that it is becoming harder and harder to bring them to task:

The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws. He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise. He--or she--is the one who answers the phone at 3 a.m. to keep our children safe from harm. The modern president is America's shrink, a social worker, our very own national talk show host. He's also the Supreme Warlord of the Earth. This messianic campaign rhetoric merely reflects what the office has evolved into after decades of public clamoring.

It's difficult for 21st-century Americans to imagine things any other way. The United States appears stuck with an imperial presidency, an office that concentrates enormous power in the hands of whichever professional politician manages to claw his way to the top. Americans appear deeply ambivalent about the results, alternately cursing the king and pining for Camelot. But executive power will continue to grow, and threats to civil liberties increase, until citizens reconsider the incentives we have given to a post that started out so humble (quote by Healy in The Atlantic article)

In conclusion, all three writers are partially right.  Brooks is accurate when he describes the popularization of power and the promotion of diluted, flaccid notions of participatory governance; and right when he looks back to the days of the Founding Fathers who had in mind limited government and a strong, independent citizenry as an ideal; but wrong in assuming that the same rules apply.  Government is huge, Presidential power grandiose, and the outcries of the citizenry limited by special interests; and the need to suspect all in power has never been greater.

Healy is accurate in the grab-bag vision of the Presidency held by most Americans; and our lack of the discerning ability to select the most important; and Friedersdorf is right when he concludes that regardless of the analytical ability of American voters, challenge to authority is always a good thing.  The all miss the central issue – that both leaders and followers have lost sight of the essential values inherent in good governance – fairness, justice, honor, valor, and respect.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Innovation–Really Nothing New

Much has been written recently on innovation, and in fact it is worth the attention.  Innovation is what has characterized America for decades, which is in jeopardy because of a 19th Century school system which favors narrowly-defined performance, diversity, and cooperation over risk-taking and creativity; and a business machine which favors takeovers of small startups by big corporations, thus co-opting and neutering the far out-of-the-box garage weirdos who come up with very cool shit.

There have been studies which have tried to dissect the innovative process, and disaggregate its components.  Innovation, for example, improves when creative people from different disciplines share a workspace. The creative energy generated – the free flow of outrageous ideas – animates each individual.  Innovation at any point, say others, is a function of the encouragement of innovation at all points before.  Taking risks on the playground by hanging off the top rung of the monkey bars encourages a risk-taking behavior which is essential to innovation.  Instead of vigilantly insisting that kindergarteners color within the lines, teachers who ask young children to ‘build anything you like’ from random pieces of toys and Legos are encouraging innovation.  Companies like Bell Labs which had the money and lack of competitors to enable it to think innovatively and absorb multiple ‘failures’ (failure is considered a positive step to success in the innovative start-up world) could put a hundred scientists in a room and ask them to ‘build anything you like’. 

In an interesting article in The Atlantic (6.27.12), http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/06/whats-the-secret-to-viral-success-its-so-obvious/259057/ the author contends that most of what is called innovation is really based on past successes.  This is not a simple repetition of the old saw – ‘nothing is ever new’, but illustrates how in a viral world, viral builds on viral, and innovations take off.

BuzzFeed, the Web's crown prince of social media has an uncanny knack for churning out posts that eat up the Internet. One week ago, BuzzFeed's Jack Shepherd pressed the publish button on "21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity," an undeniably faith-restoring collection of inspiring pictures that I read and shared, along with more than 7 million other people. For those of you who don't dream in traffic numbers: Seven million page views for one post is astounding. It's the Internet equivalent of "The Hunger Games," or a walk-off Game 7 grand slam.

How did BuzzFeed do it?  How did they come up with such an innovative idea – one that would generate an astounding number of hits?

Slate's Farhad Manjoo was one of the 7 million. He was also curious: How does the Web's hit-maker make its hits? Over the last couple weeks, he "spent many hours and opened hundreds of browser tabs in an effort to reverse-engineer posts I found on BuzzFeed." What he found came as a disappointment. BuzzFeed's writers weren't baking from scratch. They were hunter-gathering. "21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity" was basically a long riff on a shorter post at NedHardy.com. Every big hit at BuzzFeed seemed to follow the same template, Manjoo wrote. A writer would find popular stuff somewhere on the Web ("most often at Reddit"), find other images and examples from the rest of the Web, and publish a more comprehensive piece.

"The secret to [BuzzFeed's] viral success is to find stuff that's already a minor viral success and make it better," Manjoo wrote. "Repeat the process enough, and you're bound to get a few mega-hits.

"That's not genius. It's a machine."

It may be a machine, but BuzzFeed’s success is emblematic of the Internet social networking and viral age.  YouTube is the clearinghouse for everything.  Upload some wacko videos to YouTube and a million others download and share them; and many of those millions upload their own wacko videos and the number of viewers on a particular theme doubles.  Why is YouTube so successful?  Because it is the go-to site for everything; and it costs them very little.  Is the YouTube model innovative?  Yes, not because of its content but because the idea of being a viral clearinghouse was new.  In a way BuzzFeed was even more innovative – but perhaps less profitable - because its geeks have to search for items on other websites, compile and post them.  The real element of success for both YouTube and BuzzFeed was the conclusion stated above: Find cool shit that’s already viral, package and post it; and viral builds on viral.

The example of Lionsgate film studios, producer of the wildly popular The Hunger Games is another example of viral success:

Between 2000 and 2005, the studio had two $100 million hits besides Michael Moore's blockbuster Fahrenheit 911: Saw and Saw II. In the next five years, it hit nine more $100-million home runs. Four contained the word "Saw" and three were other sequels/adaptation/reboots: Transporter 3, Rambo, and The Forbidden Kingdom. This year, The Hunger Games has already notched the fourth-biggest movie opening of all time and grossed more than $600 million worldwide. Lionsgate is currently the fourth-highest grossing film studio in America -- above Paramount and 20th Century Fox -- with The Expendables 2 and a distribution deal for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 coming later this year.

How did Lionsgate do it?

The secret to its viral success is to find stuff that's already a minor viral success and make it new. Manjoo wrote that of BuzzFeed. But it's just as true for Lionsgate and movie companies, who are rightly obsessed with sequels, reboots and adaptations, since the top 39 movie openings in history are all sequels, reboots, and adaptations. "We're creating an affinity audience of young adult franchises," CEO Jon Feltheimer explained at a panel at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles this spring. Movies are are a tricky business. Turning blockbuster books into blockbuster movie franchises isn't so risky.

The obvious point is that the only thing a business planner knows is the past; and if one movie was a blockbuster then the odds are that a sequel or adaptation will be one as well.  The more interesting point, however, is the viral nature of the popularity.  Movie companies no longer base sales on old-fashioned advertising, but rely on the buzz that is created on the web. Not only do studio media geeks initiate viral marketing, they monitor the buzz and augment it.  Celebrity pix, clips, hip interviews, personal shots, beach antics, hyper-real trailer bits, all ramp up the hype.  Suddenly the movie is everywhere – YouTube, BuzzFeed, and a million Facebook pages. The Atlantic reviewer concludes:

We'll end with a brief anecdote. Two years ago, a monthly magazine published a successful article about women and society that launched a national debate. Last year, it published another article about women and society that launched a national debate. Last week, it published yet another article about women and society that launched the loudest national debate of them all. The name of that magazine? If you don't know what magazine I'm talking about, scroll to the top of this page (The Atlantic).

The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, and Lionsgate are really different companies with really different cultures and really different definitions of success. But they share this in common: When you're in the hit-making business, you only know one thing for sure: What has already worked.

An even better example is the recent and related Time Magazine cover of a woman breastfeeding a six-year old child.  That photograph went viral as quickly as any.  Savvy marketers saw the viral outbreak, and threw out stale articles and went with the story about the story…and the story about the picture…..and pictures about the story. 

The real innovation here is the understanding of the new Internet, viral, social networking environment in which we all live and increasingly interact.  It doesn’t matter if the ‘new thing’ is only new for a few weeks.  There is money to be made; and those who can quickly capitalize on others’ successes will make money.  It is not so much that BuzzFeed and Lionsgate had a new idea – after all, building on former successes is not new – but that they knew how to make hot ideas even hotter.

For those of us who like ‘real’ innovation – truly new ideas, creative and insightful films and books, original takes on literature and art, small but revolutionary discoveries in science – all this BuzzFeed stuff is merely the recycling of popular, inane, and silly materials.  This, of course, is not the point.  It is to make millions out of a vast popular culture whose groupies have plenty of disposable income; and the examples presented in these articles are right on the money.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Reform The University of Virginia And Public Higher Education

There has been a lot written about the fiasco at the University of Virginia.  There had to have been a better way of removing a popular president than in closed-door, cabal-like meetings of old-boy rectors.  However, the issue of the future of the university and the pace of change is very relevant.  UVA has rested far too long on its laurels with the complicity of the Board of Visitors, the State legislature, and the Governor.  It was ‘too good to fail’ thought these and other interested parties.  Its long and storied history, its founding by Thomas Jefferson, and its premier place in the nation’s flagship public universities was hard to ignore – even in these constrained financial times when citizens want to know exactly what they are getting for the tax dollar.

The first question to ask is what is the purpose of public higher education?  What compelling interest does the Commonwealth of Virginia have in maintaining such a system?  Jefferson did not speak of public or private education in the following passage, but indicated why education in the United States was important:

“Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day. Although I do not, with some enthusiasts, believe that the human condition will ever advance to such a state of perfection as that there shall no longer be pain or vice in the world, yet I believe it susceptible of much improvement, and most of all in matters of government and religion; and that the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected.”

With respect to government, Jefferson believed that the purpose of education was to help create responsible citizens. He wrote: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right [i.e., well informed]”.  In other words, there was a compelling reason why taxpayer money should be spent to create a public university because the Commonwealth would benefit immensely from the contributions of graduates who had learned about governance, civic responsibility, and the principles of the new American Republic.  Jefferson had a clear vision about the nature and purpose of education.  It was based on the classical tradition of Rome where the sons of the ruling class were educated in governance and leadership.  It was an educational system which, like its Roman antecedent, instilled principles of justice, fairness, elocution, management, and administration.  Those who graduated from it had been trained to lead or to participate in a productive and civic-minded way.

That was and still is a noble principle on which a public university should be based.  It would be a good idea if students of UVA or any other university graduated imbued with these values.  As is quickly evident, this is not the case.  Few public universities have core curricula with courses on history, economics, and political philosophy.  Harvard, which was one of the last holdouts for a Core Curriculum, threw in the towel a number of years ago, capitulating to the demands of faculty who were at war with the Canon, and students who had grown up believing they could take anything they wanted.  Only one or two universities, St. John’s being the most notable offer only a classical curriculum. 

Not only have public universities strayed from the core curriculum and the principles of education enunciated by Jefferson, they, in the interest of ‘diversity’ offer an unmanageable range of peripheral subjects, graduate students with unmarketable degrees, and continue to be funded by taxpayer dollars with little serious scrutiny. In an article in the Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/leading-u-va-back-to-the-top/2012/06/27/gJQAXyEj7V_story.html  writer Danielle Allen writes that even the august and revered University of Virginia has fallen into that morass:

In the past two weeks both Sullivan and Helen Dragas, the leader of U-Va.’s board, laid out strategic visions for the university. Both identified as a current major initiative the Contemplative Sciences Center. Focused at first on yoga, the center’s purview has been expanded and its intellectual content deepened. But its inaugural programs, as described on its Web site, are a Visiting Yoga Instructors Series; a Contemplative in Residence; and Contemplative Science Research Funding. To my eye, this is not the kind of major initiative that will help U-Va. reclaim its position as a leader within higher education in this country or globally.

The issue is not only how to help UVA regain its international standing; it is how to make the university relevant to the Commonwealth of Virginia.  It is the taxpayers of the state, after all, who finance the university (with the help of in-state tuitions and much higher out-of-state fees.  UVA has the second highest out-of-state student enrollments of any public college or university in Virginia).  Is the pursuance of this international standing more a vanity issue, enabling the state to attract more national and international investment? If over one-third of UVA students are out-of-state, is it fulfilling its mandate to serve the Commonwealth?  And in these days of total mobility, even if a student is from Virginia, the chances that he or she will remain in Virginia after graduation are very small.

So the issue facing UVA is not a simple one, for the now-famous Board of Visitors and ultimately the legislature and governor must decide not only how to improve the university but why.  There are approximately the same number of private and public institutions of higher learning in Virginia.  To be fair, none of the private ones have the stature and reputation of UVA, but that misses the point – why should the taxpayers of Virginia, or any other state, finance a public education system which no longer directly benefits the state, educates a significant number of out-of-state students, and is diversifying its curriculum to such a degree that the vision of Jefferson is but a distant memory?

As president, Sullivan’s signal contribution has been to work hard and fast to rebuild those foundational components. The position of the chief academic officer, the provost, is fundamental to whether any research university tends appropriately to its own fundamentals: hard-headed decisions about where to allocate dollars for appointing faculty, rigorous vetting of new hires, tough standards for review and promotion. Sullivan rightly prioritized returning the provost role to center stage at U-Va.

There is a very good reason why the faculty of UVA was outraged at the firing of President Sullivan – her narrow, conservative approach to reform did not threaten their jobs.  Now that the genie is out of the bottle, and everyone is now looking at UVA, they are quaking in their boots.

It is not a coincidence that in America there is now a spotlight both on the nature of government, and the nature of public education.  For too long citizens have just assumed that government has always existed and should always exist; and there has been rarely a close look at the purpose of government – what government programs could be handled better by the private sector?  Which could be eliminated altogether? What are the criteria for measuring the success of public programs to form a basis for justifying their continuance?

Similarly, for too long have citizens taken public education for granted without looking at it closely.  It has for too long been a cheap ticket to a degree in a society which demands degrees over experience and talent.  It has become far removed from the needs of the state whose money finances it, and distant from national goals.  Public universities not only teach a civic education, but they do not provide the vocational education that many students need.  It is no wonder that recent graduates from these universities cannot find a job – they are not qualified.

Now that the Board of Visitors has capitulated and the university is back to the status quo, the issue of reform is likely to be hidden away for a while.  Perhaps when the dust settles the people of Virginia can take a long hard look at UVA – and the entire public higher education system of the state – and decide whether or not their taxpayer dollars are being well-spent.  The free ride is over.

The Chinese in Africa–A Good Thing

For years the United States has been China-bashing, watching an emerging world power extend its influence worldwide.  If it is not the suppression of civil rights and freedom of speech, it is the undervalued yuan; and if it is not the distorted currency, it is the country’s exploitive moves in the Third World.  America’s exceptionalism is being challenged – a social and economic model other than that of the United States is working quite well, thank you.  China readily admits that social cohesion is an important element of economic development – all must pull on the same track towards a common goal if the country is to develop.  The mantra of the Chinese government has always been ‘economic development first, American-style freedoms second’; and they have never been shy about admitting, supporting, and promoting these priorities.  However much the United States can carp, whine, whinge, and complain (which is all they can do because China owns us, and finances our profligacy), China’s economic progress has accelerated with lightning speed and hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty.

What irks America most is the fact that China has taken over international development, a province once uniquely held by the United States with some minor investments from the Europeans.  The Chinese have negotiated business deals very profitable to both sides.  China purchases the raw materials needed to fuel the countries rapid growth and emergence from poverty; and the supplying country benefits from Chinese investment in and in many cases construction of needed infrastructure.  These deals are no-questions-asked agreements without the ponderous and rarely-respected ‘conditionalities’ demanded by the United States and the World Bank.  That is, there are no demands for reforming government, increased transparency in accounting, greater community participation, etc.  They are business deals common in capitalism.  Buyer and seller agree upon a fair sale price and the deal is done.

These deals have moved out of raw materials and moved into agriculture, especially in Africa.  Ethiopia is a country which, because of wars, corruption, endemic mismanagement, and parochial regional disputes, has a pitiful rate of agricultural (or industrial) productivity.  The Chinese are negotiating agreements there and in other countries such as Mozambique whereby they will develop unused land, build the infrastructure to serve it, transform it into a fertile region and make it bloom like the Negev, and send the yields back to China.  China gains valuable agricultural produce for its population, African countries benefit from the modernization of an agricultural system which has been neglected or poorly managed for decades. Without Chinese investment, vast acres of potentially productive land would continue to be arid wastelands. 

China has indeed begun to put down substantial agricultural roots on the African continent. China's investment in Mozambique illustrates both its commitment to the agricultural sector and the diversity of Chinese investment in Africa. Through a series of agreements, China has pledged $800 million to modernize Mozambique's agricultural infrastructure and has financed the building of a dam and canal to bring water to arable land. Additionally, at least 100 Chinese agricultural experts are stationed in several research stations within Mozambique, working with local groups to increase crop yield and otherwise improve the performance of the agricultural sector. (Asia Times Online)

The United States is unhappy for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost, it is losing economic advantage in Africa.  The vast natural resources of the continent, once thought to be within the economic arc of the Unites States are no longer secure.  Second, it is losing political influence.  The deals cut by the Chinese are far more favorable to ruling elites than the condition-burdened aid projects offered by the United States.  Third, and in a way most importantly, the United States cannot simply abide the notion that an anti-democratic, Communist, aggressive country is taking turf from the anointed, exceptional United States which brings not only development but enlightenment.  An article by Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian, in the New York Times today (6.28.12) chronicles these sour grapes: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/28/opinion/beijing-a-boon-for-africa.html?ref=opinion

IN June 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a speech in Zambia warning of a “new colonialism” threatening the African continent. “We saw that during colonial times, it is easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave,” she said, in a thinly veiled swipe at China.

Since China began seriously investing in Africa in 2005, it has been routinely cast as a stealthy imperialist with a voracious appetite for commodities and no qualms about exploiting Africans to get them. It is no wonder that the American government is lashing out at its new competitor — while China has made huge investments in Africa, the United States has stood on the sidelines and watched its influence on the continent fade.

The Americans have yelled ‘neo-colonialism, exploitation, moral indifference’ and far worse.  Yet the situation is far different:

Despite all the scaremongering, China’s motives for investing in Africa are actually quite pure. To satisfy China’s population and prevent a crisis of legitimacy for their rule, leaders in Beijing need to keep economic growth rates high and continue to bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. And to do so, China needs arable land, oil and minerals. Pursuing imperial or colonial ambitions with masses of impoverished people at home would be wholly irrational and out of sync with China’s current strategic thinking.

Just as importantly, these invectives and politically-motivated charges of exploitation of the poor are unfounded:

To the contrary, China’s role is broadly welcomed across the continent. A 2007 Pew Research Center survey of 10 sub-Saharan African countries found that Africans overwhelmingly viewed Chinese economic growth as beneficial. In virtually all countries surveyed, China’s involvement was viewed in a much more positive light than America’s; in Senegal, 86 percent said China’s role in their country helped make things better, compared with 56 percent who felt that way about America’s role. In Kenya, 91 percent of respondents said they believed China’s influence was positive, versus only 74 percent for the United States.

The rap on China has been that it imports everything – labor and capital – to the partnering country, thus depriving it of any increase in employment or enterprise.  This, too, is largely false. “In countries like Zambia, the ratio of African to Chinese workers has exceeded 13:1 recently”.

Finally, American criticism has been unfairly placed on the Chinese for not promoting civil and human rights – in other words to insist on the same conditionalities as the United States.  However, there is little evidence to show that the American moralistic posture has worked.  Most corrupt leaders say ‘yes’ to condition-laden projects because they know that because the US government wants to give them money more than they need it, they ignore the conditions.  USAID ignores this poor performance, grants more money on the principle of ‘Next time will be better’.

The Chinese understand that it is up to the leaders of recipient countries to reform their governments, not them:

If anything, the bulk of responsibility for abuses lies with African leaders themselves. The 2011 Human Rights Watch Report “You’ll Be Fired If You Refuse,” which described a series of alleged labor and human rights abuses in Chinese-owned Zambian copper mines, missed a fundamental point: the onus of policing social policy and protecting the environment is on local governments, and it is local policy makers who should ultimately be held accountable and responsible if and when egregious failures occur.

In one of the best-articulated arguments against American-style aid, the author states:

China’s critics ignore the root cause of why many African leaders are corrupt and unaccountable to their populations. For decades, many African governments have abdicated their responsibilities at home in return for the vast sums of money they receive from courting international donors and catering to them. Even well-intentioned aid undermines accountability. Aid severs the link between Africans and their governments, because citizens generally have no say in how the aid dollars are spent and governments too often respond to the needs of donors, rather than those of their citizens.

America’s criticisms are particularly ironic because it owes so much to China.  China holds a significant proportion of America’s sovereign debt, without which the United States could not function.  Also, the American foreign policy establishment has once again been blinded by the belief in American exceptionalism.  Our diplomats and aid workers are no different from the missionaries in the jungle who believed that once the savages saw the Light, they would reject their primitive ways. They ignore the facts, however, that corrupt regimes need to reform from within; that economic progress trumps idealistic notions of freedom and liberty, meaningless terms for the poor; and that the Chinese are disciplined, on-message, smart, savvy, and relentless businessmen. 

It is time for America to keep quiet, accept its diminished and beholden status, and to either take the gloves off or go home.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Traffic–Innovative Ways To Improve It

In one of the more interesting books I have read recently – Traffic – author Tom Vanderbilt suggests that that social and psychological factors are as responsible for most of the congestion, accidents, and maddening delays that we face on the road. The book is as much about human perception as it is about traffic, and therefore it is well worth reading.  In 2008 when the book came out, Mary Roach of the New York Times, wrote a book review http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/10/books/review/Roach-t.html?pagewanted=all and summarized it well:

Traffic jams are not, by and large, caused by flaws in road design but by flaws in human nature. While this is bad news for drivers — there’s not much to be done about human nature — it is good news for readers of Tom Vanderbilt’s new book. “Traffic” is not a dry examination of highway engineering; it’s a surprising, enlightening look at the psychology of human beings behind the steering wheels.

A good example is the following:

An estimated 12.7 percent of the traffic slowdown after a crash has nothing to do with wreckage blocking lanes; it’s caused by gawkers. Rubberneckers attend to the spectacle so avidly that they themselves then get into accidents, slamming into the car in front of them when it brakes to get a better look or dig out a cellphone to take a picture. (This happens often enough for traffic types to have coined a word for it: “digi-necking.”)

Traffic planners have tried everything to anticipate and stay ahead of such psycho-drivers, to no avail; and often their solutions become part of the problem:

Exasperated highway professionals have actually tried erecting anti-rubbernecking screens around the scenes of accidents, but the vehicle toting the screen typically gets caught in the traffic jam it’s meant to prevent.

Moreover, Vanderbilt adds, “there is the interest in the screen itself.” Drivers will slow down to look at anything: “Something as simple as a couch dumped in a roadside ditch can send minor shudders of curiosity through the traffic flow.

Traffic always slows down when construction barriers are placed on the sides of the road.  Although the lanes themselves have not been narrowed, and there is always some shoulder, there is a psychological sense of being hemmed it.  Once the barriers end, and drivers can see to the open fields, traffic speeds up. 

Many times I have been caught in a traffic jam only to find that there was no real reason for it; that is, no construction, no accident, no rubbernecking.  Traffic analysts have shown that an unnecessary slowdown by one car in a heavily-travelled, high-speed highway, can have repercussions miles back.  Tunnels are the only traffic environment in which strong, demanding signs to ‘Keep Up Speed’ are posted throughout.  Tunnels are the worst places for driving – they are narrow, dark, noisy, with many grades.  While there are few accidents because no one feels safe in them and, as above, tend to pay more attention to driving, the tendency is always to slow down.  Efforts to keep speed up do not adversely affect safety and increase flow.

Traffic problems are not only a function of human fallibility – although the book focuses on it – but also changes in social patterns.  We simply drive more, and do so for less compelling reasons than we used to.  Instead of buying at the local supermarket, we will drive an extra few miles to Whole Foods to get that special cut of beef or organic carrots.  Or going out for coffee:

So much of Starbucks’s revenue now comes from drive-through lanes that the company will put stores across the street from each other, sparing drivers “the agony of having to make a left turn during rush hour.”

When we drive more, we park more; and in most urban areas parking is at a premium.  To avoid paying at a lot, we will circle endlessly waiting for a space to materialize.  That circling causes delays for thru-drivers who must sit behind the seekers and then wait for the inexperienced parallel parker to give it at least three goes.

Despite the fact that traffic congestion has spawned thousands of traffic planners, solutions have been few and far between, and most have unintended consequences:

Traffic does not yield to simple, appealing solutions. Adding lanes or roads is a short-lived fix. Widen one highway, and drivers from another will defect. Soon that road is worse than it was before. The most effective, least popular solution — aside from the currently effective, unpopular solution of [higher-priced] gasoline — is congestion pricing: charging extra to use roads during rush hours. For unknown reasons, Americans will accept a surcharge for peak-travel-time hotel rooms and airfares but not for roads.

There is always a political debate about road-widening or new construction; but the builders always seem to win.  The demands of commuters in a highly-congested metropolitan areas are vocal, immediate, and insistent; and it takes more political courage than can be found in local and state governments to refuse expansion.  A few years ago Fairfax County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC imposed a moratorium on building because it simply was not able to build the infrastructure – including roads – to keep up with demand.  Of course, as land and property values kept climbing because of the emerging high-tech industries in the suburbs, the County relented.

Rather than addressing the congestion issue by deflating demand, politicians and traffic planners increase demand through continuous building.  I have been travelling the New Jersey Turnpike for decades, and each time I think that it has reached its outer limits in terms of new lanes, new ones are added.  Something is ripped out, razed, or bulldozed to make way for even more travellers.

Sometimes traffic planners make bad decisions on where to put new roads or mass transit.  In Washington a metro line was not built to Tysons Corner, once a modest shopping mall, but now a small city.  They used what information they had, but how were they to know that Tysons would become a shoppers’ mecca?  Or how were they to know that the Dulles, Virginia area would become Silicon Valley-on-the-Potomac?  The congestion on roads from DC out to Dulles are as bad as any in the area, and only now are regional authorities building an extension of the Metro to relieve the congestion.   The Virginia Greenway, very hotly debated as a way to relieve congestion in Fairfax County, has never been used as planned; and the new cross-county highway in Montgomery County, Maryland, is suffering from the same lack of use.

Traffic suggests many ingenious ways to improve traffic flow without major public works, focusing on human perception and behavior.  They have experimented, for example, with the length of the white dotted lines down the middle of the road.  Shorter lines at closer intervals give the impression of higher speed, thus slowing drivers down.  Experiments with the size, color, luminescence, and placement of signs are designed to make reading easier, thus enabling motorists to keep up their speed. 

One of the most ingenious is encouraging drivers to use both lanes right up until a lane closure.  Right now the ‘Merge’ signs are posted at least a quarter-of-a-mile before the merge, resulting in one congested lane and one free one.  Under this system, those who zip down the free lane and force a merge with the more law-abiding and patient motorists are given the finger.  Traffic planners have suggested that if signs were posted instructing drivers to use both lanes and then to provide an alternate merge, traffic would improve and tempers would remain in check.  It is all about fairness.

Vanderbilt also gets into the causes for crashes, and cites innovative examples to keep people alert and awake.  Many interstates, particularly in the Midwest and West are long, flat, and monotonous.  Researchers have found that by simply adding inexpensive diversity – a slight curve or rise in the roadway – drivers pay more attention to their driving. The right perceptual balance between too much signage on the roadside and too little is always sought to guide driving.

Vanderbilt cites a statistic that nearly 80 percent of crashes involve drivers not paying attention for up to three seconds. Thus the places that seem the most dangerous — narrow roads, hairpin turns — are rarely where people mess up. “Most crashes,” Vanderbilt writes, “happen on dry roads, on clear, sunny days, to sober drivers.” For this reason, roads that could be straight are often constructed with curves — simply to keep drivers on the ball.

One of the particularly important insights of the book is that ‘feeling safe kills’, and that there are some counter-intuitive measures to improve safety:

Americans think roundabouts are more dangerous than intersections with traffic lights. Roundabouts require you to adjust your speed, to merge, in short, to pay attention. At an intersection, we simply watch the light. And so we may not notice the red-light runner coming at us or the pedestrian stepping off the curb. A study that followed 24 intersections that had been converted from signals or stop signs to roundabouts showed an almost 90 percent drop in fatal crashes after the change.

Many more examples of counter-intuitive thinking illustrate the way we drive, what we are thinking when we are, and why we get into accidents:

For similar reasons, S.U.V.’s are more dangerous than cars. Not just because they’re slower to stop and harder to maneuver, but because — by conferring a sense of safety — they invite careless behavior. “The safer cars get,” Vanderbilt says, “the more risks drivers choose to take.” (S.U.V. drivers are more likely to not bother with their seat belts, to talk on cellphones, and to not wear seat belts while talking on cellphones.) So it goes for much of the driving universe. More people are killed while crossing in crosswalks than while jaywalking. Drivers pass bicyclists more closely on a road with bike lanes than on one without.

It should not be a surprise to learn that the safest airports are those where the pilots have to be especially vigilant.  Anyone who has landed in Hong Kong’s old airport (you can see the whites of their eyes as you fly a few feet over the apartment buildings), wonders why there are few crashes; but when pilots are on high alert – like drivers – they do a better job.

In conclusion, this book is a page-turner.  We all drive and have been frustrated by traffic, and in many cases we wonder why the congestion or delays occur.  Not only does this book disaggregate the causes of congestion and crashes, but suggests the innovative ways traffic planners are devising to reduce both.  Fascinating reading.  

Monday, June 25, 2012

Employee-Owned Enterprises–A Dream With Little Promise of Reforming Capitalism

An article in the Guardian today suggests that there are indeed alternatives to capitalism, and cites the example of cooperative ownership in one region of Spain. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/24/alternative-capitalism-mondragon The article, however, focuses on only one aspect of capitalism – the nature of ownership – and only indirectly gets at the more fundamental principles of a free market determining supply, demand, wages, and profits.  Nevertheless it is an interesting look – once again – at the worker-owned model of capitalist enterprise.  The author first sets out the premise:

Modern societies have mostly chosen a capitalist organization of production. In capitalism, private owners establish enterprises and select their directors who decide what, how and where to produce and what to do with the net revenues from selling the output. This small handful of people makes all those economic decisions for the majority of people – who do most of the actual productive work. The majority must accept and live with the results of all the directorial decisions made by the major shareholders and the boards of directors they select. This latter also select their own replacements. Capitalism thus entails and reproduces a highly undemocratic organization of production inside enterprises.

And then offers the solution, based on the Spanish experience:

MC is composed of many co-operative enterprises grouped into four areas: industry, finance, retail and knowledge. In each enterprise, the co-op members (averaging 80-85% of all workers per enterprise) collectively own and direct the enterprise. Through an annual general assembly the workers choose and employ a managing director and retain the power to make all the basic decisions of the enterprise (what, how and where to produce and what to do with the profits).

The idea that traditional capitalism is failing and needs to be replaced by a more ‘progressive’ form of enterprise has gained currency in the last few years, precipitated by the financial and economic crises that have hit the United States and Western Europe.  At a recent conference convened by the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation (11/11), the premise was articulated by one of the organizers:

Rick Wolff argued that in the current capitalist crisis social transformation through the formation of cooperatives is inevitable: “The idea of workers self-directed enterprises is that the workers displace and replace the capitalists with themselves. This has to be the next step in the process of transformation.” As capitalist enterprises consistently fail and do not provide workers with economic security, new forms of cooperative worker ownership are an inevitable outcome.

Attempts to create worker-owner enterprises are not new and too many to mention here. The definition of such enterprises covers a wide range of possibilities – everything from state ownership (i.e. the state is the people) to ESOP profit-sharing programs, to small-scale stock option programs for employees.  Of the top 100 ‘employee-owned’ companies cited by the National Center for Employee Ownership, over 90 percent are included because they have a profit-sharing plan. I recently worked for a firm which had begun an ESOP program (on the Top 100 list), and in no way did I have a say in executive management decisions which were the exclusive domain of the CEO and CFO and the Board of Directors. Ownership has always meant investment.  For workers to ‘own’ a company, they must invest their own resources in it, thereby sharing in profits and losses. 

There have, of course, been successes, such as the one cited in the Guardian article; but many of the firms on the Center’s list are either relatively small or are in low-volatility industries (supermarkets figure prominently on the list as do health care companies.  No IT or other tech companies were on the list. No one denies the competitive nature of the basic food industry, but they do operate in a market of inflexible demand and are often semi-monopolies in many cities.  As far as health care is concerned, everybody gets sick.

The failures, however, are worth mentioning. One observer of the airline industry (Louis Proyect) noted that worker ownership did little to stave off the race to the bottom in what was once a well-paying industry with excellent benefits. Louis Uchitelle wrote in a NY Times piece (7/96) that worker ownership was no obstacle to the kind of downsizing that [occurred in other industries]. Uchitelle reported:

Take Kiwi Airlines, founded in 1992 by former Eastern Airlines pilots. It is 57 percent owned today by its 1,200 employees. But to cut costs, 60 owner-workers were laid off in January, many of them clerks whose jobs had been automated. “If we had done these layoffs earlier, there would have been revolution,” said Robert Kulat, a Kiwi spokesman. “We still had this concept of a happy family and of employees being bigger than the company. But big losses changed that. And people realized that to remain alive, to keep their own jobs, they had to change too.”

Perhaps more relevant Uchitelle claimed that a strong union allowed United Airlines, another worker-owned firm, to avoid downsizing but only four years later economic reality caught up with the company, as the January 14, 2000 New York Times reported:

In 2001 United Airlines went bankrupt as a result of the impact of 9/11 on travel and rising fuel costs and was subsequently reorganized as a regular corporation. This had nothing to do with whether the company was “democratic” or not. Even if it was the most democratic institution in the world, it could not operate as a benign oasis in a toxic wasteland. Capitalism forces firms to be profitable. If they are not profitable, management takes action to make them more profitable, including slashing wages or laying workers off.

The Economist 1/12) has also weighed in against a more general move to employee-owned businesses:

But there is little evidence that shared ownership makes capitalism more “responsible”... It does not prevent bad decisions: having a quarter of shares in employees’ hands did not save Lehman Brothers from bankruptcy. And the benefits for staff are questionable. It is rash to put a worker’s livelihood, savings and pension in one basket case; many employees lost everything when Enron, an energy-trading company, collapsed in 2001.

Companies that are wholly-owned by their staff may face barriers to growth. Many firms need a flexible capital base to expand—one reason the partnership model in banking declined. Employee mobility promotes innovation. At base, it is unrealistic to expect many bastions of capitalism to turn their shares over to their workforce, reckons Ian Brinkley of the Work Foundation, a think-tank. It is, he says, hard to imagine someone like Sir Fred Goodwin, the acquisitive former Royal Bank of Scotland boss who oversaw its demise, “being reined in by some workers’ committee.”

Economists Gary Becker and Richard Posner have also written that there are no compelling reasons to favor employee-owned companies:

In reality, the creation of an ESOP is often a management tool to fend off unfriendly takeover bids. This was certainly the case behind the pilot-led ESOP created by United Airlines, and may have played a role in the ESOP to be created at Tribune company. ESOPs that help keep poorly performing management in power would contradict the claim that this organizational form improves rather than contributes to poor performance.

Employee ownership is said to induce employees to work harder because they then have a financial stake in the company where they work. If that were true, owners would not need a tax advantage to create a sizable employee ownership since they would subsidize stock ownership by employees in order to improve productivity. Employees in a small closely held company with few workers may feel part of a family and work harder when they own an interest in the company. But in large companies with thousands of employees, such as Tribune company and other ESOPs like Science Applications International, ownership is not likely to be a strong motivating factor because hard working employees would then mainly benefit the many other employees and stockholders (Becker-Posner Blog 4/07).

Becker and Posner go on:

However, the most powerful argument against the view that employee ownership improves efficiency is that new firms would tend to take this form if it improved efficiency, and many older firms would convert to employee ownership on their own, even without tax advantages from doing so. Yet despite the competitive nature of American industry, with substantial rates of entry and exit of companies, less than 10 percent of employees in the United States work in firms that have ESOPs despite the considerable tax advantages to this organizational form. This more than all the highly imperfect comparisons between the performance of ESOPs and other companies is persuasive evidence that ESOPs would not usually be more efficient. Indeed, given the tax advantages, there would be many more ESOPs if they were equally efficient

As these articles have suggested, there are a number of reasons why the idea of employee ownership is much more of an idealistic hope rather than a practical option.  First, there is a basic conflict of interest between workers and management when both are the same.  Management/ownership may have difficulty in making the cuts to worker roles, salaries, benefits, plant closings, etc. if ‘managers’ stand to lose by these executive decisions.  Reluctance to take these reformative measures would close off credit, thus increasing the speed of the downward spiral.  If a firewall has been created between management and employees in worker-owned companies to avoid conflict of interest, then there is little difference between them and traditional companies. 

Third, regardless of management structure, a worker-owned company’s employees would certainly all want a say in company procedures.  Yet management-by-committee rarely works in business or any other social grouping.  Fourth, there is a long history of companies who put mission first and profits second.  While large corporations are now going ‘green’, it is not because of socially-driven motives, but profit.  Green is good these days, and consumers are already on that bandwagon. In other words, if mission can produce profit, it is good; if not, it can artificially constrain businesses from being competitive. I once worked for a company which valued means over ends – the way health goals were achieved, through a ‘participatory, respectful, inclusive’ process, was as important as the results of that process, improved health status.   Mission drove the company, and it failed in its programs to improve health outcomes.

If one examines traditional capitalist enterprise, it is in fact based on democratic principles.  It is responsible to its shareholders, even those with a small stake in the company.  As in any democracy these small shareholders can unite and form a common front to challenge more powerful interests.  While this does not happen as often as it should (most of us throw the shareholder ballots right into the trash), it can.  Second, all larger companies have Boards of Directors, who in principle are interested in guiding the profitability of the company.  While these Directors are not directly concerned with workers’ concerns, the economic viability of the company will ensure more financial resources to hire and expand.  Collective bargaining, although waning in influence, has always been a way to demand more from profitable companies; but it has been replaced by less intrusive market forces – i.e. when profits are up and companies need to expand, labor becomes more valuable.

Capitalism is a system which is based on profit; and that in turn is based on senior management which can make the most profitable decisions; senior financial officers which can invest and borrow profitably; and a Board of Directors which brings a diverse array of expert opinions to bear on a company’s strategy.  A company which operates in the reverse – first deal with workers concerns, then with profitability – will fail.  The Socialist model fell apart because it operated on that assumption. 

In a highly competitive global market employee-owned companies may have a role to play, but only if they play by the same no-holds-barred rules that traditional companies play by; and if they do, they look no different.  They are hard-driving capitalist companies with a twist. 

A final example from the non-profit world which has relevance to the argument.  In the field of International Development, there are for-profit and not-for-profit companies competing for the same US Government dollar.  In principle the non-profit companies should be contributing something more to the body politic, the taxpayer who subsidizes them; something of overarching worth or value.  In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth.  If you did not know who was for-profit, you could never tell the difference.  This is why successful employee-owned firms will behave just like traditional ones.

As far as profits are concerned, the time it would have taken me to make a sizeable return in my former ESOP plan would have been extremely long, since the company was very niggardly, and reasonably so, in its profit-sharing formulas.  It would have been far better if I had taken the same amount and invested in myself in Apple, Google, or Intel.

In conclusion, there will always be a small role for employee-owned companies, and many will be successful; but the real adjustment process is not structural – changing capitalism – but reforming it, especially finding ways to find a balance between free enterprise and reasonable regulation.  This has always been the case ever since the Robber Barons were successfully challenged and a role for government was identified.  Reformation, as for any social enterprise, requires consumer intelligence and activism.  Shareholders should not be taken for granted and should exercise their rights.  Democracy, like capitalism, has many inefficiencies and is subject to the same problems of fraud, misrepresentation, and venality; and yet no one thinks of replacing it, only fixing it.  For the last two hundred years American has fixed, broken, fixed, broken, and fixed again both democracy and capitalism; and we will continue to do so in the future.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Chocolate City Revisited

In a well-balanced article in today’s New York Times (6.24.12) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/24/opinion/sunday/farewell-to-chocolate-city.html?_r=1&hp Nathalie Hopkinson writes about the changing demographic makeup of Washington, DC, once a city with a black population as high as 70 percent is now just under half.  I moved here in 1977 during the historically peak years of the black super-majority, and have observed how some racial displacement has occurred in new, hip neighborhoods, while de facto segregation is just as prevalent as it ever was.  Crossing Florida Avenue is crossing into another city – a black city, and one far removed from the Mall and its monuments, the White House, the elegant townhouses of Georgetown, and the well-manicured estates of Spring Valley and Wesley Heights.  While gentrification has penetrated to the farthest corners of NW along Florida and U Streets, and as far east as 4th Street NE in Capitol Hill, the neighborhoods across the River in Anacostia are solidly black.

Gentrification is not new in DC. Georgetown, formerly a home to recently-freed slaves and a solidly black enclave in Washington, and now one of its whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods, was considered a slum in the 1920s.  Rehabilitation first started in Washington more than fifty years ago when developers realized the potential of the area and particularly its waterfront.  In the Fifties, Government passed a Historic Preservation Law which immediately raised property values and facilitated the gentrification and racial changeover.

Other areas soon followed suit. The  Dupont Circle neighborhood in the 70s was very small and confined to areas on and west of Connecticut Avenue.  Now it has expanded far to the east.  Formerly dangerous slum neighborhoods around Logan Circle and on both sides of U Street were no-go areas, and now they are amongst the most desirable. The race riots in the 60s destroyed great swaths of residential and retail real estate which were left rotting and vacant for years, but now the 14th Street corridor, the center of the riots, has become one of the city’s most vibrant.

All these areas have become progressively white, and poorer black families have moved out.  To a large degree, they simply moved farther east to the inner suburbs of Prince George’s county.  These areas now have the same poor social statistics for crime, single-parent families, life expectancy, etc. as inner city areas of DC. Black families may have left DC, but segregation has followed them.  This exodus was more of a forced migration, and thus the the PG statistics are not surprising.  Many of Washington’s successful middle-class blacks (Washington has always had one of the country’s highest percentages of this group) have indeed moved up and out; but their numbers are few, and the real change has come from displacement.

In the 35 years I have lived in DC I have seen Washington become a real city – well, not New York or San Francisco exactly, but a city nevertheless.  It now has the calling of an alluring metropolitan areas with bars, restaurants, cafes and all the other amenities that young professionals are looking for.  Washington has always had a lively, vibrant, and unique music scene (Go-Go is an indigenous art form), and young people have said for a long time that nightlife in DC is as good as it gets. Gentrification has improved the city as admitted by the author of the Times article, a black woman who grew up in DC:

Black privilege has always been relative. The city’s median black household income is $36,948; for whites it is $99,401. This demographic reality creates a crude, ethically charged math, and everyone who owns a stake in Washington calculates with it. The presence of white faces is the most reliable sign of the quality of a school. The more white people move in, the higher the property values go. The city’s population is growing, but each black family that leaves a school or neighborhood makes it richer.

At the same time, the cultural identity of the city has changed. The author writes:

My own initiation in the ways of Chocolate City came nearly 20 years ago when, after growing up black in nearly all-white environments, I arrived in Washington as a freshman at historically black Howard University. The Washington I encountered then was a strange, alternate universe: I saw black schools taught by black teachers and run by black principals reporting to black superintendents. Black restaurants. Black hospitals run by black doctors and staff members. Black suburbs. Black judges ordering black police officers to deliver black suspects to black jail wardens. And of course a black-owned music industry, go-go.

This racial homogeneity felt good, she goes on.  For the first time she was not looked at as a ‘minority’.  She was home. 

She refers to the unhappy corruption of that black city politic and blames it on segregation.  While this is certainly true – de facto desegregation did not really happen in the South until 1965, and the social dysfunctions that characterized slavery persisted within the community exacerbated by persistent white racism – it cannot account for the venality of the Barry years.  He was a successful racial politician, ran the public coffers dry with political patronage jobs in Anacostia and other black wards to keep him in office and far from public censure.  Racial voting has persisted in DC and has assured a political elite with far less accountability than in a more diverse environment.  Blacks got the favors, whites paid the bill.   This will surely change now that the city itself is changing.  There is even talk of a white mayor if our current mayor is dunned out of office for alleged corruption.

The author talks of the rage that black residents feel against white interlopers, and now as DC’s black majority ends, this rage is boiling just below the surface.  Not everywhere, she concludes, and sees a new racial harmony emerging out of the demographic changes:

Some days, walking the streets of Washington, a seemingly colder place where people don’t always exchange greetings, I feel nostalgic for the days of black privilege that George Clinton crooned about. But given the warmth of many of my new neighbors of many races, I would like to see the transformation around me as racial progress. The change in attitudes that caused a generation of whites to release their fears and return to the urban centers their parents fled a generation ago is the same change in attitudes that allowed millions of white Americans, in the quiet sanctity of the voting booth, to vote for a black man named Barack Hussein Obama.

The black population of DC is not and never has been monolithic, and as mentioned above there has always been a black middle class; and she and fellow black doctors, lawyers, and architects are also moving into these gentrified neighborhoods and are benefitting from the better schools and rising property values.  They feel at home here because they have already moved into mainstream white culture with first-class educations, white-like privileges, and the money to move wherever they want.  They also drink specialty coffees, go to yoga, and work out at the private club nearby. So she is right in stating that there is a new racial harmony; but as we have known all along, racism is largely a function of economics.  No one in a white neighborhood objects of a Harvard-trained black lawyer moves next door.  She sees ‘racial harmony’ when what she is seeing is ‘economic equality’. 

She is right to see this new ‘racial’ harmony, but she is wrong to conclude that it is only a localized phenomenon, far from the brutal areas across the River or in far Northeast.  Washington still is a functionally segregated city.  Yes, blacks and whites work together in government jobs; but they go home separately, play separately, and still marry separately.  No one in my 35 years here has figured out how to improve these violent inner city neighborhoods.  No amount of public programs, volunteer efforts, or financial subsidy has seemed to work.  It has been a frustration to see the city change in so many positive ways but to still be blighted by neighborhoods of intractable problems.  I have argued that community accountability is the only way out of this morass – that religious and secular leaders have to demand more from their congregants and neighbors – and that political accountability has to follow.  Until then, the racial, social, and economic divide will persist.

Gentrification is a fact of life in a capitalist society.  There will always be an ebb and flow of money in and out of neighborhoods.  There has always been the complaint of ‘progressives’ that New York (Manhattan) is becoming a city only for the wealthy.  While this is true, so what?  The outer neighborhoods in Brooklyn, for example, are becoming transformed and gentrified as well, but a a far lower price.  Queens and Staten Island are soon to follow.  There is a value, these ‘progressives’ say to having rich and poor living together.  Rent control is a way of engineering an economic parity.  Rich people have never wanted to live with poor people; and poor people have always wanted to be rich no matter how society may try to engineer things differently.  Washington will eventually become as uniformly wealthy as Manhattan (until the next outbound express takes passengers in the distant future), and all of us are benefitting from it.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Homeownership Means Little To Economic Growth

A recent article in the Atlantic http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2012/06/homeownership-means-little-economic-growth/1379/ documents the finding that home ownership is not correlated or even associated with economic growth – that is, buying a home does not guarantee individual wealth; and policies to promote home ownership are extravagant wastes of money.

Robert Shiller of Yale University documents that from "1890 to 1990, the rate of return on residential real estate was just about zero after inflation." Other studies have shown how America’s historic over-investment in housing has distorted its economy, leading to under-investment in technology and skills. Or as Nobel prize-winning Columbia University economist Edmund Phelps bluntly states it: "To recover and grow again, America needs to get over its 'house passion.'"

To find out if this premise was correct, the author of this article, Richard Florida and  Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Charlotta Mellander  looked at the statistical associations between the rates of homeownership and key economic development indicators like income, wages, productivity, innovation, and human capital across America's 350 or so metro areas.

Florida concluded that “the economic growth and development of cities and regions is generally thought to be driven by three key factors: innovation, human capital, and productivity. Homeownership, it turns out, is not related to any of them.”

Take innovation and high-tech industry. Homeownership bears little relation to either, being weakly negatively associated with the concentration of high-tech industry (-.20) and not associated at all with innovation (measured as the rate of patenting).

Or consider the percentage of college graduates or share of highly-skilled knowledge/creative jobs. Again, nothing. The arrow in fact points in the wrong direction. Homeownership is weakly negatively correlated with both the share of college grads (-.27), and with the creative class share of the labor force (-.30).

Even more compelling is the lack of any correlation between homeownership and productivity:

Most metros with high levels of homeownership have relatively low rates of productivity. Indeed, large metros like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco combine relatively high output with relatively low levels of homeownership. The same is true in Silicon Valley: despite the fact that many continue to think of it as a "nerdistan," the San Jose metro provides yet another example of high productivity alongside low levels of homeownership. 

[Concerning] the association between homeownership and wages, again across all U.S. metros, the pattern is even more striking. Higher levels of homeownership are mostly associated with lower wages.

Large metropolitan areas continue to draw young professional and tech singles who want close-in, vibrant urban neighborhoods, are in jobs that are easily transferrable to other markets, and already have company investment plans which earn well and promise better.  Washington, DC is a good example.  The rental market is squeezed, and the highest rents are in the most densely-populated urban areas.  One of the reasons that DC and other metro areas are so productive is because of the shared communities being formed by mobile, innovative, creative people.  Washington, once a backwater of Southern gentility and segregation, has now become a destination city. 

One of the most important phenomena in American society that affects the supply of and demand for housing is the shift from a manufacturing to a knowledge economy.  As suggested above, such a knowledge economy requires mobility and flexibility; and new ‘transient’ communities of talented, ambitious individuals has more relevance than the more stable ones of the past that grew up around industry.

As importantly for national policy, housing no longer drives the economy:

It used to be that homeownership signaled and led to economic growth. But that relationship was tied to the industrial era, when building and buying more homes primed the pump of America’s great assembly-lines, increasing demand for cars, appliances, televisions, and all manner of consumer durables. Those days are gone. The United States is a now knowledge and service economy; less than ten percent of Americans work in some form of manufacturing and just 6.5 percent are engaged in actually producing things. The stuff Americans buy is largely made offshore.

In other words, it used to be that building a new home generated all kinds of productive American enterprise and employment; and that living in a single-family home required two cars, appliances, and other appurtenances.  Now, while home-building still generates that economic activity, it is offshore. “ Instead of leading to economic development, higher rates of homeownership today are associated with lower levels of it. Homeownership is either not correlated or negatively correlated with the big drivers of economic development.”

Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, Dan Gross notes the shift in this country toward a "rentership society." But this is not to say that the U.S. is destined to become a "nation of renters." The Urban Land Institute projects that [home ownership] will [settle in the] low 60 percent range over the next decade or so. The rate of home ownership ranges from the mid-50s to low 60s in many of the most highly productive, innovative metros like San Jose, San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles.

A homeownership rate of between 55 and 60 percent seems to provide the flexibility of rental and ownership options required for a fast-paced, rapidly changing knowledge economy. Widespread homeownership is no longer the key to a thriving economy.

Why, then, should government continue to favor the building and purchase of houses?  Are the billions of dollars in tax revenue lost to mortgage deductions realistic in this era of structural adjustment and change?  If there were less incentive for individuals to purchase homes, they would invest their money elsewhere, perhaps in the knowledge economy (Apple, Google, Intel, etc.) or more generally in NASDAQ securities.  Given the recent sub-prime mortgage crisis, where people got in way over their heads and were lured by an artificially hot housing market, letting the market settle freely to determine real rental-owner proportions would be a good solution for many reasons.

Of course, owning a home has long been part of the American Dream, and politicians are very reluctant to tamper with it.  Reality always gives way to ideals, at least at first.  The 1950’s image of the newly-returned GI carrying his wife across the threshold of his new home dies hard.  Never mind that the significant government subsidies provided to that new homeowner are no longer affordable or are directly related to productivity; or that there is a structural change happening in the US economy.  Politicians still look out on the horizon and see the little, white-frame house, yard, roses on the trellis, happy children playing in the sprinkler.  Young people see bo-ring; and economists say 'so yesterday’.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Lessons in Governance–Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Measure for Measure, and Troilus and Cressida (Updated)

Shakespeare wrote four plays about governance – Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida, Julius Caesar, and Measure for Measure.  In Julius Caesar a political and moral question is raised – should one eliminate a potential tyrant.  Not an actual tyrant who must be deposed, but a political leader who shows signs and traits of nascent tyranny and who must be neutered before he he can accede to power and cause the deaths of thousands.  In Measure for Measure, the interim Duke of Vienna, Lord Angelo, institutes draconian rule whereby even the slightest infraction will incur severe punishment.  He argues that while his rule may be arbitrary, it will certainly prevent thousands of crimes in the future.  In Troilus and Cressida, Ulysses is the voice of reason, moderation, and good governance; and Shakespeare elaborates his and others’ perspectives on rule.  In Coriolanus he explores the many sides of democratic rule – the famous fickle mob, the arrogant patrician warrior and the debate about the degree to which popular representation should prevail – a debate which was renewed by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in the embryonic days of America.

In fact all of what I call Shakespeare’s ‘governance’ plays have resonance today.  We have come full circle  to the days of Julius Caesar and are developing more and more sophisticated ways to predict crimes before they occur.  Experiments on zero tolerance policies on crime continue today, and while not as harsh and arbitrary as Lord Angelo’s are certainly relevant.  

While of course his Histories and many of his other works dealt with the rule of kings, they were plays more about accession to power, and the familiar devious plotting on behalf of wives, sons, daughters, and courtesans to attain the throne rather than on governance per se.  As Jan Kott has noted, if all of Shakespeare’s Histories were laid out end to end, we would be able to see an endless cycle of the same intents, strategies, conspiracies, exiles, and murders to gain access to, retain and defend, and extend power and empire.   These plays were not so much about how to govern, they were about power and how to get it.

There were some kings, like Richard II and Henry VI who reflected on the nature of kingship, but these ruminations were more philosophical and less to do about governance.  Richard understands the right of kings: “Not all the water in the rough, rude sea/Can wash the balm off from an anointed king”; but understands also how that does not protect him from the assaults of others who claim a legitimate right to the throne.  In this passage, Richard realizes that he is caught in what Kott has called the Grand Mechanism of history:

For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

Richard throughout the play shares his thoughts about the loneliness and exile of kingship, and how he wishes he were a beggar, a solitary, poor, but noble man:

Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king'd again: and by and by
Think that I am unking'd by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate'er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.

At the same time Richard ruled like most kings – using his authority immoderately resulting in his offenses to Bolingbroke who usurps the throne from him.  Being a philosophical king with a sense of perspective does not mean you govern wisely or well.

Henry VI is a good but weak king, whose human philosophy cannot survive the onslaught of the Grand Mechanism.  Here Henry wonders why he is not loved or respected, for he has treated his subjects properly and correctly:

That's not my fear; my meed hath got me fame:
I have not stopp'd mine ears to their demands,
Nor posted off their suits with slow delays;
My pity hath been balm to heal their wounds,
My mildness hath allay'd their swelling griefs,
My mercy dried their water-flowing tears;
I have not been desirous of their wealth,
Nor much oppress'd them with great subsidies.
Nor forward of revenge, though they much err'd:
Then why should they love Edward more than me?
No, Exeter, these graces challenge grace:
And when the lion fawns upon the lamb,
The lamb will never cease to follow him.

He is wrong, of course.  Not only do strong leaders survive palace coups or make successful assaults on the throne, they are loved by their subjects because of their strength and perceived valor.

Henry IV also reflects on the nature of kingship, and what it means to be a great king, but he does not talk about governance, only characteristics and attributes.  Talking about his predecessor, Richard II, Henry says to his son:

Heard, not regarded; seen, but with such eyes,
As, sick and blunted with community,
Afford no extraordinary gaze
Such as is bent on sunlike majesty
When it shines seldom in admiring eyes,
But rather drowsed and hung their eyelids down (1H, III.ii.76-81)

In other words, Henry asserts that Richard led to his own ruin by placing himself in the public eye too often, by trying to sway his subjects into believing in his divinity. Henry during his own reign constantly disavowed the divine right of kings, and was ultimately challenged by his own son, Prince Hal, the future Henry V.

“There is your crown/And He that wears the crown immortally/Long guard it as yours” (2H, IV.iii.271-273). The “He” referenced by Prince Henry is God. The perpetuity of God, according to Prince Henry, is what provides protection to the kingship and Henry IV’s disregard of this is what has caused him to have a tumultuous rule instead of the peaceful rule he had hoped to establish. The recognition of God’s natural relationship with the kingship will be important aspect of Prince Henry’s (hereinafter Henry V) rule of England (Danielle Marler).

Henry IV was a military ruler and a strong one, and he had none of the philosophical qualms affecting either his predecessor Richard II or his eventual successor Henry VI.  However, he, like many past and future kings became corrupt and precipitated a civil war:

Once he was crowned king, Henry IV abruptly turned his back on the values he had once cherished and instead behaved in a fashion similar to the corrupt Richard. Henry IV raised taxes throughout the kingdom, beheaded all of Richard’s loyal deputies, and disregarded Richard’s true successor to the crown, the Earl of March, altogether (1H, IV.iii.87-98)! The rejection of divinity and the inability to promote any of the eternity-values that Kantorowicz outlines ensure that England will be beset with violence and instability. (Danielle Marler)

Much of 1 and 2 Henry IV is about Henry’s battles in the civil war.  His only reflection on kingship comes in his troubled relationship with his son.  Because his son has seemingly been a layabout and ne’er-do-well, he is concerned what kind of a king he will make; but he is more concerned about how his son will help him in his current struggles to retain the throne.

There is little about either kingship or governance in Henry V.  Henry is one of England’s most revered kings because battlefield valor and success against the French at Agincourt.

In summary, then, Shakespeare in his Histories talked less about governance per se and more about how kings attain, retain, and lose the throne.  If he meditates at all on aspects of governance, he does it through the philosophical musings of Richard II and Henry VI or the debate on principle, such as on the divine right of kings.  In Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and the other plays mentioned above, he enters into the world of morality and ethics in politics and rule.  Aside from the continuing and irreversible conflicts over power, what constitutes right action?

While there is no doubt that both Brutus is an ambitious man and ultimately fights Mark Antony for the right to rule Rome, he is – despite the sarcasm in Mark Antony’s peroration over Caesar’s body – a noble man.  He wants to do the right thing.  He is convinced that Caesar has the potential to become a tyrant.  He has committed no crime against the state nor against any one noble or common; but his is showing some of the traits of his forbearers. Prior to Julius Caesar and the first Triumvirate, Rome had been a republic, but had suffered at the hands of tyrants such as Sulla:

During the era of the late Republic, Rome suffered through a reign of terror. Terror's tool was the proscription list, by which large numbers of important, wealthy people, and often senators, were killed; their property, confiscated. Sulla, Roman dictator at the time, instigated this carnage:

Sulla now busied himself with slaughter, and murders without number or limit filled the city. Many, too, were killed to gratify private hatreds, although they had no relations with Sulla, but he gave his consent in order to gratify his adherents. At last one of the younger men, Caius Metellus, made bold to ask Sulla in the senate what end there was to be of these evils, and how far he would proceed before they might expect such doings to cease. "We do not ask thee," he said, "to free from punishment those whom thou hast determined to slay, but to free from suspense those whom thou hast determined to save." Plutarch - Life of Sulla

Brutus knows this and like his fellow nobles is sensitive to the rise of one man in the political arena.  Cassius, like Iago in Othello, quietly but persuasively plants seeds of doubts in Brutus’ mind.  While never specifying any crime – for Caesar has not committed any -  he adds rumor to innuendo and gradually persuades Brutus that Caesar must be killed. There have been omens, Caesar has fits, he was a weak swimmer, his statues have become garlanded – all innocent observations that Cassius brilliantly uses to infect Brutus’ mind.  Brutus says:

It must be by his death: and for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. He would be crown'd:
How that might change his nature, there's the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder;
And that craves wary walking. Crown him?--that;--
And then, I grant, we put a sting in him,
That at his will he may do danger with.
The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins
Remorse from power: and, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections sway'd
More than his reason. But 'tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition's ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round.
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent. And, since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus; that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities:
And therefore think him as a serpent's egg
Which, hatch'd, would, as his kind, grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

Brutus only concludes Caesar’s guilt in the most indirect and circular way.  It is commonly known, says Brutus above, that the very state of lowliness is the ladder to ambition and power, and few men can resist the climb.  Worse, when the climber reaches the top, he never again looks down from whence he came or to those who assisted in his ascent.  He continues to look upward, to even more power and glory.  While this is certainly true of most tyrants, it may not be true at all for Caesar.  In fact, in all of Caesar’s few lines in the play, he says nothing to even suggest that he has such ambitions in mind.

Brutus joins Cassius and other conspirators, and they murder Julius Caesar.

Was there anything right or noble about Brutus’ actions? Was he acting properly, given recent history.  Was it a moral failing to kill one man to avoid the slaughter of thousands – even though the killings were only possible, not even probable?

First, although habeas corpus predated the Magna Carta in 1215, Shakespeare knew that English kings ignored it completely.  Henry VIII who ruled just before Shakespeare’s time threw Anne Boleyn to the wolves on trumped up charges of incest and adultery, and did away with Cromwell, Thomas More, Fisher, and others on allegations of treason with nothing conclusively proved.   Head were lopped off at the discretion of the king.  Guilt could be established by omen, extreme trials and corporal punishment, and innuendo. 

Therefore, it might not have been that far a leap to jump to conclusions about what might happen, as Shakespeare wrote about Brutus and Caesar.  In fact, we have come full circle from the days before the Magna Carta and are developing increasingly sophisticated ways of catching criminals before they commit a crime; and the United States since 9/11 has incarcerated these potential criminals (terrorists) to prevent them from doing harm.  What Brutus was doing was to base a judgment on the best information he had, and to conclude that it would be far better to eliminate a potential threat (Caesar) from doing inestimable harm.  Given recent history, the belief in signs and omens, and an objective and correct understanding of the nature of tyranny, was Brutus in fact right in what he did?

Of course, Shakespeare in his Histories has more than amply shown that most people act only on self-interest, and therefore Brutus, however much he might have framed his actions within a moral context, simply wanted Caesar out of the way so that he could ascend to power.

The point is not the answer to the question, but the fact that Shakespeare dealt with an important issue of governance and leadership that is often overlooked – ‘pre-crime’.

Coriolanus is perhaps the most political of Shakespeare’s plays, and it deals with events following the uprising and deposition of Tarquin the Proud and the establishment of the first Roman Republic.  The historical setting is similar to that of Julius Caesar and the plot also involves the question of possible tyranny and arrogation of power.  Caius Marcius, later named Coriolanus, is, like Julius Caesar, a revered military hero who is put forth by certain Senators to be a consul, one of the highest positions in the Republic.  To do so he must be approved by the Senate – which happens easily – and then to be approved by the people, now powerful under a more democratic form of government within the Republic.  The intermediaries are tribunes, supposedly advocates and spokesmen for the people, but drawn from the same patrician class as senators.

Coriolanus, is decidedly anti-democratic.  It is only with an elite cadre of governors can Rome be ruled properly. In this passage he most eloquently and objectively talks about patrician rule, and the passage is not infected with the virulence and intemperate show of disgust he has of the mob:

No, take more:
What may be sworn by, both divine and human,
Seal what I end withal! This double worship,
Where one part does disdain with cause, the other
Insult without all reason, where gentry, title, wisdom,
Cannot conclude but by the yea and no
Of general ignorance,--it must omit
Real necessities, and give way the while
To unstable slightness: purpose so barr'd, it follows,
Nothing is done to purpose. Therefore, beseech you,--
You that will be less fearful than discreet,
That love the fundamental part of state
More than you doubt the change on't, that prefer
A noble life before a long, and wish
To jump a body with a dangerous physic
That's sure of death without it, at once pluck out
The multitudinous tongue; let them not lick
The sweet which is their poison: your dishonour
Mangles true judgment and bereaves the state
Of that integrity which should become't,
Not having the power to do the good it would,
For the in which doth control't.(III.i)

Here he is condemning not only the ignorance of popular will, but the inherent problems of two-sided rule.  There is no way for Rome to be properly rule “Where one part does disdain with cause, the other/Insult without all reason, where gentry, title, wisdom/Cannot conclude but by the yea an no of general ignorance…”

This debate over elite vs. popular rule has been repeated throughout history; was one of the features of the discussions in the early days of our republic; and is alive and well today.  Who cannot but be appalled at the persistent low levels of popular understanding of the issues and the ease by which demagogic politicians are able to manipulate popular opinion because of that ignorance. Of course, the idea of elite or patrician rule assumes a nobility of spirit, an ambition only for the good of the people, and a selfless dedication to well-being; and history has shown that while such representatives may have existed for brief periods of time, their noble sentiments quickly turn venal and self-serving.  If Americans do envisage a better way of governance, one with selfless, intelligent, and committed men (and now women) ruling the many, they think of the Founding Fathers who, although they had differences of opinion, all fell into this political hero category; and in fact, we might well be better off with the likes of Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Hamilton, and Franklin at the helm.

Coriolanus, however, goes beyond logic and a rational assessment of political order.  He hates the mob.  He has a visceral contempt for them:

He that will give good words to thee will flatter
Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? the one affrights you,
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese: you are no surer, no,
Than is the coal of fire upon the ice,
Or hailstone in the sun. Your virtue is
To make him worthy whose offence subdues him
And curse that justice did it.
Who deserves greatness
Deserves your hate; and your affections are
A sick man's appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favours swims with fins of lead
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust Ye?
With every minute you do change a mind,
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland. What's the matter,
That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate, who,
Under the gods, keep you in awe, which else
Would feed on one another? What's their seeking? (I.i)

Despite his venom, Coriolanus is right.  The ‘mob’ has always been fickle – no less today than in Rome or Elizabethan England.  One day’s hero is the next one’s villain.  People, according to Coriolanus go looking for ways to tear down the good and noble rather than support them.  No serious man of politics can possibly swim a straight course towards right and just decisions if he can be consumed by the mob at any minute. 

Shakespeare’s most biting parody of the mob is in 3 Henry VI in the character of Jack Cade who elevates the ‘values’ of illiteracy, ignorance, and brutishness in his rule.  Shakespeare was no fan of the mob and has characterized its fickleness in many of his plays.  The mob is easily swayed in Julius Caesar, first by Brutus, then by Mark Antony, and there is nothing in Shakespeare’s work that shows that he was all for patrician rule.

The play is also interesting in the way it deals with another aspect of governance in the new republic – the workings of the three levels of rule: the Senate and their consuls; the tribunes; and the people.  While the tribunes have no decisive say in matters of state, they were important intermediaries between magistrates (consuls) and the people:

Tribunes were charged with protection of lives and property of plebians; their persons were inviolable (sacrosanct); had power of veto (Lat. "I forbid") over elections, laws, decrees of the senate, and the acts of all other magistrates (except dictator); convened tribal assembly and elicited plebiscites, which after 287 B.C. (lex Hortensia) had force of law.

Shakespeare presented the tribunes in this play as manipulative, power-hungry men who manipulated and used the fickle will of the common man to destroy Coriolanus.  They use a legitimate grievance of the people – the alleged stockpiling of grain by the government for use in future wars and the consequent rise in market prices – as a means of discrediting Coriolanus who has defended the practice.  More importantly, the tribunes invoke the same argument that Brutus used in Julius Caesar – that anyone who holds such anti-democratic sentiments and has such hostility for the common man, could easily become a tyrant; so better now to kill him than run the risk of future usurpation of popular rule:

Did you perceive
He did solicit you in free contempt
When he did need your loves, and do you think
That his contempt shall not be bruising to you,
When he hath power to crush? Why, had your bodies
No heart among you? or had you tongues to cry
Against the rectorship of judgment? (Brutus II.iii)

This scenario is no less true in today’s American Republic. While the Senate is a more deliberative, considerate body (in principle), the House of Representatives is filled with local-interest attack dogs, elected every two years and therefore running for office from the day they take their seats.  They will do anything to get elected, it seems, and are little different from the tribunes depicted in Coriolanus.

In Othello, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony, Shakespeare has created military heroes who cannot quite make the transition to civilian life.  Othello cannot translate his strategic battlefield genius to the bedroom or the polite society of Venice.  Mark Antony, a similar hero, has trouble navigating the civil wars in which Rome has become embroiled because of his obsession with Cleopatra.  Julius Caesar is beginning to let the cheers and adulation of him as a soldier go to his head, referring to himself as the royal “we” and not objecting to the many statues constructed in his honor.  Coriolanus has not only defeated the tyrant Tarquin, but has been a much decorated, and much-wounded soldier who has proven himself on the battlefield many times.  What could be more qualifying as a civil leader than heroism, patriotism, and valor?  And since few Romans could possibly understand the rigors of war, why should they have any say in his ascension?

Another aspect of governance explored in Coriolanus is that of public relations – alive and well even in Ancient Rome (and Elizabethan England). Both Menenius – a Polonius-like friend,supporter, and adviser to Coriolanus – and more importantly Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia, urge him to go to the people and plead his case for becoming consul.  It won’t take much, they both advise, since the mob is ignorant and easily led and seduced by flattery and a silver tongue, so why not do it?

Coriolanus agrees, but then decides that he simply cannot do it.  It offends his very nature to show off his wounds and declare love for the mob he hates.  He is honest above all, and to do what he is asked will damage the integrity of his values and his spirit:

Well, I must do't:
Away, my disposition, and possess me
Some harlot's spirit! my throat of war be turn'd,
Which quired with my drum, into a pipe
Small as an eunuch, or the virgin voice
That babies lulls asleep! the smiles of knaves
Tent in my cheeks, and schoolboys' tears take up
The glasses of my sight! a beggar's tongue
Make motion through my lips, and my arm'd knees,
Who bow'd but in my stirrup, bend like his
That hath received an alms! I will not do't,
Lest I surcease to honour mine own truth
And by my body's action teach my mind
A most inherent baseness. (III.ii)

His mother wins out in the end.  Coriolanus goes before the people, and through the baiting of the tribunes loses all composure and speaks his mind – once again, an unveiled contempt for the masses.  He is thrown out of Rome.

Few of us today find this kind of obstinate honesty familiar.  Flattery, chicanery, political manipulation are the coins of the realm; but the tragedy of Coriolanus in the mind of Shakespeare was his absolute conviction of the rightness of his vision.  He might have been arrogant – and that arrogance betrayed him – but he was at least honest and true to himself.  Republics need more like him, rather than fewer.

There are two familiar subtexts in the drama of Coriolanus.  The first is the familiar plotting and subterfuge of the palace and the constant struggle for supremacy.  The tribunes only want to see Coriolanus out of the way so that they can have a clear path to power.  The Senate wants to see Coriolanus succeed because they know that a military hero – like our Eisenhower – will make a very attractive member of their august body.  The Volscians are delighted that their former enemy wants to join forces with them; but are quick to chop off his head when he gets too much credit and in the end capitulates to the demands of his mother.

The other subtext is family and powerful mothers.  Volumnia has no apologies to make to Margaret, Constance, Dionyza, or Tamora.  She is the demanding, acquisitive mother.  Worse, she manipulates her own son and convinces him not to sack Rome, thus gaining power and prominence for saving the city.  At the same time she condemns him to death at the hands of the Volscians for capitulating.

Measure for Measure is not usually thought of as a political play, since the more powerful and dramatic element is the chaste and impeccably moral character of Isabella who is put into a Sophie’s Choice bind when Interim Duke Angelo agrees to free her brother from his death sentence if she will sleep with him.  The play, however, is based on a principle of governance enunciated by Angelo – that it is better to harshly enforce a law now, even if there may be innocents caught in the net, than to let crime increase.  This philosophy, and the argument opposing it are clearly enunciated in the following passage:

ANGELO: Be you content, fair maid;
It is the law, not I condemn your brother:
Were he my kinsman, brother, or my son,
It should be thus with him: he must die tomorrow.

ISABELLA To-morrow! O, that's sudden! Spare him, spare him!
He's not prepared for death. Even for our kitchens
We kill the fowl of season: shall we serve heaven
With less respect than we do minister
To our gross selves? Good, good my lord, bethink you;
Who is it that hath died for this offence?
There's many have committed it.

ANGELO The law hath not been dead, though it hath slept:
Those many had not dared to do that evil,
If the first that did the edict infringe
Had answer'd for his deed: now 'tis awake
Takes note of what is done; and, like a prophet,
Looks in a glass, that shows what future evils,
Either new, or by remissness new-conceived,
And so in progress to be hatch'd and born,
Are now to have no successive degrees,
But, ere they live, to end.

I show [pity] most of all when I show justice;
For then I pity those I do not know,
Which a dismiss'd offence would after gall;
And do him right that, answering one foul wrong,
Lives not to act another. Be satisfied;
Your brother dies to-morrow; be content. 

Angelo argues that it is the law that is harsh, not he; and that the law had simply lain dormant for so long that its application now seems unjust.  Laws are made for a reason, says Angelo, to keep order; and if society is to remain intact and integral, laws must be enforced. Bloom considers Measure for Measure the most nihilistic of all Shakespeare’s works. “There are no values available in Vincentio’s Vienna, since every stated or implied vision of morality, civil or religious, is either hypocritical or irrelevant” (The Invention of the Human).  This may be true, but it does not detract from Angelo’s consistent views of the law.  Angelo, in fact, is not acting entirely on his own, for Duke Vincentio has already enunciated the importance of the law.  He speaks generally and does not dwell on the issues of prostitution or illicit sex, but his views are clear nevertheless and provide the context for Angelo’s determination:

We have strict statutes and most biting laws.
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this nineteen years we have let slip;
Even like an o'ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threatening twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children's sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock'd than fear'd; so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead;
And liberty plucks justice by the nose;
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum. (I.ii)

Angelo reiterates this theoretical approach to the law shortly thereafter:

We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror. (II.i)

The case is made early for the rigorous application of the law; and Shakespeare then shows how this act affects everyone – those enforcing the law, those arrested because of it, and those with relationships to both. 

Even the person who has suffered most because of Angelo understands his position on the law:

Look, if it please you, on this man condemn'd,
As if my brother lived: I partly think
A due sincerity govern'd his deeds,
Till he did look on me: since it is so,
Let him not die. My brother had but justice,
In that he did the thing for which he died:
For Angelo,
His act did not o'ertake his bad intent,
And must be buried but as an intent
That perish'd by the way: thoughts are no subjects;
Intents but merely thoughts. (V.i)

Isabella’s brother, Claudio, condemned to death because of Angelo’s draconian law, also understands the deputy’s position as he explains in this exchange with Lucio:

Thus can the demigod Authority
Make us pay down for our offence by weight
The words of heaven; on whom it will, it will;
On whom it will not, so; yet still 'tis just.
Re-enter LUCIO and two Gentlemen
Why, how now, Claudio! whence comes this restraint?
From too much liberty, my Lucio, liberty:
As surfeit is the father of much fast,
So every scope by the immoderate use
Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue,
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil; and when we drink we die (I.ii)

Yet, other characters disagree – the punishment in no way fits the crime.  Lucio says:

Why, what a ruthless thing is this in him, for the
rebellion of a codpiece to take away the life of a
man! Would the duke that is absent have done this?
Ere he would have hanged a man for the getting a
hundred bastards, he would have paid for the nursing
a thousand: he had some feeling of the sport: he
knew the service, and that instructed him to mercy.(III.ii)

A number of critics have commented that there are no strong women in this play whereas there are in all others.  Isabella and Mariana, they say, are totally manipulated by men – unlike Rosalind, Beatrice, Constance, Dionyza, Tamora and others who always have the upper hand.  While it is true that Isabella and Mariana do what the Duke tells them, and both are forced into marriage (Mariana is marrying a moral reprobate, Angelo; and Isabella must give up her religious vocation to marry the rather suspect Duke), Isabella gives Angelo a very good run for his money.  This, in fact is what attracts her to Angelo – he is less concerned with a woman’s looks than her intelligence and spirit.  In this passage, she understands the implications of Angelo’s harsh application of the law.  While it may in fact deter crime, it is likely to encourage misuse of law enforcement

Angelo says that he most shows pity when he shows justice. In other words, justice today will ensure that no pity will be needed in the future, for when laws are enforced, crime will decline, fewer people will be punished, and fewer tears will be spent over them; but Isabella retorts that enforcing the law unjustly, even though it may deter crime, is itself unjust.  The case against her brother – a death sentence for having committed what Angelo feels is fornication (this all started because he wanted to ‘clean up’ Vienna) – is so egregiously unfair that it not only subverts the cause of justice, but unleashes ignorant and unbridled misuse of power.  The reader will recognize the LAPD in this passage:

ISABELLA So you must be the first that gives this sentence,
And he, that suffer's. O, it is excellent
To have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.

Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne'er be quiet,
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder;
Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split'st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal (II.ii)

Isabella is an interesting character not only because she is in fact a strong woman who stands up to the Duke, but because she represents – in exaggerated form – moral rectitude and the importance of intuition and feeling in the writing and application of the law.  In other words, although she may understand why Angelo has acted the way he did, he should at least look into his heart:

Because authority, though it err like others,
Hath yet a kind of medicine in itself,
That skins the vice o' the top. Go to your bosom;
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That's like my brother's fault: if it confess
A natural guiltiness such as is his,
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
Against my brother's life. (II.ii)

The law may be just, but is it justice to condemn this particular man the way Angelo has?

She does not admit that her refusal to save her brother, placing the protection of her chastity above his life – is just as suspect.  She, like Angelo, is setting forth a law – Isabella shall not unwillingly give up her chastity – which simply cannot be broken, no matter what the consequences.  Therefore, despite her valiant attempts to change Angelo’s mind, she is as unattractive a character as he is for her recalcitrance and self-righteousness – perhaps even more unattractive.  Her unattractiveness increases at the end of the play when she gives up the very sanctimonious pretense she has maintained throughout the play – her chastity – when she agrees to marry the Duke.  In a sense she has submitted to a manipulative man when she refused to do so when it could have saved the life of her brother.

Isabella also remarks: “O, fie, fie, fie!/Thy sin’s not accidental, but a trade;/Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd/’Tis best that thou diest quickly” (III.i).  This is another legal point – should the accused’s persona history have any bearing on the crime in question?  Although our current legal system says ‘No’, there is always pressure by the prosecution to allow evidence that the alleged crime is not the first time he/she committed it.

The play goes on to explore the conflicts between law, morality, intent, and human failings.  Angelo only late in the play begins to understand that his lecherous proposition to Isabella was worse than the ‘crime’ committed by Claudio, but only reluctantly: 

This deed unshapes me quite, makes me unpregnant
And dull to all proceedings. A deflower'd maid!
And by an eminent body that enforced
The law against it! But that her tender shame
Will not proclaim against her maiden loss,
How might she tongue me! Yet reason dares her no;
For my authority bears of a credent bulk,
That no particular scandal once can touch
But it confounds the breather. He should have lived,
Save that riotous youth, with dangerous sense,
Might in the times to come have ta'en revenge,
By so receiving a dishonour'd life
With ransom of such shame. Would yet he had lived!
A lack, when once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right: we would, and we would not. (IV.iv)

He is still not repentant, for he is calculating whether Isabella will bring suit against him; and he rationalizes Claudio’s death by saying that if he had lived, he surely would have taken revenge on him.  The final couplet suggests that he really does understand what he has done – he has fallen from grace and must suffer the consequences. 

Angelo is an interesting character because he embodies all the aspects of governance.  First, he bases his actions on precedent – laws exist that prohibit prostitution, sex before marriage, and adultery, but they have not been enforced for over a decade.  Second, he feels that his particular application of the law – which in other hands might be less rigorous – is the right application.  By being so inflexible and harsh, he will discourage further ‘crime’.  Third, he understands Isabella’s rational appeals, but rejects them.  There is no precedent for his particular interpretation of the law, she rightly says; but that has no relevance because if a law is on the books and right, it must be enforced, even for the first time. 

He also understands the concept of mercy, another important element of the law and governance, and does not dismiss it out of hand, for he understands that the concept of mercy has to do with extenuating circumstances.  These may be valid, he argues, but not in this case.  In another lively exchange with the smart Isabella, he insists that there is no room for compassion within the law, but she retorts:

Because authority, though it err like others,
Hath yet a kind of medicine in itself,
That skins the vice o' the top. Go to your bosom;
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That's like my brother's fault: if it confess
A natural guiltiness such as is his,
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
Against my brother's life. (II.ii)

Fourth, he understands the question about the moral foundations of the law – if a law is based on a questionable premise, should it be enforced.  The Duke let existing laws on prostitution go unenforced for almost 20 years because he felt that they were unreasonable. As Pompey the bawd (procurer) says to Escalus, a confidant of Angelo:

If you head and hang all that offend that way but
for ten year together, you'll be glad to give out a
commission for more heads: if this law hold in
Vienna ten year, I'll rent the fairest house in it
after three-pence a bay: if you live to see this
come to pass, say Pompey told you so. (II.i)

Angelo disagrees.  The law is based on a good foundation – prostitution and illicit sex are bad for the body politic – and therefore not only must be enforced, but enforced so coercively that they will cease to exist. 

Pompey and his friends suggest that Angelo not only has never had sex, but that he was born out of some demonic sexless union.  He has ice in his veins, has no idea about passion or desire, and therefore his attitude towards the law is ignorant and unfounded.

Angelo embodies the paradox of lawmakers and law enforcers – even they are subject to the very temptations that they are forbidding.  He also raises another important legal/moral question.  When he finds himself attracted to Isabella who has played the coquette at the suggestion of Lucio to better win him over, he says: “What’s this? What’s this? Is this her fault or mine?/The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?” (II.ii).  This question of course persists to this day – there is a fine line between entrapment and ‘gotcha’ and courts adjudicate on the issue all the time.

Shakespeare comments on a number of other legal/moral issues in the play.  For example, the Duke without compunction says that one prisoner who is derelict and without repentance deserves to die, and therefore cutting off his head in place of Claudio’s is just, thus raising the legal issue of repentance (parole and sometimes even sentencing is influenced by contrition). He also raises the question of ‘an eye for an eye’ – had Claudio actually been executed, should Angelo have been put to death as well for an ‘unlawful’ application of justice?

Many critics have noted that the play ends quickly, and despite the complexity and seriousness of the first two-thirds, the resolution is pure Comedy.  Shakespeare, they suggest, may have realized that there was too much complexity for one play and chose to defer the resolution of  legal, moral, ethical, and other issues for another play.  Everyone is forgiven in the play as in The Tempest, and one wonders why Shakespeare chose to abruptly bring the complexities of character, circumstance, and philosophy to a close. 

Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s approach was always to leave the audience with questions.  We are never sure why Othello murdered Desdemona, or why Hamlet dallied; or whether Brutus was indeed an honorable man.  In these Tragedies, however, there was a logical resolution.  We know how the plays ended the way they did and and why they did based on antecedent action; but are left to wonder why?  If Measure for Measure were a tragedy, then Claudio would have been put to death, Angelo would either have been wracked with doubt and guilt like Hamlet, Macbeth, or Othello or push on like Richard III.  Would Isabella have been satisfied with her moral rectitude, refusing the advances of Angelo thus causing the death of her brother?  Or would she too suffer from guilt and regret?  If this were a tragedy, there would be no absent Duke going in and out of disguise checking in on the administration of Angelo and weighing in only at the very end. He would not play with Isabella as he does, cruelly keeping her from the truth about her brother’s fate.

So in that sense the play raises fascinating and continually relevant questions, but leaves them up in the air and closes with the traditional Comedic marriages.  Marriage in this problem play (neither Comedy, Tragedy, nor Romance) is used as a quasi-legal enforcement.  Angelo is forced to marry his formerly betrothed as is Lucio obliged to marry the woman he got pregnant.  All’s well that ends well, it seems.

Shakespeare does not answer this or other questions, for the play evolves quickly into a Comedy mode.  Angelo is smitten by the beautiful, principled Isabella, and decides to win her through a deviousness based on her own principles – he will free her brother if she sleeps with him, Angelo.  As in all Comedies, this one ends well, double, triple trickery wins the day, and everyone lives happily ever after.  It ends with a reprise of the theme of justice, and Isabella wins the day through arguing another refined point of law – it is not intent that we should punish, but action:

Look, if it please you, on this man condemn'd,
As if my brother lived: I partly think
A due sincerity govern'd his deeds,
Till he did look on me: since it is so,
Let him not die. My brother had but justice,
In that he did the thing for which he died:
For Angelo,
His act did not o'ertake his bad intent,
And must be buried but as an intent
That perish'd by the way: thoughts are no subjects;
Intents but merely thoughts. (V.i)

Troilus and Cressida is also a very political play, perhaps even more than Coriolanus, and it is the character of Ulysses who is the spokesman for Shakespeare’s convictions about the right way to run an empire – with order, discipline, authority, and of course patrician rule.  In this passage Ulysses says that order is at the very nature of the universe – everything has its place, superior and inferior, primary and secondary; and without this fixed scheme of things, chaos would result.  The problem is not with Troy, Achilles says, referring to the implacable enemy of Greece in the interminable Trojan war, but with Greece itself:

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad:

But when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?

What would happen if order were taken away, Achilles asks?

Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

Great Agamemnon,
This chaos, when degree is suffocate,
Follows the choking.
And this neglection of degree it is
That by a pace goes backward, with a purpose
It hath to climb. The general's disdain'd
By him one step below, he by the next,
That next by him beneath; so every step,
Exampled by the first pace that is sick
Of his superior, grows to an envious fever
Of pale and bloodless emulation:
And 'tis this fever that keeps Troy on foot,
Not her own sinews. To end a tale of length,
Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength.

Achilles in his role of political philosopher opines that Achilles does not understand how wars are fought, and that despite his valor and ability to win battles will ultimately lose wars.  War, says Achilles, is not just a matter of the soldiers on the battlefield, but the brains behind their movements:

They tax our policy, and call it cowardice,
Count wisdom as no member of the war,
Forestall prescience, and esteem no act
But that of hand: the still and mental parts,
That do contrive how many hands shall strike,
When fitness calls them on, and know by measure
Of their observant toil the enemies' weight,--
Why, this hath not a finger's dignity:
They call this bed-work, mappery, closet-war;
So that the ram that batters down the wall,
For the great swing and rudeness of his poise,
They place before his hand that made the engine,
Or those that with the fineness of their souls
By reason guide his execution.

Ulysses understands how victory can only be achieved if the various civil, strategic, and martial elements of engagement are in alignment.  If Greece’s civil institutions are in disarray, order has been disassembled, and chaos reigns; if there is no appreciation of and respect paid to those who plan and devise strategies for war, then valor alone cannot win wars.

The play is interesting because the Greeks and Trojans are pitted not just as opposing armies, but opposing philosophies.  While the Greeks, embodying the principles of Ulysses, favor reason and rationality, the Trojans value valor, patriotism, and emotional conviction. Here is Troilus, the philosopher-lover-warrior of Troy enunciating the Trojan position:

You are for dreams and slumbers, brother priest;
You fur your gloves with reason. Here are
your reasons:
You know an enemy intends you harm;
You know a sword employ'd is perilous,
And reason flies the object of all harm:
Who marvels then, when Helenus beholds
A Grecian and his sword, if he do set
The very wings of reason to his heels
And fly like chidden Mercury from Jove,
Or like a star disorb'd? Nay, if we talk of reason,
Let's shut our gates and sleep: manhood and honour
Should have hare-hearts, would they but fat
their thoughts
With this cramm'd reason: reason and respect
Make livers pale and lustihood deject. (II.ii)

Hector counters this argument with an appeal for reason.  He confronts Troilus and says that his “blood is so madly hot that no discourse of reason, nor fear of bad success in a bad cause can qualify the same”; and “The reasons you allege do more conduce/To the hot passion of distempered blood/Than to make up a free determination/Twixt right and wrong, for pleasure and revenge/Have ears more deaf than adders to the voice/Of any true decision”.

Hector insists that to “persist in doing wrong extenuates not wrong/But makes it more heavy”; but Troilus has the last word:

Why, there you touch'd the life of our design:
Were it not glory that we more affected
Than the performance of our heaving spleens,
I would not wish a drop of Trojan blood
Spent more in her defence. But, worthy Hector,
She is a theme of honour and renown,
A spur to valiant and magnanimous deeds,
Whose present courage may beat down our foes,
And fame in time to come canonize us;
For, I presume, brave Hector would not lose
So rich advantage of a promised glory
As smiles upon the forehead of this action
For the wide world's revenue.(II.ii)

Cressida shows Troilus to be an idealistic fool, however.  All he really wants out of their love is romantic valor; and it is more important for her to remain faithful than for him to love her fully.  This personal failing echoes his idealism concerning military valor and national pride.

In one of the best passages of the play, Ulysses reflects on the fallacy of appearances and the vanity of those who ignore time.  Know that your time will come and go quickly, says Ulysses.  Be neither fooled by those around you nor by a mistaken view of your importance.  The underlying order of a world of order is the passage of time:

Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes:
Those scraps are good deeds past; which are devour'd
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
As done: perseverance, dear my lord,
Keeps honour bright: to have done is to hang
Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail
In monumental mockery. Take the instant way;
For honour travels in a strait so narrow,
Where one but goes abreast: keep then the path…

Though less than yours in past, must o'ertop yours;
For time is like a fashionable host
That slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand,
And with his arms outstretch'd, as he would fly,
Grasps in the comer: welcome ever smiles,
And farewell goes out sighing.

O, let not virtue seek
Remuneration for the thing it was;
For beauty, wit,
High birth, vigour of bone, desert in service,
Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all
To envious and calumniating time…
The present eye praises the present object.
Then marvel not, thou great and complete man,
That all the Greeks begin to worship Ajax;
Since things in motion sooner catch the eye
Than what not stirs.

The play continues with the double plots of the war and the relationship between Troilus and Cressida, and both end badly for the Trojans.  Troilus finds out that his idealized Cressida was a ‘loose woman’, quickly jumping into bed with the enemy; and that valor alone cannot assure victory.  The play ends with Troilus vowing revenge on Greece, but the last laugh is by Pandarus. There is no revenge for Troilus and no justice for Hector, only sadness in Troy and the final speech by Pandarus the pimp.

A goodly medicine for my aching bones! O world!
world! world! thus is the poor agent despised!
O traitors and bawds, how earnestly are you set
a-work, and how ill requited! why should our
endeavour be so loved and the performance so loathed?

Despite arguments of valor by the Trojans and high political philosophy on the part of the Greeks, nothing is resolved.  The Grand Mechanism continues to roll on and what is left is the pimp, his women, syphilis, and the sweating cure.