Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Microeconomics of Fertility

The carrying capacity of the earth is continually increasing, due to technology enhancements and advances in gene selection, such as the Green Revolution of the 1970s. The earth can carry much more people than was thought by Thomas Malthus, who assumed that populations grow at a rapid rate unless checked by limited supplies of food and other subsistence goods. The notion that subsistence goods increase arithmetically and population increases exponentially needs to say something about the increase in the carrying capacity which in turn increases the human populations which are able to scavenge the earth.

Jan van der Veen's work (drawing on other work) shows that population is now increasing at a decreasing rate since the 1985—1990 period. Moreover, there is a 15% probability that in a hundred years population will be less than that of today.

Population growth has some obvious positive impacts on the economy. First of which is the contingent growth in the labor supply, and the even more contingent growth in gross domestic product. Labor supply growth is merely a means to economic growth, which is merely a means to rising standards of living. At each point there are contingencies involved, and we should be doubtful about any “necessary” connections implied in the pro-natalist argument. There is also the argument that each person added to the population has the potential for genius, and that increases in population increases the number of baby-geniuses in the world.

On the other hand there are profound negative macroeconomic consequences of the microeconomic decisions made in the sphere of the family. The economics of the family can for example give rise to environmental degradation problems, strains on public services such as health and education, decreasing savings rates, and various other externalities on, say, negative externalities on other members of the totem or joint family, negative externalities on members of the community, and wage depression due to an overabundance of labor. And to state the obvious, children necessarily consume resources, drawing on the family’s income and societies’ natural capital. These points make clear that the family’s private cost and benefits do not match up with social and natural costs and benefits.

Diagrammatically, this is captured by the fact that the social cost is graphed steeper than the private costs. It may also be possible that there is no difference in costs, yet social and private benefits diverge greatly. The negative impacts of population growth are much more sufficient for negative outcomes than the positive impacts are sufficient for positive outcomes.

The microeconomic theory of fertility is useful here because it asks the question why a family would decide to rear children in the first place. The economics of the family asks what kinds of incentives are involved. After all, the decisions being made are often not based on society’s natural capital, or local wage levels. Family decisions are often made at the microeconomic rather than the macroecnomic level.

These are salient microeconomic behaviors based on things like private prices, tastes and preferences, incomes, and especially the expected marginal benefit from having children and so on. To frame this discussion, children in regions of high-income (correlated with low fertility) often are considered “consumption goods”, whereas in regions with low-income (correlated with high fertility) they are often considered “investment goods”. The difference will be clear in a moment.

We can also ask lots of other interesting economic questions about fertility. Such as whether children are substitute goods or complimentary goods for any other good or activity. Or, dare we ask the striking question of whether children are normal or inferior goods. That question is actually quite relevant, since if a child were an inferior good, it would imply that the family that there are clear substitutes to having children that are available—such as owning a boat or a helicopter if children are consumption goods, or such as viable savings or insurance markets if children are investment goods.

We can use the micro theory to explain the behavior of families in developing countries, where children are seen as an investment good, in the absence of markets for insurance and institutions like social security schemes. The first calculation is, of course, the direct costs of rearing children, i.e. the private costs in this activity, first of which are the costs of food and other subsistence goods. The other sort of costs is, more obviously, the opportunity costs. The family must reach a verdict on the trade-off between, say, raising children or enrolling in community college.

The opportunity costs, however, pervade the decision-making process at every level, even down to the trade-off between sleep and sleeplessness. We can also identify methods of decision-making in relation to certainties about life expectancy. If children are expected to die in infancy, and 15% of infants die within a year in developing countries, the parents may be expected to target children, choosing to wait until the child lives to have another child. If the uncertainty resides in the overall probability that a child will look after the parents in old age, they may be expected to hoard children as an appropriate insurance policy.

It is often assumed that the reason why families in developing countries have so many children is due to the lack of education. This seems to be a blatant myth, and the microeconomic theory spells this out in terms of the rational decision-making that a family goes through. In non-welfare states, families often prefer to invest in children as a form of old-age security and insurance rather than rely on money savings or social security programs that provide these benefits in other societies.

Families will often engage in mutual insurance networks, such as marrying off their children in distant villages, to minimize the risk of flood or disaster and thus of not having anyone provide for them in their old age. This is the problem of missing markets in developing countries, which need to develop in order for strong negatively external micro fertility issues to be mitigated. These can easily be provided in the market -- and developing countries have clear examples in developed countries and access to capital to achieve these ends.

However, there are some problems with the microeconomic theory of utility that I wish to briefly explain. It is arguably too simplistic, although it dispels the simplicity of earlier scholarship. If women do not have reproductive rights in these societies, then arguably there is no basis for the calculation. If decisions are made unequally in the households, then there is going to be some obvious bias that will tend toward having more children than the micro calculations would deem rational. These can also be explained by gender biases and social norms that are not accounted for in the model.

However, this problem is much more a case for a welfare state approach rather than a problem of the market itself. Markets do in fact provide these programs, yet developing countries often lack the infrastructure involved. For example, a functioning legal system is integral to the development of an insurance scheme, in order to validate claims made by injured parties.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Insomnia and Film and Society

Last weekend I participated in Apple's Insomniac Film Festival, where participants are instructed, with the use of props and plot devices, to create a short film in 24 hours. And this prompted me to think about the connection between insomnia and film.

Consider the metaphor that film states are structurally like dreaming states. In film we see a dynamic exchange between values and representations through the official language of universal separation. What we witness when watching a film, or what we are doing when creating a film, is exploring the surfacing and resurfacing of cultural spectacles within our societies. And we notice that the architecture of the dream is like the architecture of the film. Things basically "pop up" in film as they would in a dream, we make dramatic jumps in plot, we reorder sequences, we squeeze time into a picture that we both perceive and real and experience as real for the time being.

I am taking this metaphor to the extreme. It would seem then that when there is no film, there is no sleep. Or perhaps that films are substitutes for sleep. What, then, for the chronic insomniac? Can films be like his insomnia? In some sense, yes, because he is always watching films in the Cartesian theater of the mind, where consciousness "happens". But in another sense, no, if we reject the Cartesian view of the mind. The film of the insomniac would be exactly like his reality. It would be, in effect, a reality television show. Films brought about by insomnia have no potential for fantasy, no potential for metaphor.

This metaphor itself which I am using is apt to explain the various forms of insomnia-induced phenomena in our present spectacle. In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, where sleep disorders and insomnia are common, we see films that imitate the state of insomnia, the state of constant application of caffeine, the circadian rhythm of chaos and disorder. The individual insomniac's film is one with no context, no framing device to explain the disorder of the environments in which we, subjects, live. This sugggests that the societies we live in are societies of insomnia. I should say what I mean by this, because it appears I'm creating a new metaphor for modern society. The insomniac society is a feature of societies bent on performativity (as Lyotard would say about modern society) -- it does not mean everyone literally never sleeps. The deprivation is built into the creation of the society itself.

Descartes says in the Meditations on First Philosophy that if he were dreaming, then in some sense, any mathematical truths he happened to think up would still be true. This is the nature of mathematics. While the caffeinated filmmakers who participated in the 24-hour Insomnia Film Festival may share the creativity and imagination that comes with a good night's rest (the night before), the insomnia embedded into our society gives rise to all sorts of new discoveries and creations that would still be true whether we slept or not. This is the nature of human creativity and imagination, and this is what insomnia means for society. In a sense, life for us is presented as immense accumulation of the products of insomnia.

Now, to say something about the future of awake-ness, which is ultimately what the insomniac cannot live without: if we are truly on the verge of a post-human singularity point, perhaps sleep is something that can be mimicked or obtained in some other way. The limits of human creativity and imagination are bound by the sleep cycle. It has been suggested that sleep is more important to mammals than nutrition, in the sense that a Scientific American study found that mammals die quicker from sleep-deprivation than from lack of food energies. If we surpass this barrier with biological technology, allowing us to live in a constant state of awareness and insomnia and restfulness, we have surpassed not only the limitation of the human body but the limitation of the mammalian impulse to, in fact, sleep. And if this analysis is true, then in this vein of understanding, insomnia is a method and a profound feature of transhumanity.

Total Information Awareness

There has been an enormous shift in Anglo-Saxon law. Our criminal legal system is, or used to be, based on warrants from individualized suspicion. The 4th Amendment to the Constitution is based on individualized suspicion and individualized warrants. General warrants were part of the reason for the American Revolution. The King's agent could search a house everywhere, or an entire neighborhood with one warrant. The American colonists said they would not put up with that, they said we'll fight you, and we'll have a tea party about it. The picture below is an engraving of John Wilkes Booth commemorated in his struggle against general warrants and the liberty of the press, in 1768. This is our legal tradition.

And in our tradition there is an idea that there is a sphere of privacy around and individual for the individual's house, his "papers" as it says in the Constitution, which the government cannot breach without meeting a certain level of individualized suspicion. What we have seen in the development of information technology is that the sphere of the individual is getting smaller and smaller. We -- (everyone!) -- is allowed much more access to information and our consoles are ubiquitous. And while the government cannot actually breach the sphere of the individual physically, they are making this much more easy by building an Orwellian apparatus to fix themselves to the information gateways and peer into our online "papers". Our legal tradition has an understanding that this is not aligned with our principles of justice, while positive law regarding the individual's sphere is scarcely articulated nor is it protected. The apparatus can get around the individual's privacy, discover his papers and spy on them without consent, probing the contours of one's daily life through information technology.

These are not isolated incidents of poorly trained FBI agents doing this work. This is a systemic and systematic enterprise of privacy violations. This work is paving the way for a future society in which government have complete and total access to all papers, pictures, genetics, identity, transactions, voIP data, and all other encrypted data. The work of the "dataveillance" system has been set in motion since the 80s, with the development of the enterprises that have been slowly accumulating the technology, the infrastructure, the capital, and the legal privileges to access private data. One of these enterprises is the elite intelligence community at DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The FBI is hardly alone in mining the mountains of commercial data now available through the informatics of the apparatus. The Government Accounting Office found 199 data mining projects in more than 50 government agencies. The largest of these programs originated inside the mind of DARPA, the program known as Total Information Awareness. This program was to use predictive data-mining to detect suspicion patterns of terrorist operations. TIA's controversial logo is a seeing-eye in the sky, a big brother-ish symbol. Their thesis was that the set of transactions across space, time, and by some number of people, will create a "unique signature". Total Information Awareness can then use this signature to correlate and scale the potential for terrorist attacks and other threats. Some of their mad-hatter projects include programs like asymmetric wargaming environment clients, which model and predict terrorist behavior by aggregating all sorts of disconnected data; scalable social network analyses, which will most likely soon straddle and penetrate social software and tools like facebook and myspace; programs like Genisys, which enables "ultra-large, all source information repositories" to track terrorist suspects; and humanID (human identification at a distance), which -- like the name -- identifies humans based on biometric data -- and this would no doubt suggest and then require a sweeping panopticon of infrastructure in order for it to develop effectively.

In 2003, TIA changed its name from Total Information Awareness to Terrorist Information Awareness, giving the program another reason and a greater duty to exist given the circumstances. The program was already extensive before 2003, and it seems unlikely that TIA only data-mines for terrorist suspects--its infrastructure is too broad to be used only for that purpose. Under pressure from civil libertarian groups, Congress in 2003 also cut funding for Total Information Awareness. However, there was a "black budget" in which the TIA programs were funded, and these were moved to the National Security Agency (NSA) office in Maryland. There were elements of TIA at DARPA that Congress felt was valuable and decided transition them to another agency within the intelligence community. The fund cuts in 2003 appear not to matter, since the technology explosion has made it inevitable that powerful states and governments will want to use this information and invasive technologies to its advantage and its power. As the motto of the total information contractor, Narus, says "scientia est potentia" -- knowledge is power.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Actually, Cuba owns Guantánamo

The third topic in the United Nations General Assembly, 3rd Committee on Human Rights, will be the use of torture in the War on Terror. Now, in representing Cuba, I have found some interesting positions the Cuban government has taken over the years with respect to not only the use of torture in Guantánamo but also the legality of the territory and how it was annexed by the United States government. At the Model United Nations conference in Washington D.C. next month, I will do what I can to put this topic at the top of the agenda. Cuba's position on Guantánamo has not been given adequate attention by the American media, and to find it I had to do what any good delegate would do, and that is peruse Cuba's Mission the United Nations website, read previous statements at the UN body and uncover the data. Cuba's position is very cogent, as I have found.

The position of Cuba's UN delegates on this matter has, however, dissipated over the last few years. Perhaps they are losing interest, or perhaps have shifted their energies into the Cuban Five campaign, or been hushed or bribed by the US government, but I have preserved the original vigor and outrage of the Cuban government in this position paper, and I intend to speak out in the same manner.

On January 11, 2002, the US transferred the first detainees to the US Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Five years later, despite widespread international condemnation, hundreds of people of more than 30 nationalities remain there.

Cuba believes the U.S. administration chose Guantánamo as the location for this detention facility in an attempt to hold detainees beyond the reach of U.S. and international law. The legality of the U.S. jurisdiction in Guantánamo Bay has been disputed ever since the U.S. gained control of it in 1901. Cuba maintains that Guantánamo Bay was gained by the United States in violation of the Vienna Convention governing the laws of treaties, and that legally the territory belongs to the Republic of Cuba due to the abusive measures taken by the United States government.

The Platt Amendment in 1901 granted the United States the right to intervene in Cuba, and was imposed upon the text of our 1901 Constitution as a prerequisite for withdrawal of the American troops from the Cuban territory after the Spanish-American War. This has been a clear violation of the Vienna Convention, and Cuba thus calls for its abrogation. In the subsequent Agreement on Coaling and Naval Stations, the right was literally granted to the United States to do “all that is necessary to outfit those places so they can be used exclusively as coaling or naval stations, and for no other purpose.” Yet the United States today uses the territory in violation of its own laws, and in violation of the treaty originally set forth to govern its use.

Twenty-one years after the Agreement on Coaling and Naval Stations, in the spirit of the American “Good Neighbor” policy under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a new Treaty of Relations was subscribed between the Republic of Cuba and the United States of America that abrogated the previous 1903 Treaty, thereby abrogating the Platt Amendment. The new Treaty set out to sustain the American military presence in Guantánamo Naval Base and kept in effect the rules of the establishment. The Treaty of Relations, however, was also forced upon the Cuban government in violation of the Vienna Convention.

As evidence of the abusive conditions imposed by that Treaty, the above-mentioned supplementary agreement established that the United States would compensate the Republic of Cuba for the leasing of Guantánamo Bay with the sum of 2,000 US dollars annually, presently increased to 4,085 US dollars annually -- that is, 34.7 cents per hectare-- to be paid to Cuba in yearly checks. The reparations made were intended as bribes to the Cuban government. An elemental sense of dignity and absolute disagreement with what happened in that portion of our national territory this has prevented Cuba from cashing those checks which are issued to the Treasurer General of the Republic of Cuba, a position and an institution that ceased to exist a long time ago.

After the victory of the Revolution in Cuba, that base was the source of numerous frictions between Cuba and the United States. The overwhelming majority of the over three thousand Cubans who worked there were fired from their jobs and replaced by people from other countries.

Following unilateral decisions by leaders of the U.S. government throughout the revolutionary period in Cuba, tens of thousands of immigrants -- Haitians and Cubans who tried to make it to the United States by their own means -- were taken to that military base. Throughout more than four decades, that base has been put to multiple uses, none of them contemplated in the agreement that justified its presence in our territory.

On the other hand, for almost half a century propitious conditions have never existed for a calmed, legal and diplomatic analysis aimed at the only logical and fair solution to this prolonged, chronic and abnormal situation, that is, the return to our country of that portion of our national territory occupied against the will of our people.

However, a basic principle of Cuba’s policy toward this bizarre and potentially dangerous problem between Cuba and the United States, which is decades long, has been to avoid that our claim would become a major issue, not even an especially important issue, among the multiple and grave differences existing between the two nations. In the Pledge of Baraguá presented on February 19, 2000, the issue of the Guantánamo base is dealt with in the last point and formulated in the following way: “In due course, since it is not our main objective at this time, although it is our people’s right and one that we shall never renounce, the illegally occupied territory of Guantánamo should be returned to Cuba!”

It should be pointed out, however, that even if for decades there was quite a lot of tension in the area of the Guantánamo naval base, there have been changes there in the past few years and now an atmosphere of mutual respect prevails. That military enclave is the exact place where American and Cuban soldiers stand face to face, thus the place where serenity and a sense of responsibility are most required. Our country has been particularly thoughtful about applying there a specially cautious and equable policy.

Despite the fact that we hold different positions as to the most efficient way to eradicate terrorism, the difference between Cuba and the United States lies in the method and not in the need to put an end to that scourge, which is so familiar to our people that have been its victim for more than 40 years. It is the same that September 11 dealt a repulsive and brutal blow to the American people.

Although the transfer of foreign war prisoners by the United States government to one of its military facilities—located in a portion of our land over which we have no jurisdiction, as we have been deprived of it—does not abide by the provisions that regulated its inception, we have not set any obstacles to the development of the operation.

Cuba has made every effort to preserve the atmosphere of détente and mutual respect that has prevailed in that area in the past few years. The government of Cuba strongly advises, however, that the use of Guantánamo base as an unjust prison for transferring detainees be put to an end. We advise the United States government to close the Guantánamo Bay prison, just as they have closed Abu Ghraib prison, and return the territory rightfully to Cuba, where it will be used as a coaling and naval station, not for purposes of interrogating and torturing prisoners in the War on Terror. We also strongly encourage that the United States release our own prisoners in the War on Terror, the Cuban Five, who were arrested in the United States for counter-terrorism investigations on the 1976 Cubana airliner which was destroyed by American terrorists freely operating out of Miami, killing 73 working people. Their detention, for the investigation of terrorism against Cuba, is a mockery of the American justice system.

Although the exact number of prisoners that are concentrated in Guantánamo is not yet known, just like on the occasion of the project to transfer to that place thousands of Kosovar refugees, Cuba is willing to cooperate with the medical services required as well as with sanitation programs in the surrounding areas under our control to keep them clean of vectors and pests. Likewise, we are willing to cooperate in any other useful, constructive and humane way that may arise, granted there is mutual respect between the United States and Cuba. We warn, however, that our patience with the United States government has run very thin.

This is the position of Cuba!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Sino-Cuban Synthesis

In November I will be representing the Republic of Cuba at the national Model United Nations conference in Washington D.C. Another topic on the agenda in the General Assembly's 3rd Committee on Human Rights is the situation in China. The Chinese Question, for Cuba, is remarkably ambiguous. As I outline in this position paper, there was a harsh break in Sino-Cuba relations after Cuba had sided in the 70s with the more powerful Soviet Bloc. Since the Soviet Empire has fallen, China and Cuba slowly have begun rebuilding their relationship. Leaks in the Western press allege that China generously trades arms with Cuba in an effort to offset or balance the amount of arms trading between the United States and Taiwan. In fact, both China and the U.S. appear to be mirror images of each other--each with its own counter-hegemonic and counter-ideological island that operates in defiance of their respective authoritarian super-power.

Since much of what goes on is no doubt mired in secrecy, this position paper is an attempt to articulate the Sino-Cuban relationship, defend the human rights squalor in China, and stay compatible with the Cuban party line.

On the surface, Sino-Cuba relations may be difficult for historians to take seriously. In 1960 Cuba was the first Latin American country to recognize China’s new communist government. Yet early friendly relations turned sour toward the end of the decade with the emergence of the Sino-Soviet dispute, where Cuba sided with the Soviet leadership. Since our President, Fidel Castro, saw Cuba’s mission as an ongoing struggle against United States’ foreign policy and the imperialist organizations of the Washington Consensus, Cuba needed the kind of financial support and military shield that only Moscow could then provide.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry says that 1989 “marked the full resumption and development of Sino-Cuban relations.” Yet all current statements from Beijing and Havana say relations are now at an all-time high. This is not, as it is presumed by Western media, due to an alleged arms trade between China and Cuba in order balance the power the United States’ sphere of influence and its efforts to arm Taiwan. As President Castro has publicly said, Cuba has not traded weapons with China since 1992. Our relations are based uniquely on our common interest in the development and protection of socialist nations. What, then, can be said about the so-called human rights problem in China?

The essence of Cuba’s policy as regards human rights is based on the consensus reached in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted at the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, which famously concluded that “all human rights are universal, indivisible, and interdependent and interrelated.” However, this is only a contingent fact of Cuban policy.

Increasingly, anthropologists are writing about human rights from a critical perspective, documenting how human rights organizations and NGOs operate as facilitators of Western hegemony. We have on the one hand a standard argument that human rights are universal in nature, and this is accepted without critical reflecting on the nature of Western values and the Western imperial project. On the other hand, we have the legal truism of an explicit “Act of State Doctrine” as outlined in various International Court of Justice principles and trials. This doctrine states that that no supranational organization shall interfere with the sovereignty of any nation. We have witnessed, of course, the habit of Western nations of continually denying this sovereignty to socialist nations, as in Cuba where the agricultural reform laws regarding sugarcane have systematically been disrespected by the imperialist Supreme Court of the United States. Cuba has nonetheless adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, while at the same time maintaining the position that universal human rights are no more than a Western “legal fiction”.

In particular, the concept of universal human rights is fundamentally rooted in the Western liberal project, the conclusions of which are not necessarily obvious or true elsewhere. The development of the human rights project is a development of imperialist thought as outlined in the philosophy of John Locke and John Stuart Mill, who were deeply involved with the workings of Empire themselves, using policy as an imperial tool for expansion and domination.

Cuba, having been incorporated into the Western liberal project from the very start, was imbibed with the Western notions of human rights, and we recognize them as part of our cultural and political inheritance. However, we recognize that not all cultures have inherited these values, and therefore cannot be expected to embrace them. It has been said by the anthropologist that, for example, “Asian values” is something much different from Western liberal values.

Let us take a moment to understand the hypocrisy by which the Western liberal project operates. According to the capitalists’ own economic models, it has justified the historical increases inequality, political repression, and the violation of human rights within their own nations. For example, according to the “non-communist stages theories” of Nobel Prize Economists like Simon Kuznets, these abuses are justified as part of a capitalist development scheme, and China cannot be blamed for merely modeling its behavior on the capitalist West, to which it is opening itself up. Have we now forgotten that America once greatly abused the Chinese laborers during its period of economic growth and Manifest Destiny in the 19th Century? This is, in fact, why Havana has a vibrant Chinatown—due to the migration of Chinese laborers who sought solace in neighborly Cuba. Have we forgotten all the acts of violent suppression against labor unions in the United States during its own period of rapid economic development and imperial expansion?

All too often, human rights abuses are linked in the capitalist mind to the socialist command economy. It is said that it is a symptom of socialism to deny these rights to its citizenry. Yet this is certainly not so in Cuba, where we have a press system that is free to criticize the government, where citizens are free to find and read anti-Castro newspapers and literature. In Cuba we have freedom and human rights. In China the rural populations are denied many of the basic rights the urban population enjoys. Yet this is rather a symptom of the capitalist development scheme that has taken over the nation, where the working person, the laborer, the agriculturalist, is denied the equality that other Chinese are privileged with.

Cuba encourages the U.N. body to recognize that these conventions on human rights are not universally applicable, and they are to be promulgated as an ideal of the Western liberal agenda. We emphasize the principles and conventions on national sovereignty as having greater weight in international relations than conventions and standards on human rights.

This is the position of Cuba!

Cuba and the Pan-African Struggle

Next month I will be attending the national Model United Nations conference in Washington D.C., representing The Republic of Cuba in the General Assembly's 3rd Committee on Human Rights. Having studied the way in which Cuba representatives, as well as Fidel and Raul Castro, speak towards the United Nations and towards other socialist countries, I have articulated a speech I will give on the subject of the crisis in Zimbabwe. Fidel Castro, a gadfly figure at the UN body, has historically taken several hours of time to give speeches at the United Nations, while most keep it down to one hour. For the purpose of being succinct, I have articled a short Pan-African history lesson and a message of solidarity for Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF government in the following way:

As Africa herself must be the land base for the pan-African Movement, it is crucial for there to be at least one beacon of revolutionary progress and resistance against imperialism for the people of Africa, scattered and suffering around the world. Zimbabwe’s anti-imperialist stance makes her that beacon. Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana and an influential Marxist, referred to such bases as liberated zones and urged pan-African revolutionaries to protect our liberated zones at all costs. This is because such zones are to serve as the launching pads of the struggle for a Unified Socialist Africa.

Zimbabwe has a very pivotal role in this neo-colonial phase of the pan-African Movement for several reasons. Not the least of which are the land reforms that have boldly swept the country. Nowhere on the continent have Africans taken as radical a measure toward land reform as in Zimbabwe, and not only have Zimbabwe’s land reforms been an inspiration for people in other African states, they have gained respect in Diasporan countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro have publicly praised Zimbabwe’s land reform process as a model we would like to see emulated in other countries. Another thing that makes Zimbabwe pivotal is its role regarding our sister states: such as aiding Mozambique against the foreign inspired counter insurgency of RENAMO; military assistance for SWAPO’s liberation struggle in Namibia; recently helping the Congo to secure its borders against CIA backed incursions; and lending troops to the AU mission to stabilize Sudan. In this sense, Zimbabwe is taking on the role of commitment and leadership in social change that Cuba historically has. Historically, Cuban doctors and fighters have fought alongside Africans in independence revolutions and struggles against imperialism, for example, the independence revolutions in Angola and Algeria. No other African state is upholding such a cooperative position at this time as Zimbabwe, which even strategically held off on its land reforms at the request of South Africa and other Southern African states, so not to strengthen the belligerence of white settler colonialists in those countries. And they did this at great cost to the integrity of their own struggle. These things are concrete expressions of pan-African cooperation.

Politically, Zimbabwe is in an intriguing situation that is grossly misrepresented by the Western World and even by too many so-called progressives, Africans alike. Claims of an atmosphere of repression and volatility that are propagated by British and U.S. media are pure lies. From what Cubans who are currently working in Zimbabwe have seen, life is relatively peaceful in Zimbabwe. The police do not even carry guns, as they a do in the United States. What kind of dictator or repressive government is it when the police do not even carry guns? In fact, there is hardly any uniformed police presence in the cities. They are mostly on the main roads where they had checkpoints trying to catch smugglers of currency and foreign exchange.

Furthermore, President Mugabe is a leader who also publicly keeps the inspiration of a Unified Socialist Africa alive. That is, not only have all the aforementioned things been done under the leadership of Mugabe, he also often mentions pan-Africanists like Nkrumah and his ideals in speeches addressing other Africans. He is not afraid to speak of socialism at a time when no other African leader dares utter the word. President Mugabe openly condemns imperialism with the boldness and clarity we have only come to expect from leaders such as Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez. That is why President Mugabe receives such resounding applause wherever he goes on the continent of Africa or when he speaks at UN or AU summits. No other African leader is doing what he is doing right now, and because he is, Zimbabwe stands as an inspiration to African people the world over. We need to see and hear such things. They serve as political education for pan-Africanism and examples of the courageous political work of socialism everywhere.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Human Exceptionalism

Human Exceptionalism is the belief that humans, above everything else, have special rights, special statuses, and unique capacities that justify human exceptionalist practices and ideologies. We can also call this human racism. Not everyone is in favor of human enhancement technology and the prospect of greater-than-human intelligence. Nor is everyone ready for this paradigm shift. Not everyone is in favor of extending personhood outside the human sphere. Or willing to allow non-exceptionalist status to human populations, for this would entail a kind of non-human status to humans. "Human status" here is synonymous with exceptionalism. We can see that by paradigmatic posturing that not everyone is willing to allow post-human paradigms to enter into consciousness. These 'human exceptionalists', a group that includes anti-transhumanist Wesley Smith, argue that being human is what matters, and that to give equal moral currency to non-humans is, to beg the question of human dignity and worth, a strict violation of human dignity and worth.

The opposing viewpoint to this is that of Non-Anthropocentric Personhood -- the notion that non-humans, be they animals, robots, or uploaded minds, have the potential for personhood status, and by consequence, are worthy of moral consideration. The heart of this notion of human exceptionalism is what drives the unethical treatment of non-humans, the consumption of non-humans, and the enslavement of non-humans. By becoming a vegetarian for ethical reasons or by embracing the ideas of transhumanism, one is acknowledging the dangers and provincialities of human exceptionalism. One is thereby acknowledging the multiple realizability of consciousness and the moral imperatives that follow. This is what mind functionalism ultimately converges upon: a non-anthropocentric vision of personhood and a detailed explanation for consciousness and its emergence in systems that do not share the exact chemical and biological makeup of human consciousness. Exceptionalists would have us think there is an ethical makeup to the human mind, which restricts the domain of personhood -- whereas if we deny this ethical makeup, we expand the domain of personhood at no ethical cost to "human dignity" whatsoever.

Friday, October 12, 2007

How Do Judges Decide Hard Cases?

Ronald Dworkin, opposing the legal positivism of H.L.A. Hart and John Austin, would have approached the Sims’ case much differently. Instead of looking to law as law, Dworkin would have invoked what he calls the integrity of law by having us ask what the principles of law behind the decision is based on. These principles are said to trump the laws assumed by their position as being sources of the laws themselves. The rule that free states must return fugitive slaves to slave states is based on the policy of states’ rights, as we have said. However, in Dworkin’s hierarchy of legal standards, there may be overriding principles, such as the principle that all human beings shall be treated equal, which trump the policy of states’ rights.

It is an integral part of the concept of principle that it has this dimension of overriding weight, which judges are presumed to take into account when using their discretion. Justice Shaw cites principles and policies as justification for the application of rules, to be sure. But if states’ rights is argued to be a principle unto itself, though it may be disputed whether some principles have more weight than others, Dworkin would argue that a Herculean judge, a judge who is omniscient with respect to law and legal decision-making, would use his discretion and conclude that principles of equality would override states’ rights in a hard case like Sims’.

To Austin, who would have decided that that principle of States’ Rights holds for the Fugitive Slave Laws, critics of positivism like Dworkin would have been content to point out that he had not taken account of consideration the measure of these principles and that the plaintiff was entitled to have Shaw do so. Dworkin means more, then, by holding judges and promulgators of the law to the standards of law instead of treating lawmaking as something we are unable to criticize. For Austin, criticism merely amounts to equivocating upon “hate” language and confounding us with divine theories of justice, which we can never measure. For Dworkin, Shaw is “institutionally obligated” to consider principles that other judges, especially exemplar judges like Hercules, would have considered.

Austin, it may be said, holds his judges to the same standards as they themselves promulgate. When he says that the law is “circuitous” upon judges, however, he merely means that it is applicable to the judges as well. Yet this is only to say that their decisions may have consequences for themselves, and that judges as well as the parties in the trial are therefore bound by them. Dworkin means to say that not only are judges bound to their own law, but that if no clear principle or policy is applicable, instead of using tautological discretion out of context with the legal standards, judges must use appropriate discretion when deciding cases.

The unsatisfying aspect of Austin is that nowhere does he discuss legitimacy, while all the time he discusses legal validity. Validity for Austin is legitimacy, but everywhere it lacks the sort of integrity that Dworkin discusses. The only appeal to morality that one can make on Austin’s account is to utilitarianism. Yet later we told that utility is no measure for divine will, and therefore no measure for deciding hard cases. The relevant aspects of Austin’s work would lead us to conclude that judges make their decisions based on positive morality which is only an aggregate of the mere opinions he is trying to dissuade us from. The relevant aspects of Dworkin’s work would allow us to make appeals to principles as codified in a legitimate source of politics, like a system of democracy. This is, in the end, much more attractive, since it gives judges the ability to make decisions rooted in proper interpretations of history, and that if we understand our principles properly, we can be sure that there be a right answer to our hard cases.

Judges who decide "hard" cases

Consider the Fugitive Slave Laws during the antebellum period of American history. How would we expect judges of the past to decide these cases, where free states are obliged legally to send fugitive slaves back to their owners in slave states? What sort of theory of jurisprudence might we expect them to follow?

Thomas Sims was an African American who escaped from slavery and fled to Boston. He was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Law and appealed his case to the Supreme Court under a writ of habeas corpus to challenge his case before the court. The opinion of Justice Shaw in the Sims’ trial makes reference to the notion of states’ rights as a rule of law in the United States. Shaw writes that states have made implicit treaties amongst themselves, as implied by the constitution and its sources of law, that they will respect each other decisions and rights-claims to fugitive slaves. It is an implicit “act of state” doctrine that only when rights-claims are invalid by the light of the Constitution, the secondary rules of obligation, should judges uphold fugitive slaves’ claim to resist expedition to their previous owners in free states.

Chief Justice Shaw makes an appeal to the existing positive law, and to the principle of states’ rights in the case. Legal Positivists like John Austin would certainly have condemned Thomas Sims disobedience to the system of positive law and respected the court’s decision to uphold the acts of state in slave states like Georgia. Under Austin’s account, Thomas Sims’ is obliged to obey every command he is given, and correlatively, he has a duty to obey these commands. Legalistically, the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution guarantees that treaties ratified become the “supreme law of the land”, and Shaw implies that this treaty is applicable between states. By entering into this treaty, Shaw argues, Massachusetts must respect the decisions of Georgia. What guides Shaw’s decision is not mere opinion, such as expressed by a vague customary law based in broad sources and interpretations, but based in positive morality as it is, which is to say that in Sims’ case it is based in the sanction of the court.

As much as this is a decision based on Shaw’s own discretion, and level of understanding about the principles that ought to guide him in this process, Austin would reply that ‘law is law’ and as subjects in the relation between sovereign and subject, we are obliged to obey the law. The court’s decision is supported by promise or threat of injury if not obeyed. The idea that laws as such give us a reason to feel obliged (or to accept an internal point of view) is a truth so “simple and glaring” that “it seems idle to insist upon it.” For Thomas Sims to challenge the Fugitive Slave Laws is one thing, but if we insist they are, as the natural lawyer argues, not in fact laws (implying they are non-binding upon us) then we are talking “stark nonsense” and only being mischievous. If we say we “hate” the Fugitive Slave Laws, at least we are being honest, but we often say that they are not divinely-revealed laws as a way of abusing legal language.

Austin's view is very unattractive, and Ronald Dworkin's critique of legal positivism and his account of how judges decide hard cases is convincing.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Pragmatism is Ultimately Not Useful

Aquinas said moral language is meaningless if it does not exist.

William James gave Aquinas' argument a pragmatic twist. He divided beliefs into live options and dead options. James criticized both kinds of religionist philosophers (atheist and theist) for being obsessed with dead options--issues that made no practical difference. James was an agnostic about God and free will, and also an agnostic about free will: he claims to have found good reasons for both free will and determinism.

He expresses his own indecision in a clever parable about a philosopher from Boston, where there were many philosophical clubs many years ago on a certain street. He couldn't decide whether to believe in free will or not. So he didn't know whether to join the Freewillers Association on one side of the street or the Determinist Society on the other side of the street. He decided to join the Determinist Society, so he knocked on the door for admission. The doorman said, "Why have you come here?" He replied, "I came of my own free will." The doorman, of course, slammed the door in his face. So he went across the street to the Freewillers Association and knocked on the door. The doorman asked the same question, and the philosopher replied, "They kicked me out across the street so I had no choice..." The doorman then slammed the door in his face and he found himself out in the street.

James said our ignorance leaves us free to choose to believe in either answer. And he advised us to choose belief in free will because that will make the best difference in our lives. It will make morality meaningful, and will make us personally responsible for our choices.

This strikes me as completely absurd. James' pragmatism is an appeasement to Aquinas' natural law theism and everything else about the past, God especially. Nothing makes any difference in our lives; it makes no real difference to us whether there is free will or not, James should have recognized this. Beliefs and desires themselves are objects of the will that make no sense to speak out neuro-psychologically. Propositional attitudes belong in the pantheon of useless, speechless, and quaint idols.

But no one had yet affirmed the kind of freedom that Sartre talked about, which is called metaphysical freedom. It's the freedom inherent in our radically unique mode of being, which Sartre calls "being for itself" as opposed to "being in itself". Being for itself--or human reality--he also calls "existence" as opposed to "essence."

Freedom is essentially Sartre's most crucial idea. His notion of freedom, which has no essential ethical consequences, is said by religionists to flows directly from his metaphysics. Putnam hadn't yet told us that ethics and metaphysics were not necessarily connected. Sartre assumed this was true as well.

The key idea in Sartrean metaphysics is that distinction between being in itself and being for itself. This is also the distinction between objects and subjects. Things and ideas on the one hand, and persons on the other. Things have essences and natures, which we can express in concepts. Persons do not. There is no such thing as a human nature or a human essence. Sartre says there is no human nature because there is no God to conceive it. Man creates his own values.

Nothing fundamentally justifies one set of values as opposed to another. Or one act over another. Our existence--our life--precedes our essence. Our mode of existence as subjects, not objects. Life is improvisation, and ethics is too. There are no objective values. Ethics does not give man dignity. Man is not an object, designed by God. So Sartre's metaphysical freedom gives man the kind of dignity which is rightfully his.

Theologians talk about freewill as if it comes from God, and that because God planned our their freedoms (contradictory) then man must be free. Sartre says man has freedom from the opposite perspective. Because there is no God, man is absolutely free. Humans are free, not just freedom from determination, but free from metaphysics and free from meaning.

Receiving anything is incompatible with being free. Whether that is nature, values, gifts or even love. There is no use talking about such a thing as a meaning of life. So this brings me to what I originally wanted to say about all this.

We generally fall back on pragmatism because it is useful in orienting ourselves in some socially-correct way that will get us to where we apparently want to go. Logicians like Quine fall back on pragmatism because language wouldn't make any sense without it. Others "use" it because it makes doing ethics much easier. But none of this makes any objective sense. There are no ends, truly. No ends that are justifiable against metaphysical freedom, that is. In other words, there is no reason, objectively, as to why "happiness" or anything else should be the proper end to any action or rule. We are, as Sartre said, ultimately free to choose our entire makeups, and these ends which pragmatism ultimately relies upon are basically absurd.

So pragmatism is ultimately not useful because it fails to justify the leap between uncertainty and certainty, between ignorance and knowledge, which cannot be justified anyway, if there are not objective standards by which to judge them. There are no shortcuts which pragmatism can provide since the "ends" to which it aims are metaphysically stupid and revolve ultimately around power and domination and ideology.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Heidegger Wrong On Technology

It has occurred to me that Heidegger was deeply wrong about technology. He identifies in The Question Concerning Technology human developments and extensions as the essential and decisive factor underlying all other dilemmas and conflicts. It constitutes a profound and "supreme danger," he says, in these "needy times" to which "everywhere we remain unfree and chained... whether we passionately affirm or deny it." As Heidegger suggests, it is precisely within the danger of technology that the possibility of a "saving grace" emerges out of a new disclosure of Being. What is this possibility? Heidegger here is uncertain. Perhaps it is the technological singularity? But for Heidegger it almost sounds religious, and it has been said that forking through his work is something seemingly Christian. Yet the same could be said about Hegel, who most recent scholars, like the late Robert Solomon, argue that he was in fact deeply atheist. Heidegger is right about one thing, and that's the liberatory capacity of technology, as evidenced by the last quarter of the 20th Century.

Perhaps this can be explained socially. I've mentioned the work of Simon Kuznets before. Progress in society can be described in 'stages theories'. These theories are quite popular in economics. In developmental economic theory, societies must undergo profoundly alienating and unequal stages of development order to reach a kind of reach a post-development stage, or a sort of plateau, where the alienating factors no longer exist. Kuznet's model justifies rising inequalities as part of an economic process which eventually finds it way back to equal conditions, albeit at higher levels of income and prosperity. Most pessimists of the early 20th Century had a difficult time imagining there was an end to the alienation, since all the technology seemed to do was alienate laborer further from means of production. Those sympathetic toward socialism took a deeply pessimistic stance about the nature and future of technology. Heidegger, disappointingly, felt the same way. But none of the early 20th Century socialists had experienced Web 2.0. It is certainly possible to be socialist and not steeped in Luddism. And although the question as to how involved he was in party politics, Heidegger was, after all, was a national socialist--a Nazi. I don't take this to discredit his work on ontology, however.

Human rights are not imperialistic

While the notion of human rights as "universal" is a legal fiction, as I have said in a previous post, I would like to argue against the claim that imposing the basic conventions on human rights, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is an act of cultural imperialism.

Yes, the notion of human rights is a politically "liberal" one -- that is, within the liberal tradition, which includes John Stuart Mill and John Locke -- and this is largely a Western liberal project. This is supposed to signal to us that it should only be accepted and practiced in Western liberal democracies. We therefore cannot make the claim that human rights conventions should be legitimate in other cultures. I want to argue against this.

However, instead of arguing from evidence within other cultures, like scholarship in Islam or Southeast Asia, about which I risk misinterpreting common practice, I would like to articulate this point using Western liberal ideas. Although this is a relatively unsympathetic and somewhat "hard-line" approach to other cultures, it is not self-defeating, and we should feel compelled to take this hard-line approach if our understanding of human rights is such that we think they should be upheld everywhere in the world. I describe this as hard-line because it looks within the very tradition which is being criticized for justification of its practice rather than looking to the plaintiff's culture for reasons and ambiguities leading to compatibility with Western liberal ideas. So my aim is to establish the Western idea of human rights everywhere, although I disagree that human rights are universal. So I will call this a kind of soft universalism.

Based on the work of the liberal tradition, we can defend the notion of human rights against the claims of imperialism using liberal justifications such as those put forth by Alasdair MacIntyre. The basic justification for Western practices goes something like this. We can explain what our culture is doing, and what other cultures are doing, better than other cultures can describe it themselves. After all, this is the basic justification for Western disciplines like cultural anthropology and sociology. A tribesman in New Guinea cannot explain what the Western anthropologist is doing, or why, and what the motives are.

Yet the Western anthropologist can explain what the tribesman is doing, and why, and what his motives are. The tribesman can only explain what he is doing, and he explain how to live the life of tribesman. The explanatory tools of the Western anthropologist are far more powerful than the tribesman's since the anthropologist relates this information to a wide panoply of scholarship which can explain why, in fact, the tribesmen live there in the first place, their migratory patterns, their marriage behaviors and so on. In MacIntyre's view, the culture with the greatest worldliness appears to have the greatest explanatory power, whereas those who are mostly provincial can explain very little about the world they live in.

We have all sorts of disciplines in the Western liberal tradition which purport to explain social phenomena in every culture. And these come with the basic assumption that our tools are in fact so powerful and compelling that we can use them to describe, predict, and control (our scientific method) all social phenomena. If other cultures would wish to have the same explanatory powers, they would presumably embark on the same kind of project that Western liberalism has, beginning with the development of the kind of encyclopedic thought in the Enlightenment Era.

The critique that the concept of human rights developed from Western liberal practices, and that somehow this renders them invalid in other parts of the world, is therefore grossly inane. Our Western thinkers, to whom appeals about human rights are always made, are attacked with ad hominems and genetic fallacies about their own historical contexts. British thinkers like Mill are said to be implicated in the running of empire, the British Empire. This does not invalidate his work, nor would it invalidate any work. Only once it has been invalidated can we use Foucaldian explanations to describe its failure. Some critics, in fact, go so far as to argue on the basis of religion that, since Western thinkers have historically been socialized into Christian societies, their ideas are unacceptable. Iranian and Egyptian legal scholars have made this claim.

Yet Nietzsche, the son of a Lutheran priest, has made this claim as well. So we already have exceptions to the imperialist critique. In 1981 the Iranian representative to the UN, Said Rajaie-Khorassani, argued that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a "secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition" which could not be implemented by Muslims without trespassing Shari'a Law.

If we look at the fundamental rights listed in the Universal Declaration, we see nothing by way of cultural imperialism. Unless of course, inhumane practices in other cultures must be preserved at a cost. The declaration cannot be seen as an attack upon other cultures, since of course, it is also an attack upon Western liberal democracy as well. Very few Western liberal democracies uphold human rights.

If human rights conventions are something to which a culture cannot commit, one only needs to look at the countries which have committed and thus far have not complied wholly. One purpose of such a convention is to use it as a tool to badger human rights violators into compliance. If a country cannot hold fair trials in their territories or cannot imagine a world in which they cannot torture their prisoners, this is not a failure of the human rights declaration, it is a failure of that country.

This is how it should be viewed. The human rights declaration holds every member to a higher standard, and this standard is not something that should be negotiated in ways that compromise its integrity.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Transexuality and Transhumanism

Transsexuals were really the first transhumanists. The intertwining of human bodies and technology in sexual reassignments and hormone therapy depicts an entire process by which the human being switches physically, socially, and psychologically into the presentation of new kind of person in transit to something greater. As transgendered and transsexual people in transition, they are perfect examples of the transhuman, aided by the social benefits of medical and biological technology.

Are the rest of us ready?

As harbingers of a posthuman future, we must begin by overcoming gender and sexual paradigms. This has been the first big step technologically and socially. Can we move further unless we have all overcome the same paradigms and ideologies as the transgender movement has? Indeed, there is a strong dialectic relationship between these two concepts.

There are many constituencies and ideological threads that need to be woven into transhumanism in its libertarian form. First among them there are the disparate movements working to deepen our understanding of human rights to include the rights to control the body, such as transsexuals. Reproductive rights activists, who insist that everyone have access to reproductive and contraceptive technology without the intervention of the state, are natural allies of a libertarian transhumanism. Democratic transhumanists would like these technologies to be subsidized -- however, all that needs to happen is governments to step out of the way and let progressive markets find the right path.

Other traces of transhumanist thought can be found in feminist literature. Although many feminists have been influenced by ecofeminist bio-Luddism and left Luddite arguments about the danger of corporate technology, there is a broader feminist constituency that sees no contradiction between women’s empowerment and using technology to expand their control over their lives. Only a libertarian transhumanism, which embraces the market as an agent of social change, can respond adequately to the signals in medical technology and indiscriminately develop these at low costs. Thus the market and the cyborg are allies to the feminist struggle.

In 1984 Donna Haraway wrote “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” as a critique of ecofeminism. Haraway argued it was precisely in the eroding boundary between human beings and machines, in the integration of women and machines in particular, that we can find liberation from the old patriarchal dualisms. Haraway concludes “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” and proposes that the cyborg is the liberatory mythos for women as opposed to the ecofeminist female "goddess" ideal.

The feminist and transsexual movements are natural allies in the struggle for world transhumanism. And transsexuals are found all over the globe. Currently, Iran has between 15,000 and 20,000 transsexuals, according to official statistics, although the Guardian UK says the unofficial estimates put the figure up to 150,000. Iran carries out more gender change operations than any other country in the world besides Thailand. Hence Iran, although it views transsexuality as a disease or a defect that must be "cured" psychologically and religiously (like most clinical psychiatric practices in Western societies as well) contains the most natural transhuman allies than any other nation besides Thailand.

While this point is interesting given that Iran is labeled as an axis of evil, and hence an enemy of the United States, the physical location of natural transhumanist allies is not relevant. Physical locations matter less due to expanding social networks on the web, and Iranians are some of the most active online contributors in the social and blog scenes. Location is irrelevant with respect to sheer networking power, but counter-spectaclism as a tactic for social change would seem to require physical networking to build the spectacle. I speak like a propagandist. However, if one takes what Guy Debord wrote in Society of the Spectacle to heart, then there is no escaping the spectacle: we are dominated by modern conditions of production, and the spectacle is its highest form. The only way to counteract the domination of the spectacle is to create a counter-spectacle.

The building of this transhumanist spectacle requires the acceptance of transsexual humans into the broader community. This is largely ideological. Yet this legitimization has significant physical causes with roots in community spaces: the genesis of post-Enlightenment social life and interaction. The internet in its present state cannot match the social power of the community space. Provincial folk are less likely to begin an acceptance of transsexuality (or other socially deviant behaviors) if they are not physically exposed to them and their ideas. Often even being acquainted with a person in a friendly way broadens one's perspective and helps make the connection to an ideologically difficult concept, or a "hard teaching".

The acceptance of the transsexual concepts should naturally come first, dialectically, simply because transsexuality is more familiar to society than transhumanism historically. This way, one can make a "straight path" for the next teaching, the building of a posthuman future.