...Archive for April 2021

Our governance problem in a nutshell

Will Wilkinson writes:

But “my way or the highway” cannot be the basis of any form of genuinely liberal politics. All durable liberal societies have evolved complex democratic institutions because it’s impossible to manage foundational disagreement in a liberal way — with peaceful toleration and mutual forbearance — without them. If a minority faction manages to arrogate to itself authority over the majority on grounds that it can justify only to itself — i.e., on grounds that the majority rejects — much if not most of the population will regard this authority as illegitimate. The confidence of the minority in its righteousness is irrelevant. If the minority gets high on its own supply and chooses to exercise its power in a way that tramples on our basic rights and interests, as the majority understands them, the system can rapidly destabilize.

This is right as far as it goes, but it would be more persuasive if every time Wilkinson wrote majority, he could write supermajority instead. It’s clearly right that if we have two factions with divergent interests and worldviews, but only one faction will govern, imposition of will by a small minority faction will be more corrosive of legitimacy than rule by the large majority. That’s true by arithmetic, regardless of how deeply either faction embraces or eschews a norm of “majority rules”. A much larger group will consider the rule illegitimate.

But it’s not clear how much force this argument has when the factions are roughly equally divided. In this case, one faction will still impose its will in ways that bind the other, but the losing faction is apt to consider the imposition unjust, and will be roughly as large as the faction endowed with formal authority. Democracy is most legitimate, and works best, when governance is by clear supermajorities. That’s why “bipartisanship” is — still! — coded in the American collective psyche as a virtue to be sought. Governance in the United States has never been remotely unanimous. There have always been seriously embittered losers in our many political conflicts. But when governance was bipartisan, outcomes often reflected consent of supermajorities rather than bare majorities.

However, under the United States’ competitive first-past-the-post electoral system, a 50:50 split in electoral power between parties is the attractor. As American politics have nationalized and the parties have come to represent distinct and divergent factions, neither faction can command a sizable electoral majority, so neither party can govern with much legitimacy. Both parties work the institutions as best they can and accuse the other of violating norms. Legitimacy of outcomes is fully conceded by neither. One party — let’s be clear, it’s the Republican Party — is electorally minoritarian. But the two are not so far from numerical parity that functional or naturalistic arguments (“the system can rapidly destabilize”) create a mutual interest in accepting the legitimacy of electoral outcomes. When there is a supermajority, even losing factions have an interest in conceding elections, because the alternative to legitimate governance is negative-sum civil conflict that they would likely lose. When there is not a clear supermajority — so they might win — civil unrest or worse becomes a tenable strategy.

The only way to durably restore legitimate government is to restructure our political system so that it ceases to do at least one of two bad things:

  1. Sort us into legible, divergent, cohesive factions (which we now aptly describe as “tribes”).
  2. Divide the country roughly 50:50.

The overlapping, heterogeneous political coalitions of America’s past, its two “big-tent” parties, did not survive — it seems unlikely that they ever would survive — modern telecommunications and the nationalization of just about everything. If this is right, if our political factions will necessarily be strongly sorted, our only hope to restore legitimate governance is to adopt an electoral system supportive of multiparty competition, which eliminates the 50:50 contested-legitimacy equilibrium and enables more fluid, potentially supermajority, coalitions to form.

It really is kind of QED. To remain a functional state, the United States requires legitimate government. In the current sociotechnical environment, we cannot sustain the supermajority support required for legitimate government under a competitive two-party system.

All it would take is an act of Congress to make the United States a multiparty democracy. I like to recommend Lee Drutman’s book.

Note: I’ve been doing Zoom “office hours” Friday afternoons 3pm EDT / 12pm PDT. It’s drop-in, informal, talk about whatever time. If you’d like the Zoom coordinates, let me know in the comments or DM me on Twitter.

The corporate income tax is a jobs program

The Biden Administration’s “American Jobs Plan” is aptly named. Obviously, spending on infrastructure and other things will provoke activity that contributes to employment. But less widely understood is that the “pay for” part is also employment supportive, perhaps more importantly and durably than the expenditure side. The proposal would increase the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%. That’s good, but not enough. It would be better for employment if the corporate tax rate would be reset to the pre-Obama 35% rate, and better yet if it were set to the 50%-ish rates that prevailed during the worker-friendly 1950s. In addition to the top-line rate increase, the plan includes provisions to counter jurisdiction shopping and close loopholes in the corporate tax system. To the degree these reforms increase effective corporate tax rates, they too are employment supportive.

The reason is obvious. Wages and benefits (including employer-side payroll taxes) are tax-deductible expenses. When the corporate tax rate is just 21%, the opportunity cost to shareholders of every dollar spent on all-in compensation is 79¢. Only 21¢ gets covered by the tax writeoff. When the corporate tax rate is 50%, 50¢ out of every dollar spent on worker compensation comes out of Uncle Sam’s pockets, rather than out of shareholders’. Hiring workers is a much better deal for firms when the corporate tax rate is high than it is when corporate tax rates are low. For the same reason raising income tax rates would be a boon for tax-exempt nonprofits, increasing corporate tax rates is a boon for labor.

The counters to this are rote, and wrong. “High corporate tax rates reduce job creators’ incentive to build and grow businesses, swamping any benefit from reduced wage costs.” That might be plausible in a world that is not this one. In this world, there is little evidence that variations in the corporate tax rate much affect aggregate economic activity one way or another. In the US postwar experience, the higher corporate tax decades were the highest growth decades. And that might be causal, given the lower opportunity cost, and so effective stimulus, of wages and other business expenditures. It might also just be coincidence. But the supply-side claim that low corporate and income taxes would turbocharge investment and entrepreneurship has been tested over decades, and only really motivated squinting can scry the merest hint of it. There is little evidence for even the more plausible claim that jurisdictional differences between tax rates shape the location of real activity (as opposed to the location where profits are incorporeally booked).

This shouldn’t be surprising. The rewards to active entrepreneurship can be immunized from the effect of high corporate tax rates, because entrepreneurs earn salaries, which are deducted from profits. It is passive shareholding that is inescapably penalized by a higher profits tax, but given the concentration of shareholding among the very wealthiest, and the fact that these shares are now worth a greater fraction of the economy than ever before, balancing the distribution of wealth away from this group would be a good rather than bad thing. Smaller businesses are often “pass-thrus” — S corporations or LLCs in the United States — limiting any impact of the corporate tax on startups and local entrepreneurs.

From a neoclassical corporate finance perspective, every investment that is profitable at a low corporate tax rate is profitable at a higher corporate tax rates. Under certainty, a profits tax shouldn’t affect business investment decisions at all. Under uncertainty, the IRR of projects declines with a higher rate, but the riskiness of projects (and so the hurdle rates imposed) decline as well, since the state absorbs the impact of losses as well taxing gains. Any effect is likely to be ambiguous and small, and overwhelmed by the effect of macro policy on risk appetites and hurdle rates.

But once we pierce the veil of abstraction that surrounds the neoclassical firm, we see very clearly that a high profits tax creates incentives among firm stakeholders to distribute the pretax surplus in ways that don’t flow through to accounting profits. In the United States, research and development is treated as an expense even though it creates valuable intangible assets. Under a high corporate profits tax that can’t be circumvented, firms are more likely to behave as Amazon has, laundering its profits into R&D projects to avoid the squeeze. Research and development contributes to hiring and growth, much more than the same dollars distributed into the pockets of wealth shareholders ever would.

Similarly, a content, well-organized, loyal workforce is an asset to a firm. For any given corporate tax rate, a rational firm will “overpay” workers (relative to the lowest wages that would fill their vacancies) as long as the value captured from an additional dollar in “efficiency wages” is greater than (1-t), where t is the tax rate. It’s the same math as before. With a 21% tax rate, the firm will pay efficiency wages until it captures back less than 79¢ of value it sends to workers. With a 50% tax rate, the firm will be rationally more generous, paying workers until it captures back less than 50¢ of each dollar as “organizational capital“. Firms’ selfish generosity can take the form of higher payments to its existing workforce, amenities or upgrades to working conditions that engender employee loyalty and morale, or new hiring to lighten the load and improve output quality.

Incentives to expand R&D or pay workers are prosocial “distortions” of the corporate tax. But there are less lovely ways firm stakeholders might try to prevent the pretax surplus from flowing into profits. Most garishly, the corporate income tax already encourages firms finance themselves with debt, rather than equity. Interest payments are deductible, so debt investors get paid like workers, from pretax income rather than taxed profits. That’s terrible, and a destructive subsidy to the banking industry. Leveraged capital structures create financial fragility, exposing firm stakeholders and the rest of us to risks of unpredictable losses and financial crisis. It has always been time to end the tax deductibility of interest payments. Raising the level of the corporate income tax would be a great occasion to close the very antisocial tax loophole created by deductible interest payments.

The American Jobs Plan proposes

to fix the corporate tax code so that it incentivizes job creation and investment here in the United States, stops unfair and wasteful profit shifting to tax havens, and ensures that large corporations are paying their fair share… these corporate tax changes will raise over $2 trillion over the next 15 years and more than pay for the mostly one-time investments in the American Jobs Plan and then reduce deficits on a permanent basis

I don’t know whether that revenue number will materialize, whether it accounts for the fact that accounting profits are likely to decline even as activity expands if the plan succeeds at raising effective tax rates. Raising and tightening enforcement of the corporate tax is a good idea regardless. It will redirect wealth, away from shareholders, to some mix of the state and other firm stakeholders including customers and suppliers and especially workers. CEOs are better people when the tax system constructs firm dollars not as shareholder dollars, but as resources of a range of competing claimants. We don’t tax because it is a bad thing that we have to endure in order to pay for stuff. We tax because it is a good thing that promotes a broad prosperity and helps reconcile generous provision of public goods with stable prices. (I like the @jdcmedlock term “tax positivity“.) Raising the corporate income tax, ideally back to 50%, and ensuring the rate is actually effective with respect to earnings attributable to shareholders, would support all of these goals. It’s a great tax.

Writing as a public good

The newsletter platform Substack has grown controversial. For an overview of the controversy, see Ben Smith. To get in the trenches, read Nathan Tankus’ impassioned letter about why he’s leaving the platform.

I am mostly aloof to the Substack wars. I love trans people. I also love, read, and learn from people that some trans advocates accuse of being hateful. The humans are complicated. Love them. I have little sympathy for the big names who’ve made careers of being “canceled”. But I worry that the growth of media that blur personal and political spheres is reshaping offline norms in ways more likely to impoverish our private lives than enact useful change. These media include Twitter feeds and old-school blogs. But Substack newsletters, because of the incentives and ultimately influence that come with monetization, raise the stakes. This is most clear in the authors whom the platform woos with advances under “Substack Pro“. Substack may ostentatiously recruit trans activists to “balance” complaints that they’ve become a refuge for bigots, but arguably their and their authors’ pecuniary interest is in a lively culture war, hot on both sides, rather than in forms of deliberation that might be more constructive but less exhilarating.

As a person who likes to write but who thinks professionalization corrupts public affairs writing, these are issues I give some thought to. Jeet Heer makes a good point when he tweets “Writing is either a career or it’s an aristocratic hobby. If it’s an aristocratic hobby, it’s closed to most people.” At the same time, when writing becomes a career, the institutions and incentives beneath that career cannot help but shape the writing.

It would be good if we could finance careers in public affairs writing while largely insulating authors from financial and career incentives. Substack’s subscription model may (or may not) prove an improvement on the listicle-inspiring ad model. But the direct pecuniary stake in subscribership it provides (and gamifies) will color what authors write. People are willing to fund their clique’s warriors, so offering political “red meat” is an obvious strategy to win subscribers. As Glenn Greenwald puts it, “They’re not paying because they’re getting something in return; they’re paying because they want to support journalism that they think…needs to be heard.” Functionally Substack shares a perhaps uncomfortable kinship with ActBlue or WinRed. A subscription-based model is going to encourage writers to to flatter the interests of especially more affluent readers. Substack subscriptions are expensive compared to paywalled conventional journalism, on almost any quantitative measure of writing unlocked. Finally, in my view, public affairs writing ought to be a public good, where authors contribute to a universally accessible, intertextual commons, rather than marketing paywalled silos. It’s not writers’ responsibility to bear the weight of this ought. We need to find ways to finance the people who cultivate the commons. But it is a commons that we want, rather than a labyrinth of paywalls or (worse) a few dominant publications everyone has to subscribe to.

In writing as in many other domains, I think “high-powered incentives” — extrinsic money rather than intrinsic goods like pride in virtue or quality — are essential at low levels but destructive at high levels. We expect and want baristas and warehouse workers to be primarily in it for the money, although of course they take pride in the quality of their work too. The tax and shareholder-value revolutions of the 1960s through 1980s destroyed American society by turning the people near the top of our social hierarchies into rapacious maximizers, and we should undo that, quickly. In writing and in general, external incentivizers can easily distinguish outright incompetence from a basic capacity to do the work. Above a certain level, however, quality is difficult to observe. Incentivizing putative correlates of quality encourages gaming, with a net effect that is ambiguous at best. At high levels, people’s “skin in the game” should increasingly become attached to broad, cooperative outcomes rather than narrow measures of behavior.

In light of all this, one way the Substack model might be improved is with caps and refunds. As with Substack now, there would be paywalled content, but the paywall would be stochastic. When a browser hits a piece, if it’s an identifiable subscriber it’s allowed through. If not, a quiet lottery decides yay or nay. The odds of denial would go down as the number of subscribers go up. At very low subscriberships, this would effectively be the current model, a hard paywall. At very high subscriberships, all content would effectively be open.

On its own, this would be a prescription for free-riding and death spirals. Why pay expensively to “subscribe” when other people have already unlocked the writing for you? However, what if the net cost of subscribing declines with readership, so that if many people subscribe, the contribution requested is very small?

A simple way to do this would to impose a compensation cap. Suppose an author requests $5 per month or $60 per year with a $150K cap. If she accumulates 2500 subscribers, she’s hit the cap. Thereafter, revenue from additional subscriptions gets distributed pro rata as a refund to subscribers. If she has 5000 subscribers, each subscriber would get $30 back, making the net cost of supporting the author only $30 per year. If she has 50,000 subscribers, the cost drops to $3 per year, literally spare change, just a quarter per month, and the writing becomes part of a wide-open commons. Once an author has hit her cap, she still ought to (and I think still would) promote her work and try to get people to contribute. But her incentives would become egotistical and altruistic: Egotistical because public affairs writers want their work to be influential and widely available (as long as they are also paid). Altruistic because encouraging new subscribers would decrease the burden on writers’ already loyal subscriber base, and because more exposure really might contribute to the process by which ideas and insights make the world a better place.

A gentler approach might replace a simple cap with an asymptotic limit. Each dollar contributed would go to one of two pools, author payment or pro rata refunds. The first subscribers’ funds would go almost entirely to author payments, but as cumulative revenue increases, the share going to the author would decline, and the share going to refunds would increase, so that the author’s payment as a function of total revenue approaches a horizontal asymptote. Under this scheme, the transition from extrinsic peddle-subscriptions-to-pay-my-rent incentives to more intrinsic and altruistic incentives would occur very gradually. If one wanted to maintain some degree of financial incentive for authors to expand their contributor base and reduce subscriber burdens, the asymptotic limit could be by an upward sloping line, but with a slope much less than one, so that at the limit say 10¢ out of every new subscriber dollar would go towards the author, and 90¢ to the refund pool.

If you’ve got better ideas than these, please contribute them to the commons! We want to fund a lot of writing, of high quality and from a wide variety of points of view. But we want those voices to be independent, not just of particular institutions but also of the incentives imposed by variable remuneration. The humans are clever. Surely we can figure this out.

The “cap and refund” idea owes inspiration to buylibre.org and Clark Evans, ht Sigfried Gold. It bears some similarity in mechanics and in spirit to a suggestion by Ryan Cooper that a nationalized music streaming service pay out artists “progressively” — i.e. at gradually decreasing rates per-play, in order to encourage a musical commons conducive to a broad creative class rather than the winner-take-all status quo. The Glenn Greenwald quote is via Jemima Kelly‘s reporting, but the paragraph where I embed the quote is too wordy to include a hat-tip.

I want to add that this piece is not intended as an anti-Substack diatribe. I read and subscribe to a bunch of Substack newsletters, including some of the controversial ones. Overall, I think Substack has inspired a welcome renaissance in less institutional writing. I hope the current renaissance is a step on a journey to better things, that its concentration on a single platform decreases and that it evolves in a less winner-take-all direction. But overall I am grateful for Substack, and competitors like Ghost. If I were a better writer, I’d consider trying to make a living on these platforms myself.

Convenient, compulsory, compensated

Voting should be convenient, compulsory, and compensated.

We should all want everyone to vote. If this is a partisan issue at all, it’s partisan for like five minutes. It’s not actually clear which party would be hurt if everybody voted, but if one party were disproportionately harmed, it would just realign a bit. The US political system converges to a 50/50 electoral power divide, which under universal voting would move a bit closer to a 50/50 voter support divide than obtains now. You might argue that makes universal voting anti-Republican for the moment, since Republican power relies more strongly on disproportionalities in our electoral system. But that’s not right. The representation skew caused by the Senate, or by the vote-wasting overrepresentation of Democrats in dense places, would not be affected by universal voting. Unless the we reform redistricting, universal voting does not prevent gerrymandering. Given the 50/50 rule, so long as there remain disproportionalities of electoral power, one party or the other is going to continue to rely upon them.

If universal voting does have a near-term partisan effect, it will be by virtue of how current non-voters would vote, which absolutely nobody knows. Researchers and political professionals have no idea, because there is by definition no solid data. Opinion polling is notoriously bad even at predicting the behavior of “likely voters”, who are more reachable and easily characterized than nonvoters. Democratic partisans sometimes presume on the basis of crude stereotypes that voting expansion will always be good for them. Why are you sure Puerto Rico would be a blue state? (It should be a state if its public wants that regardless.) Any inferences you draw based on observed correlations between demography and voting behavior are confounded by a motherfucker of a selection effect. People’s choice of whether or not to vote is not random, and nonrandom in ways unlikely to be orthogonal to partisanship.

My guess is that under universal voting, both parties would abandon the fetishes of the weirdest, least popular elements of their coalitions. Our existing system gives tremendously disproportionate weight to motivated voters. Some people argue this is good thing. Why shouldn’t a democracy take into account the intensity as well as the prevalence of citizen preferences? Probably it should! But we already have way way way way too much of that good thing. In soliciting support before elections, and with every call they take after winning an election, politicians are overwhelmed by the tyranny of concentrated benefits versus diffuse costs. Our problem in politics is not underrepresentation of small, extremely motivated interests, whether industry lobbyists or righteous activists. Our problem is that the preferences and interests of the very broad public get overridden by those groups, and our polity is therefore so badly misgoverned it is in danger of collapse.

Under nonuniversal voting, turnout and suppression are inevitably dimensions of competition. But they are invidious dimensions of competition. I won’t waste words persuading you that competing to suppress the vote of your electoral adversaries is morally wrong and bad for democracy. Even avid practitioners concede the point, and mostly pretend suppression is not what they are doing. But conventional turnout competition is bad too. Uncompensated voting is a regressive tax. At best voting is a fixed cost, more burdensome to the less resourced. Affluent people with stable schedules, ready transportation, and spare attention have a built-in advantage. In practice, voting is more expensive, in terms of time and hassle, for poorer people, rendering it even more regressive. The goal of motivating turnout encourages drama and outrage rather than deliberation over tradeoffs. If the margin I am trying to overcome is “check this box, not that one”, we can talk about the benefits of the program and how the taxes will work. If the margin I am trying to overcome is “lose work hours you desperately need to stand in line, arrange childcare for that, pay for gas”, well, I’d better talk about how you are our last bulwark against authoritarianism, about how the other guy is Satan himself so failing to show up for our lone, beleaguered warrior would be a betrayal, even a sin. The recent Presidential election featured very high turnout, but I’m not sure you’d describe the foremath as a period of exemplary democratic deliberation.

Some of the biases of voluntary, uncompensated voting can be reduced by making voting more convenient. But, in a system where turnout and suppression are in fact dimensions of electoral competition, convenience reforms are non-neutral. They are likely to be supported by the side that sees electoral advantage in them and opposed by the side that thinks it stands to lose. Partisans may often be overconfident in their theories of how these reforms will (un)tilt the field, but nevertheless. You end up where we are, with one side emphasizing “voter access” (convenience reforms) and the other emphasizing “voter integrity”, which provides a not-facially-evil pretext for opposing convenience reforms.

This is not a great place to be! Because electoral integrity actually is a real concern. The integrity of the US electoral system is and has been in bipartisan doubt for some time. Before there were Trump operatives making stuff up about Dominion Voting Systems, there were people like Jenny Cohn and, well, me, worried about unaccountable touchscreens and “ballot marking devices” produced by ES&S and Diebold. In 2016, I think it’s fair to say that many Democrats were not 100% sure that Trump’s slim electoral margin might not have owed something to Russian incursions that went beyond publicly reported exfiltrations of information from state electoral systems. There is no credible evidence for what Democratic-leaning media have dubbed “The Big Lie” (or what diehard Trumpists call “The Steal”), and Trumpists’ attempts to circumvent the electoral authorities and courts whose role it is to adjudicate such evidence were despicable. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. If, however mistakenly, your priors were very strong that Donald Trump had it in the bag, it’s not ridiculous that with margins as slim as they were and the US electoral system as “loose” as it is, you might not have been persuaded of his loss. Again, this is no excuse for failing to accept the result — Democrats who felt the 2016 election was illegitimate didn’t invade the Capitol. To the very limited degree they promoted circumventing the outcome with electoral college machinations, that too was discreditable. We go into each election with the electoral system we have, not the one we might wish to have.

It is between elections that we get to improve the system, and improve it we should. We do want an electoral system the legitimacy of whose results are more sure, which produce more and more certain evidence in forms accessible to the public. It’s not ridiculous to be concerned about voting machines. With in-person voting, it is a bit ridiculous to be concerned about voter fraud, because the costs and risks of going to a polling place and lying about your identity are (or can be made) very high relative to the marginal effect an individual might have even on very close elections. However, with remote voting, voter fraud becomes a more serious issue, as the possibility of mass rather than one-at-a-time identity theft increases the potential effect, and the ability to perpetrate the fraud without physically turning up at a polling place reduces costs and risks. If this sounds like a Republican talking point, it’s also precisely why we don’t have internet or smartphone balloting, and shouldn’t any time soon. It’s hard to “hack” thousands of bodies showing up at polling places. It might not be so hard to steal the internet credentials of thousands of people and vote on their behalf from some perch beyond US law. Mail-in voting sits between easily securable in-person voting and clearly not-securable internet balloting. It might or might not be right to universalize it, and the raging of a deadly pandemic might legitimately affect the balance of costs and benefits. But we’re not having a meaningful conversation about those tradeoffs while what we’re really arguing about is access versus suppression.

In other words, we won’t do a good job of balancing security and convenience, we won’t even be able to discuss that balance, as long as election technique is subsumed in partisan competition over turnout and suppression. Compulsory, compensated voting would eliminate those dimensions of competition, and render electoral integrity a technical dispute within which both parties’ interests would be broadly aligned. This would make safe convenience a reachable goal. Convenient, compulsory, generously compensated voting would eliminate the structural bias towards the affluent, as the compensation would be more meaningful to the poor than to the rich. Convenient, compulsory, compensated voting would improve American governance, which is too much in thrall to very motivated parties and attends too little to the more diffuse interests of ordinary voters. Convenient, compulsory, compensated voting would quiet the crosswinds that make it impossible for the United States to competently administer elections because administrative choices and election-rigging are too difficult to distinguish.

Alex Kovner has a post I really like, “Start with the State“:

Most democratic discussions start with the people, and attempt to build structures from them on the principle of representation. This has resulted in some real gains for democracy, most notably the creation of the U.S. Constitution and the democratization of Europe, with changes such as the reform bill of 1832 in Great Britain. Nevertheless, it’s hard to point to any meaningful improvement in democratic structures since the 19th century. All the improvement has been directly tied to representation through the franchise, namely including women and minorities.

Instead, why don’t we start with the state, and ask what it needs to properly perform its broad social role of service to the people?

The reason to want universal voting isn’t (just) because all the people “deserve” representation. To be clear, I think they do. But maybe you don’t. You may think that layabouts who don’t value the franchise enough to endure its inconveniences deserve whatever government they get.

But if it is to govern effectively, the state needs to know and give weight in practice to its whole public’s values and interests. To do that, it requires some form of deliberate, secure, widely-agreed polling that enfranchises its whole public. The state has a strong interest in criteria for enfranchisement not becoming a dimension of political competition, as that is not conducive of deliberative excellence and undermines integrity of the polling.

Universal, secure, legitimate polling is a necessity of practical statecraft, and the quality of practical statecraft is the hinge upon which all of our fortunes in fact rise or fall together. Voting should be convenient, compulsory, and compensated.

A heathen’s Easter

I have always been a devoutly irreligious person. I’m not an atheist. I think that creed assumes we know far more about our circumstances than we actually do. But I found very little appealing about the religious tradition within which I was raised, and I’ve not been drawn to others. However, in recent years, I have developed some reverence for a certain aspect of Christianity’s founding tale.

“Love your murderer” is, I think, an ethical aspiration. That one ought to love in some fashion every human being does not mean that people shouldn’t be held accountable. Murderers and other doers of foul deeds should be punished to deter others, should be tasked with restorative work where such work can be done, should be segregated from society and deprived of some freedoms as long as they remain a danger to others. Failing as a society to insist on those things would be failing to love the humans more broadly. (I hope it goes without saying that we should love our murderer because they are human, not because they are our murderer.) But when we punish, deter, or restrain our fellow humans, that ought to be an occasion of sad necessity, not joy or righteous vengeance. We should be very humble in any suggestion that pain we impose constitutes “justice”. Taking pleasure in the harm or punishment of someone who has hurt us is understandable and effusively forgivable, at a personal level. At a social or political level, however, it is noxious. It deforms us. It provokes us to terrible acts, sometimes in the name of, rather than in opposition to, the law. Individually, it is understandable when we sometimes take self-righteous pleasure in other people’s harm. I do, far too often. But it is the opposite of an aspiration. It is a lapse.

Obviously, the Christian story is an example of a person loving his murderers. And for that alone, it draws from me a certain respect. But a few years ago my wife and I had a child, and the part of the Catholic Holy Trinity I identify with shifted, perhaps egoistically. It occurred to me that there is so much focus on the son, who forgave his own murderers. But what about the father, who is called upon to forgive the murderers of his child? “Love your murderer” is an ideal I can at least conceive of aspiring to. But “love your child’s murderer”? Intellectually, the case is the same. We owe love to the humans, unconditionally and universally. That is the foundation of human virtue. But, as the kids say: I. Can’t. Even. I can’t let my mind go there. It is too great a betrayal, at an emotion level, of the star around which I orbit.

My theological sophistication is about candy-wrapper level. But for whatever it’s worth, I consider this aspect of Christianity’s founding myth or event remarkable, and underemphasized. “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do,” represents a profound plea from the lips of a man being painfully murdered. That a parent, one with fire and brimstone readily at hand and a notorious history of smiting, would forgive is perhaps even more astonishing, even more wonderful.

The history of Christianity, especially at the social and political level, imperfectly evinces this ethos which I draw from, or project onto, the tale. Nevertheless, I think the ethos offers crucial lessons for us now. All of our political factions, even the ones who coined the pejorative term, slip frequently into “othering” one another. I take that to mean a withdrawal of the love, or even the aspiration of love, from some group or class of humans, often because “they” are purported to be vicious or guilty or dangerous, to have harmed us or our values or people we hold dear. There is a lot in our social affairs that needs changing, and there will be losers as well as winners from those changes. In a broad sense, I think if we act well and wisely, there will be many fewer losers than we fear, because our misarranged society exacts terrible costs even upon most of its “winners”. We reform society out of love for humans, to create scope for greater flourishing. But when people are harmed, whether transiently or durably, that counts as a cost, regardless of how wicked we persuade ourselves are the losers. That there will be losers is no excuse for inaction, in the same way that our love for a murderer mustn’t inhibit us from sober punishment. We owe a duty to all the humans. However difficult it may be to quantify human welfare, as best we can we must find ways of improving it. But the eggs we must break are losses to be minimized, not righteous smiting of the vicious. To whomever you are shouting at, owning, canceling, legislating against, you owe a duty of love. Aspire to love even your murderer. If you are better than me (and I assure you, you are), aspire to love even your child’s.

Happy Easter, to all those who celebrate it. And to all of those who don’t.

Update History:

  • 04-Apr-2020, 4:25 p.m. EDT: “there will be losers as well as winners, from those changes”; ” But to the degree when people are harmed, whether transiently or durably, that…”; “…the eggs we must break are costs losses to be minimized…”