Social Issues

Slavish obedience to tradition is never a good thing, but neither is its wanton disregard. So what are we to make of the recent announcement by the International Olympic Committee that wrestling, one of the original sports in both the ancient and modern Olympic Games, is to be dropped as a core sport and will have to compete for a single slot in the 2020 Games against a number of other sports, including baseball and softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding (I’d never heard of it, but it appears to be related  to water skiing) and wushu, a martial art said to be hugely popular in China? Media reports on the decision stressed the vigorous and successful lobbying by proponents of modern pentathlon, an original sport in the Modern Games, also threatened with removal, which consists of running, swimming, horseback riding, fencing, and shooting – skills required by the late-19th-century cavalry officer caught behind enemy lines – to which I confess a certain fondness due in equal measure to its gloriously anachronistic quality and its complete lack of commercial appeal. 

Some traditions are best abandoned. I, personally, am happy Olympic athletes no longer compete in the nude, their bodies glistening with olive oil, though I would make an exception for women’s beach volleyball. The modern Olympics themselves are to a large extent based on a misreading of the role of the original games in ancient Greece. Pierre de Coubertin, who created the modern Olympic movement, was, unusually for a Frenchman, strongly influenced by English ideas of education and sport, especially those of Dr. Arnold of Rugby School, a proponent of the notion that “organised sport can create moral and social strength,” and that, as de Coubertin put it, “L’important dans la vie ce n’est point le triomphe, mais le combat, l’essentiel ce n’est pas d’avoir vaincu mais de s’être bien battu.” (The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well). De Coubertin would have had little use for Vince Lombardi’s world view (Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing), but then he also had little regard for women in sport and believed that they should be excluded from the Olympics. 

There is evidence that de Coubertin misinterpreted, and excessively romanticized, the ancient Olympics. Scholars have argued whether ancient Olympic athletes were amateurs or professionals – after 480 BCE, at least, most were professionals –  and have disputed de Coubertin’s belief in the contribution of the games to the prevention of war, arguing that a limited truce was declared only to permit athletes to travel to and from the Olympic site and protect the venue from attack during the festivities. What’s more, the idea that, as American sportswriter Grantland Rice put it, “For when the great scorer comes to write against your name, He marks not that you won or lost but how you played the game,” would probably have been quite alien to contestants in the ancient games. The ancient Greeks may have competed for glory, not reward, but the glory came in winning, not in being a good loser. Both Hector and Achilles, after all, were revered for their victories, not their defeats.

Still, some traditions are worth holding on to just because they are ancient and venerable. The modern Olympics are descended directly from the ancient Olympics, however much of the latter may have been lost in the translation. Wrestling was one of the core events of the ancient games and of the modern games, at least until now. Wrestling is one sport in which contestants compete purely for the glory. A few wrestlers may go on to fame and some degree of fortune in pro wrestling, but most of these guys, winners as well as losers, go on to earn a living doing something totally unrelated to the sport in which they have excelled. I have never seen a wrestler pictured on a Wheaties box, sponsored by a major shoe company, or advertising prescription drugs on TV. Some things are valuable precisely because they have no value outside themselves.

The ancient Greeks invented the concept of hubris – defiance of the gods – which typically led to nemesis, or divine retribution. Abandonment of wrestling, an ancient sport one can imagine the Greek gods watching and betting on, in favor of, say, artistic roller-skating, would be hubris at its worst, ditching whatever remains of Olympic ideals to pander to the TV networks’ eternal request for ratings. If this decision stands I fully expect nemesis to follow, perhaps in the form of a bolt of lightning that wipes out the next meeting of the International Olympic Committee. 



The West continues to look for a country that proves Islam and democracy can coexist peacefully, the alternative – a billion people, many of them in big and strategically important countries, with whom we can never share any common values – being too grim to contemplate. The Arab Spring provided new hope, but the signs from Tunisia, Libya, and above all, Egypt, are not too encouraging. Things could still come right in one or more of those countries, but at this point we simply don’t know. So we fall back on Turkey as the default poster child for democratic and moderate Islam, but there too the hope is increasingly tinged with anxiety. [click to continue…]



Now that Presidential campaigning is on at least temporary hold until after the Christmas holidays, we have a new reality show to follow. It’s a good thing, too; the entertainment value of the Republican traveling circus had been in steady decline as the more flamboyantly interesting pretenders fell away one by one. Michelle Bachmann, the diminutive spitfire with a demonic gleam in her eye. Herman Cain, the pizza mogul with a catchy fiscal formula and a flood of sexual harassment charges. Newt Gingrich, the onetime history professor who lectured TV reporters on their intellectual shortcomings and blamed the abandonment of his cancer-stricken wife for another woman on the stresses of “trying to save the country.” Sex-obsessed Rick Santorum in his sweater-vests.

It will take some time to fully parse the complex relationships, sexual and otherwise, involving Generals Petraeus and Allen, buff military reservist and biographer Paula Broadwell, and socialite Jill Kelley, who narrowly avoided foreclosure on her imposing Tampa home having spent the mortgage money on entertainment for the McDill Air Force Base officer corps. It’s hard to imagine this not becoming a made for TV movie or even an ongoing reality show, a combination of “Real Housewives,” “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” and “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” the steamy Carson McCullers novel set in a southern military base, made into an even steamier movie with Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor.

The idiocy of destroying one, and possibly two, distinguished careers over an extramarital affair (possibly two), involving no improper relationships with subordinates or sexual harassment, and unlikely to have entailed any breach of national security, seems wasteful in the extreme. David Petraeus may not have merited the near-universal adulation he received, but he is unquestionably a talented and dedicated man whose service to his country should not have been cut short by the kind of peccadillo to which powerful and famous men are especially vulnerable.

A couple of remarkable bits of information have leaped out of the voluminous media coverage of this set of interconnected events. The first, and most troubling, is the revelation of the ease with which law enforcement agencies can read our e-mails pretty much at will. The government needs no search warrant, only a court authorization or subpoena, to access e-mails stored for more than 180 days, and it can do real-time intercepts of social network traffic. The difference is that a search warrant requires probable cause, while a request for a court order need only state that the information is relevant to an ongoing investigation. This is more than a semantic distinction, and something that goes to the heart of the deliberate erosion of our civil liberties, often without our knowledge,  in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

But the thing that most impressed me is the report of the 20,000 to 30,000 pages of “inappropriate” e-mail exchanges between General John Allen and Ms. Kelley from 2010 to 2012.  According to Slate magazine 20,000 pages, if printed on 8-1/2- by 11-inch paper, would form a stack 6 feet four inches high. We don’t yet know anything about the content of these e-mails, but their quantity is staggering. By way of comparison, the Penguin edition of Samuel Richardson’s 1747-48 epistolary novel Clarissa, one of the longest novels ever written, counts a mere 1,534 pages. Most of the English translations of War and Peace, possibly the greatest novel ever written and also one of the longest, run to about 1,400 pages. By the time the Duke University Press publishes the 46th and final volume of the collected letters of the Scottish Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle and his wife Jane Walsh Carlyle, which include 70 years of correspondence with such luminaries as Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Stuart Mill, and Ivan Turgenev, as well as with each other, the series will amount to some 20,000 pages. I don’t mean to suggest that whatever General Allen and Ms. Kelley had to say to each other was of any less enduring interest than Thomas Carlyle’s exchange of ideas with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but it does raise a question similar to the one on everyone’s mind when Wilt Chamberlain in his 1991 autobiography claimed to have had sex with 20,000 women: how in the world did they find the time? For now, neither Gen. Allen nor Ms. Kelley is saying. Let’s hope the People magazine exclusive or the TV movie will enlighten us. And we can wait for Duke University of someone else to publish the correspondence to find out what they were talking about.



With the debates over, the presidential candidates on their last, gasping try to grasp those elusive Electoral College votes in Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, or Ohio needed to put them over the top, and the polls to open in less than 48 hours, it is a bit late to be offering strategic advice to Barack Obama – advice that by all indications he would have ignored – but he could have done much worse than to cloak himself in Adam Smith’s mantle. Yes, the same Adam Smith whose profile adorns the neckties of more than a few Wall Street bankers and right wing think-tankers.

The thing is, the Adam Smith Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan and their followers claim to revere bears scant resemblance to the real Adam Smith, friend of Enlightenment philosopher David Hume and author not only of An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations but also of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which predated The Wealth of Nations by more than 15 years. “I think Adam Smith was right,” said Romney in a January debate, “and I’m going to stand and defend capitalism across this country, throughout the campaign.” In a subsequent speech at the University of Chicago, Romney proclaimed, “When the dead hand of government replaces the invisible hand of the market, economic freedom is the inevitable victim.”

Paul Ryan, better known for his enthusiasm for Ayn Rand, has also paid homage to Smith. In the introduction to his Roadmap for America’s Future: A Plan to Solve America’s Long Term Fiscal and Economic Crisis, he writes: “The Founders…understood the importance and value of free enterprise. In addition to the Declaration of Independence, the year 1776 saw the publication of Adam Smith’s treatise The Wealth of Nations, which argued in part that the ‘system of natural liberty,’ or free markets in commerce, would vastly increase national wealth.” This, at least, is empirically true, and no less than Karl Marx recognized it as such. But just as the Devil can quote scripture, so has the extreme right wing of the Republican Party (one can legitimately ask whether, today, any other wing even exists) appropriated Adam Smith as its own, by quoting his works selectively and out of context.

Adam Smith, it must be remembered, was not merely an economist but a moral philosopher, concerned not simply with economic efficiency but with social justice. As such, he wrote at length and with great eloquence about the obligations that bind us together as a society, and also about the need for free markets to be regulated. He was also a radical, mistrustful of inherited wealth and position and scathing as to the inflated self-regard of the wealthy.

Hedge-fund manager Leon Cooperman, in an open letter he sent to President Obama in late 2011, wrote of himself and his fellow billionaires, “As a group we employ many millions of taxpaying people, pay their salaries, provide them with healthcare coverage, start new companies, found new industries, create new products, fill store shelves at Christmas, and keep the wheels of commerce and progress (and indeed of government, by generating the income whose taxation funds it) moving. To frame the debate as one of rich-and-entitled versus poor-and-dispossessed is to both miss the point and further inflame an already incendiary environment.” One suspects Mr. Cooperman would have received scant sympathy from Adam Smith, who writes, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and meand condition…is…the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments…. It is scarce agreeable to good morals, and even to good language, perhaps, to say, that mere wealth and greatness, abstracted from merit and virtue, deserve our respect.”

We can’t know what Adam Smith would have thought of any specific social welfare programs such as Medicaid or unemployment benefits any more than we can know which baseball team God roots for (though I’m pretty sure it’s the Red Sox). But Smith was no advocate of abandoning the less fortunate to their fate. As he wrote in Book 1 of The Wealth of Nations, “Servants, labourers and workmen of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.”

Mitt Romney, who by all accounts gives 15% of his income to the Mormon Church and devotes a substantial amount of his time to helping co-religionists who have fallen on hard times, may think private charity from church and community is an adequate social safety net, but Adam Smith would almost certainly disagree. As he wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, “The wise and virtuous man is at all times willing that his own private interest should be sacrificed to the public interest of his own particular order or society. He is at all times willing, too, that the interest of this order or society should be sacrificed to the greater interest of the state or sovereignty, of which it is only a subordinate part. He should, therefore, be equally willing that all those inferior interests should be sacrificed to the greater interest of the universe, to the interest of that great society of all sensible and intelligent beings, of which God himself is the immediate administrator and director.”

Smith did not get into the specificities of tax policy, but he would probably take a dim view of subjecting the working class to higher tax rates than the 0.1 percent. Indeed, he supported progressive taxation: “The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.”

Obama’s midsummer “You didn’t build that” comment gave Republicans the opportunity for endless riffs on the theme of self-reliant entrepreneurs building their companies and their fortunes from scratch, ignoring Obama’s point, which was true, if inelegantly expressed. Adam Smith put it better: “That the erection and maintenance of the publick works which facilitate the commerce of any country, such as good roads, bridges, navigable canals, harbours &c. must require very different degrees of expence in the different periods of society, is evident without any proof. The expence of making and maintaining the publick roads of any country must evidently increase with the annual produce of the land and labour of that country, or with the quantity and weight of the goods which it becomes necessary to fetch and carry upon those roads.” He also had no problem asking the wealthy to pay a little more: “When the toll upon carriages of luxury, upon coaches, post–chaises, &c. is made somewhat higher in proportion to their weight, than upon carriages of necessary use, such as carts, waggons, &c. the indolence and vanity of the rich is made to contribute in a very easy manner to the relief of the poor, by rendering cheaper the transportation of heavy goods to all the different parts of the country.”

Smith supported what today we would call public-private partnerships, harnessing private capital and initiative to provide a public good such as a toll road, but he was clear on the need for such partnerships to be closely regulated to make sure the operators maintained the facilities rather than simply pocketing the proceeds. And when user fees and tolls are not sufficient to build and maintain essential infrastructure, Smith advocated a more active role for government: “When the institutions or publick works which are beneficial to the whole society, either cannot be maintained altogether, or are not maintained altogether by the contribution of such particular members of the society as are most immediately benefited by them, the deficiency must in most cases be made up by the general contribution of the whole society. The general revenue of the society, over and above defraying the expence of defending the society, and of supporting the dignity of the chief magistrate, must make up for the deficiency of many particular branches of revenue.”

Adam Smith probably would not have approved of the Dodd-Frank law regulating financial institutions, not because it represents an intolerable intrusion on free markets but because it failed to fix the principal causes of the 2008 financial crisis, leaving banks that are too big to fail, thus doing nothing to prevent future government bail-outs for losses on risky and speculative investments and trades. Smith did, however, see financial regulation as no less important than building codes:   “Such regulations may, no doubt, be considered as in some respect a violation of natural liberty. But those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals, which might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments; of the most free, as well as or the most despotical. The obligation of building party walls, in order to prevent the communication of fire, is a violation of natural liberty, exactly of the same kind with the regulations of the banking trade which are here proposed.”

Adam Smith probably would not be an enthusiastic supporter of President Obama. Not because Obama is a socialist, but because his signature initiatives, including Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, are weighed down with opaque language and impenetrable regulations virtually guaranteed to create uncertainty in big swathes of our economy, fail to achieve much of what they were intended to achieve, and incur costs we can’t even calculate.  Smith probably would have disapproved of direct government investments in companies like Solyndra, the solar panel manufacturer that famously evaporated along with half a billion dollars in public funds, though he almost certainly would approve of public investments in basic science. He would be likely to disapprove of mandatory corporate average fuel economy standards for cars – and subsidies for electric vehicles – instead opting for a more market-based and neutral approach such as a carbon tax, which would eliminate the need for energy subsidies of all kinds, including tax breaks for oil companies and direct subsidies and mandates for corn-based ethanol, and which would also an effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He would probably favor a much more liberal immigration policy (he wrote at some length about the need for labor mobility) to replace the idiocy of our current policies that every year send home tens of thousands of recently graduated foreign students instead of inviting them to stay here and help grow our economy.

Obama, it is true, seems to be more comfortable with some aspects of crony capitalism than with unbridled free markets, but then so does Romney. On almost every other dimension, however, Adam Smith would find Barack Obama at least slightly more supportive of his ideas than Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, who apparently see in Adam Smith a proto-social Darwinist. I too find that Barack Obama more closely reflects Adam Smith’s view of governance than does Mitt Romney. And as an enthusiastic adherent of Adam Smith, on Tuesday I will vote to re-elect Barack Obama.




In retrospect, no one should be surprised at recent moves by the Egyptian armed forces to consolidate their power, in what some have called a soft coup d’état. Although the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has ruled the country since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, maintains that it will hand over power to a civilian government as planned by the end of June, it is hard to see how this might happen.

With both sides claiming victory in Sunday’s presidential election, the armed forces are poised to retain the real power no matter which of the two candidates is declared the winner when the results are announced on Thursday. Egypt’s Supreme Court, which is packed with Mubarak appointees, last week dissolved the elected parliament in which Islamists held the majority of seats, declaring it unconstitutional. This past Sunday, after the polls had closed, the armed forces issued a constitutional declaration giving it the right to veto many presidential decisions and to maintain control over its own budget. The decree also said the military would soon name a group of Egyptians to draft a new constitution, which will be subject to a public referendum within three months. Following ratification of the new constitution, an election will be held to replace the Islamist-dominated Parliament. [click to continue…]