Gotham Philosophical Society
March 4, 2017

The Only Way to Save America: Constitutional Amendments and the Convention Idea

I. The Grave Dangers We Face

Across the nation, voters are furious with “gridlock” in Washington, D.C. One of the few things most Americans agree on, despite our sharp political divides, is that there are deep problems with our federal system, starting with a nebulous sense that the legislature and some administrative offices are bought or corrupt. Thus people turn to more radical or “populist” candidates who talk about this corruption and promise to fix it: for example, people flocked to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders during the primaries in part because Trump and Sanders portrayed themselves as determined to overcome “the Washington establishment” and “Wall Street” (whatever exactly these phrases mean). But neither they nor their opponents carefully defined the procedural problems that are making the federal government ineffective in promoting economic opportunity across the country, or in improving education and responsible citizenship, or boosting civic solidarity and defending social justice here and abroad. They never discussed specific constitutional fixes to the underlying problems; thus their supporters did not learn from their leaders about the true roots of the problems that are so angering and upsetting them, and the illusion persists that the solution is just to elect better people who owe no favors to lobbyists – even if that is only because they are billionaires.

On the contrary, objective research on the matter shows that most politicians are not directly controlled by bribes from donors (see, for example, Lawrence Lessig’s Republic, Lost and Mann and Ornstein’s It’s Even Worse than it Looks). The problem is instead that our current election procedures and election finance laws promote a culture of friendship and informal interdependencies among legislators and the donor class. And this is only one part of a much broader set of structural problems, most of which can only be fixed by constitutional amendments. It has been over a hundred years now since substantive constitutional reforms were made to our system, such as the vote for women and direct election of senators: we are desperately overdue for a major a constitutional overhaul. We replace factory equipment within 20 years or less; parts of our basic legal capital can certainly rust through in 50 years or less. Other advanced democratic nations have made large structural reforms since World War II, whereas we relied on the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, which are only statutes that can and have been weakened by later laws and court decisions. Even for the equal status of women we rely on Supreme Court precedent that the Court could overturn.1This predicament is partly due to our constitution being harder to amend than the basic law of any other advanced democratic nation on Earth, which suggests that among other things, we might consider amending the amendment clauses themselves – e.g. to require ratification only by two-thirds of the states and approval by three-fifths of both chambers when the amendment originates in Congress.

People are naturally worried about opening up constitutional change, especially in an era of political extremism. But I will argue that no other remedy can begin to cure the roots of our political diseases. Without constitutional reform, our system will grow increasingly dysfunctional: voters will get more and more frustrated that the party they put in power cannot get much done; such voters then either become alienated (checking out, not voting) or turn to ever-crazier outsiders in hope that they can be more effective, only to see the cycle repeat. “Coastal liberals” and “conservatives” (libertarian, evangelical, or otherwise) in our nation’s interior will grow farther apart, as their political leaders increasingly try to appeal to their base by demonizing the opposing group, and focus more on blocking their opponent’s agenda rather than moving any bipartisan bills forward. As a result, compromise on large national problems such as trade policy, religious freedoms, finding ways to pay back our enormous federal debt, or how to normalize the status of 11 million plus “illegal” or “undocumented” immigrants will become even more unfeasible. Unless we have the courage to address the ultimate sources of the dysfunction that is rotting out the heart of our democracy, we will leave our nation in much worse shape for our children and grandchildren. Who would sit idle, knowing that termites were eating the main beams of the house in which their children sleep? Refusal to move constitutional reform, then, is a betrayal of our deepest values.

America’s fate also matters for the whole world: since the Civil War, the United States has been a leading symbol and defender of the value of democratic rights and processes, helping to spread these norms across the globe. If our citizens grow increasingly ignorant, divided, and uncooperative while our system produces more irrational results, the promoters of nationalist despotism in Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran will see their stars rise even higher. As a result, people across the world will suffer under resurgent military and theocratic dictatorships. The stakes are too high to assume that it’s best to ‘play it safe’ and ‘leave the constitution alone,’ as people often say, as if it is okay to keep trying to do the best we can within our current model. Continuing to ‘muddle through’ this way is irresponsible when our political system is already at the trainwreck stage, and only more fundamental reforms can meet our nation’s needs.

II. The Solution: A Series of Constitutional Amendments Focused on Process

Most Americans realize that something is deeply amiss; but few understand that the fundamental problems with our federal system are structural: no President or political party can solve them simply by winning an election anymore. Even holding the Presidency and both houses of Congress with a filibuster-proof majority, which is almost impossible, is not enough to break through gridlock, given the power of major lobbies and special interests.2Note that when Obama had 60 senators supposedly on his side in 2009 before the untimely death of Edward Kennedy, having only just enough to break a filibuster meant that each single senator was crucial – and thus every one of them could, and some did, engage in brinksmanlike struggles over a key piece of legislation like Obama-Ccare, holding it hostage until they could extract unrelated goodies and pork-barrel benefits. To avoid this scenario, a President would probably need at least 62 or 63 senators, which seems unlikely to happen in any election soon. Our federal government will never work well (or even well enough) again until a vital set of basic structural reforms are passed that require constitutional amendments, including at least

  • ending the filibuster in the Senate, which currently enforces even more extreme minority rule.
  • direct election of the President with automatic runoff to enable third parties without spoilers.
  • a fair national primary system with rotating dates for all states.
  • campaign finance and lobby limits (rejecting money = speech, corporate speech = personal)
  • an impartial redestricting system ending gerrymanders that protect safe seats and create minority rule in the House of Representatives.
  • two senators for the District of Columbia, and one for all other US Protectorates, together with House members proportionate to their populations.
  • statehood for Puerto Rico, as a majority of their voters have requested in 2012.
  • reasonable deadlines for mandatory Senate votes on Presidential appointees at all levels.
  • an option for federal courts to refer a law back to Congress for mandatory reconsideration
  • agenda liberalization to prevent House leaders from blocking votes on legislation enjoying strong bipartisan majorities.
  • a requirement that every high school student take at least one semester of Civics covering the federal budget and basic tax law in the last 50 years, along with elementary macroeconomics.

Fixing Our Elections

Let’s look at a few of these amendments in a little more detail. During the bitter 2016 election, many people expressed anger at Hillary Clinton for taking large campaign donations even though that is what our system has required for decades – unless, that is, one has hundreds of millions in cash to fund one’s own presidential campaign. Similarly, our federal legislators are largely forced to raise money the way they do. For decades since the 1970s, campaign finance laws such as the compromise McCain -Feingold bill tried to limit this system; but the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision (following the older Buckley v. Valeo precedent) gutted what remained of these limits. As a result, it is even clearer now that the only viable fix is a constitutional amendment that directly overturns Citizens United:

1. Freedom of political speech in the United States shall be interpreted to make possible limits on the political power that can be wielded through monetary power. (i) Paid political advertising is subject to legal limitation in the interests of limiting inequality in political voice or influence among citizens. (ii) For-profit corporations and non-profits that spend more than 10% of their budgets on lobbying do not enjoy the same free speech protections as individuals under the First Amendment. (iii) No one who works for a registered federal lobby can be elected to the House or Senate or hold any federal office for a period of ten years after their employment as a lobbyist; and no federal legislator or officer may work as a lobbyist for any corporation for ten years after their federal service. (iv) Congressional elections and the Presidential election shall be largely voter-financed through public funds that are made available to every candidate showing the support of 10% or more of their electorate at the primary and general election stages. (v) Federal salaries must be commensurate with those paid to comparable private-sector jobs, and with the need to support two residences (in the home state and Washington, D.C.) for legislators. (vi) And Congress shall amend the laws governing the Federal Election Commission accordingly.

While the details can be debated or altered, an amendment of this breadth and depth would work a revolution in American politics: it would end the plutocracy that has developed within our federal government, opening up federal offices to people with great ideas who only have modest means and family connections. We would no longer see a Senate made up mostly of multi-millionaires and a House boasting a majority of lawyers. Most fundamentally, it would direct our courts to stop equating money with speech and equating corporate speech with speech by real human persons. It would thus create a framework in which effective statutory campaign finance laws become possible. And although boosting the salaries of federal legislators would be controversial, the argument for it goes back to our founding fathers who saw that we would need legislators who are beholden only to the public rather than relying on monied interests to make their living.

Americans are also increasingly frustrated with the main parties and drawn to third-party candidates; but these interests are stymied by the endemic problem that such candidates can end up as “spoilers.” While Libertarian and Green candidates did not ultimately turn the election of 2016, as they did the election of 2000, they easily could have done so – and without changes, we will see spoilers in future Presidential elections, as well as in Congressional races. Republicans should be especially concerned here: without Ross Perot, Bill Clinton might never have been President. More fundamentally, a system that prevents third parties cuts off one of the main routes through which parties can develop to better serve public interests and citizens can learn from experimenting with alternative party candidates. Moreover, it is a stupid problem to have when there is such a simple and effective fix for it, namely the “automatic runoff system” (which works well in Australia for example). It works by allowing you, the voter, to rank your picks if you wish to: if your top choice candidate does not place among the top two finishers in the first round, the voting system then reassigns your vote to your second choice (if any) – or to your third choice, and on down – until one of them is among the top two first-round finishers. Thus for example, a voter in Florida in 2000 could have ranked Ralph Nader first and Al Gore second, or Pat Buchanan first and George W. Bush second; their computerized votes would then have gone to Gore or Bush respectively, but their support for a third party candidate would still have been registered in the first round. In such a system, third parties can rise to the point where they might finish among the top two without acting as spoilers during the rise. This is exactly like holding an actual runoff election (as France does, and thus Louisiana too) without all the extra trouble and cost: the secure computer system does the reallocation for you, if you ask it to. Thus we have an amendment that should be fairly uncontroversial:

2. In the general election to seats in the House, Senate, and Presidency, the federal government shall provide a secure automatic runoff system.3 It is certainly true that this would require computerized voting systems that are unhackable, or protected by multiple backups. But it is not hard to write laws that require a purely mechanical calculation of the number of votes cast at each polling station, for example, that can be checked against computerized totals; and other fail-safes can also be instituted. The bigger challenge is to make sure that foreign governments are deterred from interfering in our elections either by hacking or fake news, manipulation of candidates by blackmail, etc. That probably requires a very tough set of promised countermeasures to hacking that is aimed at election-manipulation (such as conventional military responses that are required by law when such hacking is confirmed).

But there are several other problems in our election system that involve more divisive issues of fairness that have to be faced and overcome if we are to have a democratically accountable federal government. Our primary election system, for example, is a mess; it drives parties towards the most extreme wings of their base, which has massive effects on our national well-being: it has made compromise increasingly harder and produced an atmosphere so poisonous that we cannot even rally a unified response to foreign attempts to influence our election by hacking. Yet we allow these primaries to be run by private party bosses without uniform national legal standards. Worst of all, the primary system gives enormous unjustifiable advantages to early voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina that have no legitimate claim to such huge extra electoral influence. We also have antiquated voting systems in several states which make recounts very difficult when needed, and that can even affect the outcome of elections (as may have happened in 2000). Voter ID and registration has also become a divisive issue subject to cynical manipulation by the parties for mere strategic advantage: while many Republicans now harbor unfounded fears that millions of unregistered people are voting (because voter rolls are imperfectly updated), Democrats believe that voter ID requirements and limitations on polling places and dates are simply designed to discourage poorer and minority voters who tend to lean Democrat. This is a disaster for our nation: people on both sides should come together to promote a system that is both maximally inclusive and secure. A national voter ID system with uniform standards across the nation and multiple methods of registration and voting is a promising compromise that meets both goals. Solving these deep problems requires several amendments:

3. A fair national primary system with rotating dates for all states – for example, five primary election dates in each Presidential election, with 10 states voting on each date; the five groups would rotate so that each group of 10 states gets to vote in the first primary during every fifth Presidential election.

4. Election day should be a national holiday, with a minimum of two early voting dates mandated for each state (not more than two weeks before Election Day); every state should provide the same vote-by-mail opportunity; and no one should have to wait longer than one hour to vote on Election day.

5. A national photo ID card should be issued to every voter based on a uniform federal registration, with the option of online registration confirmed by document presentation at the first time of voting following online registration. This system should include processes to automatically move the voter’s place of registration once they have moved to another district, with notices issued in time for the next election cycle; it should also include automatic removal when the voter is deceased. The actual voting system and vote counting methods, including recount norms, should be set by one single federal standard for all states.

These reforms would undo the worst offenses of the Gore v Bush decision by the Supreme Court in Nov. 2000, which left voting systems entirely up to state governments without safeguards necessary to ensure democratic rights, equality of political opportunity, and fairness. That short decision was one of the most egregious in American history, perhaps third only to Dred Scott and Plessy: it implied that state governments could allocate their electors however they liked, no matter what the will of their people. This is not 1787: our Constitution should ensure that our nation is really a full democracy, rather than merely a republic controlled by any whim whatsoever of state legislators.

The Electoral College is another massively unjust and destabilizing relic of long-outdated states’ rights fears. There have been numerous attempts to get rid of it, including (as noted) an amendment supported by Richard Nixon in 1969 that almost cleared Congress but for four votes in the Senate (see the work of John Feerick in particular on this topic). Because our amendment process is so difficult, this antiquated and anti-democratic system remains: thus two of the last five Presidential elections have been won by a candidate who lost the national popular vote to an opponent who gained an outright majority of that popular vote. That is anti-populist if anything is. Although none of our political leaders stepped up to do anything about it after the debacle in Nov. 2000, the Electoral College system is grossly unjust, giving greater weight to small-population states that already have extraordinary amounts of extra weight in the federal Senate to protect their interests. Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, and North Dakota do not need this extra weight in the Presidential election, which is especially unfair in relation to other small states that are just a bit larger (such as New Hampshire, Idaho, Nebraska, and West Virginia). How would you feel in New Hampshire with four electoral votes to represent a population that is twice the size of Wyoming’s, with its three electors?

This Electoral College system is infamous for concentrating virtually all attention on a few “swing states” (such as Ohio, Florida, and sometimes Pennsylvania in recent elections). It also leaves the votes of Republicans in California and New York, and Democrats in Kansas or Texas, “wasted” because the candidate who wins a bare majority in these non-swing states takes all their electoral votes. This demotivates many voters, suppressing participation, and leads candidates to spend far more of their time on swing states (and on issues that matter to swing state voters, sometimes to the detriment of much larger states). A straight national majority vote for the President would lead to a far more competitive campaign across the entire nation; in a close election, every state would matter (of course candidates would spend more time in larger cities, but they already do this now – just in swing state cities). When combined with an automatic runoff, this national popular vote for President would lead to far greater participation rates, and thus probably voter engagement with issues. Thus we have the following amendment:

6. Direct election of the President and Vice President by national popular vote, with an automatic runoff when no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the first round.

Of course, after two Republicans Presidents have been elected by national minorities in the last 16 years, this reform will appear partisan to some: some Republicans may be tempted to assume that it is simply in their strategic interest to maintain the Electoral College, despite its gross unfairness to most Americans. However, even ignoring the question of basic democratic justice, they would be incorrect. John Kerry would have won the 2004 election with a minority of the popular vote if just 150,000 votes had changed in Ohio, and Republicans could easily find themselves in this position again. Moreover, if large-population states like Texas start to vote more Democratic in coming decades, Republican strategists will live to regret keeping the Electoral College: for they will find that Democrats taking all electoral votes in CA, NY, and TX are usually unstoppable (especially if they start to win Georgia as well). Moreover, because the Electoral College system leaves so much power in the hands of state governments that can literally do whatever they want with their Electors irrespective of voters’ wishes, it opens the possibility of crises that (at best) throw the Presidential election into the House of Representatives. More importantly, the question should not be decided on strategic grounds at all, for it is a matter of basic justice – so basic, in fact, that if small-population states try to block an amendment to abolish the Electoral College, large states might be justified in fighting them by almost any means necessary, including refusing to participate in national elections, cutting all economic relations, and so on. We cannot expect to maintain a basic social contract and respect for the rule of law throughout our nation if a minority is determined at all costs to maintain domination over a majority without any justification other than their own advantages and gain: for that is simply tyranny, and it may justly be fought.

Making Congress More Democratically Representative and Functional

An almost equally deep challenge to basic democratic justice is the rise of ever-more extreme gerrymandering by both major parties in state governments to ensure safe Congressional seats. Thus a party can win the House despite getting a million or even two million less votes collectively across the nation; and with almost 80% of House seats rendered normally non-competitive, efforts shift to primary elections which push candidates more towards the extremes of both parties. That’s how we get Republican candidates who are unwilling to vote even for basic background checks for gun buyers at gun shows because they care more about extreme primary voters than about the general electorate;it’s how we get Democratic candidates who consider instituting transgender bathrooms more important than ensuring a sound manufacturing sector in the United States. We cannot unfreeze the gridlock in Congress without more competitive elections for the House. While term limits are one possible fix, they do not address the main roots of the problem; they only prevent parties from building up a core of long-term leaders with the rare experience that comes from longevity. Rather than preventing the rise of edler statesmen and stateswomen who provide vital institutional memory, a better solution is to make Congressional districts more competitive through this sort of an amendment:

7. Congressional House districts will be redrawn after each national census to maintain roughly equal numbers of citizens by drawing district lines according to an entirely abstract geometric rule 4While I do not try to define that rule here, there is a lot of promising recent work on this among mathematicians which suggests that it would not be hard to create a computer system to do most of the district line drawing. applied by an impartial, non-partisan board disconnected from state governments. The board shall adopt the best available mathematical rule, without regard to traditional boundaries based on geography, cultural or ethnic group lines, party affiliation, economic interests or class, or any other morally arbitrary distinction.

The result would be new districts that are not only more competitive, but that also mix people from different backgrounds together without ossifying any group identities or attempting to place people in interest-group categories (gathered by arbitrary line-drawing) whether they voluntarily identify with such group affiliations or not. Such a system sidesteps all the divisive questions created by well-intentioned past efforts to create majority-minority districts in the wake of desegregation. But if the reform had the unintended effect of reducing minority representation in the House, the amendment could leave an avenue open for Congress or the federal Courts to make exceptions and adjustments to prevent extreme dispersal of minority voting power. (Another possible solution would be to include multiple voting schemes that enable voters to express the strength of their preferences rather than only a bivalent yes-no preference, but investigating that complex option is beyond the scope of this short analysis).

All these amendments would still leave untouched the worst remaining legacy of the dominance of state governments at the time of our nation’s founding almost two and a half centuries ago: namely, state equality in the Senate. While Madison and Hamilton fought against this massive injustice with all their resources during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, they were finally forced to accept it in order to create any functioning federal government at all. At the time, the ratio between the largest- and smallest-population states was about 12:1; it is now over 60:1, which hugely inflates the injustice involved in giving two senators to each state. If the ratio had been anything close to that in 1787, the federalists would never have accepted the compromise establishing the state equality in the Senate.

Throughout our nation’s history, endless conflict has resulted from the inability to avoid this truly enormous concession to some anti-democratic ideologies of the late 18th century: for example, the extreme efforts made by southern legislators to maintain an equal number of slaveholding states compared to free soil states ultimately led to the Civil War. Even after the Civil War amendments, much of the gridlock in Washington D.C. is still due to this single feature, which, even in simple majority votes in the Senate, now enables representatives of less than a third of the nation’s people to block crucial legislation (while Senators representing less than a quarter of our people can prevent ratification of treaties, sustain Presidential vetoes, and even block amendments – as they did for direct election of the President). This great impediment in the American government moves our national system even farther from the kind of proportional representation that is achieved in parliamentary systems. While some democratic theorists (e.g. Thomas Christiano) would institute parliamentary proportional representation, and other legal reformers (e.g. Sanford Levinson) would write a new Constitution from scratch to overcome state equality in the Senate, I assume that this would be too difficult in the near future, even though most Americans identify far less now with their home states than they do with their nation as a whole – a 180 degree reversal from attitudes in 1787. Moreover, state equality cannot be directly amended under the current Constitution; one would first have to amend the clause that makes state equality unamendable, or (in a more revolutionary vein) write a whole new document.5 Another intriguing option would be leave the Senate intact with two senators from each state, but diminish its legislative powers towards zero. This option is not technically banned by the letter of the Constitution, though it would certainly be against the spirit of the grand compromiseprobably be impossible to get ratified as a stand-alone amendment.

However, at least the most egregious injustices involved in the grand compromise can be reined in by a series of other amendments, whose justice is all the more apparent against the backdrop of gross injustice in the basic structure of our Senate perpetuated now for over 228 years. These include reforms to bring Senate representation to Americans who are currently excluded from that body altogether, and to end the recent innovation of the filibuster, which makes the problem of minority rule in the Senate even worse still:

8. Filibusters are prohibited in the Senate and House of Representatives: debate may be extensive in time, but not unlimited, with one month set as the absolute time limit before an up-or-down vote by simple majority in each chamber. Internal Senate and House rules may never be used to bring about procedural results that violate the original intent of the grand compromise, or any other part of the Constitution as amended since its founding.

Beyond other obvious reasons for it, from a historical perspective, this change would be just: Hamilton, Madison, and the large-state delegations almost walked away from the Convention rather than accept a compromise that was so unfair to large-population states. They definitely would have walked away if the representatives of small states went even further and insisted that a mere 41% of Senators potentially representing less than a quarter of the population be able to block virtually all legislation and Presidential appointments. Moreover, the 1787 Constitution would never have been ratified if large state governments had anticipated the filibuster. Virginia barely ratified, partly because Patrick Henry was so incensed that 50% of senators representing less than a third of the nation would have a veto. Expanding representation in the Senate is another small fix at least:

9. The District of Columbia is granted two senators and House representation proportional to its population, just as if it were a state.6 An amendment to this effect did pass Congress but was not ratified within the time limit that it allowed, which is another example suggesting that Congress or a convention should avoid placing time-limits on amendments when sending them to the states.

10. Upon presentation of a democratic state constitution, Puerto Rico is granted the full status of a state with two senators, House members proportional to population, and all the other rights and responsibilities of statehood.

11. Native residents of American protectorates across the world are guaranteed American citizenship, House representation proportional to their population just as if they formed a state, and representation by one Senator.

Such amendments would not solve the basic problem with the federal Senate, but would partly offset some of the injustice of that chamber, including advantages to present small-population states resulting from the exclusion of large numbers of Americans from any representation within that upper chamber of Congress.

When combined, these reforms would end much of the gridlock that has made it impossible to pass legislation even while holding the Presidency and both houses of Congress. When a party no longer needs more than 60 Senators and approval of large lobbies that provide most of the funding for House member reelections (with safe seats, divisive primaries, no viable third party challengers etc.), party leaders will be able to craft and implement a clear agenda. A majority party will be able to pass its promised agenda – allowing its supporters a chance to learn if they made a mistake, rather than simply being alienated by gridlock. But there are other reforms that would further improve chances for principled compromise in Congress, as well as the crucial role of federal courts in our system, including:

12. The length of terms of House members shall be extended to four years, with a rotation so that half the House is elected every two years (ideally on odd-numbered years).

13. Treaty approval shall requires only 3/5ths of the Senate.

14. There shall be a sixth-month limit for the Senate to vote on all nominations made by the President, including especially Supreme Court nominations.

15.  The House shall require no more than 40% of its members to petition to force an item onto the House agenda for a vote.

16 The Supreme Court shall have the option to refer a law (or any part of a statute) back to Congress for mandatory reconsideration within three months, rather than simply affirming or rejecting that law (or relevant part of a statute).

These changes would reduce the time that House members are just campaigning and raising money (which can currently be up to 40% of their time), and would facilitate cross-party compromises on measures that a party leadership opposes. They would also end the egregious increasing backlog of empty positions while nominations are increasingly delayed, which forces Presidents to resort to interim appointments to dodge Congressional oversight. Agenda liberalization prevents a “majority of the majority” (which could be a mere 35% of the House, for example) from blocking legislation that would easily garner an absolute majority if it came to a vote. Here again, we might also consider the possibility of cumulative voting – this time by House members on certain topics, such as budget items – which would allow minority groups to register especially strong preferences on issues that are crucial for their constituents. Such systems increase the likelihood that minority groups get at least some (or at worst, a little bit) of what they want or need most. Short of adopting a parliamentary system, we urgently need to make it easier to pass laws through the federal Congress.

The extra option for the Supreme Court would reduce the popular sense that courts are “legislating,” enabling the Court to register objections without going as far as invaliding a law. In addition, arguably the Presidential veto has grown beyond all proportions ever envisioned at the founding, and constitutes another anti-majoritarian obstacle in many cases. So we could consider further reforms such as reducing to 3/5ths the threshold needed for the House and Senate together to override a President’s veto, while perhaps also giving the President a limited line-item veto (at least on budget bills) to help rein in our federal deficits. It would also be a good idea to alter the clause on impeachment of the President to include gross incompetence, dereliction of duty, and gross violation of the customary norms of this high office, rather than restricting causes to “high crimes.” Several of these ideas come from Sanford Levinson’s work (e.g. see Our Undemocratic Constitution).

There are also inequities caused by the life-terms of Supreme Court justices, not the least of which are gross inequalities between the number of justices that different President get to appoint. Fairness to voters requires that this not be left up to luck, or to worsening partisan trickery, such as the highly egregious (and precedent-setting) Republican refusal to consider a judicial appointment made by Barack Obama while he still had 11 months left in office. The solution is a term limit, perhaps to something like 18 years, with a fair rotation system that fits mathematically with the term length:

17. There shall be an 18-year term limit for federal Supreme Court (and perhaps Appellate Court judges), phased in so that two justices will retire within each 4-year presidential term (one in the President’s first year, and one in the third year). There shall also be a system to address the death or early retirement of any justice before the end of his or her 18-year term: their replacement takes the place of the President’s first or second appointment to the Supreme Court when it comes before either of these would normally be scheduled; and if the President has already successfully appointed two nominees to the Supreme Court in her/his four-year term, then the replacement of a justice who dies or retires early shall be held over until the first year of the next Presidential term.

This change would ensure fairness to those electing our Presidents: under this provision, each Presidential election has an equal weight on the Court, rather than this weight being determined by the contingencies of physical health and other accidental factors. The 18-year limit would also reduce the “dead hand of the past effect” arising from older judges overstaying their competence for political reasons. It would also end the perverse incentive to appoint very young justices who may not be ready for this level of responsibility just so they can sit on the court for many decades. A similar system could be adopted to ensure roughly comparable levels of Presidential influence on the federal Appeals Courts.

Finally, some of the deepest problems with American democracy are rooted at the level of our citizens themselves, who typically understand too little of the issues and the functions of the federal government to exercise democratic power responsibly. This mass ignorance makes people easily manipulable by scare tactics, by appeals to vices such as group hatreds, and by outright deception and misinformation (such as obviously false economic and statistical information) – especially in an era when cynical systematic attempts to demonize mainstream media drive people towards unreliable fringe sources. Fortunately, this is something that can be solved by better education. Just one semester of Civics required for all high school students would transform our nation, making it much harder to deceive people en mass, or to manipulate gullible voters by playing on prejudices. Such a course could explain the main issues at stake in current federal politics – something that presently happens only in an ad hoc way in US History courses, social science electives, or wherever high school teachers can squeeze it in. The point of the course should not be to review the three branches of government again, which is drummed into students many times from 5th grade on. Rather, its curriculum should focus on the following topics, which every responsible citizen needs to know, but very few do:

  • the basic the history of our tax laws, including changes in top and bottom rates, types of taxes, average tax burdens, and resulting federal revenues, in the last 50 years;
  • the basic history of our current federal deficits and debts, and sources of deficits;
  • the basic history of our main entitlement programs, and future projections of their trust funds;
  • the main items in our federal budgets and their percentages (e.g. direct foreign aid is less than 1%, interest on the debt has topped $400 billion per year, annual Pell Grants are under $30 billion, down from $39 billion because squeezed by the Sequester, etc.)
  • a primer in basic economics, e.g. inflation, how recessions work, forms of stimulus and monetary policy, and their usual and most likely effects;
  • the economic definition of public goods, externalities, and causes of market failures;
  • a thumbnail history of our foreign policy from the mid-20th century on, including war spending figures;
  • an introduction to informal logic and critical thinking, along with review of common fallacies.

Such a course does not favor the left or the right: it favors genuine, deliberative democracy by forming citizens who are not easily swayed by lobby-funded short TV and internet ads, or by fake stories placed by foreign tyrants. A student should leave this course knowing, for example, that Reagan’s tax cuts, like George W. Bush’s, produced enormous federal deficits; but they would also leave knowing about the projected increases in entitlement program spending and threats to the Social Security trust fund. They would know the difference between a million and a billion in the federal budget, learn what food stamps and Medicaid cost, what it’s like to live on food stamps, what our military budget looks like relative to other nations, and so on.

A movement to establish such a standard of civic understanding is really the only way that we can shore up the foundations of our democracy. Note that this course would be very different in content than AP Government, which is more thematic in coverage and only taken by a minority of students. This Civics requirement also does not need to increase the total number of high school requirements. Rather than requiring two full years of US History, as many states do, we can change that requirement to three semesters of US History to make room for one semester of Civics and Citizenship – which is another part of US history but with key topical focus points. This reform could be enacted by each state government one at a time, but a far better assurance would be a federal constitutional amendment saying that

18. Every high school student in the United States shall take at least one full semester of Civics, which shall include at least the basic history of tax law, along with objective information on our federal budgets, entitlement programs, and the fundamentals of economics necessary to assess proposed policies on these matters in a responsible manner.

Together, these eighteen amendments would transform the United States from a nation that is foundering under its internal conflicts, gridlock, and corruption into a nation where the government can once again serve the common good, advance prosperity for all, and uphold democratic ideals around the world. Adopting even half of these proposals would constitute the most profound constitutional renewal we have seen since the Civil War. Of course, there are other substantive amendments that could be included, such as constitutional guarantees for equal civil rights irrespective of race, gender, religion, or national background, to make permanent principles that are presently enshrined only in statutes and Supreme Court decisions. Other substantive amendments might tackle such divisive issues as gun rights and gun safety, and more public funding for medias freed from profit incentives. But I have focused here on the procedural changes necessary to make the United States a deliberative democracy in which all citizens have a fair part in electing an effective federal government that enacts the majority agenda – so that we may all learn from experience when the majority makes mistakes, which is an essential part of citizen development.

III. How to Pass the Amendments: A New Constitutional Convention

Critics will say it is impossible to pass these sorts of amendments, or (worse) that it is even dangerous to try. These are counsels of defeatism that, if followed, will ensure that nothing gets better. Some amendments, such as automatic runoff, should not be controversial at all. Others, such as direct election of the President, would certainly be opposed by some smaller population-states; but they may be persuaded by the advantages of making them competitive arenas again, because a direct popular vote avoids winner-take-all outcomes in each state. Small states will actually benefit from direct election of the President, because in close elections, as noted, votes in all 50 states will matter. Moreover, most of the procedural amendments proposed above do not directly favor either main party – indeed the automatic runoff provision favors small third parties, and the 18 year term limit on Court appointees is completely egalitarian. And on what grounds could anyone reasonably oppose giving every high school student a one-semester course on the history of our federal budget, tax law, deficit and debt, entitlement programs, and basic economics? Most conservatives would love this idea, hoping it would instill greater respect for fiscal prudence (and the course would be simply factual).

Nevertheless, the power of entrenched special interests might still make it very difficult to pass any of the proposed amendments through both chambers of Congress before sending them to states, as was done with all prior amendments to our Constitution. The poisonous atmosphere in Congress makes compromise impossible, and when amendments are considered one by one, a massive lobby against each of them will be more mobilized than the wide but more diffuse support for each amendment (just as we saw with the impossibility of getting even minimally sane gun safety laws passed in the wake of Sandy Hook and other large massacres). Consider the amendment for direct election of the President, which passed the House in 1969 by a huge margin of 338 – 70;7 Notably this amendment also included provisions for a runoff election if no candidate for the Presidency received at least 40% of the vote (allowing for a plurality President who received between 40 – 50% of the popular vote). Our separate amendment for automatic runoff elections neatly takes care of this issue. but small southern states filibustered the amendment to death in the Senate8 – which shows how the different flaws in our system can reinforce each other. The atmosphere in Congress now is far worse than it was in 1969, even after the divisive debates over the Civil Rights Act. In short, Congress cannot fix its own problems or those of the federal system in general. But fortunately, our founders included within the amendment provision in the Constitution a different procedure whereby the solutions can come directly from the people when two-thirds of the states call a new convention to consider amendments and send proposed amendments for ratification by three-quarters of the states. This process has never been used, but it’s time has finally come.

Critics see such an “Article V Convention” as a radical and dangerous gamble, but the problems we need to fix are themselves very dangerous, and the obstacles to fixing them through Congress are quite radical. Liberals like Lawrence Lessig and Sanford Levinson have called for such a new convention, and it has been popular with right-wing figures like Marco Rubio and Greg Abbott, which suggests that the idea would appeal to grass-roots populism. Perhaps for this very reason, other liberals during the last three years have often expressed fear that a convention called directly by the states would be a “runaway” process leading to extreme right-wing dogma being enacted.

These fears are entirely unfounded and, taken to their logical endpoint, express despair over the very possibility of democracy fixing itself (in that case, maybe we should give up on the Constitution entirely and establish an aristocracy of philosophers?). Even if a convention passed some crazy or highly ideological amendments – e.g. banning Islam, or outlawing abortion after the first trimester, or making guns mandatory for school teachers, or (more likely) demanding a balanced federal budget with no exceptions for deep recessions or other emergencies – three-quarters of states would certainly never ratify them. And if a bad amendment such as a strict balanced budget requirement did somehow get ratified, people would quickly learn their folly when economic chaos ensued (just as they learned when Prohibition was instituted a century ago): much better that the people should feel their effective democratic power and learn from mistakes, rather than feel simply controlled by elites and thus become cynical and ever-more disengaged.

But on the other side, the convention process holds out great hope. The call for a new convention would create a new era in U.S. politics, a ‘teachable moment’ like none other:

  • it would inspire a deep national conversation that would radically improve citizens’ understanding of the difficulties we face, and perhaps even move people to talk across the political chasms now dividing us;
  • it would provide a much more positive way for people to channel the deep anger that has understandably built up at our federal Congress, while also promoting civic virtues, and potentially renewing loyalty to the reformed federal government;
  • it would probably bring some of the best political minds of our time together under a call to transcend party politics, and do an end-run around the big lobby groups with a lock on D.C.;
  • convention delegates, with historical reputations at stake and the awesome sense of repeating the work of the 1787 Convention, would be under tremendous pressure to come up with innovative solutions and to produce substantive results that could be ratified;
  • and most importantly of all, a convention offers the prospect for compromises that break basic logjams by combining into a single amendment provisions more favored by the left and provisions more favored by the right, or combining provisions favored by small states with others favored by large states, etc.

As the election of 2016 has clearly shown, we cannot continue to allow things to keep disintegrating. Our fear should not be that such an Article V convention would extend its mandate and take on a wide array of issues pertaining to the soundness of our federal government. Rather, we should fear the opposite, namely that some members of Congress might try to script the convention’s agenda in advance and thus hamstring the process, robbing it of most of its potential. For example, some conservatives would like to limit a convention to considering a balanced budget amendment, or to just a handful of other topics they care about.

On the contrary, in order to work and produce compromise, a new convention should have an open agenda, and just like the 1787 convention, feel free to ignore any limiting instructions that Congress may try to give in funding the convention and setting it up (a role apparently given to Congress by the Article V process). A convention exercises original sovereignty coming directly from the people via their states, which transcends the authority vested in Congress. Wise state leaders would call for all states to agree to send delegates who are not current members of the House or Senate, or current or recent lobbyists, or perhaps even current members of the state government sending them. Though some state officials might wish to appoint them, ideally states should hold a popular election for convention delegates – much as was done in 1776-77 when several of the 13 original colonies held conventions to set up new state governments. We should look for delegates with wisdom, life-experience, and genuine concern for the future who have as little monetary interest in the outcomes of the debates as possible. I suggest that each state send between 2 and 16 delegates based on their population size (mirroring the House to an extent), but vote as delegations, or state by state, within the convention: for an amendment that cannot gain the support of a majority of state delegations is unlikely to gain ratification by 3/4 of states. We should look for convention leaders who can get strong majorities of delegates to back proposed amendments. Obviously the closer they came to unanimity, the greater moral force their recommendations would have.

One interesting possibility might be to combine all eighteen of the amendments I have outlined here into one giant amendment with many clauses. Call it the Bill of Democracy, to parallel the original Bill of Rights. Its preamble could read as follows: “We the People of the United States of America, in Convention Assembled, in order to form a more democratic union, to establish deliberative ideals of civic virtue, and to restore the integrity and efficiency of our federal government, do here highly resolve that the following amendments to the Constitution be proposed to the several states for their consideration and ratification…”9For more thoughts on these amendments and other more substantive possible amendments, please see Then, and only then, may we say that we have fulfilled our sacred duties to our nation, and have fully honored the sacrifices of millions who died in order that we might have a democracy at all.

References   [ + ]

1. This predicament is partly due to our constitution being harder to amend than the basic law of any other advanced democratic nation on Earth, which suggests that among other things, we might consider amending the amendment clauses themselves – e.g. to require ratification only by two-thirds of the states and approval by three-fifths of both chambers when the amendment originates in Congress.
2. Note that when Obama had 60 senators supposedly on his side in 2009 before the untimely death of Edward Kennedy, having only just enough to break a filibuster meant that each single senator was crucial – and thus every one of them could, and some did, engage in brinksmanlike struggles over a key piece of legislation like Obama-Ccare, holding it hostage until they could extract unrelated goodies and pork-barrel benefits. To avoid this scenario, a President would probably need at least 62 or 63 senators, which seems unlikely to happen in any election soon.
3. It is certainly true that this would require computerized voting systems that are unhackable, or protected by multiple backups. But it is not hard to write laws that require a purely mechanical calculation of the number of votes cast at each polling station, for example, that can be checked against computerized totals; and other fail-safes can also be instituted. The bigger challenge is to make sure that foreign governments are deterred from interfering in our elections either by hacking or fake news, manipulation of candidates by blackmail, etc. That probably requires a very tough set of promised countermeasures to hacking that is aimed at election-manipulation (such as conventional military responses that are required by law when such hacking is confirmed).
4. While I do not try to define that rule here, there is a lot of promising recent work on this among mathematicians which suggests that it would not be hard to create a computer system to do most of the district line drawing.
5. Another intriguing option would be leave the Senate intact with two senators from each state, but diminish its legislative powers towards zero. This option is not technically banned by the letter of the Constitution, though it would certainly be against the spirit of the grand compromiseprobably be impossible to get ratified as a stand-alone amendment.
6. An amendment to this effect did pass Congress but was not ratified within the time limit that it allowed, which is another example suggesting that Congress or a convention should avoid placing time-limits on amendments when sending them to the states.
7. Notably this amendment also included provisions for a runoff election if no candidate for the Presidency received at least 40% of the vote (allowing for a plurality President who received between 40 – 50% of the popular vote). Our separate amendment for automatic runoff elections neatly takes care of this issue.
9. For more thoughts on these amendments and other more substantive possible amendments, please see
Posted in: Φ on NY
November 9, 2016

New York, New York

More than two years ago, the Gotham Philosophical Society was established with the aim of helping New Yorkers to become “members of a thriving community rather than a mere collection of individuals,” and to ensure that they “reap the rewards of diversity rather than be repelled by the rancor of division.” Today, as we emerge from a presidential campaign that painfully revealed how far our nation stands from realizing these goals, we rededicate ourselves to achieving them for our city.

We maintain that the most profound questions we face—about life, love, family, health, education, work, authority, responsibility, and death—are not technological or scientific in nature, but philosophical.  They are the sort of questions that can be adequately raised and answered only by a community in conversation with itself, for it is only in wrestling with these questions that a community comes to be what it is.

Every community—indeed, each new generation of a community—must answer the central questions of living for itself if it aspires to being responsive to the needs and encouraging of the aspirations of its members.  And they must answer them well—not correctly, but well: in a manner that enables that particular community to thrive at that particular time.  Every community is, ultimately, unique. New York is neither New Orleans nor Nashua, New Hampshire. The challenges facing a city as large as New York, a meeting point for so many disparate perspectives, are considerable.  But while we lament the yawning divide in our nation, we are heartened by the willingness of today’s New Yorkers to make our city whole; a willingness that is perhaps greater today than at any moment in our city’s history to make New York a proper home for all is people.

So it is with genuine enthusiasm and optimism that we again ask this great city’s artists, activists, community leaders, policy makers, and in particular its prodigious collection of philosophers—men and women who have been called to a life of contemplating the fundamental questions—to join with your neighbors in the pursuit of a just, nurturing, thriving, open, and welcoming New York, for ourselves and for our children.  Let us talk, debate, critique, and collaborate. Let us alter each other’s perspectives so that we see ourselves in a new way.  Let us pool our wisdom and watch it multiply, and let us never rest content with being a thinking city, but always strive to become a thoughtful one.



Posted in: Φ on NY
September 5, 2016

Dear Beginning Philosopher:  An Open Letter to LIU-Brooklyn Philosophy Students Concerning the LIU Lockout

Last Thursday evening, when I realized that I had approximately twenty-four hours before I would be locked out of my office, my email account, my Blackboard courseware account, and the webservers at the Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University, I started emailing the 80 or so students on my rosters for Fall 2016.  I did not go into the specifics of the lockout, other than to say I’m not allowed on Campus and won’t have University email. I didn’t mention the “instructors” that will probably appear in classes on the first day of the semester to replace me.  I didn’t mention that I was losing my health insurance and salary.

I gave the students my personal email and assured them that all was OK, that we’d have a little bit of catching up to do once the semester really began, but that that this would be doable.  If they liked, they could start the first readings for the semester.  In my introductory courses, this was a short chapter on informal logic and Max Schulman’s charming little short story, “Love is a Fallacy.”  Students in my advanced elective, “Language, Speech, and Thought,” could pick up a packet of readings on truth that spanned early correspondence theory, relativism, pragmatism, and Tarski’s account.  My tone in these emails was as calming as I could muster.  “Stay the course,” was a strategy that has seen the faculty and students of LIU-Brooklyn through multiple strikes, hurricanes, September 11, police chases through the campus, and other calamities.

Now that I am locked out and have some time to think about the situation, it seems I might have missed an opportunity for a memorable lesson.  Here is what that last email might look like:


Dear Beginning Philosopher,

You must have heard by now that your planned instructors will not be teaching your philosophy courses at the beginning of the semester.  Your university has locked out its entire faculty and will be using replacement “teachers” in classes starting Wednesday.  The first few days of the academic year are very important, and I am sorry to miss those first days with you.  Since I am locked out and have a bit of time free, I’d like to use this letter as an opportunity to introduce some topics that I wanted to discuss in your courses this semester.  Those of you who are taking the introductory course, “Philosophical Explorations,” will be introduced to informal logic, fallacies, Plato’s Republic, Buddhism, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, and other works.  The informal logic component of this course will be very useful to you.  Logic is the study of reasoning, and when we understand the principles of logic, we are able to distinguish good reasoning from bad reasoning.  Take for example, an argument given by LIU’s Vice President Kane in a letter to the LIU Community.  Kane argued that the lockout was needed in order to assure stability for students.  In other words, LIU had to lock out the faculty in order for the students not to suffer any instability.  If we were to break this argument down into premises (reasons) and a conclusion (the point being supported), we would have something that looks like,

  1. The LIU administration should do what will assure stability for its students.
  2. Locking out the faculty will assure stability for its students.
  3. Therefore, the LIU administration should lock out the faculty.

In this argument we have 2 premises  (1 and 2) and a conclusion (3).  When we determine whether an argument is a good one, we must decide whether the premises are true and whether they support the conclusion.  Look at premise 1.  This looks right to me.  Assuring a stable, productive learning environment for students should be the highest priority of any administration, so that premise seems fine.  Let’s now look at premise number 2, which claims that locking out the faculty will assure stability for the students.  It is very hard to imagine how, under any possible scenario, this could be so.  Kicking the professors out of the university, and forcing untrained people to teach means that those who are prepared and trained to teach you will not be able to do so.  The dean of the college was informed he, a biologist in his 70’s, must teach a dance class.  A student worker was told she must teach the very course she is taking.  If the purpose of a university is to educate students and the administration locks out the people who are educating the students, then the university is not doing what it is meant to do.  What could be more destabilizing than that?  So, premise two is false and this argument has a fatal flaw.

In the first week or so of the semester, you would have also studied logical fallacies.  Fallacies are common mistakes in reasoning.  For example, one fallacy is called “appeal to fear.”  Whenever someone tries to persuade another through fear, and not through reason, that person has committed that fallacy.  For example, if an employer seeks to get an employee to agree that a particular labor contract is acceptable, but at the same time the employer is withholding salary and health benefits until the employee agrees, then that employer is appealing to fear.  This has, in fact, happened in the case of the LIU administration and the faculty employees this semester.

Later in the semester we will be turning to perhaps the greatest work of the Western philosophical tradition, Plato’s Republic.  Like practically all of Plato’s writings, the Republic is written as a dialogue, or discussion, between Plato’s teacher, Socrates, and various others.  This work touches on a variety of topics, including a definition of justice, the nature and value of education, the best form of government, whether it pays to be a just person, and whether the soul is immortal.  Some of you may have read Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” in high school.  The allegory, which talks of the difficult process through which we become educated, is taken from Plato’s Republic.  One of parts that always stuck out in this work for me is at the very end in a section known as “The Myth of Er.”  After previously talking about the importance of education in this life, in this myth, Socrates tells a story he admits to being mere rumor.  It is about what happens after we die.  Basically, the story says that after we are dead we are given a choice as to our next life.  We must choose among various potential lives, circumstances, genders, and so on.  In the story, the people who have not been trained well in virtue will inevitably choose bad lives, while the good will choose good ones.  The moral of the story, for Plato, is that it incredibly important who our teachers are.  If we are not educated well, we will make poor decisions not only in this life, but in future lives, as well.  I am thinking about this story when I consider that so many of the supposed “instructors” you will have shortly are completely untrained in the subjects they will “teach.”  Notice the quotes.  I use them to say that these terms are being used by the LIU administration, but these terms are not really applicable.

So, dear students, I hope to meet you and discuss these ideas in more detail and, hopefully, more pleasant contexts.  I take what happens in our classes very seriously, and it dismays me that the LIU administration doesn’t do the same.  If you would think about these ideas, I would appreciate that, even if you don’t agree.  And if you’d like to discuss this more, you can join me at the rally to be held in front of the campus on Wednesday, September 7, from 8:00am until 2:00pm.  Reasoned dialogue is, after all, what true learning is about.

Looking forward to discussing philosophy with you soon!


Margaret A. Cuonzo
Professor of Philosophy
Coordinator, Humanities Division
Long Island University-Brooklyn
1 University Plaza
Brooklyn, New York 11201

Posted in: Φ on NY
August 15, 2016

Reform, Don’t Abolish, the NYPD

“What do you do with an institution [police] whose core function is the control and elimination of black people specifically, and people of color and the poor more broadly?

You abolish it.”

Thus writes Mychal Denzel Smith, echoing James Baldwin’s anguish some 50 years ago.1“Abolish the Police. Instead, Let’s Have Full Social, Economic, and Political Equality,” The Nation, 4/9/201 5, available at: The quote from Smith follows one from Baldwin, also published in The Nation (1966). Both write out of the same frustrations that drive #BlackLivesMatter and the recent Millions March occupation of (New York) City Hall Park.3 Nick Pinto, “Protesters Say They Will Occupy City Hall Park Until the NYPD Is No More,” Village Voice, 8/1/2016, available at: The motivation is understandable, and there may be some media value in the radicalism of its demand, but the proposal is deeply flawed.

Let’s ignore for the moment the unlikelihood that monies saved as a result of defunding police would be directed to economic and social equality. Politics never works as simply as that, and the present contours of institutions such as policing can’t be neatly isolated from larger social structures and sensibilities. Without for a moment denying that there is a problem with current policing institutions, or that we should seek to address the problem directly, our predicament runs much deeper – a society that is fueled by various ‘us’s and ‘them’s that scar our common humanity over generations of change. Political power is almost always contoured to preserve or advance the purposes of those in power,2In a well-ordered democracy, that may not seem so problematic, but as the present political season has shown again, the forces of distortion are powerfully arrayed. and black Americans have rarely had much access to it or access in ways that have yielded more than incremental benefits. When they have benefited, their best ally has been the courts, though the courts too, as recent years have shown, are subject to political winds. In many ways policing reflects the scars of our history, and responses to the excesses of policing need to be coordinated with other social changes.4See my blog piece, “To Protect and Serve: What is Wrong With the Policing of Minorities in the US?” The Critique, 5/24/2016, available at: Diversion of funds to greater economic and social equality need not await the defunding of policing institutions. Funding might just as easily be found in changes to banking regulations, the tax structure, military spending, or a host of other social arrangements. The project for major social change needs more and broader momentum than it presently has.

But this is not all that is wrong with the current proposal. Claiming that the core function of policing is “the control and elimination of black people,” even with its broadening qualification, is straight out ideology and bears little connection with reality. To the extent that it is taken at face value, it has been incredibly inefficient. As a social strategy, Hitler’s failed “final solution” was far better conceived.

It would of course be tunnel-visioned to deny that policing institutions in the US have helped to maintain a discriminatory status quo. African-Americans are frequently treated with much less respect than others (even, alas, by black cops5Charles M. Blow, “Officer’s Race Matters Less than You Think,” New York Times, 3/26/2015, available at:, but the fact that there are vastly more whites in prison than blacks, albeit disproportionately fewer, should at least point to the overreaching of talk about  policing’s “core function.” Smith refers to the criminological claim that only 10% of policing is directed to crimefighting but mistakenly concludes that the other 90% is given over to broken-windows-type activities. But that figure (which is reflected in policing in communities that are not as racially riven as the US) misidentifies the 90%. Traffic and crowd control, paper work, and a host of “service” activities account for much of that 90%, not picking on blacks.6For some data, see Tom Whitehead, “Police spending half their time away from front line as paperwork increases,” The Telegraph, 8/14/2016, The article is based on: Let’s not deny the excesses of stop and frisk in New York, profiling in Chicago, the pressures of quota-based policing, or the many other ways in which blacks come to be treated discriminatorily. Nor should we fail to criticize the ways in which so-called “broken-windows” policing  has often been interpreted as zero-tolerance policing. But excesses and corruptions of purpose are usually better arguments for reform than abolition. The disillusionment with reformist efforts is understandable if you have failed to benefit from them, but radical disillusionment no less than reformist confidence can go astray.

In fact the advocates of abolition fail to acknowledge the extent to which the policing of black communities acts as a curb on black-on-black crime, for that, alas, is the statistical reality of street crime. Proportionately – albeit not in aggregate – blacks are more likely to be victims of black crime. Whatever one might argue about excessive police presence in black communities, that presence generally reflects the distribution of criminal activity (at least of the street kind) within a community.7It is troubling to me – though no surprise – that white collar crime gets less attention than street crime, though the problems of enforcement are correspondingly greater in the case of the former.  No doubt, given social realities, that presence will be tainted in various ways. But the excesses highlighted by #BlackLivesMatter need to be set beside the crime-fighting benefits of police presence. The withdrawal (or chilling) of that presence was tragically apparent in Baltimore after the Freddie Gray protests. Crime skyrocketed in West Baltimore within largely black communities.8See Richard A. Oppel, Jr., “West Baltimore’s Police Presence Drops, and Murders Soar,” New York Times, 6/12/2015, available at: True, the sudden withdrawal of police from a community is no solution in the absence of other efforts to restore ravaged communities. And the so-called “Ferguson Effect” is a conservative construct that has minimal empirical support.9We need better, not less policing. The so-called Ferguson Effect (popularized by conservative commentator, Heather MacDonald), works with a simplistic equation of “less policing (of the kind we are used to)” = more crime, where the former is characterized as the “demonization” of police: “The New Nationwide Crime Wave,” Wall Street Journal, 5/29/2015. At best it shows that police have been ill-prepared for the greater accountability demanded by #BlackLivesMatter. But advocates of police defunding have to offer more than broad calls for greater economic and social equality. Such initiatives, worthy though they are, take considerable time to implement and bear fruit, and, like most social initiatives, are likely to be imperfectly realized. If a realistic occasion for abolition is ever to arise, it lies well into the future.

There is little doubt that a significant amount of crime is associated with economic and social deprivation. Low crime countries are generally countries with good social safety nets, greater social equality, accessible education, and adequate employment opportunities. There is room for the US to do vastly better than it does. But any solution to the status quo – in the US as elsewhere – is not resolvable into the ravages of discrimination.  The focus on street crime and other crimes that might be associated with deprivation can blind us to the extent to which white collar and other crimes are found among the privileged – often crimes whose effects are even more socially devastating than the overt violence of street crime.10Ironically the fear of white collar crime is not as palpable as that of street crime. Any community that seeks to order its affairs will need its police.

The present day protesters have a legitimate gripe – police departments that manifest the dangers of unaccounted power and the failings of the dominant social order. Their concern with the rift between community and police is a legitimate one. But it would be unfortunate were the reasonable demand for better policing undermined by the unreasonable demand for abolition. There are many realistic ways to improve the policing we have – first of all, an acknowledgement that police authority is borrowed, and that police are there to serve their communities. The accountability, transparency, and cooperation that this service implies would go a long way to calling into question much of what is presently configured adversarially – militarization, zero tolerance, resistance to challenge, denigration, and a need to control rather than problem-solve.

Some departments may require more radical overhauls, like the Northern Irish police,  which needed a major reconstruction following the years of unrest. That is sometimes the function of consent decrees that are reached between the Department of Justice and particular cities11Consent decrees are essentially oversight “agreements” resulting from an outside review of a department with significant systemic failings. Those relating to Cleveland and Ferguson can be found at: and Consent decrees with Chicago and Baltimore police can be expected following recent reviews. See: and – so that we can hope for better or more from Ferguson, Cleveland, Chicago and Baltimore. And perhaps there is a need for radical changes in the NYPD beyond those that have been achieved through recent court cases (especially relating to stop-and-frisk). Body cameras – with the timely release of tapes – have represented a step forward, and we can hope that an audio function will soon become available. But those who argue for more radical solutions are in danger of creating space for seven devils rushing in to occupy the gap created by driving out one.

References   [ + ]

1. “Abolish the Police. Instead, Let’s Have Full Social, Economic, and Political Equality,” The Nation, 4/9/201 5, available at: The quote from Smith follows one from Baldwin, also published in The Nation (1966).
2. In a well-ordered democracy, that may not seem so problematic, but as the present political season has shown again, the forces of distortion are powerfully arrayed.
3. Nick Pinto, “Protesters Say They Will Occupy City Hall Park Until the NYPD Is No More,” Village Voice, 8/1/2016, available at:
4. See my blog piece, “To Protect and Serve: What is Wrong With the Policing of Minorities in the US?” The Critique, 5/24/2016, available at:
5. Charles M. Blow, “Officer’s Race Matters Less than You Think,” New York Times, 3/26/2015, available at:
6. For some data, see Tom Whitehead, “Police spending half their time away from front line as paperwork increases,” The Telegraph, 8/14/2016, The article is based on:
7. It is troubling to me – though no surprise – that white collar crime gets less attention than street crime, though the problems of enforcement are correspondingly greater in the case of the former.
8. See Richard A. Oppel, Jr., “West Baltimore’s Police Presence Drops, and Murders Soar,” New York Times, 6/12/2015, available at:
9. We need better, not less policing. The so-called Ferguson Effect (popularized by conservative commentator, Heather MacDonald), works with a simplistic equation of “less policing (of the kind we are used to)” = more crime, where the former is characterized as the “demonization” of police: “The New Nationwide Crime Wave,” Wall Street Journal, 5/29/2015. At best it shows that police have been ill-prepared for the greater accountability demanded by #BlackLivesMatter.
10. Ironically the fear of white collar crime is not as palpable as that of street crime.
11. Consent decrees are essentially oversight “agreements” resulting from an outside review of a department with significant systemic failings. Those relating to Cleveland and Ferguson can be found at: and Consent decrees with Chicago and Baltimore police can be expected following recent reviews. See: and
Posted in: Φ on NY
July 29, 2016

Why Philosophy? Why Now?

Posted in: Φ on NY
May 24, 2016

Religion in Democratic Politics: What’s the Problem?

In advance of his talk on June 9, Robert Talisse has kindly shared the following article from 2013 that aims to identify the problem that religious belief poses for democratic politics:

Talisse ReligionInPolitics_Think-8

The issue is, needless to say, complicated, and there will undoubtedly be some dissenting voices raised in response to Talisse’s position.

Readers may also be interested in then Senator Barack Obama’s treatment of the topic in 2006, which can be found here.


Posted in: Φ on NY
May 9, 2016

On Voting ‘Yes’ on The CUNY Strike Authorization Vote*

Yesterday, like many of my colleagues at the City University of New York I voted ‘Yes’ on our union’s strike authorization vote. (The voting period ends May 11th; at that time, the PSC-CUNY will be able to inform CUNY administration of the extent of faculty and staff support for a strike.) A strike is serious business; it is a high-risk political tactic; in the current political and economic climate, a strike invites serious rhetorical and material blow-back. A strike shuts down services, sometimes essential ones; a strike causes economic damage and hurts livelihoods; a strike inconveniences many. Why strike?

It is an interesting feature of our modern social discourse that a strike has come to be regarded with as much antipathy as it has. Such a development would not have been surprising to anyone familiar with the kind of analysis that theorists like Max Weber or Max Horkheimer gave us of our developing understanding of work: work for the sake of work, work as a deliverance, work as a blessing, the desire to work as evidence of rationality, “rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling”–these all would come to signal the refusal to work as a kind of moral failing. As Horkheimer noted in The Eclipse of Reason, “The deification of industrial activity knows no limit.” Or as Weber had noted in The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism, “modern labour has an ascetic character.” Unsurprisingly, we find moral abuse directed at those who strike: striking workers are lazy, they are parasites, they are selfish, they are thuggish, and so on.

But workers can, will, and should only work–surprisingly enough–if they are adequately recompensed for their labor. Their relationship with their employers should be underwritten by a respect for this basic postulate of the employment relation. Otherwise, it is no longer enjoys such a status and merely devolves to some variant of older, exploitative models of hiring and firing (indentured labor, feudal serfs, and so on). The failure of the City University of New York administration to sign a contract with their staff indicates that such basic respect is not forthcoming: the staff of this university have been expected, for six years now, to continue working under the terms of a contract that expired six years ago. In this nation’s most expensive city, such salary and wage conditions amount to a steadily increasing pay cut.

Such a cut in wages sends several signals, none of them respectful to the most important constituencies of the university. First, it tells students that the university does not care how their teachers are compensated for their work; second, it tells students that the university is willing to suffer shortfalls in services that might result from the lack of fair compensation (loss of staff, strikes etc); third, it tells faculty, responsible for instantiating the university’s core mission, that they are not important enough to have their reasonable demands listened to. The final result is a diminishing of the university, a member of a cohort of institutions that now finds itself increasingly under attack from a political and economic sensibility that would destroy as many public goods as possible.

A strike by the faculty and staff at the City University of New York would not just showcase workers laying down their tools; it would also signal to the rest of the polity that attacks on public education will not be tolerated.

Strikes are reviled and abused because interestingly enough, they find their grounding and motivations in firmly and passionately held political convictions that might, as Georges Sorel noted (in Reflections on Violence,) attain the status of myth. In writing of the ‘general strike’ Sorel commented on the common understanding of its supposed irrationality, but as he went on to note, this was in part because of the strong social desire to return to a more quiescent state, one that would not be possible once “the myth of the ‘general strike’ is introduced.” And such reactions were especially understandable: “It is because the theory of myths tends to produce such fine results that so many seek to dispute it.”

A strike is as feared and as despised as it is because very often, a strike–the denial of a worker’s labor, his ultimate weapon, only to be exercised in the direst of circumstances–is effective. The administration of New York City and the City University of New York and its faculty and staff will soon find out–if no contract is forthcoming–how matters will turn out in this domain.

*This essay was originally published on on May 3, 2016. 

Posted in: Φ on NY
January 19, 2015

Justice for New York

We New Yorkers are prideful people, proud of our city and proud of ourselves for making it our home. As life in New York can often seem like a daily test of one’s mettle, to regularly wake up in the city that never sleeps qualifies as an accomplishment. But a city that doesn’t sleep is not a city of dreams and fantasies; it’s rather a city of harsh and hard-won realities. And by insisting on seeing things for what they are, by refusing to look away for fear of being taken for fools, we have cultivated a tough-minded impatience with the fraudulent. New Yorkers have been bred for honesty, especially with each other, and of this too we are proud. That honesty compels us to call ‘em like we see ‘em, raising our voices in praise and protest as we deem fit. Lately there has been a lot of protesting, and there should be. We are dangerously mismanaging our complicated yet vital relationships with those we have chosen to lead us and the police officers who have sworn to serve and protect us.

How a city’s citizens, its leaders, and those dedicated to its security, stand to one another says much about the health of the city, or, in other words, how just it is. Of course, to recognize the very need for security is to acknowledge that the city’s health is not perfect. The perfectly just city requires perfectly just people and people just ain’t that good. Certainly not enough of them are. Too many feel entitled to take from the city more than is warranted by what they put in, and still others see no reason to put in anything at all. Some care only for themselves and their loved ones, either forgetting or refusing to acknowledge that ignoring the well-being of their neighbors risks endangering their own. So long as the human condition remains susceptible to sloth, greed, lust and the like (for as long as our condition remains human, I suspect), perfect justice will be no more than an ideal. And for so long will cities need something like the police.

But even after adjusting our expectations to better accord with reality, few of us would say that at this moment New York City is especially well. We have allowed the lesser angels of our natures to make mischief and we suffer now because of it. The Mayor, attempting to appeal to the entire city, has nonetheless managed to insult and offend a significant portion of it. The police have responded to that offense—as well as to reasoned criticism of some of their practices—with not only anger, but with disrespect. Not enough citizens, on the other hand, appeared to acknowledge the Mayor’s offense at all, and so are complicit in it. At the same time, we have allowed demonstrations of legitimate concerns about our criminal justice system to become threateningly repugnant. A plague has fallen upon all our houses.

* * *

Last month, mere days short of Christmas, Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos of the New York Police Department were assassinated as they sat in their patrol car in Brooklyn. Their murders were the nadir in a series of events, by turns deadly and distasteful, that has convulsed the city since summertime. In his impassioned eulogy for Officer Liu, Police Department Commissioner William Bratton addressed his angry and demoralized officers by reminding them why they do what they do.

“We do this because we took an oath. We do this because we believe in possibility. This is what we signed up for. The possibility of helping people. The possibility of making a safer, fairer city. To Wenjian’s and Rafael’s brothers and sisters in blue, I want you to know: I am so proud of you. Proud of you for making those possibilities a reality for so many in this city. Even after forty-four years, I am so proud to be one of you.

We’re cops. We hold the line. We don’t quit when things are hard, because when aren’t they?We took this job to prevent crime and disorder. Over the past twenty-two years, this Department has reminded the world of how that’s done. The mission has not changed. The belief in possibility has not changed. And a much larger part of this city, of this country, a much larger part than you think, is proud of you, too.”

The Commissioner is correct, many of us are proud of our police officers. More precisely, we are proud of many of those officers, most of the time. We admire and respect the men and women of the New York Police Department for their bravery as they risk their lives by coming between us and those who would do us harm. We appreciate—and attempt, no doubt unsuccessfully—to comprehend the emotional burden they must bear for the fear and anxiety that their work induces in their families and friends. We laud them for their role in lifting this city out of the crime-ridden and drug-infested depths into which it had descended in the late 1980’s and ’90’s. New York was dangerous and unsavory then; today ours is a better city, by almost every measure, and we thank the many fine officers of the NYPD who helped make it so.

Our police officers have achieved successes in an arena the majority of us would rather not enter. They have been trained for it, of course, but the risks they run are high. And given that we have ceded to them the right to use force on our behalf—indeed, far more force than anyone of us alone would be likely to muster in our own defense—the standards to which they are held must also be high. Most crucially, we must demand that they use no more force than is necessary in defense of our security lest they become its greatest threat. In the philosopher Plato’s vivid formulation of the challenge, a society must ensure that the police never be permitted to transform from noble dogs guarding the flock into voracious wolves that would feast on it.

The city was understandably dismayed, therefore, when in July of last year it bore witness by video as the fuse of our present turmoil was being lit. Here was an unarmed man, being surrounded by six police officers, and then pleading for his breath as they took him to ground by applying a chokehold—a maneuver that, though not illegal, is in violation of NYPD guidelines. Eric Garner, an obese man with hypertensive cardiovascular disease and acute and chronic asthma, could not withstand the pressure the officers applied to his neck and chest. With Garner lying handcuffed and unconscious, an ambulance was called. Garner was then taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

That Garner should die as a result of being arrested for allegedly selling loose cigarettes from untaxed packs (a violation of the law for which he was arrested at least eight times previously) no one believes to be a punishment befitting the crime. But just what people saw in that video had very much to do with their previously formed perspective on policing. To the police, the scene was a terrible lesson in the dangers of disrespecting their authority. They have the responsibility—indeed, the burden—of apprehending alleged criminals; the appropriate way for an alleged criminal to steadfastly maintain one’s innocence is to plead one’s case in front of a judge, not to physically resist an arresting officer. Unforeseen, and occasionally tragic consequences can result from the latter. To a number of others, however, and most significantly to Mayor de Blasio (and President Obama), the video of white officer with his arm around the neck of the black Garner documented the sort of disproportionally forceful interaction between the police and communities of color that the latter, after years of being stopped and frisked, have come to fear. The intervening drama of the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager believed to have robbed a convenience store, at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent violent protests that took place there, pitting enraged citizens against a police force suddenly appearing more like an occupying army, served to intensify the hostile atmosphere in New York while ensuring that the racial interpretation of the Garner case would predominate.

Few people take the accusation of racism in stride and New York’s police officers are no exception. The NYPD prides itself on the diversity of its ranks; as the Commissioner pointedly reminded us in his eulogy, the Department, as represented by the Chinese Liu and Hispanic Ramos, “looks a lot more like the city it serves than some people think.” Indeed, the commanding officer at the scene of the deadly confrontation with Garner was a black woman. But neither these facts nor the frequently offered arguments that the police engage and arrest a disproportionate number of minority citizens because violence is disproportionately afflicting minority communities, could possibly rebut the Mayor’s confession that he and his wife have “had to literally train” their biracial son “in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.”

A number of police officers have voiced their disapproval with the Mayor over these remarks, and certainly they constitute a stinging rebuke. They may have been, as some have complained, ill-timed. But according to the Mayor and, unfortunately, a significant number of citizens, most especially black and brown ones, this is the regrettable reality. The reality of fear and anxiety is a personal matter, and something those who do not inhabit it are often better served tying to understand rather than deny. Pondering that more than eight of every ten people who were stopped, questioned, and frisked by the police between 2002 and 2012 were black or Hispanic and that as many as nine of every ten people so confronted were not arrested, seems a sensible place to start. On the face of it, the police tactic that the Mayor campaigned against, but which former Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly so staunchly defended, was considerably more effective at humiliating and enraging minorities than it was at getting criminals off our streets.

The NYPD’s broader policing strategy over the past two decades, the so-called ‘broken windows’ approach, may well be the primary reason for extraordinary reduction in crime that New York City has seen over that time, as its many advocates insist, but it has also led to the feeling in many minority communities of being under siege. Safety cannot be summed up by statistics; in the final analysis it amounts to a sensibility. The number of murders and muggings might be down across the board yet If you don’t feel safe then you are at the mercy of your fears and there are law-abiding citizens in this city who’s hair stands on end at the site of a police cruiser. These people live in a city permeated by anxiety and distrust. They feel under suspicion by often uncivil police officers who they believe are too eager to use excessive force to demonstrate their authority. When they hear officers speak of ‘hammering’ their neighborhoods to squash petty crimes, they don’t feel they are being protected or served but harassed. Whether these feelings are warranted or justified could be debated endlessly but are, for the present moment at least, beside the point; what matters is that they are sincere.

The pursuit of justice in the city demands that those with the responsibility of protecting its citizens be respectful and responsive to the citizens’ concerns, even when they are not entirely shared. But this obligation is not borne by the police alone. The city’s leaders and, indeed, its citizens must discharge it as well, and in a some very troubling ways both have failed to do so. Many have found the decision by police officers to turn their backs to the Mayor, in the hospital where the slain officers were brought, and especially at their subsequent funerals, to be terribly inappropriate and disrespectful. When the Mayor asked for a moratorium on protests until after the funerals, out of respect for the grieving families, it is unlikely he imagined that it would be the police themselves who would be guilty of hijacking them. But not nearly enough of us joined with the police in voicing our disapproval with the Mayor’s unjust decision to grant the Rev. Al Sharpton equal billing with Commissioner Bratton as his administration sought to address the public’s concerns over Garner’s death.

That the Mayor would humiliate Commissioner Bratton, and by extension the entire NYPD, by subjecting him to a scolding by Mr. Sharprton, was an offensive error in judgment. Mr. Sharpton, as many New Yorkers remember, and no police officer is likely allowed to forget, falsely accused two law-enforcement officers (among others) of raping and defiling a black teenage girl, Tawana Brawley, in a racially-motivated attack in 1987. In 1998, a court found that Mr. Shaprton had defamed prosecutor Stephen Pagones, and he was ordered to pay damages (which he personally refused to do, though his supporters have), yet to this day, Mr. Sharpton has never publicly apologized for his slander.

As New Yorkers look back on the terrible racial and ethnic tensions that gripped the city in 1980s and 90’s, and the deadly confrontations that too often resulted, Mr. Sharpton is remembered for exacerbating them instead of alleviating them, for sowing discord rather than seeking peace. And while Mr. Sharpton has more recently distinguished himself by speaking out for the just treatment of immigrants, for fighting homophobia in black communities and churches, and even denouncing cruelty to animals, benevolent acts for which he should be commended and encouraged to continue, he long ago disqualified himself in the eyes of most of his fellow citizens from a position of sanctioned authority in this city.

Democratic citizens tend to get the leaders they deserve. If we want our elected officials to be worthy of their office, and if we want our most active and outspoken fellow citizens to be worthy of their prominence in our discourse, we need to demand that they be so. Making such demands is part of what makes us worthy of our citizenship. But being worthy citizens also requires making certain demands of ourselves, and among them should be that we don’t take to the streets and repeatedly shout that we want dead cops and that we want them dead now. But this is what some shamefully did after a Staten Island grand jury concluded that the police officers’ role in Garner’s death should be without legal consequence. Whether the grand jury’s decision was just, and whether we should abolish a system that allows local prosecutors to convene them in cases involving the police, are legitimate questions. Moreover, to be convinced that the answer to both of them is ‘no’ is a stance that can be reasonably defended. But our commitment to civility forbids us from marching in the streets chanting for death. We should be better than that. We must be better than that.

* * *

The challenge of arranging its affairs in as just a manner as possible is one that every city faces, every single day. And given the importance of the problem, there is no shortage of solutions that have been offered through the ages. Among the most provocative discussions of justice can be found in the Republic, where Plato insists that a wisely-run city would place onerous constraints on its police, denying them the right to own property, forbidding them to use money, and restricting their ability to travel abroad. They should be made to live in Spartan conditions, in barracks where they will be provided with the nutrition and training adequate to their demanding assignment, but denied any opportunity to cultivate an appetite for either money or power or anything else that might undermine the willingness of the police to defend their city with utmost honor.

No one would advocate for such measures in our present case, yet Plato’s insistence that loyalty to the city they serve be an essential component to the police officer’s character should strike us as wise counsel. Plato thought it so important that he advocated the city’s leaders to spread the ‘noble lie’ that each of its citizens, including the police, were conceived within the womb of the earth itself, and that they must recognize the city as their true mother. New York City’s leaders would do well not to resort to lies, but now might be a good time for all of us to reconsider the requirement that New York’s police officers live within the city limits. Commissioner Bratton, in his eulogy for Officer Liu, proudly asserted that Liu, Officer Ramos, and more than half of the NYPD’s officers live within the five boroughs. This should be welcome news to all of us, for officers who are also New Yorkers are officers that are dedicated to securing the well-being of their city not simply because they are professionals who have sworn an oath to do so, but because they have a stake in the city they and their families call home. We should do what is necessary to see that all of New York’s police officers are proud New Yorkers as well.

We should seek even more than this, however, and encourage our police officers to become active partners in the healthy behavior of the neighborhoods in which they work rather than merely an intimidating presence that patrols them in search of unhealthy activity. It’s often said, and too often true, that we turn to the police only when there is trouble and we need them do what we are unable or unwilling to do ourselves. It’s also too often true that the police on the street appear aloof and unapproachable, reluctant and uncomfortable interacting with anyone but their brothers and sisters in blue. And so, too often, that is all citizens ever see when they encounter and officer: blue. But none of this is healthy, and we need to do something to change it. We need, as Commissioner Bratton said in his eulogy for Officer Ramos, to “learn to see each other. To see that our cops are people like Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, to see that our communities are filled with people just like them too. We can learn to see each other, then when we see each other, we’ll heal. We’ll heal as a Department. We’ll heal as a city.”

Indeed. Let’s start seeing each other and let’s start healing. Let’s make New York better.


Posted in: Φ on NY
August 13, 2014

W(h)ither Wonder: running laps around the agora, or, why did Opie stop whistling?

In ‘Welcome to the Agora’, JS Biehl tells us of his first brush with philosophy. It’s a lovely image, the image of this 10-year old boy walking down the street and having a great philosophical revelation. I imagine him wearing a baseball cap and whistling like Ron Howard in the opening sequence of the old Andy Griffith show, Opie learning to make sense of the world around him. Here’s the thing about Opie, though, and about ten-year old Joe, and about kids in general: they have the time to wonder, to imagine, to ask what-if…? When we’re in our 20s, we have time to wonder only if we are fortunate enough, as Joe and I were, to be in school and to have wondering be a part of the requirements of our schooling.

Where does the wonder go? Well, Opie grows up, gets busy, has less time to wander and wonder and whistle. This is no great insight and, as Biehl writes, “Our ideas are not so dissimilar from our bodies; neither is likely to remain vital without proper exercise and both are eminently susceptible to corruption.” Consider, though, that as I write this, my running shoes are by the door; I am meeting a friend in a little while for a run. I do this several times a week. Like many adults, I make time in my daily and weekly routines for physical exercise. But most adults don’t make mental exercise a priority. They make time to run laps around the agora, but they don’t make time to visit it.

When I was in graduate school, we had great fun playing with questions of necessity and sufficiency- what criteria does an activity need to meet in order to qualify as a sport? (We never did settle on an answer!) A few weeks ago, my family and several others were at the local ice cream parlor and I tried to play a version of this game with them- what criteria, I asked the assembled group, would something need to meet in order to qualify as a dessert? The kids got a kick out of it and they all played along- Opie and Joe at the ice cream stand, free to wonder as they like. The majority of the adults at the table scoffed at the question, though, and went back to their talk of local politics, which kids had which teachers next year, etc. It’s a silly question, to be sure, and not one that matters or ought to matter to any of us. So the adults ignored it and went back to things that do matter. But is it any less meaningful than running in a large circle through my neighborhood or on a machine in a gym? We make time for physical exercise because we are scared of the alternatives—frailty, heart disease, death. We don’t make time for mental exercise because we don’t see it as worth the opportunity cost.

How can we help people make the time to wonder? If we take seriously the parallel with physical exercise, we might try to scare them, as our doctors scare us into physical exercise. This would involve showing them that their wellbeing is at stake, that less mental acuity means greater chances of being conned—by telemarketers, by stockbrokers, by conniving paramours, by politicians. This is all true, but I doubt that such scare tactics would promote a sense of wonder- they would make people more suspicious, not more ponderous.

The better strategy, I think, is to help them remember that it feels good to wonder, just as it feels good to walk or run or bike, and to create low-cost opportunities for them to do it. I’m not talking here about podcasts and youtube channels (mental exercise is different than physical exercise in that it requires interaction with other), but about philosophical discussions in the places people go anyway. How about guest bartenders and baristas who will facilitate conversations about ethics and aesthetics as they pull and pour and froth? Can you picture a downtown bar with a house philosopher instead of a house DJ? No one blinks at chess games in the park; why not philosophy games? We could replace those inane (and not a little scary) costumed characters in Times Square with costumed philosophers—imagine stopping in front of the M&M store to have a discussion with Aristotle on the importance of friendship!

We can also embark on social awareness campaigns. I loved the MTA’s Poetry in Motion campaign, and Arts in Transit is a wonderful addition. But where is Philosophy in Motion? Where is Thinking in Transit? What would be more perfect than reading about Zeno on the paradox of motion as you sit in traffic? Can you imagine PSAs on your television and radio that promote the virtues of philosophical engagement? A roving NY1 philosopher, perhaps? Is Randy Cohen looking for work?

In a slightly less cheeky vein, I submit that CUNY and NYU and Columbia and all of the other colleges and universities in the five boroughs have an obligation to bring their institutional resources to bear on the problem. At Bard College, where I teach, we regard it as part of our mission to promote a critically engaged citizenry: the Bard High School/Early Colleges allow students to begin a college liberal arts curriculum after 10th grade, the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities makes available at no cost college-level courses in the humanities for people who did not have the opportunity to attend college, and the Bard Prison Initiative offers AA and BA programs to incarcerated men and women throughout New York State. Individuals can and should promote philosophical engagement where we can; educational institutions have a moral obligation to do so.

In short: adults need to make time for mental exercise as well as physical exercise and not enough of them do so. I’ve sketched a few ways of doing this, some grassroots, some silly, some serious. I’d love to hear what other ideas are out there—how would you move philosophy out of the classroom and into the streets?

Posted in: Φ on NY
July 31, 2014

Welcome to the Agora

I was no more than ten years old when, walking home from school, I had a philosophical epiphany: everything exists. The thought struck with the force of a revelation and was utterly unlike any previous experience of learning some new thing (even something extraordinary, as when I learned that the Mets had traded Tom Seaver). Nor was it a case of acquiring an ability to do some particular thing, such as ice skate or throw a perfect spiral. Instead, I unlocked a new way of conceiving reality, and equipped with that a whole range of new possibilities, of things I might think or do, came into view.

Among the things I eventually did do was pursue my growing love of philosophy, picking up a Ph.D. along the way. During my education I would learn that my school-boy insight was an answer to a kind of question philosophers call ‘ontological,’ a question that concerns the nature of reality, of what exists. In fact it was an answer to the most simple and basic ontological question: What is there? I also learned that my answer was, as you might have guessed, equally simple. As the twentieth century American philosopher, W. V. O. Quine put it, to answer ‘everything’ “is merely to say that there is what there is,” and who would deny that? The profundity of my childhood insight turned out to be no more than a trivial truth.

The human mind achieves breakthroughs in understanding relative to its development and experience. The thought that so powerfully changed my perspective in childhood now lay inert in my twenties. Such is the fate of many of our beliefs, even, perhaps especially, our most cherished convictions: we come to take them as givens, as unassailable and without need of further reflection or revision; as a result they atrophy and eventually die or devolve into dogma. And why shouldn’t they?  Our ideas  are not so dissimilar from our bodies; neither is likely to remain vital without proper exercise and both are eminently susceptible to corruption.

Unfortunately, the decline of our ideas is not as easy to see as the decline of our bodies and as a consequence we rarely take the care with the former that we do with the latter. We need to take our ideas and conceptions for a walk around the block, a run through the park, or a bike ride along the river. Sometimes we need to consult with others that have a different perspective.  Sometimes we need to philosophize. In the case of my rather abstract ontological judgment, the study and discussion of philosophical work led me to a deeper, richer conception of what it might mean for everything to be. We each engage reality armed with five senses and a loaded conceptual repertoire. The (almost) uniform influence evolution has had on the senses leads to a shared reality of green grass and blue skies (and quite a bit more besides); the (often) variable influence experience has had on our concepts and the convictions that grow from them leads some people to see reality populated by open-minded progressives and close-minded reactionaries while their neighbors see only sober-minded guardians of stability and intoxicated radicals.  Cases of existential disagreement are common, the most infamous among them being the small matter of whether the inventory of reality includes God, as the faithful assert, or doesn’t, as atheists maintain. Which is the ‘real’ reality? In one very significant sense they all are: each one of us brings our peculiar convictions into that shared reality of blue sky and green grass and we make choices and act on the basis of them. Liberals may not believe what conservatives believe, but both have to reckon with the choices of the other.  Atheists may deny the existence of God but they can’t deny the existence of theists. What we believe makes all the difference, and not just to ourselves.

Because our beliefs are not strictly a private affair, because they influence our behavior and therefore impact others, it behooves us to talk to each other about them, to reflect on the reasons why we believe what we do and to give a fair hearing to the reasons offered by others for why we should change our minds. This is not to say that we will, or even that we should change our minds. If our ideas and beliefs are as sound as we take them to be then they will survive the scrutiny. If, on the other hand, they crumble in the face of reasoned challenge, if we become convinced that what we once believed we no longer should, then so much the better for us.

Patient reflection and open discussion find their greatest value not in the case of ‘big’ philosophical ideas, however, but with respect to those ideas around which we attempt to structure our social lives, ideas about community, education, law, economics, and responsibility, to name only a few. If we allow our beliefs about these matters to become stale and rigid we will only see the possibility of tinkering with them at the margins and debating with each other about how best to implement them. If we instead put our ‘received wisdom’ to the test, if we ask just what, say, education, or economic opportunity could be, we might be rewarded with a host of new opportunities and possibilities that only become apparent when we reevaluate and reconceive what we had previously taken for granted.

In his influential essay On Liberty, the nineteenth century English philosopher John Stuart Mill argued passionately for not only the freedom but the willingness to engage in just this kind of open discussion of our most basic beliefs about life and society, for the creation of, and respect for, what has been called the marketplace of ideas. Only within such a forum, he believed, could a community reasonably hope that the most fruitful and mutually beneficial beliefs would carry the day.

Mill’s marketplace was not itself a new proposal. As he noted, the long-standing model for such an exchange of reasons for and against certain ideas and beliefs was to be found in the dialogues of Plato. Those great works, which are still read for profit today, usually find the character of Socrates encountering fellow citizens in the agora, the ancient Greek gathering place where goods were exchanged and the issues of the day debated.

Every city and every generation needs its agora, its place to assemble and to reconsider, reassess, and if necessary, reconceive their answer to the fundamental question of how to live. I encourage my fellow philosophers—and especially my fellow New Yorkers—to consider the Gotham Philosophical Society to be just such a place.

Joseph Stephen Biehl








Posted in: Φ on NY