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June 2019 posts

Political Alliances

By Jonathan B. Wight

Former Vice-President Joe Biden recently recounted how he had worked with segregationists to achieve results during his time in the Senate. What followed was a howl of protests from Democratic Party Presidential contenders and others.  The rant seems to be that one should never consort with the enemy, and admitting to such is tantamount to treason

I buy into this argument at a raw emotional level: there are some people whose values I loathe so much I could not imagine not quaking with rage if I were forced to sit next to them at a dinner party, or be seated at a conference table. But that’s me, and I’m not much of a leader.  Perhaps effective leaders—in democracies anyway—have to demonstrate stronger character traits than I, in being able to confront evil with a self-control needed to get things accomplished. 

AppiahKwame Anthony Appiah has an interesting article in this morning’s NYTimes about why so many Democrats seem intent on bludgeoning Biden for reaching across the aisle (although he never mentions Biden).  Appliah is a philosophy professor at New York University and the author of Experiments in Ethics (2008), from which I assign a useful chapter in my course on Ethics and Economics.  Appiah thinks outside the box, and most recently published The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity (2018), which I haven’t read, but I imagine conforms to his thinking in this article.

The gist is that many Americans, at this point in our history, have told ourselves some comforting lies about freedom and political reform, and established a mythology that beleaguered minorities must always lead and direct their own deliverances (think of Moses leading the Israelites to the Promised Land). This myth of self-determination replaces an older myth, that African slaves (for example) were passive and accepting of their state and grateful for the benevolence of their masters:  Appliah notes:

“And the narrative we’ve come to cherish [today], when it comes to the rights of historically marginalized groups, is that of self-deliverance, in which the oppressed defy and ultimately defeat their oppressors. Indeed, we’ve come to distrust anything that looks like a politics of benevolence.”

“The narrative of self-deliverance has been immensely valuable, directing attention to overlooked forms of everyday political resistance among the relatively powerless. It’s important to know, say, how slave preachers in places like Jamaica and Barbados, as well as the American South, deployed biblical imagery of freedom to help create unrest and outright revolt. But as the archives of the past give way to the anthems of the present, the narrative of self-deliverance, which once enriched our understanding of liberation, has come instead to impoverish it.”

Appiah gives examples from the gay rights movement, in which a heterosexual in England’s parliament led the crusade to decriminalize homosexuality. “Only those who need no rescuing can pick and choose among their rescuers.”

He concludes:

“Whether the Stonewall myth [of self-deliverance] ultimately proves enabling or disabling will depend on whether it can accommodate the complex history of social progress. That history, honestly recounted, is filled with complication, defiance, compromise and, yes, even benevolence. We need to make peace with it. The most usable past of all may be the truth."

[Photo credit:  Appiah's website.]

Support Animal Strong-Arm

By Jonathan B. Wight

The New York Times reports on states that are cracking down on the claims of people who say they need emotional support animals.

Emotional support animals do appear to work to alleviate many patients’ symptoms of stress, at much lower cost than drugs or other interventions. Allowing support dogs in otherwise depressing nursing homes seems like a wonderful way to enhance care.  I used to be able to take my dog to my local coffee shop and bring her inside while I read a book and sipped. In many places around the world, dogs are allowed in restaurants.  Clients who don’t like it can find a restaurant that doesn’t cater to dogs. 

Therefore, I get the strong desire (and in some case medical need) for animals to coexist with humans, and I’m all for it. But we should acknowledge that forcing some people to put up with your pet (or support animal) imposes costs (i.e., does harm) to them. 

Matthew Dietz, who does litigation for the Disability Independence Group (nonprofit advocacy center in Florida), is quoted as saying, “My basic stance is that mental illness is tough…. Anything that makes somebody feel better, why not? As long as you don’t hurt anybody else, what’s the big deal?”

The big deal is that lots of things in life are tough. Imposing costs on property owners isn’t the right way to handle this, similar to the arguments against rent control. Joe’s mental health situation should not be a reason to force his landlord to accommodate animals on the property, unless the landlord so chooses, and Joe pays the necessary cleaning fee or higher rent required.

Of course, if Americans truly cared about mental health, we would fix a broken health system in which many do not have insurance, and mental health programs for kids, veterans, and the poor are underfunded. My first book, co-authored with Jack Fiedler, showed that mental health insurance coverage, within limits, lowers overall health care spending because of cost offset effects. 

Economics and Religion in the Ottoman Balkans

By Jonathan B. Wight

Ottomans and religionMark Mazower presents a fascinating look at the area today known as the Balkan Peninsula, in The Balkans: From the End of Byzantium to the Present Day (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2001).  The “Balkan” name for the region in Southeast Europe, he argues, is a misnomer for several reasons:  geographers would not say the area is a true peninsula, and the Balkan Mountains appear mainly in Bulgaria, not the entire region.

The book is an essential read for understanding the historic conflicts in the region over the millennia.  One particularly interesting section reports on the economics and ethics of religious practices.  When the Ottomans took over parts of the Balkan area, they allowed Christianity to remain alongside Islam (albeit Christians were second class citizens in some respects).  This coexistence led to some interesting marriage practices regarding economics, competition, and law (pp. 60-61):

“The most intimate areas of personal life were shaped by this coexistence of religions.  Christian church attitudes toward marriage, for instance, faced unexpected competition.  Under Islam, both polygamy and forms of temporary marriage contracts were available, divorce was easier to obtain (especially for women), and sex was neither confined to marriage nor validated solely by procreation.  There was little question which religion possessed the more intrinsically attractive possibilities.”

Aha.  So people could shop around and find the “best deal” in a religion! 

“The church hierarchy appears to have held the line on polygamy (which was, in any event, not common among Balkan Muslims); but temporary marriages were a different matter.  The practice of contracting a liaison with a woman for a specified sum over a limited period, noted as early as 1600 by William Biddulph, had a natural appeal to Christians as well as Muslims.  Eventually the church was forced to acquiesce in this practice, which became fairly widespread during the eighteenth century.”

And there are unexpected consequences, leading to legal prostitution!

“In some areas, it turned into a means of earning a dowry, a kind of legitimized prostitution: ‘If a stranger should wish to enjoy anyone of the young unmarried women,” noted a bemused Lord Charlemont in the Cyclades, he addresses himself immediately to her parents, and demands the girl in marriage.  The bargain is presently struck, and the couple are brought before a magistrate, where they swear mutual fidelity during the man’s residence on the island, the bridegroom engaging to pay at his departure a great sum of money, as well as a present advance…. This money is set apart in the girl’s portion, and with this, upon the departure of her consort, she soon procures herself a real husband among her countrymen, who esteem her not a whit the less for this previous connection, deeming her a widow to all intents and purposes.  This was the adaptation of Islamic practice by Christian islanders for their own convenience, ratified by Turkish officials and tolerated by village priests.’”

“Aside from this specific device, marriages took place between Muslim men and Christian women in the Balkans as long as the Ottoman empire survived.  The result was that many Muslims had Christian mothers, and hence a private familiarity with, and sometimes attachment to, the maternal religion.”

Finally, the transaction costs of getting out of a legal marriage were lower under Islam, affording women greater power and autonomy (which might be surprising to some):

“Conversion offered Christian women trapped in unhappy marriages particular advantages.  By converting to Islam, they automatically obtained an annulment of their marriage, unless their Christian spouse converted too.  There was special formula for this.  ‘Cako was honored with Islam in the presence of Muslims,’ a cadi court heard, ‘and she took the name Fatma.  Her husband was offered a chance to go to Islam but he declined.’  In a similar case, a woman names Fatma bint Abdullah registered her conversion to Islam, and it was noted that ‘my husband Yanno bin Manolya was invited to submit to Islam but he did not become a Muslim.  He acknowledges that he has no claim against Fatma.’”