Monday, May 24, 2010
Reading Wolin, Part 3: Not-So-Political Philosophy in the Age of Empire
Let us return to Sheldon Wolin. In this entry, I want to briefly discuss the third chapter of Wolin's Politics and Vision*. His key point is that political philosophy takes a sharp turn after the classic Greek city-states succumb to the Macedonian Empire. This philosophical shift continues and intensifies as the Roman Republic turns into the Roman Empire.
The nature of the change is directly related to the change of the dominant political unit. Gone is the time of a relatively compact and homogeneous polis; it is replaced by a sprawling, heterogeneous empire. Unlike the polis, an empire is marked by complexity, class and regional interests, and a massive enlargement of political space. Also unlike the polis, where citizens are engaged in direct and meaningful dialogue regarding the affairs of their city, in an empire the average citizen is subordinated to an autocratic ruler and his bureaucracy. In other words, where "loyalty had earlier come from a sense of common involvement, it [is] now to be centered in a common reverence for power personified" (p. 69).
This has two effects on the analysis of politics. First, political philosophy retreats from its political obligations, and ultimately becomes a form of "vapid moralism" (p. 85). Though some Greek thinkers of the Macedonian period, like Isocrates, are explicitly political (and urge a form of federalism to transcend Greek particularism), the philosophers after Plato and Aristotle are by and large those who reject an "intensive participation in a life of common concerns" (p. 69). This turn away from active citizenship is a natural effect of a distant, imperial hierarchy, and the Good is now defined - contrary to Pericles, Plato and Aristotle - as "political disengagement" (p. 71). Both the Cynics and the Epicureans are dominated by "strong elements of despair and withdrawal" that are "nourished by an anti-political impulse" (ibid) similar to modern libertarianism. The dominant philosophy of the Roman era, Stoicism, is well-known for its appeal to a universal rationality that binds nature and rational beings into a brotherhood of equality and freedom. So far, so good. But for Wolin, Stoicism shares the disillusionment of imperial politics with the Cynics and Epicureans: "its philosophic outlook [is] not derived from a positive view concerning the nature of a truly political order, but from a conclusion about its insufficiency" (p. 73). The Stoics are committed to moral development that lies outside politics since the "bureaucratized and highly impersonal public life of the Empire [has] only the slenderest ties with man's potentiality for moral development" (p. 75). Moreover, the naturalism of Stoicism displaces any notion of social conflict with a "quasi-religious" (p. 84) desire for harmony, and men are "exhorted to extend their allegiance to the cosmos as though it were a true society" (p. 74). The best that can be said for Stoicism is that it becomes, under the Roman Empire, a useful "code of conduct for public magistrates and administrators" (ibid).
The second major effect of Empire on political analysis is that it's soon dominated by historians and politicians (e.g. Polybius and Cicero). Their analyses are a study of technique, compromise and pragmatism. They also focus on the role of institutions, largely because institutions and their procedures help rulers wrestle with complexity. No longer do philosophers venerate a participatory politics that uplifts the soul; in the Roman era, students of politics seek - as we might say in Canada - peace, order and good governance. Interestingly, Wolin seems somewhat sympathetic to this trend. While Polybius and Cicero might be overly optimistic when they view politics as a balance of power, they are "basically correct in drawing attention to the fundamental importance of institutions in legitimizing conflict among diverse forces and interests" (p. 76).
Some interesting themes emerge from Wolin's analysis. His concern for the unsettled world of every-day politics persists. However, he is not content with the simple interest-based politics of Cicero. Wolin is fearful of those periods "when politics is reduced to nothing but the pursuits of interests, when no controlling standards of obligation are recognized" (p. 81). And indeed, in the Roman experience, mistrust of principle as merely the lexiconic mask of naked interest helps lead to the collapse of the Republic. From this Wolin concludes that society "cannot long endure uncontrolled political conflict, and the inevitable reaction is to demand peace at any price" (p. 82). Somewhere, amid the rancour of factional struggle, we must find values and principles that we can all agree to, and which we obey even when our "particular interests or ambitions are not always being served" (p. 80).
The struggle between unity and difference rears its head again.
* Wolin, Sheldon. Politics and Vision,
Expanded Edition (Princeton University Press, Princeton), 2004.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
Measuring the Internet
I remember back to the good old days of Alta Vista when they could actually count the number of pages on the 'Net. Like McDonald's hamburgers, the number of websites and pages now appears too large to measure. Nevertheless, here's a really fascinating site that attempts to quantify the Internet in terms of type and share:
Saturday, May 15, 2010
One of the great Jon Stewart episodes
One of the benefits of a DVR is that I can watch Jon Stewart's Daily Show even though I'm too old to stay up that late. The following is one of the best episodes I've seen from one of the best reasons to watch TV:
[Update: Because the original episode has been removed, I have to offer this summary news item.]
Bumper sticker politics
And you thought I was above juvenile humour?
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Sorry... we aren't drowning in taxes
Here's a story that I have yet to find in the Vancouver Sun or the G and M. [Update: I did find this story in the National Post, but it was half the length of the Toronto Star article.] This is not the sort of thing that low-tax corporate media outlets want you to know; the gist of the story is that federal and provincial business taxes are actually quite low, even in comparison to the United States. Of course, racing to the bottom with Mexico may not be the greatest idea, either.
thestar.com (Toronto Star Online, May 13, 2010)
Canada ranks second to Mexico and far ahead of the U.S. on a list of tax-friendly countries for business, according to a new report.
In general, businesses in Mexico pay 40.1 per cent less tax than those in the U.S. Taxes in Canada are just over one-third, or 36.1 per cent, lower.
At the other end of the spectrum, corporate taxes are 81.4 per cent higher in France than the U.S., according to the report released Wednesday by accounting firm KPMG.
Lower corporate tax rates can be a huge competitive advantage when companies decide where to set up shop, said Greg Wiebe, managing partner in KPMG tax practice in Toronto.
“Business has the ability to set up manufacturing, distribution plants, and offices anywhere in the world depending on where it makes sense. Having a competitive corporate tax rate hopefully allows you to attract more business and investment into the country which creates jobs,” Wiebe said.
“We’re a small country and have a relatively small economy. We need to take advantage of anything we can to attract business into this country.”
While Mexico remains in the number one spot with the lowest total taxes, changes to the tax systems in Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands moved them higher in the ranking, conducted every two years.
The report tallies up the cost of income tax, capital, sales, and property taxes, as well as miscellaneous local taxes and statutory labour costs, in 95 cities across 10 countries. The U.S., the largest economy in the world, is used as a baseline.
While personal income taxes and sales taxes are still higher in Canada, payroll taxes have been reduced, capital taxes have been phased out, and corporate tax rates have been falling in recent years. Canada’s federal and provincial corporate tax rates are approaching 25 per cent. The U.S. federal tax rate for business starts at 35 per cent, and state tax rates vary.
Canada ranked third in the 2008 survey.
The introduction of the HST in Ontario and British Columbia is likely to enhance Canada’s standing in the coming years, Wiebe said. “The HST is quite a business friendly way of applying a sales tax.”
Among the ranking of cities, Vancouver comes out on top, and ahead of Monterrey and Mexico City. Seattle, its natural U.S. counterpart, ranked at 18.
Montreal and Toronto rounded out the top five, again showing a big tax advantage over U.S. cities in the eastern corridor, such as New York City, which came in at 27, Philadelphia at 14, and Boston, which captured the 13th spot.
Lower health care costs and provincial taxes in British Columbia helped boost Vancouver to the top of the list, Wiebe said.
Vancouver was also deemed the most attractive city, tax-wise, for manufacturing and corporate and information technology companies.
For research and development, Montreal ranked as the top Canadian city, taking the No. 2 spot behind Melbourne, Australia. Sydney, Australia; Vancouver; and Manchester, U.K. filled out the top five.
Australia moved up to the top spot from fifth place in the 2008 survey, as a result of a new refundable tax credit for research and development.
Almost as fascinating as the article were some of the letters posted by the Toronto Star readers. Here's one:
I was always under the impression that taxes are lower for businesses in the US than in Canada. I would be interested in knowing exactly how these findings were put together as it is probably laden with bias.
In other words, all the reader has ever
heard from the media is that businesses are over-taxed. So, any contrary
point of view, even from a respected international accounting firm like
KPMG, must be immediately suspicious. I suspect such skepticism would
rarely follow a more traditional "taxes are too high" story, no matter
how self-serving it might be.