Value is real, substantial, discernible, but what constitutes value for one group might differ in subtle ways from what constitutes value for another. Those differences might also be radical, and that radical difference in how value is explained can be the flashpoint for conflict of the worst kind. Value is an experience: for some, it constitutes receiving more than one is required to sacrifice in an exchange; for others, it is the experience of fairness; others view it as the experience of things “as they should be”, whatever that may mean for the person or people in question. Because we seek value, and value is something about which we have a sense, we treat it as something that must be conveyed, communicated, carried across the divide between two distinct, or competing, world views. Money communicates value, but clumsily. Politics communicates value, also clumsily. Language communicates value, but usually through some complex of cultural specifics: we are a free country; we believe in participatory democracy; we worship one God; we honor religious liberty; we want to see imaginative innovators prosper, because they have produced something of value that serves others. These communications of value are also value judgments, estimations of value. Value is asserted, but how it is anchored remains a subject for debate.
[ The Note for January 2015 ]
The word politics comes from polis, the Greek word for city, or state. Politics is the art of living amongst people. It is, at the root, and in practice, a project of collaborative problem-solving. In its broadest sense, it is a way to describe our process of learning how to talk about value with those around us; it is the study of what happens when people make choices, relying on free will and individual expression. Cynics, with either too much or too little immediate access to power, often argue there can be no real freedom and little cause for faith in humanity. That has never been the case. We constantly exercise our power of observation, our judgment, and our freedom to choose; this is how we relate to every person we know. In this sense, politics is what Jacques Derrida referred to as peri-philías: an examination of the nature of friendship. We form affinities, friendships, families, communities, alliances; we apply our vision, our judgment, our imaginations, and our best use of shared language, to hold the world together. It is to our benefit that choices lead to consequence, so we can choose better, improve outcomes, redress our failings. The question is: Do we build on each other’s strengths?
The three days of attacks that began with the massacre at the headquarters of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo have made clear the limits of violence as a weapon of social change. We often treat the threat of terrorism as if our liberty were in the balance, as if the rule of law were vulnerable to the whims and hatred of lunatic extremists. But the people of France are demonstrating forcefully that civil society, open democracy, and freedom of personal and interpersonal expression, will not yield to hate and murder.
This was taken on the first day of the new Congress. Inside the Capitol Building, at this moment, members of Congress were taking an oath to serve “well and faithfully”. The atmosphere of mystery made me think: democracy can give us great inspiration or great disappointment. What makes the difference is how you engage with the people who have sworn that oath, what you ask of them, what you do to support their better angels, and how willing you are to believe that you yourself can work with people who don’t agree with you. This is our house; let’s make it a good year.
[ The Note for December 2014 ]
Politics is hard. Making policy that appeals to a wide range of political actors, stakeholders, and related interests, is by some people’s estimation functionally impossible. But at the heart of every legitimate political endeavor, there is the core insight that in its most expansive sense, what is of real interest to humanity anywhere is of real interest to humanity everywhere. We are connected by certain shared truths. We require certain sustenance to facilitate our survival, and we are all vulnerable to the forces of nature and of human violence. We have a transcendent, reciprocal interest in humane policy processes that protect life-giving systems. Working with people of all views and from around the world, on something as complex as climate, I have witnessed firsthand to what degree respect is the most effective strategy for building up the possibility of effective outcomes.
[ The Note for November 2014 ]
Quoting Albert Einstein, Azar Nafisi reminds us of the vital importance of imaginative vision for actually seeing and making sense of the universe we inhabit. Said the scientist: “I’m enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Stripping the arts out of education doesn’t make us more certain, it makes us less agile, less able to discern what is real in the shifting landscape of experience. The result is devaluation of the human and standardization of thought. Both are ethically unacceptable, and both are costly to society as a whole. Nafisi also quotes Nabokov, who like Einstein and herself was an immigrant citizen whose passion for democracy, basic rights, and human imagination, strengthened our republic. Nabokov would tell students to work “with the passion of a scientist and the precision of a poet.” We are now, as a society, in danger of losing both. We ask scientists to be simply readers of facts, not impassioned explorers, and we misunderstand poetry as a pleasant indulgence, not as the linguistic and expressive frontiersmanship that it is. To deaden both of these for a generation of talents is to deprive our own future economy of what is most valuable: free people dignified by a capacity for the sublime and an aversion to the grave costs of dispassionate imprecision.
The people have a right to co-create policy with our representatives.
Political analysts around the world have been noting the extreme negative tone of the 2014 midterm election campaign in the U.S. Outside groups that are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on smears and innuendo are degrading the political debate. The ugliness of the campaign has exacerbated the bitterness many Americans feel toward the political process itself.
That bitterness tends to be connected to a feeling of detachment or of access denied. People believe they do not have access to their elected officials and that the parties do not respond to their day-to-day needs. This detachment is driven partly by the apparent inability of leading national political figures to work together, which leaves a great deal of important work unfinished.
This morning, the United States and China announced a bold bilateral emissions-reduction agreement. The US agreed to reduce total emissions by 26-28% by 2025, and China agreed to peak its emissions no later than 2030. While bold, and vital to achieving a global transition, the agreement is a beginning, and will need to be strengthened, if we are to see the most economically efficient process for relieving cost and harm coming at us through a disrupted climate.
[ The Note for October 2014 ]
For most of the history of our species, we were hunter-gatherers. We could not store large stocks of resources. Social groups were small, defined by the range individuals within that small group were able to cover, in search of sustenance. We formed microcultures that left little in the way of permanent record. Knowledge expanded slowly. Scarcity remained the rule for human societies, even as agriculture took over, and cities grew, and urban civilization spread across the world. The few that were able to control the structures that establish and reinforce what we call society have been able to enjoy abundance, without allowing everyone else into that enjoyment. Perpetual scarcity, then, appeared to be an organizing principle, though it was more an illusion than a fact of life on Earth.
Report from the World Bank / IMF Civil Society Forum
In the years I have been attending and contributing to the World Bank / IMF Civil Society Policy Forum, I have witnessed a distinct and ongoing evolution. Multilateral institutions like the World Bank and IMF, which are funded by and directed by governments, and which do business with governments, have direct impacts on elements of society that are not in the room when decisions are made. So civil society organizations have an important role to play in highlighting and reducing major risk areas, and in shaping policies that lead to better outcomes.