Thoughts on Eve Carson.

With the trial date announced for Laurence Lovett, Jr., the alleged second accomplice in the Eve Carson murder, a tension and a little controversy that flows beneath the surface of campus life seems to have been slightly stirred.

It came to my attention that there was a moment of excitement in the newsroom of the Daily Tar Heel this week at the prospect of getting to report on this murder trial. Yet the idea of being excited about anything related to Carson’s murder stirs negative sentiments. I want to try to unpack this a little because I think the trial, and this event in particular, are coinciding with an important moment on this campus.

This year, the class that entered in 2008 — the first class to matriculate after Carson’s death — will graduate. That means that few current undergraduates ever went to school with Carson. A limited number of students knew her personally or met her at all.

This is crucial to me on a level greater than symbolism because it changes some of the moral questions we ask. For the past four years, it was something like “Do we do Carson’s memory justice by feeling solidarity with her?” Now, the pertinent question, as raised in the newsroom of the Daily Tar Heel this week, is the converse: “Do we do Carson’s memory injustice by feeling removed?

As I see it, these questions flow directly from the way Carson’s memory has been treated since her death.

Eve Carson exists today as a totem. She is remembered as the physical embodiment of what people at UNC call “The Carolina Way,” which heretofore was ethereal. You might think I’m being hyperbolic, but consider how she is represented. We read her quotes everywhere, including on the bottom of today’s DTH. Speaker series are named in her honor. We often are asked to submit to ourselves the question: “What would Eve do?” or “What would Eve want?” I have sat in lectures where opening remarks evoke her as a muse, saying that what was to follow was inspired by her passion and interests. In this way, she’s a Christ figure for our institution.

The community today isn’t the same community as 2008. Almost all of the people in it have moved on, as is the nature of university communities. We are bound only by the ties to place, but Eve and her murder are neither physically nor temporally proximate to us now.

Yet “Eve” is sacred. Our institution inculcates this as a first principle in students to this day, and I imagine it will for some time. Crucially, as long as honoring Eve is sacred, the mere possibility of dishonoring her is to be profane.

To me, this creates a problem.

I am inclined to think that there is no moral wrong committed in young aspiring reporters taking excitement to the prospect of covering real and consequential news. I don’t think anyone actually thinks that these students were glad Carson was murdered. And yet we still feel a bit of discomfort when hearing the anecdote. And why shouldn’t we? We feel as if we are somehow failing to respect the sacred.

But four years removed from the murder, we should be able to say “No” to the second question I posed:

Do we do Carson’s memory injustice by feeling removed?

It is natural and necessary for humans to feel empathy. But we have to resist the other natural impulse to cope with tragedy by sanctifying the victim, and being scornful of those who are don’t do so, can’t do so, and shouldn’t have to. We need not make the dead divine to honor them (personally, I think we dishonor them in a way by implying that they need to be more than they were). But as long as UNC insists on holding fast to Eve as sacred, it will continue to sow moral discomfort among those who feel obligated but incapable of expressing that sentiment.

If you still think it’s too soon, then I ask “When will it not be?” Laying a false sense of solidarity at the altar forever, and asking others to do so, seems odious to me and prohibitive of the kind of moral flourishing we hope and expect people to do here.

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Death.

Will Wilkinson lays out a case against the death penalty. Wilkinson doesn’t believe the state can morally kill anyone, bear in mind. The post is good, however, because he brings in some dramatic graphical evidence of just how morally sophisticated modernity has seemed to make people — which has led to precipitous declines in countries using the death penalty and in crime as well.

I think the evidence is compelling on its merits. I don’t think that it makes for a great argument against the death penalty — as such stats, even if they gel with my sense of justice, do not in themselves justify anything.

And maybe here’s a reason why:

This graphs Gallups’s polling (right to left) of attitudes toward the death penalty from mid-1991 through October of 2010. The gap has closed to about 35% from about 55% 20 years ago, but still well over a majority of Americans are supportive of empowering the state to kill people.

So kudos to people for killing less people themselves, and hurray for states sending less people to death. But it isn’t clear we are making headway in convincing people that it is categorically a bad idea for the state to have this power. So at the end of the day, how much moral credit do we give people?

This seems like terribly slow progress to me. And while some governments have seen the light, American attitudes have remained stubbornly puritanical with respect to capital punishment, even while other attitudes (gay marriage) have changed dramatically.

So we just keep on keeping on.

Intervention.

Maybe we should sign our political leaders up?

I hate to sound like a jackass, but I am deeply unimpressed with this essay  —Evildoers and Us in the Chronicle of Higher Education. There’s a lot not to like about it, but there’s one particularly insightful paragraph (not in the way it was intended to be)

A decision to invade another country in order to free its citizens from the oppressions visited upon them by their own leaders will surely be required from time to time. But when every case of overseas violence is treated as an example of genocide demanding the deployment of more U.S. troops, something has gone seriously wrong with both the analysis and the recommendation.

This is liberal interventionism today. It’s in a sorry state. Nothing following this except indicates when such intervention is required versus when it’s simply not justified because hey, America just can’t help everyone, capice? It’s not philosophically consistent to take a “sometimes” approach. It’s intellectually lazy and evasive. But damn if we don’t do it.

The bolder thing to say is that the moral costs of 1) arbitrarily determining where to intervene and 2) arbitrarily picking sides in internal conflicts, are too great to justify intervention. It’s not as if people die better by our missiles than by oppressors’ swords. Whether we are involved or not, people will die. They will keep dying until the conflict is over. And once it is, it is hardly certain that illiberal force will be used by the victors to perpetuate the cycle. Knowing this truth, the idea of making the world’s sovereign nations’ internal conflicts the beneficiaries or misfits of our politician’s caprice is a pretty morally repugnant prospect. To me, anyway.

In your head.

In your head, in your head,
Zombie, zombie, zombie,
Hey, hey, hey. What’s in your head,
In your head,
Zombie, zombie, zombie?

— The Cranberries

Jared Bernstein thinks that America is saddled with the crippling burden of poor economic policy promulgated by radical right wing free marketeers and venerators of the efficient market hypothesis.

His words:

The story of where we are is a story of the destructive ideas that guided us here. Bad ideas about how capitalism works–ideas that fail to describe how economies actually function–have combined with conservative politics to promote policies that stifle growth, redistribute what growth there is upward, skew our fiscal outlook, and handcuff our policy process.

Consequences?

The intellectual actions of these extreme free marketeers do not take place in a vacuum. They interact with a political structure comprised of lobbies and pseudo think-tanks to promote policies that, while wrapped in the cloak of promoting free markets, ultimately serve to redistribute growth to the top of the wealth scale. “Efficient market hypotheses” and “rational expectations”–the idea that absent government interference, market participants will make optimally efficient decisions–leads directly to supply-side tax cuts, deregulation of financial markets, the formation of financial bubbles, the acceptance of income stagnation, and disinvestment in public goods.

Who are these people? Jared Bernstein doesn’t say. And frankly, I’m skeptical that they even exist in the position of power Bernstein thinks they have penetrated.

There is a very strong contingent of market-oriented think tanks — actual ones, not “pseudo” ones. They are legitimate. I’m not even going to go into how demeaning it is to selectively call them “pseudo” while evading accountability by not naming names.

Many such lobbies and think tanks advocate strongly for deregulation on the assumption that current levels of regulation are distorting and damaging — not necessarily because all regulation is necessarily so.

The efficient market hypothesis, based on the theory of rational expectations, says absolutely nothing as far as I have ever learned about the government’s role in the economy. It says that the price mechanism incorporates all available information. If that expectation includes, say, a government bailout for a financial institution, then EMH is still a functional theory.

Supply-side tax cuts do not emanate, as far as I can tell, from ideas about the perfection of markets. They emanate from other classical ideas about the sources of GDP growth. These ideas did not believe in an upward sloping aggregate supply curve — rather they believed in a vertical one. Thus, increasing aggregate demand simply inflated price. The only way to increase output was to increase supply. These ideas may very well be wrong, but they are not contingent on thinking markets never fail. It’s even worth noting that Keynes didn’t even dispute this conception for the long-run — just not the short run.

And, who at the Fed and in the White House actually believes markets never fail? Or that EMH is always true? Bernstein gives us a dearth of names methinks for a reason. Ben Bernanke is a student of the Great Depression. Did his thesis try to substantiate that it was in fact not a market failure? Who at the Fed believes that the Fed shouldn’t exist? Even Milton Friedman was a monetarist, which is to say that while one of the most purely libertarian individuals of the modern age, he believed in monetary technocrats running the financial system. And necessarily, if you believe that the Fed should exist, you can’t truly believe in a liberated market. Does QE and QE2 signal that our economic policy has been hijacked? Really?

Maybe Bernstein is referring to the far right in Congress. We can’t tell because he doesn’t say. And while I think there are some elected officials with suspect economic ideas, I think it’s up for debate whether they (Ron Paul) actually have more than marginal influence on policy.

Eugene Fama isn’t the President. And the Mises Institute doesn’t get play outside of being juxtaposed with Paul’s incessant gold ranting. Whoever these free market zombies apparently are, I would love to hear names. Because if they and their influence are real, I would love to contemplate what their authority means.