Reality check: a Donald Trump presidency

random-trump-drawing

I even doubt if the Donald Trump character that I drew here had, if any, any bits or pieces that look like Donald Trump at all.

The reality is, prepared or not, like it or not, there are strong odds that Donald Trump – everything you associate with The Apprentice, ugly oranges, strange hair, tweets that look like one generated by a bot, and all his dangerous wordings and thinking – can become the leader of the most influential global power, or the so-called ‘Free World’, within less than 3 days. It’s never been this close, it’s never been this unbelievable, and it’s never been this ridiculous. Even his pussy-gate, which had led many people to believe that he is finished even before the electoral race commences after the Access Hollywood leaks about his lewd conversation with Billy Bush, does not dampen the support from his electoral base in a long run.

Nate Silver (statistician, data journalist, founder of FiveThirtyEight) upped the odds of Donald Trump beating Hillary Clinton from previously the 13% to 18% range to now over 35%. The ‘firewall states’ – so sacrosanct for Clinton’s electoral-college attainment that they appear almost impenetrable – now began to look vulnerable. All of a sudden, the prospect of a guy that appeared more like a 3-year-old toddler dressed in a 70-year-old costume leading the world’s largest economy, most outspent armed forces, and biggest nuclear arsenal is looking more like a possible reality. You thought this looked like an AI-scripted plot gone badly awry, but welcome to the reality. And soon, pretty likely, we will have a presidential version of The Apprentice, this time just much scarier. So much so that Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has considered a Trump presidency as one of ‘major global risks’.

Prediction is a horrible job, because indeed, nobody really knows what will actually happen in the future. Nate Silver may try out his best using statistical analysis and polling aggregation, but even this is prone to measurement errors, this time simply because there are so many third-party and ‘undecided’ voters who can produce massive swings, either in favor of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. For now, it is obvious that Clinton has more paths to secure at least 270 electoral colleges (out of 538), but so much stuff can happen within the next 3 days that any scenarios, regardless how insane and crazy they are (just like Trump’s candidacy itself), can actually occur.

In this blog post, I will do that horrible job, and I caution that much of the assertion may remain false, all using the current degree of knowledge that I know about Trump’s words, statements, and ideas. Watching all the three presidential debates may make you question whether you are watching a celebrity gossip battle or a high school bully taunting the ‘good one’ on class monitor selection, but I will try to use some of the ideas that he uttered, compare them with the reality, as well as how he relates with the Republican Party in general. Truth be told, he has had a very uneasy, love-hate relationship with GOP, and this may significantly impact his presidency (if he wins).

Here we begin:

Immigration

The ‘I’ word now looks more like a derogatory term thanks to his bombastic rhetoric about, well, immigration. Looking at the way he perceives of Mexicans and Muslims, there is a strong likelihood that a Trump administration’s immigration policy will be extremely tough, especially on people originating from either Latin America or Muslim-majority countries. Deportation of illegal immigrants will be commonplace, considering that the United States has more than 12 million unregistered ‘aliens’. There is also a strong likelihood that he will stop receiving Syrian refugees (while the top three countries of origin of refugees in the US are from Myanmar, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia), but the likelihood that he will stop all refugee flows coming to the country is very small. Nonetheless, immigration flows to the US, by and large, will remain largely unaffected, given that the country remains competitive in terms of attracting talents from all across the globe. However, one caveat is that a Trump administration will strictly tighten visa and immigration requirements for people coming to either visit, study, or reside in the country for quite some time, which can have a dampening economic effect.

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: 50:50

Economy

A Trump administration is likely to go huge on investment in infrastructure as a ‘massive stimulus package’, which it promises to be between US$500 billion and US$1 trillion. Construction-related industries will likely to see a boom, should his plan be realized. The problem, nevertheless, is that he will go into conflict with his fellow Republicans in the Congress (if he considers himself so) because of the latter’s belief in ‘small government’. This, I predict, will be a significant point of contention between President Trump and Congressional Republicans.

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: high

But, his proposed tax cuts will be largely favored by many businesses, although the consequence would be to deepen current account deficit that US has been faced with for a very long time. The previous Obama administration has managed to reduce the deficit from a record of US$1.4 trillion in 2009 to US$0.4 trillion in 2016 fiscal year, but even such accord can be at stake when his tax cuts are enacted. With mounting debts (over US$20 trillion) and multiple postponements on debt ceiling, plus his infrastructure stimulus plan, a Trump administration will have two options: go for the rational option (that is to borrow more from either China, Japan, or Middle Eastern oil-rich countries), or go nuts (manage the economy like Trump did to many of his defaulted businesses). Even if he opts the latter path, the question is now whether he can affect – let alone coerce – the Federal Reserve to implement his policy ideas of doing ‘massive haircuts’ for US dollar. If that happens, United States is officially a banana republic, and the entire global economy will go bananas too.

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: low

Here comes the free trade. Trump has repeatedly stated that he vows to withdraw from Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), to end US membership in World Trade Organization (WTO – which US ironically was the founder itself), and to impose 45% import tariffs on Chinese products, as well as to tear the entire NAFTA agreement with Canada and Mexico. This comes, all in all, when so many of Trump’s signature products are actually manufactured from overseas. Still, even we are supposedly not surprised to hear statements like these. This is the era of globalization, and any single product you purchase can have different parts assembled in different countries. But with the politics going extremely toxic on globalization and trade, we all hear cries of protectionism being voiced out.

I predict what happens next is otherwise. A Trump administration is likely to massively expand United States free trade agenda, because either Trump thinks on almost anything as a businessperson, that when there is something that can be traded, then there’s a chance you can strike a deal, or because there would be intensely huge pressure from the US Chamber of Commerce and other business associations that can lobby and influence the Congress, so much so that Trump is forced to make a compromise. Whether it will be bilateral free trade agreements, it remains to be seen. Regarding TPP, and to a lesser extent, TTIP, it is quite likely that President Trump will force all the participating countries to return to negotiation tables to extract further concessions regarding the issue of currency manipulation (when almost every country does it), although many leaders in TPP countries have repeatedly stated that there will be ‘no more rooms for further negotiation’ (by the way, the trade deal was signed in New Zealand in February this year). There is a quite limited chance TPP will be passed, given the bars set by the administration will be extremely difficult to accomplish, and negotiations can even end up in collapse.

Warning: the odds of a global recession also increase significantly given the massive deficits and/or significant debt accumulation resulting from his policies, and the biggest victims would be the middle and working classes.

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: 50:50

Great Wall 2.0

His idea of ‘building borders’ will be highly unlikely to materialize; the fact is, much of the US-Mexican border currently has been sealed with wired fences and literal border walls, with frequent patrols by border guards, and to some extent, even drone surveillance. Trump administration will face increasing pressure from Native American reservation groups, environmentalists, as well as Hispanic communities. It is also quite likely that any of these social movements can start a long-term occupation of any portions of the border in order to resist his government, and the response is potentially brutal (as you can see with the militarization of police and their responses on Dakota Access pipeline protests).

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: 50: 50

Supreme Court

I am almost certain that with the Republicans expected to retain their control of the House of Representatives (and quite possibly the Senate as well), both President Trump and the Congress will appoint right-wing justices into the Supreme Court. Many issues, such as same-sex marriage, Citizens United, and especially abortion, will see their progress being put at stake. There is even the possibility of shrinking the Supreme Court (as of now, there are 9 justices, but with the death of Antonin Scalia early this year, the existing number is 8, so many issues remain tied).

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: low

Climate Change

There are two possible scenarios, both good and bad, occurring in Donald Trump administration. If his tax cut plans are applied to all sectors (assume ceteris paribus), there is a possible boom in renewable energy industries, probably because he simply does not care too much about it. On the other hand, there is also a quite big likelihood that he will reduce spending on environment-related agencies, or possibly defund them, or even disband them. Agencies like Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will likely to see their responsibilities and authority largely reduced. Fracking practices, especially in natural gas, will remain in place, and quite likely expand should the tax cuts be applied to oil and gas-related industries altogether.

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: low

Science & Technology

Trump administration will likely make a compromise on H1B visa, or what Michio Kaku called as ‘genius visa’, which allows talented individuals all around the world to live for a certain period of time working in the United States. It is quite possible that a lot of the efforts will be put in developing the country’s space industry, mostly by working with the existing private space exploration companies, such as SpaceX. Development in science and technology will remain largely unaffected, except that much of the focus will still go on defense-related areas.

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: low

Foreign Policy

Here comes the longest part. To make long short, I’ll just outline them, one issue per each paragraph, below.

Russia: President Trump will likely align closely with Vladimir Putin (BFFs?)

NATO: The structure of the defense organization will remain in place, but with Trump cozying up to Putin, NATO will increasingly look like a ‘paper tiger’. Almost no attention will be paid on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine

Syria: President Trump may possibly end support on moderate rebel forces operating in the war-torn country, and shift their focus to indirectly support Bashar al-Assad, instead, with the major aim of ‘wiping out ISIS’

Iraq: He may not really ‘take the oil’, but Iraq may align itself more closely with either China (thanks to One Belt One Road initiative, in which Iraq is listed as part of it) or Russia (for weapons)

Afghanistan: There remains uncertainty whether Trump administration will retain American forces in the country, but if they do, the country will increasingly bandwagon to China to help stabilizing the country

Nuclear weapons: Although Trump once repeatedly asked ‘why can’t we use nuclear weapons?’, as long as he cozies up to Putin, the strange ‘equilibrium’ should remain in place

Saudi Arabia: With United States-Saudi Arabia relations already severely strained under Obama administration (Iran nuclear deal, 9/11 bill, threats of selling off US$750 billion in American assets), and President Trump increasingly reluctant to protect the country, it is highly likely the country will build its own nuclear bombs, especially to anticipate the expiry of the Iran nuclear deal

Iran: If Trump abrogates the nuclear deal, tensions will significantly increase in Middle East, and Russia may possibly oppose US move (but Saudi Arabia will be quite happy to hear about it)

China: The country may receive a huge boost with a Trump presidency, given that his campaign rhetoric regarding China, so far, is mostly about economy. He did not raise questions about Taiwan, human rights, Tibet, or Xinjiang, and pretty likely he will never raise any of them. Indeed, with the administration significantly reducing their leadership roles in international order, China, as the world’s second largest economy, will fill out the vacuum. Many neighboring countries will have to reluctantly bandwagon with China, given their current dilemma of having China as the largest trading partners, but in critical necessity of US to provide them security assurances

US alliance in Asia: Obviously, the decades-old US alliance system in Asia will be at stake. Countries that may worry the most are Japan and South Korea, which have relied on American nuclear umbrella to ensure their survival in the last six decades. With Trump administration reducing their commitment, these two countries will be faced with a huge dilemma. Japan’s effort to pass constitutional referendum to recreate an armed force were hampered by massive protests, while South Korea’s more eagerness to build nuclear weapons may anger not only North Korea, but also China, its largest trading partner. With ongoing anemic economic growth, it is quite likely that the two countries will bandwagon further with China, given their high dependence on exports to support growth

Populists in Europe: Trump’s victory, correlated or not, will likely provide a major boost for the populists in many European countries. We’ll see how things roll out in the upcoming 2017 elections in France and Germany; the closest one is to see the second run-off of presidential election in Austria scheduled to be held by the end of this year

Mexico: US relationship with Mexico under Trump administration will be largely uneasy, and any friction can bring Mexico into economic recession (United States accounts for more than half of Mexico’s annual trade volumes)

Southeast Asia: Trump’s commitment to Southeast Asia will drastically decline, unlike Obama’s overtures

South China Sea: Let alone South China Sea (the biggest winner will be China). Expect countries like Malaysia and the Philippines to bandwagon further with China, which they now do. Vietnam, having a more negative sentiment towards China rather than US in spite of the devastating war, will be forced to rely further on ASEAN, whose solidarity has been in question

India: President Trump will likely align very closely with PM Narendra Modi (perhaps Trump will learn some Hindi too, with terrible accent)

Dictators: The fact that he described Vladimir Putin as ‘great leader’ and had met with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi may indicate that he will be very pragmatic in befriending any leaders, regardless of the fact whether they are democrats or dictators. By the way, US foreign policy has had a long history of supporting authoritarian leaders, so this will be hardly a surprise

*****

While this may be a brief glimpse of what a President Trump can potentially do, I caution that there are also ‘plot twists’: some of his plans may not work out, and there is a pretty high chance he won’t even be the president for a full four-year term up to 2020. Think of these scenarios:

  • Trump commits a scandal when he is a president
  • Trump’s ongoing lawsuits and trial proceedings result in his impeachment (especially if Republicans begin to abandon him when the wrongdoings are so severe)
  • Trump is in feud with his vice president, Mike Pence, and there have been rumors about their own discord even during the election season
  • Trump falls ill due to ‘too much stress’, and announces resignation
  • Trump falls ill and needs to be hospitalized ‘for quite some time’
  • Trump conflicts with the GOP, and the latter thinks of strategies to begin impeaching him

Still, remember, nobody – let alone I myself – bears assurances whether these predictions will work out or not. He may try to temper himself, or that he may go on with all the big pushes. I am talking about what Trump may do, simply from a rational assessment basis. Things may go wrong, and things may go right.

I only hope your vote on November 8 can make the difference. Good luck, the world.

All Delighted People is not about all delighted people

all-delighted-people

 

Indeed, if I need to be honest, this is actually the saddest song I have ever heard.

If you are still not acquainted with why the heck ‘All Delighted People’ is not about all delighted people, you need to know who on earth Sufjan Stevens (spell: sue-fian – as in ‘fiance’) is. Perhaps I can describe him as a seriously underrated musical talent in the era of instant fame and pop culture. A Detroit-based singer and multi-instrumentalist, Stevens has been unusually productive in producing albums, oftentimes with shifting styles, tones, and musical instruments used. He can seamlessly shift from guitar to piano to keyboard to drum to oboe to xylophone, and others you better consult with Wikipedia. His genres also do not necessarily stick to one form alone; the songs span from indie folk to indie rock to avant-garde rock to electronica, or, to much of his own creative destruction as he pleases, deliberate random mashes of disorderly sounds and blasts of the instruments combined.

The lyrics are similarly deep in content and message, too. Say, a girlfriend’s death on a holiday (Casimir Pulaski Day), reflection on a serial killer that catapulted the current ‘creepy clown’ epidemic (John Wayne Gacy, Jr.), songs about dying towns and cities in Rust Belt (Flint – for the Unemployed and the Underpaid), unwavering – and deeply complicating – love for his mother (most songs in his 2015 album, Carrie and Lowell), or even something as absurd as a ‘reported UFO sighting’ (the flute-dominated Concerning the UFO sighting near Highland, Illinois). Other than these cantabile carols, he also released albums that highlighted his own musical scores (one of them is based on 12 Chinese zodiacs).

And there comes All Delighted People.

It is not the longest song he’s ever sung (the even longer one is Impossible Soul, which is nearly 26 minutes), but at over 11 minutes long, All Delighted People brings to you, indeed, a ‘homage to the Apocalypse, existential ennui, and Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence‘, as the album itself describes.

Never mind all the faces of the delighted people in the photo above, but none of this song contains any references about ‘brightening your day’. From my perspective, this song seemingly tries to raise one difficult, existentialist question worth self-introspection and some reminiscing.

Amid all the suffering in the world, can we still become a truly delighted people?

Looking again at all the faces on the picture above – all smiling, laughing, happy faces, the context dramatically changes once the song plays out. Everyone, and literally everyone, has had a fair share of delightful – and unpleasant – experiences throughout our lives. Some may be more tragic than others. Some may seem a bit too superficial. Some may seem like no different from ‘showing off’. Others may simply refuse to talk about them at all. The song itself is open for interpretation, but you can imagine all sorts of possible scenarios (as Stevens has put them into his own aria).

Someone losing their beloved ones.

Someone unsure to whom one can share one’s own difficult moments.

Some difficult choices that need to be made, possibly at the expense of what you currently possess – or maybe value so deeply.

Someone frustrated at the superficiality of the world. Regardless of whatever celebrations, events, or any joyous stuff, one can always perceive the ‘unreal’ out of these virtues.

Someone sensing the futility of prayers amid all the calamities, and how the cycle repeats itself.

Someone struggling to understand the true essence of the world (reminding me of Albert Camus’ philosophical essay Myth of the Sisyphus).

This is how All Delighted People out-Sound of Silence the Sound of Silence itself. Music background itself is chilling – and a bit horror-like, followed by a cantabile choir echoing the lyrics (as though ghosts were singing the song out loud). It amplifies what already exists in this, one of Simon and Garfunkel’s major masterpieces. About the emptiness, ‘hollowness’ of human interaction, the superficiality of human relationships, and again, the futility of prayers. This is not going to be an easy song to discern (that’s why most people return to modern, easy-peasy pop), but it certainly is one that will not easily leave your memory pretty soon, once you listen through it.

Again, this is not to encourage everyone to be all-out pessimists (neither being 100% optimist nor being 100% pessimist helps our lives). Stevens, possibly being a monist (or non-religious God-believer), wants us to constantly reflect on ourselves about our status, our relationship with fellow human beings, and of course, our own vulnerability. I suggest that you listen to it, only when you are willing to listen to it. It ain’t an easy piece.

Lyrics: http://genius.com/Sufjan-stevens-all-delighted-people-original-version-lyrics

 

Why intellectuals fail

the ivory tower

 

I actually kinda struggled in the beginning to think of the title for this post, whether I should put ‘why intellectuals fail’, or probably, ‘why demagogues succeed’. You may think these two titles give very few differences, but in an era where it is becoming increasingly difficult to define a populist, a demagogue, a ‘nativist’, or other titles in political extremism and their intensifying blurriness in the world of conventional politics, which I am very sure as hell someone out there is ready to launch the tirades, I would rather choose the former over the latter, while possibly raising a degree of criticisms from some of the intellects.

Also, debating whether the fair share of responsibility on the current rise of populism-laden politics lays squarely on the fault of intellectuals or on the so-called ‘demagogues’ is like playing a game of chickens and eggs. Such causality is prone to open-ended interpretations by different people who have distinctive views on this phenomenon. A lot of the commoners will blame the intellects, or the so-called ‘elites’, as being held accountable for their preference to anti-establishment leaders. On the other hand, reverse the worldview, and those ‘mask-wearing devils’ would place the blame solely on the stupidity of these people themselves, as well as the demagogues who continue to tout wrongly misplaced ideals and notions of the societies.

Whatever it is, here is the truth: just like the Schrodinger’s cat dilemma – whether the cat, having been put into a radioactive container, is alive or dead – both views may actually be correct. Nonetheless, as this post is intended largely as an op-ed, and as I am entitled to my own opinion, I would rather discuss on the question of how today’s global phenomenon is made possible, in large part by the ‘failure’ of the intellectuals themselves.

First and foremost, we can hardly deny the fact that these recent years have been pretty rocky for global affairs. We have Donald Trump currently organizing, colloquially speaking, the world’s largest presidential-scale entertainment show that out-Apprentice the Apprentice itself, the so-called 2016 US presidential election. His past statements in the last few weeks have been disastrous, yet weirdly speaking, over 40% of US electorate (comprising most of the adults living within the States) are still willing to vote for him, because, ‘the devil you know’. Any extraterrestrial civilization passing by our planet may likely voice their confusion about what is wrong with human civilization; even if Elon Musk’s simulation argument were true, the ‘creator’ of this universe-sized simulated world will also be confounded whether there have been ‘programming errors’ with the game itself. But, sometimes facts are just simply stranger than the fiction. And then this is followed by the rise of ‘alt-right’ political movements in various European countries; one of them almost won the presidential election in Austria this year (but a run-off election will be scheduled by the end of this year). Afterwards, we have witnessed ‘Brexit’; albeit given its status as a non-binding referendum, this has caused unprecedented impacts towards its economy, and to a certain degree, the stability of global economy as well. The Nigel Farage Show Season 1 is being aired, and it remains effervescent.

What do these illustrations have in common? People are losing trust on the establishment. On the politicians, on the ‘experts’, on the elites, not excluding the ‘intellects’, which I emphasize in this post. It is like – how I should describe it – what the experts say and what the people truly experience are reflected into two different versions of reality. One major tenet is globalization. Experts, intellects, much of the ‘elites’, all of them have been focusing on the benefits of globalization and its associated embroideries, like free trade, immigration, economic mobility, cosmopolitanism, what have you. Here’s the thing: do most professors in any Ivy League school (say, Harvard, or Princeton, or UPenn) precisely understand the suffering of a working-class family in Detroit, Cleveland, or any other Rust Belt cities? Do most faculty members and scholars working in London School of Economics, or any elite universities in London, Oxford, Cambridge, or other places alike ever visualize themselves being a working-class family living in Birmingham or other industrial towns in England whose manufacturing jobs continue to shrink? I ask these questions not because I try to be populist (indeed, I have been very fervently against the notion of populism itself), but rather to simply give a preliminary view of the existing perception gaps among the people inhabiting the ‘ivory towers’, and the rest who are ‘outside’.

Looking at Branko Milanovic’s chart – which I have attached in two previous posts, it becomes apparent that there are bigger forces that affect such skewed imbalances. Many people in the developed world have seen their real incomes either staying flat, or actually decreasing, in the last two decades. 80% of American population, while comparatively prosperous relative to the rest of the world, is economically insecure, as their incomes can hardly match the soaring living costs (although calculations massively change when the term is shifted into ‘disposable incomes’). A bigger percentage of people are more likely to be less wealthier than their preceding generations. McKinsey Global Institute, having conducted research on 25 advanced economies, estimated that over 65-70% of the population in those countries have experienced such stagnant – or even dropping – income growth. Who is the ‘easiest’ culprit to catch? It’s globalization. With jobs offshoring to emerging markets – notably China, but also other developing countries – the manufacturing sector is shrinking in terms of workforce. Productivity increases actually in cumulative terms, but the primary driver is automation and other high-tech industries, which employ increasingly fewer people than before to produce greater outputs. Capital income is growing faster than labor income, thanks to the increasingly dominant role of service sectors. Social mobility becomes more difficult to attain given such situation. ‘Experts’, as though becoming a new N-word, actively talk about ‘economic prospects’, ‘huge opportunities’, and other shiny, Pollyanna-ish terms, but once the scenery shifts, things change. More people are working on makeshift jobs – sometimes two, or even three – to make ends meet (apologies that I do not have the dataset for now, but try Knoema or Quandl to find if there’s any).

And then all the resistance begins. People pointing fingers to the government, one whom they think has become increasingly co-opted, or fallen prey into, vested political and economic interests. People start to ‘attack’ the ‘experts’, the intellects, delivering a death verdict that all the educated people are ‘part of the elite’. This is what has happened with Brexit; all we can only hope is that Donald Trump ‘ends’ his presidential-sized Apprentice show after the electoral race is over. Many start to think experts, intellects, and ‘all the educated’ are components of the government, the establishment, those in power; these people trust more on politicians spreading false flags, fake statistics, conspiracy theories, and all other matters that might want to make us mummify ourselves with tinfoil. These are the two sad things that I need to say: first, ‘we’ have been neglected by these intellectual elites. Second, and worse, many of ‘us’ have been exploited by those demagogues in such situations for their own political advantages.

Where are the intellects, then? I’m very sure that as most schools are pushing scholars to produce as many research papers as possible (which, sadly, have a high probability of being neither read nor cited in their lifetimes), they won’t focus so much time on probing deeper into the actual real-world issues ‘out there’. I apologize if this sounds like over-generalizing (again, this is my opinion piece), but such is the stark truth in the academia. The academics who perform better than their peers in terms of paper citation may be more likely to be invited into either government bodies or major corporations as advisers; this is what solidifies a lot of people’s views that ‘intellects are part of the establishment’! This is also why they would prefer listening to populist preachers (say: Breitbart, Infowars, which Eric Andre referred to as ‘war on info’) who offer bombastic – yet deeply rotten – info, rather than to the boring, formal, robotic-like explanation by these experts. They are more willing to have leaders that are ready to make mountain-moving announcements, rather than policy wonks who will deliberately consult with multiple parties, refer to research papers (occasionally), and continue adjusting their policies to ‘satisfy everyone’.

Of course more scholars right now are becoming increasingly proactive in addressing such issues openly, but given all the shocks we have endured in the last few years, it still takes time for more people within the academia circle to start ‘coming out’ and exchanging views more actively with the communities, which I personally believe (though not yet totally proven) can reduce the euphoria of populism that has taken hold so much of the developed world today. For sure, the ‘mummies’ inside the ivory towers need to be ‘woken up’.

 

To read more (from the websites of what you call the ‘elitists’):

McKinsey Global Institute – A new perspective on income inequality (to understand the surge of populism today)

Project Syndicate – A brief history of (in)equality

Quartz – Why Trump’s voters are not complete idiots

A response to the post “Indonesia and the passion for virginity”

morality is not judged by a body

 

A blogger named Amaryllis Puspabening has recently published her op-ed titled “Indonesia And The Passion of Virginity” in The Huffington Post. She voiced her discontent at the current state of how women, in general, are treated in Indonesia, such as taboos about sex discussion, virginity test as a measure of morality, and how women are oftentimes forced to ‘sterilize’ themselves to be considered ‘pure’ in the society. To make matters worse, in certain parts of the country, some government officials are proposing to conduct virginity tests as either ‘entry’ requirements into high schools or for school graduation. Responding to her post, I would say I largely approve of what she has said, although there may be certain issues that I think we also need to raise in this discussion.

I share the same degree of frustration with her regarding the question of ‘virginity test’. Measuring someone’s degree of morality is not by looking at one person’s bodily conditions, particularly something that should only be of private nature to the woman. The same can be said for people with tattoos, or have other forms of body modification: are they all always perceived as ‘bad people’? Some may be, but this still does not justify the generalization used to equate all of them as belonging to the same category. I can hardly ascertain the logic of where ‘virginity test’ can immediately make somebody pass a morality test: yes, she does not have premarital sex, but does that become a well-defined thread that will make her look moral, even if, say, she will commit other forms of wrongdoing in the future? What if she commits corruption, which is one of other great sins? Or, say, what if she carries a premeditated murder? What is then the precise moral boundaries?

It is also an irrefutable fact that sex education in Indonesia still has a very long way to go for quality improvement, as well as our mindsets. With regard to the former, there are insufficient attempts to truly educate people about the risks of teenage pregnancy, dangers of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), or facts relating to reproductive health and hygiene. It becomes as though talking about vaginas (yes, I won’t censor this word) or penises (yes, no censorship for this one as well) would be equated with talking about pornography. That is a hardly rational explanation. So doctors are required to censor their words when explaining about reproductive health? What would we learn? Simply reaching out to the young generation and telling us ‘don’t have sex before the marriage’ will only make people even more curious on why they can’t have sex before the marriage. And you know what I mean when I say ‘even more curious’.

Regarding the latter, I refer to ‘us’, rather than ‘you’ and ‘I’. I refer to ‘us’, because if we have to be honest with us as a nation, we also still have a very long way to go to achieve progress. Many among us are still within the huge taboos to talk about sex, especially between parents and the children. Resorting to the ‘S-word’ can turn a conversation into a sword; we would sometimes be accused of ‘encouraging people to have sex’, when the fact is that we want to talk about sex education and make people understand the right notion of defining sex. As parents are reluctant to teach the kids, what would be the alternative? Many of them will satisfy their curiosity by watching porn sites. It’s undeniable. It happens not only isolated to some other places, but also in a nationwide basis. We also heavily stigmatize people conducting premarital sex, delivering a death verdict that they will carry out in their lifetime. As a consequence, what will happen? While I avoid being an academic in this blog, my postulation is that once people are labelled with negative perceptions in their heads, it is very likely they will continue doing the similar vice, or descending into even worse forms of misdeeds, or facing a prospect of no bright future for the rest of their lives. We become a society that does not forgive, nor grant them a second chance to rehabilitate their lives. To make matters worse, we sometimes gossip about certain people doing such things. Again, I emphasize the word ‘we’ because I want to avoid being didactic; indeed, we all play a direct and/or indirect part in perpetuating such mindsets.

As much as I agree with the content of the post, however, I also need to caution some points. And I do not expect the author, Ms. Amaryllis, nor the readers here to agree with my arguments. I still believe the idea of sex as a sacrosanct notion, rather than one to be used for hedonistic purposes. When a person is in a romantic relationship with somebody else, god forbid, nobody knows whether that relationship will last for eternity. What if the couple has had sex before they actually know each other’s personality and characteristics in full details? Although such issue should only be of totally private nature between the couple, how would either the man or the woman be prepared to address their future counterparts should they end the relationship? As a person leaning to the center, I do still believe that sex should only be made possible once a couple has stated their full commitment to a relationship, say, through a marriage. The key, here, is for the public to understand the concept of responsible sex. Once again, I do not expect everyone on board to agree with me, as even I personally would still prefer to maintain a certain degree of conventional values that majority of Indonesians still adhere to.

I also believe in the concept of gender equality, given the systemic discrimination that women have endured for too long (and most of human history), but I also disagree with the notion of ‘complete liberation’ of either men or women, especially when it comes to defining sex. I am still alien to the concept of defining sex as an art, or as a form of entertainment, that either men or women could simply change partners, and have sex with different partners. I am in no authority to ban them from doing so (as this is their personal choice and decision), but such notion remains totally beyond my personal toleration, and I believe that there remains a need for a ‘boundary’. This is a point of departure regarding my opinions about the post.

Despite some of my minor disagreements with the author, I still appreciate and laud her for her willingness to break the walls in our minds when talking about sex. My disagreements occur largely because not all Indonesian values are totally negative; there are certain values that are positive that we, as a society, still need to maintain, such as the belief of sex as a sacred notion. Nonetheless, even people’s mindsets change. We (and I) used to be ‘terrified’ of the ideas of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer), but as time goes by, and despite ongoing denunciations by a huge portion of our population, we gradually start to accept them as a part of our society. I do not expect to change my mindset for a certain period of time, but this does not indicate I am totally closed to such topics people may call it ‘taboo’. If we are willing to shake our long-held beliefs, and start to open our minds a little bit further, perhaps we can actually discover the roots of the existing problems, and figure the solutions out.

 

You can access the original article by clicking through this link.

On US election: some thoughts

us presidential candidate pixel art

Source: pixelfigures.tumblr.com

I’m not an American – first and foremost, but let me share some thoughts about what I perceive as one of the world’s most bizarre electoral competitions throughout human history (perhaps some exaggeration, but anyway).

Truth be told, most elections are ‘intense’. Intense in a way that society gets polarized for quite some time, some stuff (perhaps altercation) occurs, then a candidate with the biggest shares of votes wins, and gets elected, and society gets back to their normal ways of life, all the way until the next election is scheduled. In the US context, electoral history has been dominated by the two parties alone: Democrats and Republicans. The observable pattern – most of the time – is a Democrat administration, or when voters are dissatisfied with their performance, simply punish by voting them out of office, replacing them with a Republican one.

Despite some major historical events, one can say that the political phenomenon is almost reminiscent of that in ‘Groundhog Day’: support your candidate, get crazy about him (or her), engage in online debate or vitriol, and once election result comes out, things go back to normalcy.

This time, it is a truly bizarre event if I would have to be honest. Not sure if Elon Musk’s ‘universe-as-a-simulation’ argument is correct, but sometimes it makes you question whether the creator of this universe (whether it’s God, or a 17-year-old super-player playing a universe-sized Sim-like simulation) is running on a bad script. Nobody knows, but you are free to make your own ontological deduction.

We’ve got Donald J. Trump – whatever title you want to attach, I’ll let you decide. Racist? Check. Narcissist? Check. Braggadocio? Check. What’s his task? Making America great again. Up to this point, I can hardly decide whether he wants to ‘become president of the United States’ or ‘make America great again’. Here, up to this point, Trump has become the sole Muslim-baiting, Mexican-baiting, African American-baiting, women-baiting great wall-championing candidate for the Republican party, as the media likes to refer. Even more confounding for us, the rest of the world (and majority of Americans I bet), Trump is getting massive support from a significant portion of US population, mostly from the largely White working-class groups. Is he ‘funny’ or ‘dangerous’? He’s so ‘funny’ to the way he already gets the world ‘alarmed’ at his presidential prospect. Building a wall that borders Mexico, proposing a ban on ‘Muslim’ immigration to the US from countries harboring terrorists (my country is one of them, although I am myself ethnic Chinese and ‘Buddhist’), imposing 45% tariffs from imported products from China, and putting global economy at stake by proposing ‘US debt default’ (the art of the deal, huh??), refusing to honor decades-long security commitments with its allies (NATO, Japan, South Korea, etc), and ‘pivoting away from the whole world to make America great again’. What I’m scared is his ideas, but what I’m scared even more is the way he has repeatedly flip-flopped his statement; saying one idea is ‘great and awesome’, only to end up saying ‘the idea is horrible, terrible, and dangerous’. The worse thing is he is still garnering significant support, and that shows no signs of abating. Reality is sometimes weirder than our imagination.

And then, all the way, we’ve got Hillary (insert whatever you want, ‘Killary’, Hillary-Monsanto-Goldman Sachs-TPP-Clinton, etc). A more sane and politically experienced candidate – having been in US Senate and being the most well-traveled Secretary of State), my opinion towards her is that she is hardly different from any other politicians. She flips-flops (say, on TPP), gets paid huge sums of money by Wall Street (you know, the big banks), and has close ties with some of the world’s nastiest dictatorships. More recently, she self-clones herself to ‘somewhat’ look like Bernie Sanders. I do not say she is a good candidate, either, given some of the existing controversies in her past track records. But, again, as a politician (and just like any other typical politicians), she is the one that can make huge promises, compromises with all sides, and delivers a portion of them. She envisions herself as ‘de facto continuing Obama’s third term’, only that she will be more hawkish in her foreign policy (as already demonstrated in Libya, and probably Syria should she get elected). You hate her simply because ‘you hate her’, but this is all the more given the fact that she is a centrist, and if one looks into the median-voter theorem (one of the most common theories in political science), the one that can stay in the median position is the one most likely to win the elections, because people would prefer ‘status-quo’.

Of course people had expectations of Bernie Sanders (and indeed very high). Despite his apparent failure to become the presidential candidate from Democratic Party, it is remarkable that he could build such a huge appeal within a time span of less than a year (ironically, so did Trump). Using his credential as a ‘democratic socialist’ – in fact I would consider him more as a European-style social democrat, he championed the ideas of free college, universal and free healthcare, and all the measures to force the ‘one-percent’ to pay taxes and support the poor, low-income, and working class in the United States. His zeal – and his enthusiasm – captured so many people’s attention, and even myself. To some degree, I actually felt the Bern. There’s always a but, nevertheless. I truly admire his ideals, but if I have to be honest (especially to Bernie bros or Bernie-or-bust people), Bernie’s Achilles’ heel has been that he has yet to detail his policy proposals on what precise measures he’s going to do to achieve his goals. It’s like he’s dreaming big – and extremely big, but he seems ‘stuck’ in continuously touting his dreams. I also have thoughts circulating in my mind that a Bernie Sanders presidency may struggle to put forward his ideas – especially amid the Congress, dominated by tons and tons of special interests, all of which may eventually force him to compromise and sacrifice some of his ideals. Unlike Hillary, Bernie seemingly does not appear ‘ready’ to become unpopular. Don’t we all realize that politicians are people who know when to attract popularity, and when to enact unpopular policies? I am trepidated by the prospects of a Bernie presidency not because of his ideals that will threaten economic stability, but rather his potential ‘inability’ to do so due to the tough reality of politics – forcing him to confront his own Icarian tragedy. Still, with the fact that Bernie is so close to the ‘core’ of the Democratic Party right now, to some extent this has also forced Hillary to adopt policy positions that are leaning, somewhat, to the left-wing of politics (although I may doubt her not flip-flopping), and largely changed the landscape of American politics these days – altogether with Trump.

Now the real conundrum is Trump. His sensationalist acts, his tweets (which look more like tweet-bots), his arrogance, and his extremely unpredictable temperament could have been ‘acts of suicide’ in other places. But, he’s gaining more popularity than ever. Trump supporters remain largely committed to support him. You may call them idiots, stupid, low-IQ, mentally ill, jerks, retards, paranoia-laden people, but the reality is much more complicating, and it is such over-generalization that continues to perpetuate why this guy could still maintain a huge, staunchly support base. With the fact that a huge bulk of his supporters are working-class people, perhaps I could show you one graph prepared by Branko Milanovic shown below:

chart_of_the_century

Source: World Bank

Other than the world’s poorest population, the ‘biggest losers’ in globalization are the middle- and working-class population in the high-income economies, especially US – one of the most unequal countries among OECD countries. Trump phenomenon is not itself a unique phenomenon alone; Brexit, the rise of far-right populist movements, the resurgence of ultra-nationalism, are moments that can be very easily exploited by political Machiavellians, agitators, and demagogues (and I do not deny that Trump is just one of them). Also, it is not that Trump supporters are ‘blind’ of his wrongdoings: they know his misdeeds, but their assumption is: “better the devil you know”. As the US election in 2016 is one that pits two unpopular candidates, voters have only one option: select the one that is ‘less evil’ than the other. Trump supporters argue that they fully understand the ‘devil’ in Trump, but at least he’s ‘open’ about it, and they have this suspicion of ‘Clinton’, all the secret agenda, conspiracy theories, and stuff. Such vulnerability is a very huge rabbit hole that can be ceaselessly exploited by fellow demagogues to amplify their voices. Most people on the other side (and not necessarily Clinton supporters) fail to notice such pattern, and this is where they continue to chastise Trump supporters as being on the categories I highlight above. I am very sure there are Trump supporters who are not racists, bigots, or even from ethnic minorities (although he may say some bad stuff). In short, there is almost no ‘culture of dialogue’ between the two sides, and no wonder polarization becomes increasingly uncompromising and intense.

Part of this strange phenomenon, also, lays the blame on the intellects. Does a professor teaching in Harvard, or Stanford, or Princeton, understand the feelings of a blue-collar worker in Mississippi or Alabama? I am not saying that all faculty members are elitists (note that a huge portion of them are active on projects that try to empower communities), but given the growing inequalities in income, wealth, and economic and social opportunities, this is also another possible pathway that can lead to the rise of demagogues, regardless if a country is already a well-established democracy, or if a country is already high-income or not. The ‘understanding gap’ between the intellects and the rest of the country is huge – especially with the ivory-tower tendencies of the former – but I think I need to devote one special blog post that explains ‘the failure of intellectuals’.

This election, therefore, will be very vividly watched across the world. Whoever becomes the president – either it’s Trump or Clinton – will determine the future trajectory of the United States, and the international order as well. In spite of numerous existing domestic problems, US remains the world’s largest economy, and it remains a key determinant to stabilize the global order. The commander-in-chief whose credential is ‘the big bro in the Apprentice’ is not the one that will necessarily keep the order in shape; Clinton is by no means popular, either, but she understands what being a politician is – when to become ‘popular’, and when to enact unpopular policies. US’ global image has improved under Obama administration (after its notorious association with Iraq War under George W. Bush government), although it is not flawless. If Trump wins, it may be either the global order is at stake (if he is consistent with his big ideals, which I already doubt them given his own flip-flopping), or that many countries will simply ‘stay away’ from US. In the context of Asia, most countries – rather than risking war with China and asking US for security guarantee – will, no matter how unpopular it is, choose to cozy up to Beijing, given their substantial economic leverage.

The whole essence of this election is neither to ‘dump Trump (and his supporters)’ nor ‘lock her up’ (in the context of Clinton). It is about the next 4 years where US will go, and what the future generations will learn about political processes in their country. While obviously this is an unpopular election, as a non-American, I appeal to people there to please build up a ‘culture of dialogue’ between different political spectrum. For the rest of the world, I would say that we also need to prepare for the ‘worst-case scenario’ in the future. We may possibly witness big changes in the international order, but we don’t know.

Democracy as a ‘sinking ship’?

democracy

 

The notion of democracy has been going through a turbulent path these days. From a contemporary aspect, we can refer to phenomena like the Brexit, the rise of nativists-populists epitomized by that corn-haired Donald Trump, and most recently, the military coup attempt in Turkey last Friday. We criticize such outcomes as malcontent, harbingers of something more dangerous to come, or short-sighted, but if we take into account deeper consideration, aren’t all these enabled – either directly or indirectly – from the very core processes we consider as ‘democratic’ instead?

This is not an academic paper that tries to discuss about democracy (although I would be very interested to author one), but – as a way to showcase my right of civil liberties – let us have a frank discussion about it. First thing first, we need to acknowledge that there are no perfect political ideologies, even in the concept of ‘democracy’. To understand about the existing dichotomy, let us the origin of this notion back into Ancient Greece, somewhere around 6th (or maybe 7th) century BC. Aristotle, or our genius philosophy bro’ who invented almost every field we study today, postulated that the main aim of democracy is to achieve freedom. On the other school of thought, we got the other partners-in-crime (Plato and Socrates, one of whom the other betrayed) who argued that democracy is no different from mob rule, or most commonly referred to as ‘tyranny of the majority’. One alternative proposition – or maybe compromise – offered by these philosophers was to use the term ‘polyarchy’. Defined as ‘rule by more than one person’, polyarchy still slightly differs from democracy in that the former postulates a set of institutions, constraints, and procedures that aim to balance the utilization of democracy, which the latter actually does not posit. If we adapt these debates to contemporary settings, the resulting outcome – voila! – is polarization within the society. People debate on how democracy should be done and represented. One school wants maximum participation from the people – and the people alone, while the other wants a more procedural, representative, and legally-constraining measures to not let democracy ‘erupt into complete anarchy’, which this school dreads of.

Efforts to promote democracy have been tied in orthodoxy as part of the Western world’s foreign-policy approaches in their contemporary ‘nation-building’ projects. United States – the current world superpower – is still actively promoting this idea (though no longer as active as in the past), and is followed suit by other European countries. Through epic makeups, democracy is parceled and decorated as though they were ‘gifts from Santa Claus’. Except from the cases of US-led democratization in Germany and Japan in the aftermath of World War II, most of their efforts have been largely mixed. Ironically, indeed, the idea of ‘democracy promotion’ was so subverted that the West ended up supporting any regimes they could label as ‘democratic’ – as long as they were anti-Communist. Military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan (as well as Libya, Syria, etc) did not produce any tangible democracies; what we have is instead the rise of ISIS (or a more derogatory one, Daesh), the continuation of tribal, sectarian, and ethnic warfare, and regional instability. What the heck is wrong with all these so-called ‘democracy promotion’ things?

Many scholars have offered various answers and interpretations in order to answer such prevailing puzzle, but many of their explanations are contextually dependent on the regions they are specializing in. Experts such as Scott Mainwaring, James Fearon, David Laitin, David Collier, and Steven Levitsky have expertise in the Latin American contexts – and Collier and Levitsky have published a paper that aims to categorize democracies based on their knowledge in this region. On the other hand, we have experts such as Dan Slater, Tom Pepinsky, Eddy Malesky, Donald Emmerson, etc, who specialized in the context of Asia-Pacific region. We also have scholars that try to explain democracy from a political-economic framework, such as Dani Rodrik, William Easterly, and Stephan Haggard. And then we have scholars that explain democracy through massive global datasets that they have toiled to develop, such as Barbara Geddes, Adam Przeworski, Monty G. Marshall, etc. These are just some people I mention which papers I have read, and I’m sure there are way many more of them whose works I have yet to review. As each of them may offer some variation of insight about the dichotomy of democracy when compared to other issues, I can hardly type in through their postulation in this blog post (it’s too long, and I need to spend quite a large amount of time re-reading their papers).

The best explanation, I would emphasize, is to read Why Nations Fail, co-authored by Daron Acemoglu (MIT economist) and James A. Robinson (Harvard economist). They focus on the role played by institutions, which actually matter more than democracies do, in delivering outcomes from the authority to the people. Thus, here is the premise: if a country can not build an inclusive institutional setup that accommodates everyone’s interests, then the polity is designed to doom. While this book provides a largely historical perspective, in case you want to explore even further, you can try to read their another book titled ‘Economic Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship’. With tons of pages of intricate econometric formula and analyses (which most people, and me – and even some grad students I bet – struggle to comprehend), they provide evidence as to how institutional setup established in the past can affect the political prospects of those countries. I do not recommend you (and myself) to read the latter before taking more Economics and Econometrics courses; Why Nations Fail itself already offers a huge range of fascinating case studies that are more exciting than your high-school history textbook.

In case you want the simplest explanation, I would suggest reading an article written by Fareed Zakaria, titled ‘The Rise of Illiberal Democracies‘. Published in Foreign Affairs in 1997, Zakaria provided a thought-provoking argument about the need to differentiate the concept of ‘democracy’ and ‘constitutional liberalism’ (or, in simpler terms, rules and legal regulations that protect individual civil liberties). He attributed that the problem of many newly emerging democracies these days – back in the 1990s, when this article was published – was that these polities paved way for populists and strongmen to seek popular legitimacy to justify their autocratic rule. Going back to the ‘democracy promotion’ mode by US government and its allies, we all came to consolidate the correlation between democracy and ballot boxes alone, all the while overlooking other sets of factors and variables. Here, Zakaria had prophesied his pessimistic trajectory of how such populists – or other political agitators – made use of ballot boxes, securing the widespread support of the existing electoral base, all in the name of justifying their strongman-style rule, or implementing other policies many had thought could be a ‘shot in the arm’, but instead ended up as ‘gunshots in the arm’. Without a certain mechanism in protecting individual civil liberties, democracies can literally become what the ancient Greeks called as ‘tyranny of the majority’. Thus there came the phenomenon of illiberal democracies, where parties or regimes in power make use of elections solely as their defining feature of democracy to consolidate their power and empower their supporters, largely at the expense of protection of civil liberties. I recommend you to read this article, given its (ongoing) relevance to the present contexts in global politics.

Lastly, what about the question of polarization? In a seriously insightful paper, titled ‘Democratic Careening‘, Dan Slater actually refuted the argument by several scholars that ‘democracy is collapsing’. Instead, he stated that ‘democracy can not collapse, but rather careen’ (perhaps as you can see from the Paint-drawn illustration above). Democracy, to some aspect, can become like a ‘warzone’ with two opposing sides intensely fighting against each other – either on the streets or in the legislature – over the competing notions of democracy. He emphasized, in particular, about horizontal accountability (rule of law, checks-and-balances between state institutions) and vertical accountability (political participation among the public). The big ‘danger’ that could cause the war-zone to occur, in this regard, is when leaders in power cause both these features to compete against – rather than complement – each other. This can be achieved by leaders either disproportionately enlarging their executive powers to the degree that they become almost personalized, or that they agitate for mass mobilization among the supporters to take to the streets when there is any ‘threat against their legitimacy’. While Slater only focused on the comparative analysis of Thailand and Taiwan, this argument can be further expanded to look into other countries. Let’s say, the Chavismo phenomenon in Venezuela, how Erdogan rallied his supporters to take to the streets in response to the ‘coup attempt’ (or so the media said?), or the exploitation of ethnic, religious, or social-based cleavages to the ruling powers’ advantage.

This writing can be further explored into a further work, but I would rather stop here, risking the boredom of Internet readers (especially in the age where people simply share articles without really reading them or even clicking the links). In summary, I would say that democracy – in spite of its problems – can be ‘nurtured’, only if there are strong institutional setups from the beginning which can provide checks and balances on elected leaders, and all the while respect people’s civil liberties. Democracies matter, but so do institutions and the principle of constitutional liberalism. If implemented immaturely, we will continue to see any existing weird phenomena resulting from ‘democratic’ processes in the future, and even more half-baked democracies. Democracy is not sinking, but it can be bent in lieu of the desires of the leaders in power. Thus, I would rather advocate for the idea of liberal democracy, rather than ‘democracy’ in itself alone.

In the words of Ronald Dworkin, “democracy is a substantive, not a merely procedural, ideal.”

 

NB: In case you want to have some more independent study about democracy, here are some useful sources that you can refer to.

Readings (only two first):

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson – Why Nations Fail

Francis Fukuyama – Political Order and Political Decay

Datasets (about the quality of democracy):

Freedom House – not too frequently referred to in academic discourse, but very useful in media and public discussions as the tone is much easier to comprehend

Polity IV – more complicating, but more useful, and is mostly referred to in academic discourse (on a scale of -10 to 10, dictatorships are labelled with scores -6 to -10, democracies from 6 to 10, and hybrid regimes, or what you call as ‘illiberal democracies’, scored precisely in between)

 

Hope these references help.

Guest post: in the name of ‘law’, or ‘justice’, or whatsoever?

iustitia

 

*** This is a guest post by my close friend, Edward Tanoto. He is currently studying business in, you know, the university he already mentioned in the following paragraph. Feel free to agree or disagree with his thought, but as I have emphasized in previous posts, let us respect each other’s opinions, and if you find yourself in absolute, complete disapproval, let us agree to disagree.

 

In The Name of “Justice”

It was February 29, 2016 – it was the first day of my first semester in University of Melbourne and for me! Walking the footpath to class, I was excited. The first lecture will be on law – on how JUSTICE can be enforced through the rules of conduct. Being a mystery-novel addict, I could hardly wait until I finally manage to dive into the core principle of the democratic judicial system. The clock was ticking, the minutes grew unbearable. Finally, the lecturer came and it was about to begin. “I bet she’ll say something inspiring!” was what I thought. When the professor finally started talking, she said “I’d like to first correct the one assumption you guys might carry. Decisions made in the court according to the rules of law DON’T HAVE TO BE JUST. A court is not a place to seek and serve justice.”…. so much for the inspiring quote.

Some of you, like me, might be asking yourselves “If the law is not intended to enforce justice, then what does it stand for?” The online Merriam Webster dictionary defines law as ‘a rule of conduct or action prescribed or formally recognised as binding or enforced by a controlling authority.’ Put simply, a law stands for a PHYSICAL or VIRTUAL BODY, delivering the ORDER of that body, enforced by MEMBERS who SUBSCRIBE to that order toward the PARTIES INTENDED of that order. All four elements are essential for any law to take effect. We shall not delve deeper into these different aspects as it is unrelated to the purpose of our discussion. However, notice that the notion of JUSTICE is not found among those 4 essential elements. Why is this so?

Before I begin, however, I would like to simplify the contention of the law discussed. This is to prevent bumping into major differences between the different laws enforced by different body. I shall be expounding on a law that stands for a FREE body, delivering the order of COMMON LAW, enforced by the PARLIAMENTARY LEGISLATION and intended toward ITS CITIZENS. Points 3 and 4 are specific to this order but point 3 is applicable to other rules of conduct.

  1. The core principle of law is enforcing order, not justice.

This simple notion is similar to the age-old argument of democracy vs communism. We are however, not interested in the different ideology each postulates. We are more interested in the different types of market offered by each of the two. The open market in democracy is adopted to effectively allocate resources and maximize total welfare of the society (efficiency). The centrally planned market in communism is meant to distribute resources equally to the society thus giving everybody a fair share of the economic pie (equity).

Much like the market scenario, the law is mainly concerned with maintaining the status quo as it is, assuming the status quo offers the highest good to the society. The law thus becomes relatively inert and unchangeable. The certainty that comes from this is important to law as it gives assurance and predictability that the same principle will hold true in the future. This assurance subsequently promotes order as people come to associate certain behaviour with certain punishments or rewards by the law.

Justice, however, is concerned with adjusting the law to suit the circumstance at the time of occurrence. As various factors may contribute in causing different breaches of the law, it is then important to adjust the law to suit those different elements. While this is a sound argument, it is not the main concern of the law. Even though adjustments can be made to adapt with the circumstance, it is generally difficult to persuade the law to excuse or change its established rule to suit the interest of the moment. This adjustment falls under ‘equity’ category and is only considered after determining the type of breach according to the existing law. Put it in another way, order reigns supreme over justice.

  1. Justice is relative, but the law is certain.

Do you think a thief should be spared? What if he steals to feed their family? Or to cure his sick daughter? What if he accidentally murders someone during the conduct?

Each of you may have different answers and suggest different degree of consideration toward the thief. That is perfectly normal and understandable. It is also, however, the biggest flaw of justice – everybody has a different notion of it. What holds true to you may not necessarily hold true to others. It is impossible to accommodate the law to suit the preference of the individuals. For this reason, it is equally impossible to enforce justice to everyone. The law, therefore, is not able to plant its root on justice simply because it lacks the one most integral aspect of the law – certainty.

Of course, it is not possible to get an accurate assessment of an occurrence of breach without looking at all the contributing factors that give rise to the offense. When traced to a reasonable extent, backtracking is able to pinpoint and help determine the degree of breach and the reason of breach – both important aspects of a criminal investigation. However, there is always a limit. This may vary among countries but it is generally traced only up to the point where the event has a “significant” role in contributing to the breach. Again, there exists the possibility that some limit may be premature and may subsequently obscure investigation to the root of the problem, serving only partial justice.

Yet this is not a problem for the law. It is only concerned with preserving certainty and order in the society. So long as it remains that way, no extra energy will be wasted to further their find – at least not until the next related breach.

  1. The law is made by consensus, not individual interest.

As previously explained, it is impossible to cater to each of our own notion of justice. Hence, in a democratic system, rules of conduct are made through parliamentary procedures and consensus.

Under the common law, a Bill is first suggested by members of the legislature and told to the Senate. Should the Senate vote to approve it, a draftsperson will then draft out the Bill. The draft is then read to the members of the House of Origin. A debate occurs and if the Bill is voted and approved, it will go to the House of Review. The members of the House read and debate over the Bill, pointing out necessary changes when seen fit. After all the changes, the House will then vote on the Bill. If the majority concurs, it becomes an Act and is passed for Royal Assent. The rest of the process, is based on our shared experience.

Notice that the law consists of (at minimum) three votes – those by the Senate, the House of Origin, and the House of Review (any amendments must again be voted on when finished). In each of these votes, decision by the majority will be the one passed into law. This poses a problem – what about the minority? A law that bans face covering will not bid well with pious Muslim women (a reference to the French parliamentary decision in 2010). Similarly, a law that requires every person to subscribe to a religion is unjust to free thinkers and atheists (a reference to Indonesia’s 1st principle of Pancasila and the subsequent Clause 28(e) of The Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia of 1945; in fact, atheism is actually quite a taboo topic in this country).

From a utilitarian point of view, there may be security benefits conferred to the public by either removing the cover or requiring your religions stated on IDs. It may make it harder to hide your real identity. However, it also erodes certain religious values of Islamic belief itself, or for the case of religions-on-ID discourse, the sense of hypocrisy that many of us feel religion is a personal matter, not something that state ought to intervene.

How much must the minority bend to the will of the majority? While the answer to this is open for discussion, it purports the fact that it can be hard for justice to find its place in the law.

Despite all its apparent bleakness, the law is not necessarily fixed for good. In common law, equity exists alongside the law and trial by the jury exists alongside trial by the judge. We have come to recognise that various circumstances can give rise to certain offences. The law may be stubbornly fixed, but given the right reason, it can make an exception.

Themis, or the Greek equivalent of Iustitia (Lady Justice) is depicted wearing a blindfold while carrying a sword and a balance. The trinity symbolises decisions and penalties based on the objectivity of evidence and reason, impartial to subjectivity and emotion. However, let us also not forget that she is also blind. Perhaps it is time for her to discard the blindfold and “see” the law as how it fits with time and changes.