Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Philosophy, Logic and Imperfection

Someone I respected a great deal once told me that I am not a 'philosopher.' And they were right. I am not, at least not in the western sense of the word. Maybe also not in that sense of the word that says that I must speak to your mind only according to a certain logic, without which I cannot make 'philosophical' sense. If it means 'the love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means by moral self-discipline and observation of lived reality,' then that is the kind of philosopher I would be happy to be. As for logic, some of the people I admire most have also told me 'you have your own logic.' They meant it in the best sense, because when you use tools you have learned as just building blocks, and then integrate them into yourself, you create something different from what exists. If it is a regurgitation, you may be good... but you have not made it a part of yourself, and no mastery exists.

I grew up in a very smart home (no, not the kind with all the monitoring technology), brilliant brothers and mother, all more logical than I, but wonderful teachers. My father was/is a mathematician. And a certain rigor was commanded by the learning of that subject in our home. Along with this went much philosophizing about almost everything, a cultural necessity in a Kashmiri Brahmin home -- the relation of what we would read in the 'Gita' to daily life lived in a setting so far from all that was familiar and known: family, environment, our 'habitat' I want to call it.

Math was formative as was its logic. My father is very fond of the history of numbers and we grew up with these stories. The stories of discovery and pursuit of mathematical truths were as important as the discovery itself. Much like the admiration a disciple may have for his martial arts master, we were taught to revere the pursuit of learning, and in the case of math, the discovery. And so I remember the fibonacci sequence and other answers discovered that could not be contained. I think this aspect of mathematics fascinated me the most; that math was able to admit its own limitations in a sense, when it was overcome by nature, and nature's patterns. The most amazing numbers are those with no end!

This is what is amazing about life too. The decisions we take, the choices we make when they are made according to nature's plan... that is, from our own natural strength, albeit aware, still innocent and full of hope. It is in these moments that fascinating discovery can and does take place. It is in this place that limitations cease and infinity begins. It is where the heart, mind and muscles sense each other quickening with the pursuit of something necessary to the spirit, to the simple but full living of one's own life.

Infinity also is a place of so called 'imperfection.' The pattern of petals on a flower, or leaf arrangements on a branch, or even the ratio of parts of a human body known as the 'golden ratio.' It is infinity we really strive for, and yet in our drive for patterns we also conform. For humanity as a group must have a certain order also. Someone else must study these patterns to find the golden ratios in conformist behavior and human groupings. Why can we, human communities and patterns of conformity, not be like the petals on a flower or a leaf arrangement, after all?

Therein lies the tension: we strive for patterned order while seeking to breach the limitations of the stability and structure created. It is this story that we both repeat and love to tell in what we term the 'progress narrative.' What would be the point in telling the story if we did not feel that we had 'evolved' or gone beyond where we had previously been. Some say that after a war or invasion, it is the victors who write 'history.' And so whoever tells the story, also must make themselves look good, as having created something better than those who lost the battle. It is a bit of 'rubbing it in' to be sure, but that is not how our children will necessarily read it, we think. The ones who come immediately after us, for whom we have created the world we bring them into, and who benefit from our counsel as they grow up, will only embellish our story. If we are smart, we worry about 10 generations later for the real judgment when the 'revisionist' version is written.

Much of the law and legal structure come out of these stories of push and pull. The law is written and then rewritten, sometimes because there is a real need for order, sometimes because there is a real need to show that those who govern really can and do command the order we seek, or represent a 'new' order. An important part of law then is publicizing it, telling the story of it, even writing it out and plastering it in the village square so everyone can read it and know what the order of the day or year is, and who the governors may be.

Currently, it is a change in regime also, from republican to democrat. An ideological difference but one that is difficult to demarcate by simply changing laws and increased regulation. Where the content and substance changes, it is easy to see that a change has occurred. In the case of a simple increase in regulation over the same terrain it is more difficult to tell that change will mean a difference in the order or patterns of behavior created. For the latter, we really require implementation and enforcement. With enforcement of laws, the governing order incentivizes and penalizes a certain conformity in behavior, creating beautiful or ugly patterns. Where disorder reigns, we tend to be aesthetically offended: as in the financial crisis, and the rampant criminal behavior unlimited by regulation or by its enforcement.

It is these patterns I study and rely on in my paper on a new International Financial Tribunal because even as I and others seek to respond, it is important to be aware that we are pieces of a puzzle, hopefully ones that fit into the sweet albeit far from neat pattern of infinity breeding ideas of goodness and 'gold' (in the best sense of that word).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Of Womanhood, Strengths and Challenges

This past week I was invited to speak at the Hague about my proposal for a new international finance court as a response to the enormous changes in the global financial system. The resulting complexity for transnational claimants has made litigating within national parameters increasingly difficult and limited. More than once other speakers remarked to me that the debate over the making of international law in this domain of finance would shift simply because the person making the contribution, namely myself, was different from the others. One fellow participant at the conference said, "You are a woman of diversity... India, Canada, the U.S. from a very different background. This will alter the discourse." I think there is some truth to this.

The definition of gender roles at this critical point in human history is important for law and human relationships and culture. There are cultures that are reactively calling us back to strict adherence to such roles, as in Islam. There are more secular cultures that assert the equal right of women to all experience and authority, and also accept gay and lesbian relationships at par with heterosexual ones although the members of such unions may be avidly religious. In most part, there exists some increased understanding and acceptance of women as different in their own right. I will come back to what I mean by this last statement.

Differences between men and women have been debated throughout time, as various agendas for labor distribution, location of power, misunderstandings and scholarly curiousity have played out. Carol Gilligan's and others' ground-breaking work on the difference in thinking between little boys and girls, has spilled out into a recognition perhaps that women contribute differently in both form and content. Little boys it was claimed in that small study are more outwardly focused and aggressive, where little girls are more empathic approaching each problem set from a place of understanding and inclusion as opposed to adversarial attack and separation. Clearly much can be gained by allowing both men and women to approach each problem to devolve a more holistic solution. Although to the contrary, segregating the sexes based on what are already seen as strengths and weaknesses of each gender may dampen competition between the sexes, given that predominantly men and women mate and make homes together. It makes things easier to have different roles, no?

However, if women approach problems differently, they change the dynamic of the subject, and the manner in which the subject itself may be handled. That is the problems that we have to solve themselves may be different if women contributed to their formation. Do we really need more problems? Some formed by women and some formed by men? No. The point is men have determined the parameters of content and form of problems todate. The combined effort may make for fewer and different problems, maybe easier problems?

This also directly impacts women's self-definition. I want to say that women themselves have a difficult time with self-definition. If the only way they have known themselves is by mainstream definitions provided from a male point of view, then all they can be is different from men. A quick example from my children's early life. They used to share a room, two bunk beds, between the ages of 2 and 4 and 7 and 9. We had to move because they were driving me crazy; they wouldn't stop fighting. (We lived in a 2 bedroom apartment.) Mostly they were fighting about self-definition because they shared this room for too long. They had adopted roles, only one of them could be good at any particular thing. If my son was smart in school, my daughter had decided she had to be stupid. If my son was good at the piano, then she could not be and so on. Now none of this made any sense... she was brilliant in math, and she had an avid interest in music, and got a rousing ovation playing the piano at 3 years of age... so clearly something she could have kept doing but she would not. Within a semester of our move, I was able to see the difference. Not only did the fighting abate, but they could inhabit the same interests again. Not all would overlap, but now I could be reassured that it had more to do with their own strengths and interests and less with asserting difference from the sibling.

There is danger then in heeding too strongly Gilligan's thesis of difference. One wonders if it is not overly deterministic by and of difference between the sexes. Certainly, there are ways in which men and women are similar in their thinking too. We are human after all. We have occupied different roles through much of history because of convenience and culture perhaps? Misogyny or misunderstanding? The physical power differential? The occupation of different roles in the distribution of labor for so long that it forms us as different? The biological differences etching a different emotional and empathic sensibility? All these are possible origins.

But a different viewpoint from the mainstream can originate from other minorities also. Of course, women are not a minority. They mostly form a majority of the population in most nation-states and globally. Yet they are construed as minority because they do not determine the mainstream. This brings us to the other question: which men, if it is men, get to determine the mainstream viewpoint? Those that own the educational system, media, money (we are back to that), governing bodies, financial institutions? Does it stand to reason that the longer you have held power over governing bodies and finance, and the economic system (sustenance for the world's people) the more power you may have over how that power should be relegated between men and women, or between men of a certain race, creed, religion, or class over other men and women of other races, creeds, classes, religions?

Maybe. I can only ask the questions. The answers as someone else has said more eloquently 'are blowing in the wind.' Maybe the answers don't really matter. Maybe the making of harmony from difference is more important. Being a second child, I would opt for the latter. A firm believer in the integrative thesis (no surprise to anyone) let's go back to what difference I or other women can make to international legal discourse. First, we do tend to see the problem differently from men. For instance, whereas my colleagues see the need for international arbitration for the financial services industry specifically and only from the viewpoint of standardized master agreements crafted by ISDA that will require interpretation in a transnational setting, they miss completely the extent to which global finance has transcended borders and affected people, not just the institutional parties to ISDA agreements, but the world at large that has been invoked as investor, backer, client in multiple jurisdictions by legitimate and scamming financial institutions alike. Maybe it is not about building a tower, but about seeing the interweaving web created by the global financial system. We live on a globe, a sphere, and money like a neural synaptic connector has come to affect us all, a spark that is lighting a contagion of branches through the net. I cannot see the response as an assembly line tower, but view it as a comprehensive, culturally adjusted and systemically integrative institution.

I am also responding from my point of view as lawyer for investors in various international financial frauds, in international transactions at large, and of course, fraud investigators. So both the problems I define from my observations, and the responses to them, are apt to be contextually based. And most significantly, they will be contextualized within the experience set of my own herstory of life as an Indian, Canadian and new American immigrant.

There are deeper issues about constructions of property as determinative of gender hierarchy which I will not go into here. These issues are directly related to the ways in which legal systems may have perpetrated the subjugation of women and minorities generally. The main point I want to make is not so much that there is a purpose in what I am doing and contributing but that we are at a critical time in our history that enables more participation in legal discourse generally, from lawyers, scholars, and lay people alike. Diversity of all kinds is necessary to achieve solutions going forward that will assist humanity deal with the kinds of social, biological, and financial strife that are bound to increase with the burden of sustaining billions on the planet for the first time, the ravages of global warming (whether it is of our creation or natural), and increased health risks.

Since I am a woman, I can say that it is an unprecedented time after a long silence for women in my family to contribute 'publicly.' However, it is also a time of some challenge. There is stigma attached to divorce in the Hindu family, especially in a Kashmiri Brahmin family. Single parenting by women and men,is known of course, even in situations where the parents are together formally. The leap from married to officially single, however, has been lived with difficulty by others in the west and fewer in the east, unless forced by circumstances. Yet I note that there is bias in favor of seeing couples even here in the west, whether the couple is talking to each other or not, or whether the couple is married or not. So stigma prevails even in the west.

Both men and women appear to have difficulty determining their roles in this transitional space in which new culture is being written and the synchretism of such different cultural underpinnings takes place in the global flow. Just as we see bowls of curry apple squash soup, we see Caribbean, Indian, Finnish American families at the table for Diwali, Christmas, and Hunnukah. We are melding into each other like a thousand tributaries of the same vibrant river heading into the large ocean that created us. Whether the 'wisdom' uttered comes of woman, man, child, dark, light, freckled, rich, poor, middle class,of whatever cultural affiliation, let's hope we make it possible to hear it, recognize it, and heed it!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Wink and a Nod, Ethics a Year After the Confession

This has been the year of appearing to do justice. But, the issues remain, the questions left unanswered. A man named Madoff, ending not so differently from the way he began -- a self-interested insecure youngster who wanted to make money and would do whatever it took, ended up knowing he had to bring about his own demise so he could retain a status claimable by an exaggerated infamy.

All it took was cheating and lying to all who would listen. Once the money was made, they not only listened, they sold their trust and with it their ethics and their ideals. A wink and a nod, and it was understood that if you had the golden contact you would easily make a good, if not great rate of return. This was the case for the inside club. Those who are not seen as innocent investors: Shapiro, Chais, Pikower and others in the U.S. and abroad. There is a second tier who made handsome returns but not quite as much as the hundreds and thousands of percent these insiders 'earned' by feeding the braincenter.

Ponzis are an affinity fraud. 'Affinity' is a natural attraction, liking or close feeling of kinship according to the Merriam-Webster. But 'affinity' also fits neatly into the narratives and the oppressive grand narratives of culture of which Lyotard speaks. Criminality or greed can find that level of trust, or natural bonding that comes from the sharing of a human impulse grown strong by the making and hording of money. It is the same story of money-making told over and over by not just the Madoffs and their cronies but by the grander ones within the capitalist ideal: those who smuggled liquor during prohibition, discovered oil, and even discovered 'new lands.' Whereas financial and natural tsunamis do not discriminate, hitting all pro rata, capitalist affinity or 'cronyism' is only for the 'select few,' who will not tell on you, even when that number grows to thousands.

Significantly, Madoff was a mere symptom of the times: times that unveiled the Petters, Stanford, and hundreds of others crawling out of their caves of muck, reduced by the shame of loss (for the greedy, can there be a greater shame?). We can ask now if this ebbing of the tide has extinguished 'their kind.' Have there been enough jail sentences some ask? Has regulatory reform secured the perimeter? Will the 150 years received by Madoff deter others? Will this gunning down of scams, and financial giants lead to a return to the good? Has justice been done or is it at least on the right track?

I don't think so. I still see all around me the signs of aggressive as opposed to conservative action by financial institutions. Some are in trouble and thereby distracted for a little while. But those who have power, have redoubled efforts to self-gain on the backs of consumers and investors who continue to pay in their stead. Bail outs and support of mismanagement could not have helped. These actions may have simply prolonged the pain for all of us. Madoff in the end, like Martha Stewart may merely be a visible celebrity sacrifice for others to stay in the business of greed.

I had occasion to speak with an EU Central Banking leader on my travels who claimed the industry is not interested in reform. He claimed it is instead in denial. This I found hard to believe. Surely, an unprecedented downturn and exposure of the absurd risk profile of financial institutions globally must have taught them a lesson? Surely those with power and money realize the gross consequences of their breach on billions of people relying on their wisdom? Has the discrepancy between wisdom and those with money and power made justice unattainable? Are money and power so conflated now that neither wisdom nor justice can pry them apart? Is power only a term denoting self-interest and self-aggrandisement? In other words, is there no one around to hear the plea of those without millions to their name, in losses or gains: the ordinary, or not so ordinary whose cares may carry them to interests other than the commercial and the monetary?

If not, then how did it all start? What do our children learn in school? What do they learn at home? If their parents' securities' operations are investigated by the SEC and then shut down, must they long for the same treatment, hoping they too will be caught and repeat the familial program? Or is it a challenge to the youngster, to make sure it does not happen to him, that he will overcome this governing agency's power and avenge his parents' shame? How many new Madoffs are growing in the inadequacy and insecurity of average students afraid to attempt the accumulation of real wisdom and the dismissal of a call to artificial wealth?

Further still, what of universities? Given the rampant commercialization of almost every aspect of endeavour, from art to dance, finance, law, politics, and even education, shouldn't every college student have to take an ethics course? How many of them will sell out their ideals? Do they not deserve some grounding in decision-making that elicits healthy skepticism and a penchant for all that is good and 'human.'

Dec. 11, 2008, I learned some incredible truths about the world I live in. I cannot claim to have been sheltered all my life. I grew up early in the middle of war, my birthplace a battlefield in more ways than one. I did not come into the world thinking all was rosy. Every bit of poetry spoken from my lips and brushstroke of wisdom penned by my hands have been deliberate acts of reclamation of what I feel I was not allowed to have or experience. Transforming the world around me has been the only song worth singing.

However, the reality of survival digs deep into the sides of one's lungs and we breathe it in even as we take a walk up the mountain of green pines and maples, smelling the alleged scent of purity. Never having sensed the invasive stab at our ribs, we have been polluted by the fiction unknowingly. This alien sensibility we have attempted to overcome all our lives in a quest for transcendance not to the other, but to ourselves, our real selves in a place with no worry, no fear, no torture, no grief, brings us back and we cough it up and out. Deceit, fraud, hurt and tragedy compose that pollution and the fiction of the system in which it breeds.

In its place, don't we all deserve to experience the transcendent self? Isn't that what we learned in the second world war. What was the point of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? There are no vermin among us. We have together created this world, the financial system and its various incarnations, the constitutional systems (we see evidence in California as it looks inward to its own 'Madisons' and amends its constitution 500 times), the economic systems, the social systems, and the start of it all, the family. We have killed millions of our own in one genocide after another, trying to get something right, or maybe trying to get something terribly wrong. And it is painful to acknowledge this for some of us who choose to see the horror.

I wonder when we will overcome ourselves and choose instead to help rather than hurt, to share rather than take, to learn rather than obliterate. In this age when barriers have been broken by the internet and mobility, I am reminded of the concept of sovereignty and territoriality, a projection of individual need that attempts to respect the other, and I wonder even as we yearn to communicate and hold humanity in our arms, do we not desperately need such respect individually and globally? The community we seek and create informally and formally helps us to better understand ourselves, but it also helps us hurt each other. It is a double-edged sword and with it law must in parallel be double-edged.

There must be ways to infiltrate the speed of innovation and activity of hurt we as humans are able to cause and create, with boundaries (individual, national, and along the spectrum in between) through the teaching of law and ethics at levels and in ways we have yet to conceive. Or where conceived, then in ways yet to be enforced. There is probably no better time to insert the random and the diverse, even taking the risk of welcoming the peripheral good.

If we take Dec. 11, 2008 as a day to mark our own support of a system of corruption and greed flagrantly thrown in our faces by those who have to confess it for us to know what we have done, then perhaps today, a year later, we can stand up and say we see what we have done, and we will do our best to change it!

Traveling and learning about healthcare

Travel is a great way to understand better how others think. I am on my way to Paris and Amsterdam right now...writing on the plane, one of my favorite spots for this exercise, even in the midst of turbulence we are currently encountering. Knowing how others think and what they believe is a great way to understand the limitations and challenges of one's own cultural make up. As I keep intimating, law and culture are inextricably linked.

So on the way to the airport, my cab driver volunteered a lecture on what ails American politics. He called himself a libertarian, and believed America had lost its values. Although he was not a fundamentalist, he believed some faith was important in one's life to steer the course. He also believed that government had gotten too big. He was not in favor of current health care reform even though he had not had health care for years he said, "can't afford it." "Then doesn't the current health reform make sense?" I asked. He did not think so. He was afraid he would be covered but that the government would then be able to decide every aspect of his health needs, and he would have to either wait for the kind of care he needs or have to go to Alaska to get the right doctor because the government would want to make sure health care was equally distributed throughout the US.

I wasn't really sure what he was getting at. It appeared to me that either he was scared government would be able to take over health care entirely because it would be the cheapest option (and then why wouldn't everyone switch if it was the cheapest); but then answered him with his own argument, "because it is not the most effective option as you claimed."

At the same time he had solutions of his own, namely 7 percent of our income should go to health care and save us the hassle of all these choices. But good local healthcare should be provided and the insurance companies would still be able to survive because we would need catastrophic coverage, a serious illness for which extra coverage would be required. I asked if he did not think this sounded eerily like the current government option? He didn't think so.

For my part, I told him that I really needed government healthcare when I got to the U.S. as a single parent of two, studying and raising my kids on $12K a year for a number of years. The kids were young and didn't need much, but they did need healthcare. Having just arrived from Canada, it was the most foreign thing for me to contemplate having to pay for health insurance. What was more of a shock was the cost of health care, in those conditions it was completely unaffordable. $500 a month for family healthcare, was the average income for an entire year for families in other parts of the world. I could not imagine how this made sense when all each of us needed was a check up once a year... of course with young children you cannot take a chance. They catch everything being exposed to other children all day long.

I recall talking to someone randomly at microcenter about this topic back in those early days of my arrival. I could not understand the great vehemance with which that other average American approached the idea of universal healthcare, as a government takeover. As a Canadian, I had become accustomed to some sense of governmental care as a normal part of adulthood. But in the U.S. I was quickly learning, self-sufficiency in rhetoric, culture and law was up and coming. Unbridled and unleashed ambition, entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation was more than encouraged, it was fed through cultural nutrition. As such, challenges were taken with responsibilities by Americans. With the risk of failure, or 'no healthcare' came the possibility of great reward and more choice and self-sufficiency. This was a fairly extreme stance for Canadians, who tend to live more balanced lives. Although interested in the upside, most work and go to college closer to home, eat well, live well, worry less, and of course, they all have health care.

Interesting...I thought, on the bright side, clearly health care is now a work in progress here after decades. There is no getting around thinking about the options! Paradoxically, despite his lament my cab driver was a living tribute to the fact America has not lost all its values. Through the entire cab ride, he attacked and pontificated about the policies of his government. At the very least, participation, free speech and thought were alive and well!