This is the archived blog for August 2003.
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Friday, August 29
Here are some thoughts prompted by Where
Did Social Studies Go Wrong?, a new report from the Thomas B. Fordham
Foundation (edited by James Leming, Lucien Ellington and Kathleen Porter
and with an introduction by Chester E. Finn, Jr.). This is a conservative
alternative to The Civic
Mission of Schools, the joint CIRCLE/Carnegie Corporation report
on social studies and civic education released earlier this year.
The rhetoric of the Fordham Foundation report is angry. Chester Finn
says that “the lunatics have taken over the asylum”; that
the response of the “education establishment” to Sept. 11
was “despicable”; that the “keys of Rome are being
turned over to the Goths and Huns.” However, I think it’s
worth looking beyond these fighting words to the content of the report,
which differs interestingly (but not completely) from the content of
The Civic Mission of Schools.
The Civic Mission of Schools identifies a set of facts, behaviors,
and attitudes that students should obtain by 12th grade. It then lists
six approaches that seem to produce those outcomes. The main evidence
consists of aggregate statistics comparing students who have experienced
the recommended approaches with those who have not. Only one of the
approaches is formal instruction in history, government, and civics.
The Civic Mission does not go into great detail about what
content should be taught in social studies classes, although it does
stress the importance of factual knowledge and the need to connect it
to concrete actions. The Report calls for more research on pedagogy
In contrast, Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong? is almost
entirely concerned with what teachers are telling students in formal
history and government classes. Young people are repeatedly described
as woefully ignorant, and the blame is ascribed to pedagogical methods
and content selection in formal classes.
The authors focus on content and pedagogy for two reasons. First,
they believe that what teachers say matters a great deal. Mark C. Schug
contributes a chapter endorsing “teacher-centered instruction”
as the most effective pedagogy. Perhaps the authors do not think that
the other approaches have much effect at all. James S. Lemming argues
that discussion of controversial issues is developmentally inappropriate
for k-12 students, which is why many do not participate and those who
do talk don’t really deliberate (p. 138). Several contributors
disparage service-learning. There is no mention whatsoever of extracurricular
activities or student participation in school governance.
Secondly, the authors’ emphasize content and pedagogy because
of their extreme dismay at some of the things that they believe students
are being told in formal classes. “Why is social studies in such
deep trouble? The contributors believe one reason is the dominant belief
systems of the social studies education professoriate who train future
teachers. [Thus] in this book we exclusively focus upon, to use E.D.
Hirsch’s phrase, the ‘thought world’ of social studies
leaders’” (pp. i-ii). In practice, this means that the authors
quote textbooks on pedagogy; textbooks used in k-12 classes; and statements
of official groups such as the NEA, NCATE, and NCSS. These quotations
are supposed to prove that education professors and other experts favor
relativism, skepticism about all forms of truth, anti-Americanism, and
other objectionable doctrines. Education schools turn out teachers with
little knowledge and poor values; teachers impart what they
were told to their students; and students score badly on tests such
as the NAEP Civics Assessment. “Garbage In, Garbage Out”
is the title of chapter 6 and the theme of the whole volume.
Empirically, there are two weaknesses to this argument. First, I am
not at all convinced that the depiction of education experts (through
selective quotations) is fair or complete. For instance, no author mentions
Magruder’s American Government, which claims an outright
majority of the high school market. Unlike the textbooks that the authors
do quote, Magruder’s is quite congenial to their views,
so it would rhetorically inconvenient to mention it.
An example of pretty tendentious criticism is Jonathan Burack’s
reading of The La Pietra Report (by Thomas Bender and other
historians). He quotes a passage about the dangers of nationalism that
he calls “unobjectionable” in itself (p. 46). But, he says,
“the problems the La Pietra project claims to address
do not appear to be all that significant. This suggests that other agendas
may be at work. On the matter of American exceptionalism, for instance,
is the aim to temper uncritical pro-American bias, or is it to instill
indifference to any patriotic appeal at all, no matter how well founded?”
The answer is probably the former. In any case, one could easily apply
Burack’s interpretive methods to his own article. One would quote
selectively, argue that the problems he addresses are “not all
that significant,” and darkly allege that “other agendas
may be at work.”
Second, there is not much about what teachers say and do in
their classrooms. Schug thinks that real teachers (those who survive
their first-year of hazing by students) ignore what they were taught
in education schools (p. 101). Ellington and Eaton cite evidence that
teachers are considerably more conservative than education professors
(p. 72). Burack thinks that the relativism preached by education experts
may be “triggering an understandable, if in some cases equally
mindless, reaction against it” (p. 41). Nevertheless, most contributors
assume that education professors are causally responsible for poor student
outcomes. If teachers pay little attention to their professors, then
this cannot be true.
Each contributor to Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?”
ends with recommendations, but I think they can be roughly summarized
as follows: History is the core subject matter. Teachers are responsible
for teaching it, and there are limits to student-centered, experiential
approaches. American history should be taught “warts-and-all,”
but most current textbooks are far too critical about American institutions.
(Several authors emphasize that the United States is the single best
polity in history; see, for instance, p. 27.) The scope and sequence
of social studies education is misconceived, because students do not
have to start with their own neighborhoods and work outward (p. 115).
Learning about heroes and struggles from the past is inspiring at any
age. Teachers must be careful not to try to reform society through social
studies education, but they should impart rigorous knowledge of the
On his website, Finn gave The Civic Mission of Schools a
“C+.” Given his explanation of poor student outcomes (he
blames groups like the NEA and NCSS), it would have been awkward for
him to give the report an “A.” But he couldn’t give
it an “F,” either, because there are too many points of
common ground. In particular:
• There is not a whiff of relativism in the Civic Mission
of Schools, which emphasizes the importance of factual knowledge
and “moral and civic virtues.” We do say that “competent
and responsible citizens” are “tolerant of ambiguity and
resist simplistic answers to complex questions”; but this does
not imply skepticism or relativism. Diane Ravitch says something quite
similar: “teachers and textbooks [must] recognize the possibility
of fallibility and uncertainty” (p. 5).
• Finn thinks that one problem with social studies is the emphasis
on testing in reading, writing, and math. He argues that “what
gets tested is what gets taught,” and therefore “NCLB is
beginning to have deleterious effects” on civics. This is also
a theme in the Civic Mission.
• J. Martin Rochester cites the same evidence of student disengagement
that we cite (e.g., declining turnout), and endorses Kids Voting because
of its thoughtful combination of knowledge and experience (p. 28).
• I personally share Burack’s criticism of superficial multiculturalism
that doesn’t go into depth on any culture or ever address the
negative aspects of cultures other than our own (p. 50).
In short, the two reports are not worlds apart, although there are
significant differences, and several contributors to the Fordham report
bitterly criticize the very groups that signed the Civic Mission.
Thursday, August 28
(posted on Friday morning) I am curious about the "transnational
activists": those young people who organize movements and stage
protests about global issues. In particular, I wonder about
their knowledge levels. In the 1999 IEA
Civic Education Study, American 14-year-olds ranked dead last (out
of 28 countries) in their knowledge of international issues and institutions.
I presume that the transnational activists are more knowledgeable than
their peers are, although that should be investigated. I wonder whether
knowledge is a predictor of activism, and/or whether people gain knowledge
It is possible that interest in transnational issues has risen because
knowledge of local and national issues and institutions has fallen.
A lot of young people are fairly perplexed about how and why they might
participate in local or national issues. Before they can participate,
they must form opinions about private actors (such as corporations)
and also about elaborate sets of public institutions. For example, if
they want to get involved in US environmental issues, they may find
that they have to understand the role of the EPA and the courts, the
differences between Democrats and Republicans, their own state's regulations,
and many other matters that polls show they do not grasp. They also
have to understand and consider a wide range of potential actions, such
as voting for particular candidates, joining parties, and criticizing
specific public officials. At the international level, however, the
public institutions are very weak and can more easily be ignored. I
realize that activists often choose to protest outside the existing
international public institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF.
But my sense is that these bodies are viewed mainly as symbols of multinational
capitalism. They don't exercise as much power as national governments
do, and they give average people no opportunities for influence. Paradoxically,
their weakness and undemocratic nature may make them easier to understand.
Wednesday, August 27
(Written while stuck in the Manchester, NH, airport, and posted on
Thursday): Imagine that some of the major political philosophers of
the eighteenth century are observing modern politics from their permanent
perches in Limbo. What would they say?
Edmund Burke: We should normally maintain the status
quo (whatever it may be), since people have learned to adjust to it
and it embodies the accumulated wishes and experiences of generations.
I am especially skeptical of efforts to reform societies quickly by
imposing ideas that came from other cultures or from the exercise of
"universal reason" (as if there were such a thing). Good conservatives
are hard to find today. This Newt Gingrich person represents the polar
opposite of my views. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was sensible throughout
his career, from his days opposing Great Society programs to his battles
to preserve welfare (always in the interests of maintaining an existing
social structure). Some modern leftists are Burkeans, in their efforts
to conserve indigenous cultures against markets. The IMF and the World
Bank remind me of the British Raj—they are arrogant purveyors
of a rationalist philosophy that will backfire in distant lands. I'd
vote Green, just to shock people.
Edward Gibbon: The Roman Republic exemplified the
main civic virtues: patriotism, military discipline, sobriety, love
of the common good, and worldly reason. These virtues were undermined
by Christianity, which was other-worldly, pacifistic, superstitious,
and hostile to national pride. I have a soft spot for your deist Founding
Fathers, but I can't find anyone to like these days. Conservatives share
my list of virtues, but they're revoltingly pious. Things continue to
decline and fall.
Thomas Jefferson: The New Dealers used to like me
because I was a civil libertarian and a political populist. They built
me a nice monument. Now conservatives love to quote statements of mine
like "That government is best which governs least." But I've
given up on politics. I don't know what to make of a society in which
independent family farmers represent much less than one percent of the
population. I was surprised when governments started enacting expensive
programs with the intention of benefiting ordinary people; that never
happened before 1850. Did the programs of the Progressive Era and the
New Deal represent popular will, or did they interfere excessively in
private life? I can't decide. In any case, my own dead hand should not
weigh heavily on the living, so I advise you to ignore any advice I
gave in my own lifetime. I now spend my whole time working on labor-saving
James Madison: I sought to construct a political system
that would tame the ruling class (to which I admit that I belonged)
and align our interests with those of the broad public. The ruling elite
in my day included Southern planters and Northern traders, manufacturers,
and bankers. They had reasons to care about their own families' reputations
(especially locally), and thus could be induced to play constructive
roles. Also, they had conflicting interests: planters stood on the opposite
side of many issues from manufacturers and shippers. Thus each group
could be persuaded to check the worst ambitions of the others. I expected
men of my class to hold all the offices in an elaborate system of mutually
competitive institutions. They would seize opportunities to feather
their own nests, but they would also care about the long-term prospects
of their home communities, the institutions within which they served,
and the United States. Therefore, they would act in reasonably public-spirited
ways. In contrast, today's ruling class consists of large, publicly
traded corporations. They have no concern with their political reputations,
and no loyalty to communities or the nation. You moderns need to look
for a different mechanism for inducing today's ruling class to serve
public purposes. I do not view the system that I created as adequate
for that purpose.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau: All patriotic, decent people
have the same interests and goals. Disagreements arise because people
chatter together privately in little groups or factions, and also because
some people mislead others with their clever rhetoric. A perfect democracy
would have no factions and no debate. I am heartened to read in a book
by Hibbing and Morse that millions of Americans are Rousseauians.
They hate political debate, parties, legislatures, and professional
politicians, for they realize that all decent people have the same interests.
I like this Schwartzenegger fellow; he seems so natural.
Tom Paine: Most Americans still agree with me, and
yet the aristocrats run things. I'm going to endorse Dean.
Adam Smith: Everyone realizes now that international
trade creates wealth, that markets encourage specialization (and thus
efficiency), and that official monopolies and trade barriers are bad
for the economy. Fewer people pay attention to my moral philosophy and
my account of civil society. I get plenty of praise, but some of it
from embarrassing quarters.
Tuesday, August 26
(Still from Camden): If you compare a newspaper website to
a conventional newspaper page, I think the results are a little
surprising. We're used to seeing the Internet as a great expansion of
possibilities, compared to print. But news websites only display about
15 words on each line, plus advertising and navigation bars. That means
that a reader must essentially scroll down one vertical column of text
at a time. A traditional sheet of newsprint, by contrast, is very wide
and can contain an elaborate array of stories (some linked together),
diagrams, and photographs. The reader can spread out a newspaper, scan
it quickly, and select what to read and in what order.
As a result, news sites are perhaps more like broadcast programs than
they are like conventional newspapers. A broadcaster can only transmit
one stream of content at a time. There is always a danger that listeners
will switch channels if they don't like what they see and/or hear. Thus
broadcasters feel pressure to cater to as large an audience as possible
with each of their programs. In contrast, a traditional newspaper is
a diverse bundle of material, which readers can navigate and read selectively.
The more diversity of content, the better, at least to a point. One
would think that Internet sources would be more interactive and diverse
than newspapers, not less so. But I think that the width of
our current screens may actually make websites more like broadcast channels.
They have to emphasize a few headline stories and try to keep their
visitors from "clicking" away to other sites.
Of course, there are other differences between newspapers and news
websites. (To name just a few: the lack of any final edition on websites;
visitors' ability to search current and archived editions; and the prevalence
of links to sites beyond the newspaper's control.) Still, the difference
in width deserves mention.
Monday, August 25
(Written in Camden, Maine) On August 16, the Washington lawyer Robert
F. Bauer wrote an interesting opinion piece on the California
Recall election. He noted that the recall is competitive, largely
non-partisan, short, and intensely engaging to the public and the media.
These are the very qualities that reformers usually find lacking in
our long, partisan, low-turnout elections. Thus, Bauer says, reformers
should be delighted with the recall as an alternative to "politics
as usual." Instead, they rail against it as a "circus"
or even a "tragedy." That is because it is not "the controlled,
tidy, deliberative politics that some of them profess to care about:
'serious' candidates engaged in 'serious' debate mediated by political
'experts,' such as themselves, in an established, familiar setting."
Bauer thinks that reformers are sanctimonious and also impractical;
normal politics is much better than they believe. The specific progressive
reform that led to this election—allowing governors to be recalled—was
really an attempt to banish "politics." That is what progressive
reformers always want, Bauer thinks, and the results always
Implication: progressives should rethink their support for campaign
finance reform, regulation of lobbying, and other "anti-political"
ideas that will, like recall elections, create disasters.
I think Bauer's criticism applies to Ross Perot and some Nader-type
reformers, who really are anti-political and therefore would like to
see less campaigning, weaker parties, less campaign spending, and less
ideological mobilization. Hence their support for term limits, initiative
and referendum, and spending limits. I have never belonged to this camp,
and neither do some of the leading reform groups, such as Common Cause.
I think parties are good, and that it is helpful for them to
mobilize mass support. I don't believe that elections last too long;
in fact, I think the presidential primary season may soon become too
short. And I don't think that too much money is spent on elections.
Last time I checked, the total amount was not more than $16 per capita,
which is not much to communicate to a mass public.
However, we do not have just two alternatives: the California "circus,"
and politics-as-usual. We could have a political system that was less
influenced by private money, more "serious" (in the sense
of being more closely connected to weighty choices that we need to make),
fairer, more competitive, and more engaging to all people, including
those with less money and education.
To me, the California election is a fiasco, because it represents a
failure of Californians to control their own futures. If Arnold Schwartzenegger
wins, it will not be because a plurality of Californians are moderate
Republicans (which would be a tolerably democratic result). Instead,
he will win because a plurality of Californians don't have any idea
what is going on in state government, so they imagine that a macho new
leader can simply banish all their fiscal problems. This will show that
they have no grasp of the ideological differences that have led to a
budget impasse. Democrats oppose deep budget cuts, and Republicans oppose
tax increases—principled positions that create huge deficits when
put together. Citizens need to choose one position or the other (or
split the difference). But Schwartzenegger claims that he can just clean
up the mess: a totally unprincipled position that sounds impressive
only to people who have never seriously considered the difficult choices
implied by a budget crisis. Thus, if Arnold wins, it will show that
many Californians feel no personal responsibility for the way their
own government has acted in the past.
Friday, August 21
I was wondering whether the states that tax their residents
at high rates tend to have higher or lower income levels. I
suppose a crude form of free-market economics would predict that states
with lower taxes would tend to generate more personal income. This is
not the case. Although the relationship between tax rates and per capita
income is not significant, generally the states that take the biggest
portion of income in state and local taxes also have the most per
capita wealth. States like Alabama have been low-tax zones for at least
a hundred years, yet they remain among the poorest of all states.
This isn't "social science." It's just playing with a computer
to get a quick answer to a simplistic question. Still, the graph poses
a real question for supporters of laissez-faire economics: if low taxes
create wealth, what explains Alabama? (Sources for the tax
rates and the per
capita income stats.)
Thursday, August 20
If you're interested in how GIS (computer mapping) technology
can help us understand human beings' use of their physical environment,
check out the 3-D
GIS Gallery of Professor Mei-Po Kwan, a geographer at Ohio State.
These are beautiful images, and potentially useful too.
Wednesday, August 19
On the day after the UN building in Baghdad was blown up, the US press
is rushing to say that the occupation of Iraq is perilously
close to failure. I am a card-carrying dove who opposed the war, as
this archive of blog entries shows. However,
I was wrong about the aftermath, which I thought would be considerably
worse than it has turned out to be. The current situation may actually
be closer to what the Bush Administration predicted than to what I expected.
I thought that there would be massive communual violence, pitting Shiites
against Sunnis and Arabs against Kurds. I thought there would be a civil
war over important assets like the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which is
disputed between Kurds and Arabs. I thought that neighboring countries
would be dragged into the war before Saddam was deposed—including
Israel, which I thought Saddam would attack. I thought that the (putative?)
illegality of the operation would cause us more trouble with Europe
than it has. And I thought that large segments of the Iraqi public might
well oppose our invasion violently, mainly because they would hold us
responsible for the sanctions regime. None of these awful scenarios
has come to pass. That doesn't mean that the Iraqi occupation/liberation
is going especially well, but we can certainly still hope that it will
turn out to be a blessing rather than a curse for both us and the Iraqi
Tuesday, August 18
I came across a quote today by Myles
Horton, the great founder of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee,
which trained Rosa Parks and so many other heroes of the labor and civil
rights movements. Horton said that he had learned from decades of nonviolent
struggle against injustice that "the way to do something
was to start doing it and learn from it."
I recognize the limitations to this approach. It's good to have a "strategic
plan" with goals and methods all arranged in proper order. Yet
often in civic work, improvisation is both a necessity and an inspiration.
As long as you keep your mind open, listen to others, and try to learn
from everything you do, it's sometimes wise to start working even before
you know exactly what you are doing.
I write this as I continue to read articles about local geography and
its effects on nutrition—all because I want to obtain a grant
that can support our local work with kids.
I don't know where that work will take us, but it seems important to
sustain a nascent institution by grasping the opportunities that come
along. (I don't mean to compare myself and my colleagues to Miles Horton,
because we're not struggling against injustice as he did. But we do
have a similarly cavalier attitude toward planning.)
Monday, August 17
I was interviewed on New Hampshire Public Radio last Friday about the
different styles of the Gephardt, Edwards, and Dean presidential
campaigns (see an imperfect
and incomplete text transcript or listen to the audio here.) Actually,
the reporter, David Darman, asked a very interesting set of questions
(which didn't come across clearly in the broadcast radio segment) about
what conception of the role of citizens is implicit in each campaign.
My quotes suggest that I'm biased in favor of Rep. Gephardt, which
is not really true. I do believe that if he fails, it will be symptomatic
of the collapse of mass mobilizing institutions, such as unions and
political parties, that used to multiply the power of ordinary people
and connect them to Washington. I do not believe that the Gov. Dean
style of campaigning, which is very "21st century," offers
an entree to people near the bottom of the socio-economic heap. They
won't be mobilized by listservs, blogs, and Meetup.com. This is
not only because they lack Internet access and interest in politics.
It's also because of the basic logic of collective action, which tell
us that people won't take costly action in the public interest unless
they are assured that others will also contribute. Voting is always
partly an altruistic act, because even if one votes in one's own self-interest,
it's more "rational" (meaning self-interest-maximizing) not
to expend the energy. Disciplined organizations such as unions overcome
this problem by guaranteeing that not only you will vote; so will many
like-minded people. Meanwhile, they lower the "cost" of voting
by providing free information. Wealthy and well-educated citizens find
that the cost of voting is relatively low, because they already have
much of the necessary information. Thus they don't need unions and parties;
and they are adept at using voluntary resources such as listservs or
blogs. Poor and poorly education people are at a disadvantage in this
environment, and their disadvantage is worse than it was fifty years
Friday, August 15
I was supposed to go to New York City today for a meeting at the Social
Science Research Council, but I found when I reached the airport at
6 am that no flights were leaving because of the huge blackout.
According to the New
York Times, the 1965 power failure "was largely characterized
by cooperation and good cheer," whereas the one in 1977 was "defined
by widespread looting and arson."
In 2003, we seem to be back to civility. Jeff
Greenfield of CNN says he "saw tourists pouring off those double-decker
buses looking dazed and confused. People were offering them free glasses
of water and restaurants were putting out food that was spoiled for
free. I saw police officers politely asking New Yorkers, 'Would you
mind please getting out of the street.'"
When I was deputy director of the National
Commission on Civic Renewal, I developed an Index
of National Civic Health. INCH, as we called it, declined sharply
in the early 1970s and then rebounded in the 1990s. I have to
wonder whether the three great NYC blackouts are evidence of the same
trend. Three scattered events do not really make a trend. Besides, I
have no specific data for New York City, and no INCH data at all for
2000-3. Still, it's interesting that New York has fared so much better
in emergencies when the national civic health is higher. More than 1,037
fires burned while the lights were out in 1977. In 1965, and again in
2003, people took care of each other instead.
(Incidentally, we couldn't run INCH back through the 1960s, because
we didn't have enough data from those early years. But if you make an
index out of the variables that we do have, then INCH declines throughout
the sixties. That means that it was much higher in 1965 than in 1977.)
Thursday, August 14
This is the latest plan for a grant proposal that would allow us to
work with high school kids, doing research in the community and generating
public products for the website that they have been building at www.princegeorges.org.
It is important for people to consume healthy food: products that are
low-fat, high-fiber, varied, and cooked with fresh ingredients. It is
also important for people to walk to work or to school and to complete
routine errands such as food shopping on foot—if the local streets
are safe. This is because regular activity plus healthy nutrition decreases
the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes and may relieve depression
Promoting healthy nutrition and walking is especially important today,
since obesity is increasing at an alarming rate, above all among adolescents.
Also, physical activity is lower among minorities and people with lower
education levels and less income.
A standard approach is to educate people to live more active
lifestyles, but such efforts tend to be disappointing. Changes in the
environment are more promising. To find out what environmental factors
influence whether people walk, consume healthy food, and (specifically)
walk to purchase healthy food, we will first survey a large sample of
students about their own nutrition and exercise within the preceding
24 hours. They will be asked exactly where they walked during that period
(i.e., the addresses or names of the places they visited). The respondents’
home addresses will also be collected, along with some demographic information.
This survey will allow us to estimate the distance that each student
walked using GIS methods, without relying on their own approximations.
Under our direction, a smaller group of high school and college students
will then collect data on the walkability of local streets; the danger
of crime on those streets; and the availability, cultural characteristics,
and price of healthy food in the community. To collect some of these
data, students will walk around the neighborhood with Palm Pilots, filling
in a field survey. The data that they collect will be layered onto a
GIS map. The most useful parts of this map (for example, the locations
of healthy food sources) will be made public on the website.
By combining these two sets of data—on student behaviors and
home addresses; and on local physical features—we hope to develop
a mathematical model that shows the relationships between active lifestyles
and specific aspects of the local environment
We hypothesize that it is not only the proximity of healthy food sources
that increases the chance that people will walk to these sources and
consume healthy food. It also matters how safe the streets are between
the person’s home and the store or restaurant; the price and cultural
attractiveness of food at that establishment; the concentration of stores
near the destination; and other variables that have never been studied
together in projects of this kind.
Wednesday, August 13
A lot of people’s eyes glaze over when they hear about a “budget”—whether
it’s for a business, a club, or the government of the United States.
Yet the government has enormous influence on our lives because of the
way it collects our money and spends it for various purposes. Its spending
priorities are reflected in its budget.
Unless you understand roughly what the budget includes, your opinions
may be completely irrelevant. For example, according to an
excellent survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes
(PIPA), a majority of Americans believe that the US spends too much
money on foreign aid. They estimate that 20 percent of the federal budget
goes to foreign aid; they would reduce this amount to 5 percent. In
fact, the federal government devotes less than 1 percent of its budget
to foreign, nonmilitary aid. Anyone who calls for aid to be cut to 5
percent has an irrelevant opinion, because he or she doesn’t understand
what the government does.
Here, then, is how the federal government spent an average
tax dollar during the years 1998-2004 (2003-4 are estimated).
The data come from this
OMB document, but I have made decisions about what programs to put
in each category. The federal government is responsible for about two-thirds
of all taxation, although it gives some of its funds to states. States
and local governments together raise about one third of all taxes. (Source:
The "all other" slice in the chart above is distributed as
Here is how an average state tax dollar is spent. Data from National
Association of State Budget Officers, State Expenditure Report, 2001
And this is an average county budget from 1996-7, based on the US Census
Bureau’s survey of county officials
Tuesday, August 12
I'm busy trying to raise money for the Prince
George's Information Commons, our project that helps local kids
use the Internet for civic purposes. There's one specific grant opportunity
that I want to go after, and it has a Sept. 2 deadline.
Given the terms of the grant opportunity ("research in active
living"), I can imagine us doing these three things:
1. We could help kids to map the walkable streets, parks, and healthy
food sources of the r community, so that we can investigate whether
that kind of research makes adolescents more aware of health issues,
more prone to healthy behavior, and more civically engaged. Our method
would be to give them (and a control group) questionnaires both before
and after the course, and measure the change.
2. We could help kids to produce public documents—such as maps,
brochures, website materials—that advertise the health assets
in the community, and investigate whether these materials lead to positive
health outcomes in the school or community. Our method would be to give
students in a set of classes a questionnaire, then expose them to the
materials that our kids create, and then survey them again.
3. We could use the data that the kids collect to generate genuine
research findings of value to other communities.
I'm convinced that the funder actually wants #3, and it's the hardest
item for me to conceive. We could say that we will collect baseline
data on walkability, nutritional quality, and crime, and use these data
for research purposes—but I doubt that that's specific enough.
We could say that we will investigate whether proximity to healthy assets
correlates with good health, controlling for lots of stuff, but I'm
not sure that kind of correlational research is rigorous enough. We
could say that we will resurvey the neighborhood periodically to establish
how much change occurs in walkability and other health variables. But
I'm not sure how interesting the mere rate of change would be. Or we
could say that we will use specific changes in the community as "natural
experiments." But then I think we need to describe one likely change
that we will be able to investigate. I haven't thought of one yet.
Monday, August 11
Post quotes a California citizen who supports Arnold Schwartzenegger's
gubernatorial bid: "His eyes brightened behind his glasses as he
discussed how someone like Schwarzenegger would bring fresh ideas and
an eagerness to correct the state's problems. "'I'm hopeful that
he will be independent enough in his thoughts that he thinks like a
citizen and not as an experienced politician,' [the citizen] said, 'so
that he can do the right thing." Echoing Schwarzenegger's 'Tonight
Show' line that he could not be bought, [he added]: 'Everyone who comes
to work with him knows that they're going to get nothing in return except
the satisfaction. We know he's not looking for money, and that's a plus.'"
This quote perfectly exemplifies what Hibbing and Theiss-Morse call
"stealth democracy" (See my
review of their book.) According to them, Americans believe that
there is no need for debates about policy, because all reasonable people
share the same goals. The fact that heated debates actually take place
proves that professional politicians are trying to gain some kind of
advantage over each other in a competitive game. And the reason they
play this game is that they want to obtain personal wealth from holding
I have no doubt that some Americans believe all this (including some
highly sophisticated people whom I have met). We'll
see from the California recall campaign whether it's the dominant view
in that state.
Friday, August 8
Productivity rose in the second quarter at an annual rate of 5.7%,
yet unemployment remained stubbornly high. Businesses did not increase
spending on equipment, so their productivity gains didn't come from
upgraded technology. Instead, I suspect, they squeezed more profits
out of the workforce the old-fashioned way. Middle-managers, afraid
of losing their own jobs, denied bathroom breaks to sales clerks. Benefits
packages were subtly watered down. More socks were reshelved by fewer
people at your neighborhood WalMart.
If the second quarter was a prelude to widespread economic growth that
will soon benefit everyone, fine. But if it represents the new version
of "growth," "productivity" and "recovery,"
who needs those things?
Thursday, August 7
Since the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation is clearly
benefiting Republicans and harming Democrats, why did most Republicans
vote against it and most Democrats support it?
There are cynical explanations. For example, maybe neither party predicted
the effects correctly. Maybe they all assumed that campaign
finance reform would have to be good for Democrats, and they voted pro
and con accordingly. Or perhaps the reform was viewed as bad for incumbents
as a group (which it is). Republicans may care more about protecting
incumbents, since they have majorities in both houses.
However, I think that a non-cynical explanation is at least partly
true. Republicans stood to gain from McCain-Feingold, but most were
still against it, because philosophically they oppose state regulation
of a financial exchange that they consider completely legitimate. Democrats
stood to lose from McCain-Feingold, but most voted for it, because philosophically
they oppose private financing of campaigns and they want to regulate
donations. Sometimes, arguments and reasons count.
Wednesday, August 6
I was at a conference out of town recently, sitting with two people
who had previously lived in the nation's capital, where I've resided
for a dozen years. They said that they like "DC," but they
don't like "Washington." I agreed. For those who live elsewhere,
this is the distinction (as I see it):
Members of Congress, lobbyists, lawyers, diplomats, reporters
||teachers, police officers, artists, store owners, bus drivers,
mostly White, with some foreign officials
||mostly Black, very diverse
| K Street, Connecticut Avenue
||U Street, 18th St, Georgia Avenue
The city west of the park plus Chevy Chase, Bethesda, much
||All quadrants of the city plus Silver Spring, Hyattsville, Mitchelville,
|Georgetown, SAIS, all the law schools
||Howard, Gallaudet, Trinity College, UDC
|Mclean McMansions, Georgetown townhouses, the White House
row houses with cornice decorations made of bricks and wooden
people "serve" here for a few years and go home
||people live in the house where their grandmothers were born
The LaGuardia Shuttle, Lear jets, stretch limos, Air Force
||Metrobuses and trains, the Beltway, Greyhound
Reagan National Airport
The World Bank
Tuesday, August 5
The latest technological phenomenon to get the attention of the New
York Times is "mobbing." An announcement spreads around
blogs, listservs, and bulletin boards: everyone is supposed to show
up at a particular time and place to do some particular, but random,
thing, like asking a Macy's sales clerk for a "love rug" or
shouting "Yes, Yes!" Thanks to the viral nature of the Internet,
the idea spreads and people actually show up.
Are smart mobs "The
Next Social Revolution?" as Howard Rheingold is arguing? They
certainly fit the current ideal for social organizations: completely
minimal costs of entry and exit, no hierarchy, and no rules. I have
absorbed so much conventional social theory that I'm very skeptical
about this ideal. I assume that the creation of public goods is difficult
and requires a solution to the classic free-rider problem (namely: people
won't contribute much of value if the good is enjoyed by everyone else).
Destroying stuff is much easier. Therefore, I would guess that the new
phenomenon of "smart mobs" will be used much more effectively
to destroy than to create. People may show up to shout "yes, yes!"
(which is funny and costs nothing), but they won't use "smart mob"
methods for real constructive action. I also assume that one of the
trickiest parts of social organization is finding ways to make actors
appropriately accountable. I don't see how a smart mob can be forced
to answer for its behavior. However, all this could be wrong. (I'm very
Monday, August 4
I have lost the reference, but sometime within the last 72 hours, I
read a quote by an official of the Defense Advanced Research Projects
Agency (DARPA), the agency that
helped launch the Internet and recently got into trouble for creating
a "futures market" in terrorism. This official bemoaned the
stupidity of his laptop, which doesn't know what he wants it to do;
he called for much more public investment in artificial intelligence
I have an interesting colleague in computer science, Ben
Shneiderman, who strongly criticizes AI research. His argument is
not that the machines will take over the world and make us do their
will. Rather, he argues that AI tends to make machines less useful,
because they become unpredictable. When, for example, Microsoft Word
tries to anticipate my desires by suddenly numbering or bulleting my
paragraphs, that can be convenient—but it can also be a big nuisance.
Shneiderman argues that computers are best understood as tools; and
a good tool is easy to understand and highly predictable. It lets us
do what we want. All the revolutionary computer technologies
have been very tool-like, with no AI features. (Think of email, word
processing, and spreadsheets.) Meanwhile, untold billions of dollars
have been poured into AI, with very modest practical payoffs.
Friday, August 1
I reported some time ago that
a publisher was talking to me about writing a very quick "issues
guide" for new voters, to be published in the fall. They actually
sent me a contract, which I decided to sign, and then they withdrew
the offer because of qualms about marketing. So now I'm considering
writing the same material and giving it away on a website. I think I
could persuade friends in the civic-engagement business to publicize
the site, and the resulting traffic would be enough to justify my labor.
I'd like the website to be quite interactive. In particular, I'd like
visitors to answer a bunch of questions and see an initial political
profile, which they could then modify in the light of the information
and perspectives presented on the website. The progamming for this quiz
would be a breeze for someone who know what she was doing. And it would
be a fairly cheap application to buy from a programmer. But I don't
know what I'm doing, and I don't have any money to pay for custom code.
I spent quite a bit of time this week finding and downloading "freeware"
that was almost right, but not exactly. In the process, I figured out
that a Java script would do the trick: no need for a database. I also
decided that I could learn how to write the script without pouring my
time into a sinkhole. So I bought a Java script manual and I'm busy
learning it. The last time I wrote code was about 1984; the language
was Basic, the computer was an Atari, and I was in high school. I wasn't
especially into it (I was always a humanities kind of geek, not a techie);
but it had an appeal then and it has an appeal now.