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threads (collected entries on recurrent themes)
an experimental high school civics class
Iraq and democratic theory
The Internet and civic life
rethinking the left
advocacy for civic education
deliberative democracy work
moral philosophy

This is the archived blog for September 2003. To see current entries, please click here.

Tuesday, Sept. 30

Dr. Henry Tam has just been named "Head of Civil Renewal" in the British Government's Home Affairs Department. He emailed a list of people to ask their advice about excellent projects in the US. I gave him my quick "top-ten list" of US projects in civic renewal:

Monday, Sept. 29

The most passionately debated question in civic education is how to present the overall story of American history in schools. Is it a march toward freedom and democracy, a blood-soaked tale of oppression, or something in between? I can see three ways to address this question:

1. By trying to tell the truth. Some historical statements are verifiable (or falsifiable); and we should only tell students the ones that aren't false. However, the debate is not about whether particular facts are true; it's about which facts we ought to mention and emphasize. History is a "vast grab-bag" (as Robert Weibe once said in my hearing); and one can choose which items to pull out. As for grand assessments of the overall meaning of American history—they aren't precise enough to be either true or false, I suspect.

2. By conducting a normative (moral) debate. How to present American history is hotly debated because each approach seems to cohere best with a different moral/ideological worldview. Modern conservatives want to emphasize the degree to which our founding institutions have served us well; some liberals want to stress the March of Progress; and many modern leftists want to focus on violence, exclusion, and resistance. There is nothing wrong with having this debate. However, "is" never implies "ought." One could, for example, take a very dark view of the American past and still believe that students should love their country and its founding documents. Many complex combinations of facts and values are possible.

More importantly, "ought" never implies "is." It is intellectually dishonest to adopt a normative position and then try to teach students a set of historical facts that support that ideology, presented as the history of the United States. If I wanted to help students think about moral and ideological positions, I wouldn't proceed by trying to present a brief version of American history to them. I would teach them explicitly about conflicting values and methods of normative argument.

3. By predicting the effects of each version of history on students' attitudes and beliefs. Many ideologists in this debate assume that particular versions of history will have particular consequences for students' psychological development. For instance, a "triumphalist" narrative will create patriots—or will alienate students, especially minorities. An emphasis on exclusion and oppression will create social activists—or will breed despair.

There is not nearly enough research on this (empirical) topic. William Damon of Stanford argues that young people must develop a positive view of their nation before they can care enough about it to become engaged critics. This theory rings true in my own life. I was a jingoistic patriot at 10, only to become a critical activist by 20. However, I'm not sure that trying to impart a completely positive view of the Founders would work as well with young people of color as it did with me. In any case, I would love to see more research this field, using as many relevant methodologies as possible.

Friday, Sept. 26

(On the way to Macon, GA): The government is moving to dismiss all charges against Zacarias Moussaoui, who is accused of being the 20th hijacker on 9/11—the co-conspirator who couldn't actually fly a plane because he was already in custody. Prosecutors now say that they are seeking to dismiss the charges so that they can appeal Moussaoui's right to question al Qaeda prisoners. But a well-informed person told me several weeks ago that he had heard from a reliable source inside the government that the real 20th hijacker is being held in Guantanamo. This would mean that Moussauoi is innocent of the precise charges against him, which may be the real reason why the charges are being dropped.

Thursday, Sept. 25

According to a scholarly article cited here, there were between 2 million and 2.5 million people in Soviet prisons and camps every year between 1938 and 1953. The current population in US jails plus prisons also exceeds 2 million (Bureau of Justice Statistics). This comparison has not escaped people's notice, as a Google search of "Gulag" and "prison population" will reveal.

Of course, there are differences between prisons in the US and in Stalin's Soviet Union. First, the vast majority of incarcerated people in America have committed crimes, and they have received due process, albeit flawed in some cases. Second, conditions in US prisons are better than conditions in Siberian work camps. Third, our incarceration rate is lower as a percentage of our population, although it may be higher in some inner-city neighborhoods today than it was in the USSR circa 1950. Fourth, the modern rationale for mass incarceration (reducing crime) is better than Stalin's reason (terrorizing people into submission to him personally). Above all, the Soviet terror involved mass killing as well as imprisonment.

Nevertheless, at the very least, the incarceration of 2 million Americans—with collateral damage to their victims, and to their families and communities—represents a social failure that's unique in today's world and comparable to the disasters under Stalin.

Wednsday, Sept. 24

CIRCLE has received more than 250 letters of inquiry responding to our three Requests for Proposals, which all had deadlines of last Friday. Today, reading letters, not blogging, is my clear civic duty.

Tuesday, Sept. 23

Some people who talk or write about civic education insist that the United States has the very best democracy (or society) in the world. In my opinion, the US is one of a few dozen polities that stand head-and-shoulders above the rest (due to good luck as well as wise ancestors). I think it's a goal of civic education to help students understand how fortunate they are compared to people who live in tyrannies or anarchy. I feel loyalty and gratitude toward the United States and not toward any other nation, and I think this is a good attitude for Americans to hold. However, it's far from clear to me that our polity is the single best in the world. We have low voter participation; our crime and incarceration rates are amazingly high; and we live shorter lives with more disease, compared to people in some of the northern European nations. Nor do we compare favorably with these countries if one thinks about the long term. Sweden, for example, has been stable and at peace for 200 years, progressing steadily toward liberty and democracy. These other democratic states are all to our left politically. Thus I wonder whether some people want to teach students that the United States is the best society in order to head off discussions about whether we should move somewhat leftward.

Monday, Sept. 22

I spoke today at the first annual Congressional Conference on Civic Education, which was attended by delegations from all fifty states, including state legislators, educators, and executive branch officials. I had served on the advisory committee for the conference, so I was glad to see it come to pass. It was also my third opportunity in 10 days to make a speech about the Civic Mission of Schools report. (The other two were the 50th anniversary of the National Conference on Citizenship and the Youth for Justice state directors' meeting.)

At all three events, there was discussion of the importance and difficulty of teaching controversial issues in schools. Today, I mentioned Gun Owners of America's attack on the civic education bill as evidence that there are people who do not want such discussion in classrooms. After the session, a state legislator from the West approached me and said that I had been un-civil in treating the Gun Owners as "nuts"; I should have made sure I understood and conveyed their position fairly. He said that my incivility was an example of what is wrong with civic education.

I was taken aback, since I feel that much of my work is aimed at promoting civil and respectful dialogue, and I strive to understand opponents' point of view. For example, I strongly disagree with the National Rifle Association's positions, yet I think its views are sincerely held, based on principles, sometimes unfairly caricatured, and conceivably correct. I suppose I would defend my criticism of the Gun Owners by noting that I didn't attribute a hidden agenda to them; I simply paraphrased their public statement, which is a pretty explicit attack on critical thinking in schools.

Friday, Sept. 19

For some reason, I was thinking about all the dramatically different ways in which people have seen and admired J.S. Bach since his own day.

  • There is Bach as a virtuouso improviser, the man who could sit down at a keyboard and swiftly invent a multi-part fugue on any theme. This is Bach as forerunner of a jazz musician, an exciting live performer.
  • There is Bach as pedagogue, the man who taught three sons who were much more successful than himself and who wrote great instructional works such as the "Well-Tempered Clavier." These musical texts have been consistently consulted by composers even when Bach's other works were forgotten (for instance, in Mozart's time).
  • There is Bach the profound spiritual master, the Lutheran churchman, the author of great narrative choral works such as the Passions, which realistically depict human emotions in relation to God's providence. This is the Bach whom the Romantics admired most. They even disparaged the "Christmas Oratorio" because it recycled music from secular works—so it couldn't be spiritually inspired.
  • There is Bach as an anti-Romantic, an unpretentious musical worker. Whereas Romantic musical geniuses were supposed to be free of all worldly motives and inspired only by Art, Bach happily turned out church music for every Sunday, often re-using material, borrowing from other sources, and making do with amateur performers. For this, he was admired by leftish anti-Romantics such as Paul Hindemith. If I recall correctly, Bertold Brecht used to call himself a Schreiber, not a Dichter—someone who makes his living by writing, not a literary Artist. The same could be said of Bach.
  • There is Bach as mathematical genius, author of technically and formally complex instrumental works, especially the "Musical Offering," that seem as other-wordly as mathematical proofs.

After writing a list like this, one is expected to say, "Of course, Bach was all of these things, and that's why he is so great." I'm going to be a little less predictable and say that Bach was all of these things, of course, but he was at his greatest as the composer of narrative works that were grounded in his understanding of human life and emotion.

Thursday, Sept. 18

Right now, Hurricane Isabel is howling around us and most work has ceased. The University has taken its server down, blessedly cutting off my email. Yesterday afternoon, when the skies were still clear, I met with Marty Kearns of Green Media Toolshed, who is full of fascinating ideas about how the Internet and other distributed technologies (including billboards and buttons) can be used for political activism. Meanwhile, I was reading reviews of Bruce Bimber and Richard Davis' new book, Campaigning Online: The Internet in U.S. Elections. Apparently, they argue that the Internet is effective for mobilizing strongly committed partisans, but it does not increase net participation in politics and elections. This is consistent with CIRCLE research on young people, and also with my predictions in a 2002 essay on the Internet and politics.

Marty Kearns makes me optimistic about the political power of digital technologies and their value for progressive organizations. But I also worry about the chief barrier to participation. It's not the digital divide, or technological literacy, or the power of major media companies to constrain the ways that the Internet is used. It's rather the lack of motivation to participate politically—the lack of identity as citizens—among many marginalized people. In the past, people developed that kind of identity and motivation by enrolling in disciplined organizations with strong cultures: unions, political parties, religious denominations. I'm not convinced that we've found replacements for such organizations in the digital age.

Wednesday, Sept. 17

We've made it past the first stage of a grant competition to provide funds for our local mapping work with high school kids. That's great news, except that now I have to write a full proposal on short notice. Among other questions, I need to answer this: "What is unusual about your project?" We intend to help high school students who are not college-bound to play leading roles in original scholarly research on a matter of public importance, and see whether that work increases both their academic skills and their civic commitment. The topic, which I've discussed here before, is healthy nutrition and exercise and the degree to which these outcomes are affected by the physical environment.

The Orton Foundation provides a great collection of youth-generated maps at communitymap.org.

Tuesday, Sept. 16

I spoke this morning at the 50th anniversary of the National Conference on Citizenship. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) spoke later, as did John Bridgeland, Executive Director of USA Freedom Corps and advisor to President Bush. After Mr. Bridgeland spoke, someone in the audience rose to say that he had just seen a car blatantly stolen outside the hotel, and no one (except himself) had done anything to try to stop it. His implication: We need to teach young people good values, just like in the good old days. The standard politician would take the bait and say that morals have declined, it's a terrible thing, but this administration is committed to character education. John Bridgeland, however, is a thoughtful and sophisticated guy, and he immediately recalled the game-theoretical explanation of cases like this. For each person who witnesses the crime, the worst outcome is that no one does anything to stop it. But the second-worst outcome for each person is that he or she is the one who intervenes. Chart the situation on a game-theorist's grid, and you'll see that no one is likely to do anything. Mr. Bridgeland revealed that he was thinking about game theory when he called the situation outside the hotel a "chicken game." I found it appealing that he gave an answer that was interesting, probably true, and that didn't score him any political points. (By the way, chicken games offer the most useful advice ever generated by game theory. If you need immediate assistance, don't shout "help," to a crowd. Pick an individual arbitrarily and say, "You, please help me.")

Monday, Sept. 15

Public participation and the war on terror: Influenced by Harry Boyte, I believe that opportunities for people to contribute public goods have shrunk over the last century. Government is increasingly "rational" (in Weber's sense): this means that important functions are divided into specialized tasks and assigned to experts, who are given minimal discretion. The government as a whole does good, but relatively few people can gain deep personal satisfaction from their own public service. Meanwhile, the private sector grows ever more efficient and competitive. As a result, there are few niches for people who want to work in business for partly public purposes. (An example would be the demise of the old publishing houses, which were "for profit," but not very efficient about it; editors saw themselves mainly as friends of literature.)

The loss of opportunities for public work is unfortunate, because we waste the talents and energies of millions of citizens. It also means that people lose the very special satisfaction that comes from creating public goods. And I believe that it partly explains the decline of other forms of citizenship, such as voting and reading the newspaper. People who don't make public goods are less likely to participate in other ways.

Now we face a national crisis, terrorism, and it seems worthwhile to look for opportunities to involve many citizens in significant public work. Only an expert on national security could tell us what jobs people are equipped to do. Spying on our fellow citizens is not a good idea (the damage to privacy and due process is too great). Thus I offer some very ill-informed ideas about some other roles that citizens might play. My main goal here is to provoke others to think of better ideas:

  • The military personnel who are doing peace-keeping and nation-building work in Iraq are creating public goods. They are creative and improvisational, in the best tradition of public work. We should celebrate them as good citizens, and recognize the (non-martial) virtues that they are displaying—virtues that we also need in civilian life. Everyone wants Iraqis to play a larger role; but for the time being, let's recognize that Americans are exemplifying citizenship in Iraq. (This is true even if the invasion was ill-advised or even illegal.) We also need ways to help veterans of Iraq to use their skills back home.
  • Citizens could deliberately learn strategic languages, such as Pashto or Malay; read newspapers and websites in those languages; and then post their own translations of key excerpts online. Their audience would be US experts in foreign affairs, and also fellow citizens who are trying to understand a complex world. Clearly, volunteers would have to learn these languages from someone. This suggests a great opportunity to employ immigrants as language teachers.
  • Citizens could assist in planning the emergency evacuation of major cities. Big highways would be quickly jammed after a catastophe, so we need to figure out how to move large numbers of people through side streets. Citizens could collect data on the capacity of each street segment to carry heavy traffic. Fed into GIS software, these data would show alternative evacuation routes.
  • There are many ways for citizens to work together to conserve oil, thereby reducing our dependence on middle eastern sources.

    I'm sure there are better ideas than these. It's a shame that our creativity and dedication were not tapped soon after 9/11, when people were desperate to serve. But it's not too late.

    In response to this entry, Scott Dinsmore writes:

    How about expanding the sister city idea to focus on the Muslim world? US participants could design 2 week trips for visitors here, exploring themes of religious pluralism, education, family life, local politics, economic opportunity. I don't really know how the sister city program worked, mostly with European cities I think.

Next, classrooms in Europe, US and the Muslim world could link for fellowship and academic resources. Are colleges doing this yet in language, politics or anthropology classes?

Friday, Sept. 12

Yesterday, I reported on the progress of HR 1078, the bill written by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) that would fund summer programs for civics teachers. Gun Owners of America opposes the bill on the amazing grounds that it is "anti-gun." They are asking their members to send the following form letter to Congress:

Dear Representative ________________,

If H.R. 1078 is enacted, educators will be encouraged to teach that I do not have an individual right to keep and bear arms. It will establish Presidential Academies on teaching civics and history which will use anti-gun texts like We the People -- the textbook that conforms to the federal guidelines on teaching civics and history.

This book encourages students to start questioning the wisdom of the Second Amendment, asking the student whether the right to keep and bear arms is still as "important today" as it was in the eighteenth century and to decide what "limitations" should be placed on the right. This kind of discussion treats the Second Amendment as though it were not protecting a God-given, individual right.

But the individual rights view is exactly what our Founders intended and what the American public still believes today. An ABC News Poll in 2002 found that almost three-fourths of all Americans believe that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of "individuals" to own guns.

We already have too much Federal involvement in education, and the results have not been good. As control over education becomes more and more federalized, it seems that the ideas which children are learning become more and more radical. Please vote against H.R. 1078, a bill which is decidedly anti-gun.

The We the People curriculum and textbook are widely supported by conservatives (as well as liberals) because they provide rigorous and balanced materials on American institutions. This letter reflects a fear of open and balanced discussion that should be deeply embarrassing to all proponents of the Second Amendment and of freedom. I would hope that some would come to the defense of We the People.

PS. The Maple River Education Coalition says that HR 1078 "is in clear violation of the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution." (This is a bill, remember, that provides very modest federal support for voluntary summer classes for teachers. It's also a bill that invites students to read and debate the 10th Amendment, which might cause some to gain appreciation for states' rights.)

Thursday, Sept. 11

Some time ago, the Senate passed The American History and Civics Education Act of 2003, which I've summarized here. Identical legislation has now been introduced in the House as H.R. 1078. The House leadership apparently regards this legislation as well-intentioned, bipartisan, Mom-and-apple-pie stuff, and they would like to get it out of the House as quickly as possible. They don't want to take time for hearings and amendments, because they face battles over appropriations, Iraq, and health care this fall. They intend to put the bill on the "Suspension Calendar," which permits no amendments and requires a 2/3 vote to pass (thus requiring Democratic support).

Many people in the civic education business believe that the bill would be better if amended. In particular, there is some concern that it will be funded at the expense of other history programs in the National Endownment for the Humanities. Thus it would be desirable to hold hearings and allow amendments in the House.

Wednesday, Sept. 10

School desegregation is a public issue that involves and affects youth. It’s a vital contemporary matter that requires historical background to understand. It continues to provoke debates among reasonable and well-intentioned people, who disagree about both goals and solutions. In all these respects, it is an ideal topic for sustained work in schools as a key component of civic education.

Last fall, we worked with students at a local high school in Maryland to create an interactive, deliberative website about the epic history of desegregation in their own district. ("We" means the Democracy Collaborative and the Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy, both at the University of Maryland.) We have now collaborated with NABRE, the Network of Alliances Bridging Race and Ethnicity (pronounced “neighbor”), to develop a plan for a replicating the same project in many school districts. This year is the 50th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education, the first of a series of 50th anniversaries of events in the Civil Rights Era. Coming to understand the difficult choices made in one's own community seems both a good way to commemorate this history and an excellent foundation for making choices today.

Tuesday, Sept. 9

I was in New York City today, at the offices of the AOL Time Warner Foundation, discussing evaluation with people who work in the field of "youth media and technology." This means people who help adolescents to produce videos, websites, radio broadcasts, and magazines for the benefit of their communities. I won't attempt to summarize the other participants' views (or even list who was present), because they weren't warned that they might be "blogged."

Speaking for myself: I think it is appropriate for people who are running relatively low-budget programs to assess themselves by making internal comparisons. For example, they can compare their own performance in 2004 with that in 2003, and if they are making progress, they can declare success. Or they can compare one of their own programs with another.

Such evaluations will not answer questions like: Is work with youth media effective? Or, What are its outcomes? To answer these questions, you have to compare one or more youth media projects with something else (such as athletics or conventional arts programs) or with no intervention at all. I would call this approach "research," as opposed to mere "assessment." Research is crucial in any field that wants to expand, find new funders, and gain acceptance in schools. But it is also difficult, expensive, and a diversion from the day-to-day goals of a service organization. That's because solid research requires random assignment of adolescents to the program or to an alternative, or at least elaborate statistical controls that mimic random assignment. And elaborate statistical analysis requires lots of expensive data-collection. In short, the field of youth media and technology would benefit from research; but for each practitioner, the costs and obstacles of doing the research are too great.

Monday, Sept. 8

A well-known experiment, run by Iowa Electronic Markets, allows traders to place bets on the outcome of political elections, including the current California governor's race. According to a paper by Joyce Berg and others, the Iowa Political Market has outperformed polls in predicting 9 out of 15 elections. Its average error in predicting election results is about 1.5%, compared to about 2% for an average poll. In some past elections, the Market avoided major errors that marred all the major national surveys, whereas it has never made a gross mistake itself. The apparently uncanny ability of the Iowa Electronic Market to predict the future was one of the reasons that the Defense Department recently floated the grisly idea of a futures market in terrorism.

I'm struggling to understand the theoretical explanation for this phenomenon. I realize that markets efficiently aggegrate the knowledge of investors (who must try to make honest predictions, since their money is on the line). But where do the investors in a political futures market get their knowledge? They cannot simply ask themselves how they intend to vote. As Berg et al. note, traders are "not a representative sample of likely voters; they are overwhelmingly male, well-educated, high income, and young" (p. 2). Some are not even US residents. Thus their own choices in the real election, assuming they vote at all, will be very different from those of the American people. Yet they seem to be able to predict the actual result more accurately than a random-digit telephone poll.

One clue is that a relatively small number of "marginal traders" drive the market; they make many more trades than other people and are less prone to sticking with an unlikely bet out of loyalty. I would guess that these "marginal traders" are political junkies: people who have no sentimental attachment to any of the candidates but love to prognosticate about elections. We can assume that they have seen all the polls—but that still doesn't explain how they outperform surveys on average. Could it be that they instinctively recognize a consistent error in polling, and adjust accordingly? For example, maybe polls tend to pick the real winner but predict a larger margin of victory than actually occurs. (Races tend to "tighten" right at the end.) Or maybe polls tend to make inflated predictions for the Democrats' share of the vote, because they count too many low-income people as "likely voters." It's also possible that the marginal traders rely on one or two polls that are better than the average. (Then we would find that the market outperformed polls in general, but was no more accurate than the best of the polls.)

These are hypotheses backed with no evidence. But if one of them turns out to be true, then we don't need a market to improve on surveys. We just need to make the same adjustment to poll results that the marginal traders (a.k.a., the political junkies) are making. Likewise, we would not benefit from a futures market in terrorism, but we should strive to understand how the best informed and least sentimental observers of terrorism make their predictions.

Friday, Sept. 5

I bet that a year from now, we'll be viewing 30-second spots that show the president landing on an aircraft carrier decked with "Mission Accomplished" banners. The question is: Who will be running the ads? If they're Republican spots, it will mean that the president is in pretty good shape. If they're Democratic (or independent, labor or environmental ads), then he's in a close race or heading for defeat.

Thursday, Sept. 4

James B. Murphy, a Dartmouth political scientist, has an article in Education Next in which he invokes very old research that found no benefits from civic education. He concedes that newer research shows that civic education enhances students' knowledge, but not (he claims) their civic attitudes.

All the empirical experts in this field disagree. (Like me, Professor Murphy is a political theorist, not an empiricist.) The empirical folks claim that there were specific flaws in the 1960's research that reached skeptical conclusions about civics. They cite more recent evidence, including massive, test-like assessments and numerous program evaluations, that show that civic education programs do improve attitudes, knowledge, skills, and behaviors. Not only government classes, but also moderated discussions of controversial issues, extracurricular activities, and service-learning programs make a demonstrable difference. We summarized the leading evidence in the Civic Mission of Schools. I can imagine someone going over this newer material with a fine-toothed comb and detecting places where the case is not closed. For example, I don't think we can be sure that the knowledge gains that result from taking government classes persist into adulthood. But I cannot imagine citing Jennings and Langton (1968) as if that study remained relevant today.

Wednesday, Sept. 3

Alabama Governor Bob Riley is a very conservative Republican who is now fighting tooth-and-nail to rise taxes, increase school spending, and make the tax system more progressive. Currently, the effective tax rate on Alabama's poorest citizens is about 10 percent of income; on the richest, it is less than 4 percent. Gov. Riley has decided that this is not What Jesus Would Do.

I think there are three crucial reasons why people on the left of center (the Civil Rights organizations, liberal Democrats, MoveOn, and others) should be rushing to Alabama and making a hero out of Gov. Riley:

  • His proposal will lose without organized support on the left, but it could win with such support. Current polls show that Riley is getting only 27 percent support in households that earn less than $30,000, and only 44 percent of African Americans support the reforms. Poor people and people of color in Alabama are suspicious of government and especially of a Republican governor—understandably so. But they could be persuaded that the Riley plan is directly and powerfully in their interests. Imagine the effect, for example, of a Bill Clinton endorsement on Black radio stations.
  • Changing Alabama's tax code matters. There are 4.49 million souls in that state. Their tax code is deeply unfair, and their schools are terrible because of under-funding. The difference between passage and defeat for the Riley proposal is much more important than, say, the difference between a Schwartzenegger or a Davis victory in California.
  • There is a potential to form a new coalition including African Americans, liberals, and some white evangelical Christians. There is no reason that white evangelicals should favor libertarian economic policies. Typically, their parents voted for FDR, and they should vote for equitable taxation. People like Gov. Riley are driven by principle. Their principles are wrong, in my opinion, when they consider such matters as whether the Ten Commandments should be engraved on huge boulders in courthouses. But they are principled people, and they could be persuaded to move left on economic matters. As Gov. Riley says, "According to our Christian ethics, we're supposed to love God, love each other and help take care of the poor. It is immoral to charge somebody making $5,000 an income tax."

So why aren't the liberal national organizations running ads in Alabama? My hunch is: they don't want a Republican to get a "win," and they're not paying attention to a Southern state because they live on the East and West Coasts and wrote off Dixie long ago. If I'm right, shame on them.

[Discussing this topic with colleagues today, I learned that Peter Beinart makes a very similar argument in an article entitled "Eyes on the Prize" in the New Republic (08/29/03). His article is very good, although it only chastises the civil rights organizations. I would think that other liberal groups are equally remiss.]

Tuesday, Sept. 2

I'm increasingly dissatisfied with programs to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. To be sure, redistribution can increase aggregate happiness and opportunity, since an extra dollar makes much more of a difference to a poor person than to a rich one. Also, there is some evidence that inequality reduces health and longevity (regardless of the total amount of wealth in the society). Nevertheless, I think that aiming for more redistribution is politically foolish, since a majority of American households are now wealthy enough that they do not imagine themselves as the beneficiaries. Even some of those who might benefit from redistribution consider it undesirable. It's coercive; it's divisive; it may be economically inefficient (at best, it's zero-sum); and it makes the recipient feel beholden and dependent.

The alternative would be to increase people's opportunities to become creators of wealth. There could be two parts to this agenda. First, we could strive to lower barriers to entrepreneurship. This is a Republican goal, identified especially with Jack Kemp (who has done good work). The problem is the standard Republican solution, which boils down to tax cuts. Cutting taxes does nothing to increase opportunities for people who don't have much money to start with.

The Hope Street Group, an organization of business executives, is working on much more serious ideas for expanding real economic opportunity. They say:

"Equality of opportunity" is the notion that all Americans should get a genuine chance to make the most of their talents and efforts to benefit themselves, their families, and their communities. It requires that children have the educational opportunities that allow them to realize their own potential. It requires fair access to job markets, capital markets, and the home market. It requires that government lighten the burden of those who are just beginning to build up their earning power and their savings. It requires a system in which people can bounce back from failure, so that they're not afraid to take risks and to invest in themselves in the first place.

While helping more everyone to contribute to the market economy, we could also increase citizens' opportunities to make public goods. To do this, we would encourage public service by expanding (rather than brutally cutting) Americorps; by opening new routes into professions such as teaching and nursing; and by making such professions more desirable and satisfying. Indeed, we would encourage all the learned professions to recover their civic and public purposes. And we would increase public contributions to the government itself, for instance by asking citizens to collect GIS data on environmental issues, or by assigning important regulatory issues to citizen juries.

Not all public goods are created in the state sector. For example, as I've argued in several articles (for instance, this one), there is a "digital commons" composed of the protocols, the open-source software, and the free webpages of the Internet. The Internet was built by volunteers, including teenagers and poor immigrants; by nonprofit associations; by the government; by profit-seeking entrepreneurs; and my major corporations. All these players were doing what Harry Boyte calls "public work," that is, working together to build an accessible public good. The Internet commons is now in grave danger from several directions (spammers and virus-makers, corporate monopolists, government censors). However, groups such as the New America Foundation have lots of concrete ideas about how to expand and protect the Internet and other public assets.

Putting all these policies together, we could have a movement whose goal would be to make everyone a creator of wealth.

Monday, Sept. 1

It's Labor Day; the clerical and technical workers of Yale are on strike; and I'm remembering Yale's labor negotiations in 1988. The two sides were working around the clock to finish a contract. I was president of the student government, and the union asked me and a bunch of other neutral representatives to observe—to make sure that both sides were bargaining in good faith. Since the University opposed the idea of observers, I sat on the union's side of the room. I was personally sympathetic to that side and have since written favorably about organized labor; but I was carefully neutral as a student leader. I think that the University's negotiators deliberately ignored me (not that I minded).

I remember that at about 2 am, the two sides took a long break. I went home for a nap and asked a union guy to call me when they were ready to start again. He called several hours later, and I asked to be excused because I was too sleepy to get back out of bed. I'm embarrassed that he made the call for no purpose.

Both sides complained about the cost of labor lawyers and their billing practices. I also remember the union identifying slackness and idleness in certain specific departments on campus that were staffed by their own members. They blamed management for poor oversight, but their motive was to save Yale money—so that the University wouldn't "outsource" union jobs as another way to reduce costs. This is an example of collective-bargaining serving both sides.

I'm not sure why Yale has a uniquely bad strike record. Part of the reason may be that the Yale unions are extremely well run, strategic, motivated, and deeply supported by the community. Even though they are in a position to demand higher-than-average wages, Yale resists paying much above the mean. The bargaining power of Yale employees is unusual, for only 13 percent of private-sector workers are unionized, and some of those face such intense competition from non-union shops that they have to make concessions constantly. In my view, the Yale locals are right to exploit their unusual power (which they created themselves, and which other workers should also enjoy). Yale should face reality and pay considerably higher-than-average wages.