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This is the archived blog for September 2003.
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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
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"
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
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
- 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
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:
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
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
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.
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
- 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
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