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August 29, 2003

a conservative critique of civics

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 and content.

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 past.

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.

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August 28, 2003

who are the anti-globalizers?

(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 through participation.

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.

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August 27, 2003

the 18th century comments on Campaign '04

(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 gadgets.

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.

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August 26, 2003

newspapers vs. websites

(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.

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August 25, 2003

what's wrong with the California recall

(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 backfire.

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.

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August 21, 2003

state taxes and personal wealth

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.)

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August 20, 2003

Mei-Po Kwan

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.

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August 19, 2003

my expectations were too low

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 collection 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 hope certainly remains that it will turn out to be a blessing rather than a curse for both us and the Iraqi people.

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August 18, 2003

Miles Horton on improvisation

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.)

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August 17, 2003

Dean vs. Gephardt

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 ago.

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August 15, 2003

civic renewal in NYC

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.)

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August 14, 2003

a class on geography & obesity

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 and obesity.

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.

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August 13, 2003

the budget

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: OMB.)

The "all other" slice in the chart above is distributed as follows:

Here is how an average state tax dollar is spent. Data from National Association of State Budget Officers, State Expenditure Report, 2001 (Summer, 2002).

And this is an average county budget from 1996-7, based on the US Census Bureau’s survey of county officials

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August 12, 2003

involving kids in research

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.

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August 11, 2003

Arnold and stealth democracy

Saturday's Washington 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 political office.

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.

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August 8, 2003

productivity is not always good

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?

Posted by peterlevine at 12:27 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 7, 2003

politicians are sometimes sincere

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.

Posted by peterlevine at 12:28 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 6, 2003

Washington versus DC

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, receptionists, janitors

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 of Fairfax

  All quadrants of the city plus Silver Spring, Hyattsville, Mitchelville, Alexandria
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 front porches


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 One

  Metrobuses and trains, the Beltway, Greyhound

Reagan National Airport

  National Airport

The World Bank

  Riggs Bank
The CIA   The DMV
The Redskins   The Redskins

Posted by peterlevine at 12:29 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 5, 2003

smart mobs

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 decentralized, with
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 "twentieth century.")

Posted by peterlevine at 12:30 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 2, 2003

against artificial intelligence

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 (AI).

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.

Posted by peterlevine at 12:32 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 1, 2003

working on a website

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.

Posted by peterlevine at 12:33 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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