November 28, 2003
a $5,000 opportunity
I'm a big fan of the Hope Street Group, an organization of young businesspeople who are committed to expanding real economic opportunities for all. "Equality of opportunity in a high-growth economy" is their slogan; it draws nicely from the right ("high-growth") and the left ("equality"), while subtly disparaging the Green idea that growth itself is bad. "Opportunity" here means a chance to create wealth, to build a business, to develop an idea. There has been a lot of such opportunity in the United States, but we've always left a large segment of our population with little chance to be creative and entrepreneurial, because they've lacked access to capital and education. People like Jack Kemp have talked about expanding opportunity even in the poorest urban and rural areas. I'm sure Mr. Kemp is sincere, but his ideas never seem to go beyond low-tax zones, and his constituency is small. Indeed, it's hard to find really effective ways to expand opportunity for everyone. Usually it's easier just to reduce suffering with cash transfers. However, the Hope Street Group has both the talent and the commitment to make progress. They recommend, for example, subsidies for low-income home-buyers and transferability of pensions from one job to another.
Now the Hope Street Group is offering a $5,000 prize for the best short essay that proposes a policy to build an opportunity society--specifically in the state of California.
November 27, 2003
what's wrong with the IMF and World Bank?
Why do the international lending institutions (the IMF and World Bank) draw such ire? Protestors picket at their doors, not outside Citigroup (US), Mizuho Holdings (Japan) or UBS (Switzerland), which are currently the world’s three biggest banks. Yet the IMF and World Bank exist to make subsidized loans to needy countries. Their loan agreements are intensively negotiated; no potential borrower is required to accept their offer.
On the other hand, the World Bank and IMF make their loans contingent on changes in the borrowers’ behavior, and the changes they demand are based on current mainstream economic theory. Thus, for instance, they tell borrowing countries to privatize their large state-owned enterprises and to cut spending, in return for loans (when there are no other sources of capital). I see four plausible interpretations of these demands:
(1) Perhaps the Bank and the IMF give good advice--good for a whole borrowing country’s population. Indeed, independent professional economists tend to endorse the main themes of the “Washington consensus.” If they are right, then the anger of the anti-globalism activists is misplaced.
(2) Perhaps these lenders are interested in maximizing the odds that their loans will be repaid. Then their advice is hard-headed and practical, but they ought to be more generous with very poor countries. If they ran out of funds as a result, the donor nations should give them more money.
(3) Perhaps they are well-meaning but misguided. They require reforms that will (as they claim) maximize economic growth in the borrowing countries. However, a government can add a percentage point to GNP through a policy that plunges a significant portion of its population into hunger and homelessness. Growth of GNP is a good thing all else being equal, but it’s often not the right goal to aim for.
(4) Or perhaps they require reforms that will harm recipients but benefit holders of capital, who are concentrated in the wealthy countries of the north. This doesn’t mean that lenders are deliberately and consciously cruel. Rather, they may honestly believe in mainstream academic economics, which could be a fundamentally biased discipline. In that case, wouldn’t borrowing countries prefer not to take their loans at all? Wouldn’t they be better off defaulting? Not necessarily. The overall system imposed by the “Washington consensus” could be bad for all poor countries, yet each country could be better off taking a loan than refusing it.
I don’t know enough to choose among these interpretations. But I’ve reached the point where all I want is empirical evidence that helps me see which of the above theories is true. Most of the rhetoric on both sides (about greedy capitalists or wise economists) is unhelpful.
November 26, 2003
young voterse.thePeople : Article : Under 25 voters need a reason to believe Over at E-The People, there's a lively discussion about why young Americans don't vote. Many perspectives are represented, and it's hard to generalize. However, I am uncomfortable with the idea (expressed by several participants) that young voters are especially skillful at detecting hypocrisy and thus turned off by politicians, with the exception of John McCain and possibly Howard Dean. I would reply that: 1) No one can tell who's phony through the filter of the mass media. Thus young people are deluding themselves if they think they're excellent judges of character. 2) A cynical press corps makes us think that our politicians are generally more hypocritical than they actually are. If this impression causes us not to vote, we're the ones who lose power as a result. And 3) you can be a phony with good ideas, or a highly principled and consistent person who's a complete nut. Therefore, I don't think there's any substitute for forming opinions about issues and then voting accordingly. The low level of knowledge among 18-25s is thus a bigger problem than their intolerance for phoniness.
November 25, 2003
blogs before the Internet
I love Pepys' Diary, a website that reproduces an entry from Samuel Pepys' seventeenth-century journal every day, in blog format, with lots of hyperlinks so that you can learn about everything from the buildings of London to the (supposed) medicinal qualities of Wormwood.
There are other interesting predecessors of blogs. For example, I have on my shelf two books edited by G.P.V. Akrigg, A Jacobean Journal for the Years 1603-6 and A Second Jacobean Journal. Akrigg reproduces one real London diary entry for each day of each year in the early 1600s. The entries comment on major events, sensational crimes, foreign and military news, and recent publications. I do not know to what degree the diarists expected their writing to be public, but there was certainly no right to privacy under King James, and these diaries were all deliberately preserved.
An example follows from June 19, 1609:
"The Prince's great ship is now almost ready at Woolwich. Yesterday, the Prince came to see it, and again this afternoon with the King and great company. The King spent almost two hours surveying the ship within and without. Then he went into Pett's house where Mrs. Pett had prepared a banquet of sweetmeats, whereof he tasted plentifully, and at his departure gave special commandment not to launch the ship until his progress ended. Shakespeare's Sonnets (of which some long ago were long ago known among his private friends) have been imprinted by Thomas Thorpe, with an enigmatical dedication 'To the only begetter of these ensuing Sonnets, Mr. W.H.' ..."
Doesn't this read like a blog?
There are other genres that seem to belong to the prehistory of blogging. For instance, during the Enlightenment, erudite Europeans used to exchange letters describing the latest intellectual developments in their own countries. These letters were only semi-private, since the authors expected them to be forwarded, and collections were often published in book form. The international network of correspondents created what was called the "Republic of Letters."
Then there were "feuilletons," topical, opinionated, first-person essays published as removable inserts in Viennese newspapers around 1900. These are just a few examples of "pre-blogs"; I'm sure that more and better ones could be cited.
November 24, 2003
libertarians and socialists have something in common
I see libertarianism and modern democratic Socialism as flawed for similar (or parallel) reasons:
For what it’s worth, I think that markets and politics are both inevitable. There’s much that we do not know, and it’s always wise to remain skeptical and open to new possibilities, yet I doubt very much that we can ever escape from a few basic laws that govern the political and economic spheres. A study of politics tells us, for example, that great masses of people have power. They can be suppressed temporarily by dictators, but tyrants tend to meet grisly ends. They can be restrained by constitutions, but complex systems that frustrate popular will usually get changed. If politics is inevitable, then libertarians have no practical way to attain the minimal state they dream of, unless one day most of their fellow citizens come to share their values (which is highly unlikely). Meanwhile, markets are obdurate too. Even a popular, legitimate, democratic government cannot create a supply of goods unless consumer demand produces a high enough price to motivate producers. Thus, when markets “discipline” governments, this is not corrupt or illegitimate interference; it is reality coming into play.
All this explains why every successful country in the modern world is a mixed economy, with a substantial public and private sector, majoritarian institutions and free markets. But the successful models differ in important respects, and there is room for debate about whether the US approach is better or worse than that of Germany, Sweden, Japan, or Canada. The criteria of excellence would include efficiency, sustainability, liberty, and quality of life (broadly defined) for the poorest as well as average residents.
November 21, 2003
Protests from London to NYC
Reading about anti-Bush protests in London reminds me that the Republican National Convention will be held next summer in New York City, where a lot of people are Democrats, against the war, and angry about federal economic policies, from the big tax cuts to the scanty post-9/11 aid for New York. I hope there will be massive protests, but I hope that the organizers will heed the following message, which Harry Boyte saved from the March on Washington in 1963. In the program guide, Dr. Martin Luther King and the other organizers wrote: "In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words, and even hot insults; but when a whole people speaks to its government the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government."
Specifically, I hope that the dominant tone in New York is one of sober disagreement with the incumbent administration and its explicit, declared values (e.g., opposition to taxes, unilateral preemptive warfare, and limitations on civil rights). I hope that the major images from New York City do not show protesters attacking symbols of capitalism or denouncing Bush as a war criminal or profiteer.
First of all, those positions do not impress me personally. Starbucks is not a symbol of an economic system that we should overturn, although I'm all for reform. The legal justification for invading Iraq was dubious, but the president is not a war criminal, nor did he authorize an invasion to increase oil profits. In any case, I don't think that such rhetoric will have any resonance with mainstream Americans. People see Bush as principled and honest, but possibly superficial, inexperienced, and just plain wrong about some important matters, economic and military. So it's very important to engage him on what he says, rather than rely on personal attacks or conspiracy theories to turn people against him.
In the Guardian newspaper, Harold Pinter writes, "Dear President Bush, I'm sure you'll be having a nice little tea party with your fellow war criminal, Tony Blair. Please wash the cucumber sandwiches down with a glass of blood, with my compliments." Just about the only thing that can make me defend George W. Bush is this kind of rhetoric; and I think my visceral sentiments may be in line with American public opinion.
November 20, 2003
using Movable TypeOn the advice of Frederick Emrich (who runs an excellent blog), I'm switching over from plain old html to the fancy and free blog software provided by Movable (sic) Type. The disadvantage is that I've had to change the address of this weblog. Please change any bookmarks or links that you've established. The advantages are: an easy way for me to blog from any computer anywhere; opportunities for visitors like you to post comments (which I welcome); a search function; and permanent URLs for each entry, so that people can more easily link to specific posts.
November 19, 2003
The GOP and voter mobilizationRacine, WI: I've been told that the Republican Party has conducted more than 50 randomized experiments to test which methods and messages most efficiently persuade people to vote. My organization, CIRCLE, has also funded and collected such randomized field tests, although we are a nonprofit organization, so we can only test completely neutral, non-partisan messages ("Vote for someone this fall").
In a true experiment, you don't just ask people to vote, check whether they do, and count each vote as a success. That would be a flawed methodology, since many people would have voted even if you hadn't asked them. Instead, in a true experiment, you divide the population randomly into two groups, ask one group to vote, and leave the other group alone. Your success rate is the difference in turnout between the two groups. CIRCLE-sponsored experiments have found that some strategies cause many young people to vote; some are ineffective; and some promising approaches actually reduce turnout. I find it fascinating that the GOP is now using this method for their own planning purposes. It means, first of all, that a sophisticated academic methodology seems valuable to hard-nosed political operatives. And second, it means that Republicans are likely to try to mobilize people through face-to-face contact in 2004. That is a form of campaigning that increases participation (in contrast to TV advertising, which is sometimes intended to reduce the opponent's turnout). Thus it is is a very beneficial development, although it would be unfortunate if the Democrats failed to imitate the GOP.
Tuesday, Nov. 18
November 18, 2003
Fighting Bob La FolletteNear Racine, WI: I'm at Frank Lloyd Wright's beautiful Wingspread estate for a meeting of the Grant Makers' Forum on Community and National Service. Yesterday, on my way here, I had a chance to visit the State Capitol in Madison, which I'd never seen before. The Capitol building was erected under then-Senator Robert ("Fighting Bob") La Follette. I wanted to see it because I once spent most of a year studying his career. Some of the information I collected found its way into my New Progressive Era book, although I abandoned most of the historical detail. La Follette was a major figure, and a successful one insofar as he transformed his home state, passed major legislation in Washington, and drew millions of votes in two presidential campaigns. On the other hand, many of his favorite causes and greatest battles ended in defeat, and the Progressive movement faltered in the twenties. I believe that he faced several dilemmas that we still haven't figured out how to solve:
1. He believed that big business had to be countered by popular institutions. Thus he increased the power of state agencies to regulate industry. The newly empowered Wisconsin government quickly became dominated by lawyers and technocrats, employed to counter the lawyers, economists, and efficiency experts who worked for industry. As an inadvertent result of La Follette's reforms, state policy became a battleground for experts on both sides of every issue—rather than an opportunity for public deliberation. He objected to technocracy (in good populist fashion), but he never found a better way to introduce public voice into complex issues.
2. He believed in public, general, or citizen interests, yet people often find it more effective and straightforward to participate politically as members of special interests—within occupational or ethnic groups or as residents of local communities. Around 1912-16, there was a wave of public-interest politics that carried La Follette to national prominence, but that wave soon broke. I believe that another wave arose in 1972-76, but it also receded quickly and left relatively little behind.
3. He believed that citizens should choose their own policies and goals. Thus he was reluctant to organize campaigns around concrete economic and social policies that he happened to favor. Instead, his great theme was democratization, and his favorite issues were procedural (e.g., campaign reform, ethics in government, civil rights). Yet most people won't participate in support of such abstract and procedural goals. Besides, voters have the right to know where their candidates stand on social and economic issues. Sometimes, La Follette was able to find political reforms that would also generate direct social and economic benefits. For example, repealing a corrupt tax exemption for a special interest would increase state revenues. But usually there were no such issues, and then he struggled to find a popular mandate for procedural changes.
November 17, 2003
New Orleans and Salt Lake City
I'm writing this on Sunday night, flying from New Orleans to Madison, WI, on a precisely northward path across Middle America. I was in New Orleans to give a keynote luncheon address at the International Conference on Civic Education Research. Nine days ago I gave a similar speech at the International Conference on Service-Learning Research in Salt Lake City. I keep thinking about the contrast of these venues. Salt Lake City in November is cold, dry, thousands of feet above sea level, rimmed by snowcapped peaks. It seems a place of stark contrasts, with no gradations between the city and the wilderness, the lake and the desert, the Mormons and the non-Mormons, the prosperous clean-cut business people and the few homeless men with their prophet beards and wild eyes. Large banks and hotels (Victorian or modernist) stand foursquare between straight wide avenues and barren lots. The huge moon and streetlights make the night as light as day. Almost everyone I saw was white.
Whereas New Orleans is low and lush, hot, humid; pools of still water lie under highway overpasses and the river is higher than the streets. Even at noon, it's dark under the porticoes and along the narrow streets of the French Quarter. It’s a tawdry city, decrepit, violent, poor, and fun, at least for visitors. Everything mixes and shades into everything else: streets into bayous; restaurants into strip-clubs; legitimate museums into freak-shows; graveyards into living streets; tourist districts into ghettoes; trash into antiques; Africa and the Caribbean into the Bible Belt; Catholicism into Hoodoo; English into Cajun French; the legal into the illicit; the Disneyfied, desegregated present into the cruel past of slavery, Jim Crow, and yellow fever. On Sunday morning, I watched Vietnamese waiters serve chicory coffee under the dank neoclassical canopy of the Café du Monde, as if in Saigon under the French, but to the tune of a mournful blues saxophone.
In Salt Lake City, many residents won't drink coffee, let alone alcohol, whereas in New Orleans, you can legally sway down the street with 20 of your buddies holding open cups of beer. In Salt Lake City, you stand docilely on empty street corners until an electronic buzz informs you (and you alone) that it's time to cross. In New Orleans, bands stop and play right in the middle of intersections. Yet both cities seem profoundly American, as if our usual mixture can be analyzed and its components exhibited separately for clearer investigation.
November 14, 2003
measuring civic engagementMy organization, CIRCLE, promotes a set of 19 "core indicators of civic engagement" as a way of measuring the level of engagement of any youthful group or community, and also as a way of assessing the civic impact of a program, class, or project. These 19 indicators were chosen after an elaborate national research project managed by Scott Keeter, Cliff Zukin, Molly Andolina, and Krista Jenkins, who talked to practitioners and young people in focus groups and then conducted a national survey. Despite its empirical rigor, their list of indicators provokes an interesting and important controversy. I have heard the following views expressed:
1. This is (roughly) the right list, because it emerged from a study
of real young people and captures the forms of engagement that are
reasonably common among youth today. Most of these behaviors are becoming
less common over time, but that is a reality that we should face squarely
and not sidestep.
2. These indicators measure an average group of Americans, but they mask our great diversity. For example, on an Indian reservation, the important forms of engagement would include participation with the tribal council, which is not measured on the survey. For Native Americans and many other subcultures, the list of indicators is inappropriate.
3. This is the right list for assessing the civic engagement of all Americans over time, but it's the wrong list to use in program evaluation, because it is unrealistic to expect a class or other project to change these variables.
4. This is generally the wrong list, because it weighs old-fashioned forms of civic engagement (like wearing political buttons) too heavily, and omits the novel forms that young people are developing today: transnational protests, blogs and email lists, low-budget documentaries and public-service announcements, boycotts, poetry slams. The obvious response is that such forms of participation are not common enough to show up on surveys. But perhaps they are the most historically important developments of the present era, and they should be measured in program evaluations. Perhaps failing to measure them "sends a message" that what we want is a return to old-fashioned, adult-dominated politics.
November 13, 2003
websites that calculate ideologyIn response to yesterday's post about websites that will calculate your ideology for you, Nels Lindahl emailed me about a site called The Political Compass. This is the most sophisticated and thoughtful example of the genre, in my opinion. One of its great virtues is its two-dimensional understanding of ideology, which is much better than a simple left-right scale. I took the quiz and came out as a moderately leftist social libertarian, similar to Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. I'm happy to accept that score.
November 12, 2003
political ideology websitesThis summer, I began work on a website that would ask visitors some questions and then tell them their ideology. I got caught up with the technical difficulties and never completed the project. However, I believe it could be useful, since most people I know use ideology as a heuristic. That is, we don't have the time to make a very precise and nuanced evaluation of each candidate for each office. Instead, we start with the assumption that we are liberals, conservatives, moderates, libertarians, feminists, environmentalists, or proponents of some other ideology, and then we use cues in the candidates' speech and behavior to decide which politicians come closest to our ideology. CIRCLE surveys show that those young people who have no ideology do not vote, which suggests that this shortcut is essential.
There are some websites that use a quiz format to generate an ideological profile. I have found a Party Matchmaking Quiz and a 2004 American Presidential Selector. The World's Smallest Political Quiz is fairly trivial, but the Ideology Selector is more ambitious. The Political Quiz Show uses an old question battery but is now online.
A few observations: First, the ideological spectrum tends to be presented as unidimensional (left-right), whereas the real political map is more complicated. (By the way, a complicated view of politics makes the programming task more difficult, because ideology can't be measured on a 1-100 scale). Second, even though the quizzes aren't very serious, they may be too hard, because they ask for opinions about official policies which people may never have heard of. I would prefer to see questions about underlying values and social problems. Finally, there should be some feedback. People should be shown what ideology they seem to endorse and then presented with a general description of that ideology and its rivals. If they agree with the general description, then their specific views are consistent with their overall philosophy, and they can go forth and vote. If, however, there is some tension, then they should be invited to develop their thinking . (For those with a taste for political philosophy, this would be a way of implementing John Rawls' theory of reflective equilibrium.)
November 11, 2003
American radicals in Iraq
In his Washington Post column today, E.J. Dionne writes, "Our foreign policy debate right now pits radicals against conservatives. Republicans are the radicals. Democrats are the conservatives." Republicans want to remake the world to match abstract ideals; Democrats are concerned about traditional alliances and institutions, unintended consequences, and appropriate limits on national power. In recent blog entries, I've been claiming that Democrats and "progressives" represent the more conservative voice in many areas of domestic policy. Dionne is making the same argument about foreign policy (writ large).
Dionne's big point can be applied to the narrower issue of reconstruction in Iraq. Apparently, most Iraqis are members of groups (religious, occupational, ethnic, regional, and tribal) that have traditional rights and privileges. The system is unfair, because privileges are not equally distributed, nor can one freely move from the group into which one is born. This is also an inefficient and irrational way to organize a society. The Bush people understandably want to rationalize and liberalize the system. But since they are eager to impose grand and simple theories directly on reality, they tend to choose the most radical approaches, for example, the "flat tax" that they are considering for Iraq.
They remind me somewhat of the French revolutionaries, who captured a regime that had conferred arbitrary privileges on most of its subjects. Even French peasants had often inherited special rights by virtue of the villages in which they were born. In contrast, the revolutionaries believed in equality for all, careers open to talents, property rights, and a system in which everything of value was exchangeable for money. Thus they revoked all special privileges (for egalitarian reasons). But this assault on the social order set them against most Frenchmen qua members of hereditary groups. The result, as Donald Sutherland shows, was a popular counterrevolution that developed almost immediately and that drew from the lower classes as well as the clergy and aristocrats (France 1789-1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution ). The revolutionaries assumed that lower-class opposition must be the fruit of some conspiracy, so they turned quickly to Terror, with tragic results.
In Iraq today, the counterrevolution appears still to have very narrow support. The American occupation has not yet repeated the mistakes of the French revolution. Still, this is a good time to remember that revolutions usually backfire and traditional arrangements deserve some respect.
November 10, 2003
public work in Iraq
Today is the beginning of CIRCLE's annual Advisory Board meeting, when we present our year's work for review.
Meanwhile, I recommend this long but excellent radio program about neighborhood councils in Baghdad. (Thanks to Archon Fung for spreading the word about it.) At least once a week, I read an article about Americans and/or Iraqis who are improvising public services or creating democratic forums in Iraq. Even though the Army is a hierarchical and bureaucratic organization with a partly violent purpose, many of our soldiers seem to have a great capacity for improvisation and diplomacy and a deep understanding of liberal democratic ideals. There are plenty of stories about poor planning at the highest levels of our government (and in the Iraqi Governing Council), and about the inadequate training of the occupation forces; but these stories don't detract from the work that's being done by at least some of our rank-and-file servicemen and women.
There is a danger that this work will go unappreciated and unstudied. Most experts on democracy are so angry about Bush and the war that they aren't alert to the grassroots public work that is going on over there. And most of the leading proponents of the invasion are hawks who are glad we blew Saddam out of Baghdad, but they don't see the nuances, complexities, and challenges of democratic reconstruction. On Veterans' Day, I think we should celebrate American soldiers as nation-builders, because the skills that matter most in Baghdad today are also needed back home.
November 7, 2003
Salt Lake City: I gave the keynote luncheon address today at the International Service-Learning Research Conference. I argued that we need research to test whether service-learning (i.e., combinations of community service with academic study) works as well or better than competing approaches to civic education. The best way to prove causality is an experiment in which students are randomly assigned to the "treatment" (here, service-learning) or to a control group, and then the two groups are compared. That's the "gold standard," although there are ways to approximate random selection if it proves to be impossible. There has never been anything like a random experiment to test whether (or how well) service-learning works as civic education.
Several people who spoke from the floor expressed the views that (a) research will never settle any debates in education, because the results are always murky and contested; and (b) policymakers won't listen to research, no matter how strong it may seem. I said that for us, research is necessary but not sufficient. I realize that scholarly papers don't just jump off the shelf and pass legislation; we also need political organization. The service-learning movement is beginning to organize itself, as shown by the robust defense of Americorps this fall. But research is necessary because we lack a large or wealthy constituency, so policymakers don't have to listen to us. Fortunately, there are some decision-makers in government, higher education, and philanthropy who genuinely want to achieve the best outcomes, and they would support service-learning if it really seemed to work. At present, they have reason to be skeptical.
November 6, 2003
Dean and the working classIn JFK Airport, en route to Salt Lake City: Two decisions regarding the Dean presidential campaign appear imminent. Gov. Dean is likely to refuse federal funding (thus gaining the freedom to spend unlimited private money); and he is expected to receive the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU, pronounced "see you"). These events are symptomatic of the collapse of a set of institutions that, 20 years ago, amplified the political voice of ordinary people. In those days, federal funding for presidential campaigns was adequate to replace private money, so there were no big donors in presidential politics. Everyone counted the same under the presidential campaign finance system. As for major unions, they had a powerful influence on the institutional Democratic party and supported candidates with whom they had lasting relationships—politicians who had risen through the political ranks mainly because of organized labor. Today, SEIU evidently thinks that it cannot afford to support the man who best fits that description, Dick Gephardt, because his chances of winning the presidency are too low. Instead, they are backing someone who owes them nothing, who has never had much to do with them, but who has harnessed mostly white-collar support through clever use of the Internet and a strong anti-War stance. Evidently, they think Gov. Dean has the best chance of winning and they want to have some leverage over him.
Two immediate results are likely: the demise of the whole public financing system (since neither party will use it), and the defeat of Rep. Gephardt, who is now blocked from receiving the AFL-CIO's collective endorsement.
Many people believe that the Dean campaign represents a new form of citizen influence. But we have to ask whom this new system benefits. Dean supporters have a political ideology and an identity as active citizens. Polls show that most Americans lack both of these characteristics. Dean supporters also have the means to contribute to his campaign, and they are early adapters of the latest technologies (blogs and Meetup.com this year; something else in 2008). In contrast, unions like SEIU traditionally gave people political ideologies and identities, collected modest dues to produce substantial political donations, and used tools (such as phone banks) that were familiar to blue-collar workers. I don't hold Gov. Dean's success against him, but I think it spells deep trouble for working-class politics in America.
November 5, 2003
Renaissance humanism today
I think that Renaissance humanist philosophy is often misunderstood; and this mistake matters to me because I favor a revival of the real methods of the humanists. The standard view is that Renaissance humanists taught original doctrines, especially the "dignity of man" that was the theme of Marsilio Ficino's famous oration. They are thought to be "humanists" because they believed in the centrality of human beings as opposed to God.
In fact, Ficino was neither original (in the context of medieval thought) nor especially influential. But Renaissance humanism did introduce a revolutionary change. Medieval scholastic philosophy had involved a particular style of writing. In the Middle Ages, philosophical works were third-person treatises: systematic, abstract, theoretical, and very logically sophisticated compared to anything written in the Renaissance. They included concrete examples, but always extracted from their original contexts to support abstract points. In contrast, Renaissance humanists meant by "philosophy" the dialogues, speeches, and moralistic biographies of ancient times, especially those written by Plato, Cicero, Seneca, and Plurarch. Plot and character featured prominently in these works. Humanist readers were mainly interested in philosophers (such as as Socrates or Diogenes) as role models, as men who had demonstrated virtues and eloquence in specific situations. The works they enjoyed were also full of irony: for example, Plato did not speak except through Socrates, for whom he probably had complex and ambiguous feelings.
In turn, Renaissance humanists wrote, not abstract treatises, but stories told by and about literary characters in concrete situations. Often these works were ironic. Utopia, the Praise of Folly, and the Prince share a surprising feature: people have argued for centuries about whether their authors were serious or joking. Utopia and the Praise of Folly are narrated by fictional characters, distant from their authors. And Machiavelli wrote the Prince for a ruler who was likely to execute him if he spoke his mind. Its real meaning may be ironic.
Today, mainstream moral philosophy is "scholastic": sophisticated, aiming at systematic rigor and clarity, logical, abstract, and ahistorical. But there are also works that try to make philosophical progress by interpreting past works in all their literary complexity, ambiguity, and original context. I'm thinking of Alasdair McIntyre's After Virtue, Martha Nussbaum's Fragility of Goodness, Bernard Williams' Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, and Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. These authors have no common theme or message, but they treat philosophy as a particular kind of discipline. They place it among the humanities, not the sciences. In this respect they are "humanist" philosophers in the Renaissance tradition.
November 4, 2003
"progressives" are conservativeMy Oct. 30 entry argues that today's "progressives" are best understood as conservatives, seeking to maintain a set of institutions that they do not believe are well designed, but which they prefer to the speculative market alternatives promoted by the Right. I did not mean this as a criticism, since such conservatism is valuable. Edmund Burke taught that we should hesitate to overturn interrelated social systems that have evolved over generations; they embody the experience of the people who have learned to live with them. It is easy to prove that their design is inefficient or inequitable, compared to some chalkboard alternative. But radical changes often go awry. On these grounds, Burke rightly preferred the Old Regime in France, for all its aribitrary, wasteful, unjust features, to the revolutionary system that fell apart after it had cost millions of lives. Similarly, I respect people who believe that public schools, unions, and welfare programs are better than the radical alternatives suggested by economic theory. The problem with progressivism is not that it is wrong. Rather, it is politically and rhetorically weak, for it's always difficult to win elections with a grudging defense of the status quo.
I would add that today's progressives are not only conservative about New Deal institutions. They are eager to conserve both natural ecosystems and minority cultures (especially poor, indigenous ones). They are more fiscally conservative than Republicans. They are also more resistant to scientific progress: witness their response to genetically engineered crops. They object to the expanding federal power over law enforcement (the USA Patriot Act) and education (No Child Left Behind). And they are the biggest defenders of institutions, such as public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities, that promote the high culture of the past.
This is a selective list. One could mention issues on which self-described "conservatives" are more conservative than liberals are. (The public role of religion would be one.) However, I think we should recognize the deep conservatism of the modern Left—in Europe as well as America—for this partly expains the present political situation. Conservatism is a virtue of so-called "progressivism" today; it is also a profound political weakness.