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May 31, 2005

Seamus Heaney's Beowulf

I just finished Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf. I haven't done any background reading or learned anything about the social context or critical debate, so these are untutored thoughts (fit for a notebook, which is what my blog really is).

1. A gift economy: Beowulf learns that Hrothgar, king of the Danes, is suffering from the scourges of a monster, so, unbidden, he sails to Denmark to offer his services. After he has killed Grendel (a whole day after, in fact--see line 1784), Hrothgar allows him to choose treasures from his store; Beowulf is "paid and recompensed completely" (2145). The hero sails home and gives everything he has received to his king, Hygelac (2148). Hygelac responds by giving Beowulf an ancient sword, land, hides, and a hall and throne.

None of this is negotiated in advance. The great anthropologists Bronislaw Malinoswski and Marcel Mauss showed that gift-giving is sharply distinguished from negotiation in some societies. We still have vestiges of a gift economy (for instance, our exchanges of dinner invitations and birthday presents). However, in other cultures, the gift is the main medium of exchange, the means by which goods circulate and incentives are created. As Hrothgar tells Beowulf (in Heaney's translation):

For as long as I rule this far-flung land
treasures will change hands and each side will treat
the other with gifts; across the gannet's bath,
over the broad sea, whorled prows will bring
presents and tokens. (1859-63)

Queens and other wives are also gifts (see 2017), which is not to say that they are powerless. Great Queen Modthryth, for instance, orders men shackled, racked, tortured, and killed for looking directly at her face.

2. The poem as buried treasure: Beowulf was completely forgotten for eight centuries, and then used only as a source of historical data until people like Tolkein and Yeats began to recognize its literary value and take inspiration from it. In other words, it had nothing to do with the history of English literature from the Norman Conquest until 1900, except that the language in which it was written evolved slowly into ours.

For his part, the anonymous author set his story in a distant and almost lost past--the culture of his pagan, Viking ancestors. There is an air of elegy in the whole work. Therefore, it is poignant that the poem seems to foretell its own burial. The dragon who finally kills Beowulf has found a treasure from a distant past:

There were many other
heirlooms heaped inside the earth-house,
because long ago, with deliberate care,
somebody now forgotten
had buried the riches of a high-born race
in this ancient cache. Death had come
and taken them all in times gone by
and the only one left to tell their tale,
the last of their line, could look forward to nothing
but the same fate for himself: he foresaw that his joy
in the treasure would be brief. (2231-2241)

The author of Beowulf resembles that last survivor (also anonymous); but Tolkein, Yeats, and their contemporaries found the treasure that he left behind and saved him from total obscurity.

3. The beautiful digressions: In Mimesis, Erich Auerbach observes that "the Homeric style knows only a foreground." He means that every episode, flashback, digression, and simile in the Iliad is told with the same intensity and emphasis. The author does not know how to--or chooses not to--make the main story line primary and relegate the subsidiary parts of the narrative to the background.

The same is certainly true of Beowulf, which has a striking tendency to wander off into stories that are not part of the main plot but are related to it in various tenuous ways. (For example, either the narrator or a speaker will tell a whole story because the main character behaves differently from Beowulf.) Our relationship to all the characters in the main and subsidiary plots is the same, because none has an interior life.

However, I often found the digressions to be the most beautiful portions of the text, as if the author had found tender and moving passages and inserted them into the narrative because he liked them. Perhaps the best is the "Father's Lament" (2444-2462), an epic simile that Beowulf introduces in the middle of a speech that is itself digressive, because it describes an episode from his own past:

It was like the misery felt by an old man
who has lived to see his son's body
swing on the gallows. He begins to keen
and weep for his boy, watching the raven
gloat where he hangs; he can be of no help.
The wisdom of age is worthless to him.
Morning after morning, he wakes to remember
that his child is gone; he has no interest
in living on until another heir
is born in the hall, now that his first-born
has entered death's dominion forever.
He gazes sorrowfully at his son's dwelling,
the banquet hall bereft of all delight,
the windswept hearthstone; the horsemen are sleeping,
the warriors under ground; what was is no more.
No tunes from the harp, no cheer raised in the yard.
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
and sings a lament; everything seems too large,
the steadings and the fields.

That is very fine poetry, I think--both the original and the translation. However, I must say that I found Heaney's version uneven. Sometimes the word-choice seems misguided. For instance: "Here we have been welcomed / and thoroughly entertained" (1820-1). It sounds as if the guests had heard a few good jokes, when actually they were given mead and food and beds. Or take this passage: "He was Yremnlaf's elder brother / and a soul-mate to me, a true mentor, my right-hand man when the ranks clashed ..." (1324-1326). "Mentor" is a latinate word with a bureaucratic or institutional ring. "Soul-mate" sounds new-agey to me. "Right-hand man" is slangy and American. I'm sure each word is accurate and justified, but the overall diction seems miscellaneous, as if Heaney had relied on a thesaurus. I can't really read the original, but surely it is dignified and formal, whereas sometimes Heaney's diction is colloquial Americanese: "Yet there was no way the weakened nation / could get Beowulf to give in and agree" (2373-4). ("There was no way" instead of "It was impossible for"; "get" instead of "persuade.")

On the other hand, this is a poem by the deserving Nobelist Heaney, and it has many strengths. For example, Beowulf's cremation scene is deeply moving and certainly deserves comparison to Hector's funeral in Book 12 of the Iliad. As Beowulf is consumed in a great pyre,

A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
with hair bound up, she unburdened herself
of her worst fears, a wild litany
of nightmare and lament; her nation invaded,
enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.

What she faces is too much to bear, yet human beings by the millions have faced as bad and worse.

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community research

Eleven of my undergaduate students, all from a program called Leaders for Tomorrow, are in residence on campus as of today. They are being paid, and in return they owe 180 hours of community research over the next six weeks. Each student will complete a project of his or her own--but all their work will generate products (articles, maps, video documentaries, etc.) for the Prince George's Information Commons website. The goal is to make that site into a serious venue for information and discussion for a community (pop. 850,000) that has no independent and comprehensive news sources of its own. Once we have enough high-quality material on the site, I'm hoping that it will gain critical mass; other community groups will want to participate as well. Of course, I won't just wait for that to happen. I will actively promote the site as a place for groups to put their work.

My students are still choosing and planning their projects, but they are likely to interview citizens about their recollections of local history; create maps with health data; develop interactive software for the site that will be open-source and available for others to use in their communities; locate all the music venues in the County and sample snatches of music to create an audio map of the musical life of the community; conduct a content-analysis of the Washington Post's coverage of the County over time; study the potential for free wireless Internet access; and chart changes in particularly interesting places (among other projects).

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May 30, 2005

the kids are alright

The Communitarian Network posed the following question to everyone on its email list:

Many people complain about the "younger generation," which may be seen as selfish, out of control, not interested in public life, and so on. Of course it is difficult to generalize, especially across socio-economic lines, but how do you find those young people in your social environment? If they are not quite all that they should be, what is the main source of the problem and what might be done about it?

I'm looking forward to seeing all the responses that people send in. Meanwhile, this is what I wrote:

I find it amazing that young people are turning out so well, given the often poor values and priorities displayed by the mass media, political leaders, and school systems. According to Child Trends' collection of statistics from federal sources, the following adolescent problems have declined substantially over the last 10-15 years: fighting, carrying weapons, feeling unsafe at school, being victimized by crime, cigarette use (down by 50%), substance abuse, and unsafe sex.

Our analysis of the General Social Survey finds that today's under-30s are the most tolerant in the history of polling (pdf). Polls also show that today's youth like their parents, and their parents like them. They have the highest rates of volunteering of any age group today. Although some of their volunteering is required by their schools or encouraged by college admissions offices, they do participate regularly and say that it is valuable. Under-30s voted at a higher rate in 2004 than at any time since 1992. In one of our surveys, two-thirds of young people favored mandatory civics classes in high schools and middle schools.

According to the latest MTV survey of 14-24s, "There appears to be no stigma attached to excelling in school. Nearly all the young people interviewed say they would be proud to tell their friends if they did really well in school." Sixty percent said their friend "wouldn't care" if the chose to study instead of "hang out"; 30 percent said their friends would actually support that decision. Only ten percent think that those who get good grades are "boring," or "weird."

It is appropriate for each generation of adults to be concerned about the civic and ethical development of youth; and this generation, like all others, can give us reasons to worry. However, complaining about them seems quite unjust. Their behavior exceeds what we have the right to expect, given how our institutions have treated them.

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May 27, 2005

dilemmas of "place"

I'm at the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, where many people believe in the importance of "place." That means (I think) that they value geographical communities that are distinctive, rather than anonymous and standardized. They believe that citizens ought to devote attention and passion to participating in the governance of such places. In The Public and its Problems (1927), John Dewey wrote that the home of democracy is "the neighborly community. ... We lie, Emerson said, in the lap of an immense intelligence. But that intelligence is dormant and its communications are broken, inarticulate and faint until it possesses the local community as its medium."

I had been thinking about "place" in a slightly different way since last Sunday, when I watched an excellent anti-violence hip-hop video produced by Bomani Darel Armah and some youth at Martha's Table in Washington. Watching it, I thought: This is very cool. It may not have quite the slick production values of an MTV video, but it's close enough that it could compete for the same audience. There are barriers to distributing it widely--namely, the big media companies that prefer to sell violent and prurient images of young Black people--but even a kid who was pessimistic about reaching a mass audience would enjoy making this video, because it's so good.

So hats off to Bomani and his talented students--but what about the rest of us: teachers and students who are unlikely to produce something so cool? We can't motivate ourselves (let alone groups of students) by promising to produce excellent hip-hop videos. Yet we need audiences for our students' work, peers who will respect and admire what they've made, even if it doesn't look or sound professional. (See my students' work, for example.)

The solution is to create videos, news articles, artworks, and other products for communities: for groups of people who know one another and have common experiences and concerns. If a cultural artifact is addressed to a community, then it needn't be excellent to be valuable and valued.

Affinity groups that are distributed across the country or the globe can function as communities, but only if they are small. If you're a socialist model-train enthusiast or a gay Esperanto-speaker, you may be able to create cultural products for people who know one another even if they don't live nearby. However, society is not sufficiently segmented to allow most of us to join such small affinity groups.

Places work better. Everyone in a geographical community can have shared experiences and overlapping social networks, simply by virtue of living or working together.

Unfortunately, many locations aren't "places," in this sense. We should transform large, anonymous buildings, such as standard high schools and shopping malls, into more distinctive and human-scaled institutions. There is real momentum in the movement to make high schools smaller and more communitarian.

I believe all of the above, yet I'm worried about relying too heavily on very local places as the venues of democracy. Like it or not, the scale of life has grown. Markets, governments, and institutions are big. We can't return to a past of stable urban neighborhoods and small towns, where everyone knows your name. Although high schools should be turned into communities, students will eventually have to take their democratic skills and attitudes into the broader world, where professional expertise, slickness, capital investment, and economies of scale usually triumph. It seems to me that democratic participation at a large scale creates dilemmas that we have not begun to address.

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May 26, 2005

a scheme for policy research

[On a plane from Washington to Dayton OH:] I have been fantasizing lately about a plan that I won't actually accomplish--although it would be very fun. Imagine starting with an intensive community-research project. Members of a community (for example, all the students at one urban high school) would document their lives, their aspirations, and their frustrations, with lots of assistance from students and faculty at a nearby university. This process of documentation could continue for four or five years. It would be the basis of serious, analytical discussions about justice. What do members of the community want? Are their wants valid, or have they been somehow misled, perhaps by advertising and pop culture? What does the larger community of the United States owe them? They would discuss these questions and others side-by-side with faculty and undergraduates.

Meanwhile, students at the university could conduct research to put the high school students' situations in a broader context. How typical are their problems? How have conditions changed over time? What do related groups of people think about the students' opinions and demands? Teachers, parents, employers, and others should be interviewed. The college-student researchers would constantly feed their results back to the high school students for further discussion.

On another track, advanced college students and professional researchers at the university would explore ideas for addressing the high school students' needs. There could be an ongoing research seminar in which faculty and outsiders with diverse views would be invited to present policy proposals--after having digested the high school students' documentation of their own lives and their demands for a better future.

The seminar would not only consider policies, but also politics. What constituency might line up in favor of the recommended policies? Why would people have an interest in supporting these reforms? What would it take to organize them? And what kind of political culture or political institutions would sustain this constituency? At all times, the seminar papers and discussions would be made public and fed back to the high school students.

The goal of this idea is to ground policy proposals not in an existing ideology, but rather in citizens' informed, reflective sense of their own condition. An ideology might emerge from the process, but it would not frame or limit it.

An obvious disadvantage of focusing so intently on one place is that the situation there might be atypical. However, the whole project could be organized in an "open-source" way, so that other groups in other places could feed their self-analysis into the same discussion.

I suppose this idea is like what used to happen at Hull-House during the Progressive Era, and later at Highlander in Tennessee. (See Nick Longo's great CIRCLE working paper entitled "Recognizing the Role of Community in Civic Education: Lessons from Hull House, Highlander Folk School, and the Neighborhood Learning Community": pdf). But this scheme would be based at a university and intended to develop broad new political theories or ideologies.

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May 25, 2005

museums for freedom and democracy

I spent yesterday in Philadelphia, helping the National Constitution Center with its strategic planning process. The Center is a museum for the U.S. Constitution, located in sight of Independence Hall. It's also an educational center with a significant and growing web presence. It's new, but it has substantial assets: an impressive building, a great location, and some fine exhibits.

This was my sole suggestion at the meeting: Make the Constitution Center (both the building and the website) a place where people can create excellent materials connected to the Constitution and democracy. Fill the blank walls with projects created by students and others--not just crayon drawings, but elaborate installations that represent a lot of careful work that's relevant to some aspect of the Constitution. Provide facilities for creative work, such as audio and video production studios and traditional stages. Local Philadelphia groups like Scribe and the Temple Youth Voices Project could be among those that used these facilities. Finally, provide opportunities for ephemeral creativity and expression--speakers' corners, public meeting rooms for civic groups, videoconference centers for civic discussions across long distances, blogs and physical bulletin boards, a printing press, tables with sand or clay for impromptu sculpture.

I had three reasons for making this proposal. First, I believe that the Constitution of the United States is not simply a plan for our official institutions; it is also a charter for a free people who are supposed to create their common-wealth. Therefore, a creative space is the best embodiment of the Constitution, as long as people are assisted in creating relevant materials.

Second, we live at a time when electronic technologies give us a choice. We can produce ever more sophisticated and enthralling spectacles that capture people's attention but leave them basically passive. I once described the Cerritos, California, Public Library as that kind of place. It's a public building that's in danger of turning into a pro bono theme park. Alternatively, we can open free spaces in which unprecedented numbers of people can be creative--the World Wide Web being the best example.

For any museum that lacks a remarkable collection of unique objects, becoming a theme park is a serious risk. Opening a creative space is a better route. In his essay on "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin argued that once art objects can be mass-produced, it becomes possible for powerful institutions to generate mass spectacles; and that is the root of fascism. It's not such a great idea to prize unreproducible objects--like the Liberty Bell or the actual, original Constitution--because only a few people can possibly can see or own these items. But at least an unreproducible object is hard to use to manipulate mass opinion. Benjamin's argument suggests that mass institutions pose a danger, unless they allow people to create.

Third, I disagree with the following reasoning: "Young people--and even grown-ups--are woefully ignorant of our Constitution. Polls consistently find them wanting. We need to change them, and the best means is professional media. A state-of-the-art interactive museum, created and vetted by experts, is an example." I reject this reasoning because I don't believe that people can be spoonfed civic or political information that they don't want, especially in a highly competitive marketplace. The alternative, once again, is to give people opportunities to become active creators of the commonwealth, so that they have reasons to understand and to value their rights.

Incidentally, I had been planning to write pretty much this very post since last Friday, not in reference to the National Constitution Center, but rather in response to an article about the International Freedom Center that is planned for the World Trade Center site in Manhattan. The Freedom Center is likely to be a spectacle, a didactic theme park created by well-intentioned people like the ACLU. But it could be much better than that.

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May 23, 2005

social science, for good and ill

I'm on my way to Philadelphia today, to help the folks at the National Constitution Center think about their next steps. Yesterday morning, I went to Capitol Hill to watch my colleague and friend Judith Torney-Purta win a "Decade of Behavior" award. The "Decade of Behavior" (2000-2010) is actually a collaborative project by the various social science disciplines to "highlight how behavioral and social science research provides insight and solutions to pressing social concerns." Judith was the pyschologist chosen to be honored for her lifetime of work on children's civic development.

The political scientist was James Gibson. He seemed to be a good person, and he won my trust by saying that he had "fallen in love" with South Africa during his ten years of research there. (I always like scholarship that combines with love.) He also showed a lot of respect for the South African leadership.

Nevertheless, I was a bit disturbed by his introduction. I mention it not to criticize him--since I don't know his overall project--but as an example of a form of social science that I find dangerous rather than helpful. Gibson said that he was pessimistic about the future of democracy in South Africa because quantitative social science has found that the following are predictors of democratic stability: wealth, economic equality, ethnic homogeneity, and direct influence from Britain. South Africa is poor on a per-capita basis; it has terrible inequality (a GINI of 59.3) and a deeply heterogenous population. Only the British colonial influence looks favorable, and it was short-lived.

It may be useful to know that poverty, inequality, and ethnic divisions are challenges that young democracies must face. But it's not helpful to suggest that a country in South Africa's situation is doomed. After all, the research on democratization is based on limited data from a relatively short historical period--there were no nation-sized democracies in the world before 1776. In any case, the past never guarantees the future. Who could have foreseen South Africa's brilliantly successful Truth & Reconcilation Commission?

It occurs to me that the two most dynamic and innovative democracies in the whole world today, Brazil and South Africa, are both strikingly poor, deeply unequal, and tremendously diverse. Maybe we're starting a new chapter that will make the old statistical models irrelevant. That would be a lesson in the limits of the "social and behavioral sciences."

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notes on "free culture"

These are notes I took during the Free Culture conference last weekend. ... Most participants were relatively young adults who create “alternative” news and culture. They are also concerned about the legal and economic aspects of mass communications. Most start with some anger against what they perceive as a unified system composed of big media companies and the policies of the US government and international bodies (e.g., media licensing systems, copyright laws) that together sustain social injustice—poverty, racism, patriarchy, and so on. Using music, poetry, and images, they speak an eloquent and fairly sophisticated New Left language of resistance, subversion, an opposition. A repeated visual motif in their presentations is a woman of color with a raised fist. See for example Third World Majority’s website, with its compelling video clips.

However, several participants believe that a message of opposition and resistance has a limited appeal. Relatively few Americans see themselves as oppressed; and if an organizer makes them angry with eloquent, angry rhetoric, the feeling soon fades. A better way to broaden and sustain motivation is by giving people a positive vision of alternative media that they can themselves participate in creating. In other words, making “content” is the best route to political mobilization.

Using available technology, people can create powerful, compelling material. For instance, Downhill Battle is trying to build software that allows anyone to produce and view video programming at virtually no cost. The idea is to enable millions of young people to view “TV” that they have made for one another, instead of programs created by highly paid professionals at big companies. As one person from Guerilla News Network says, “Let’s just build ourselves. Let’s not wait for public television to come back. Let’s not wait for a grant.”

Looking forward, new technology could make young people and other excluded Americans more sophisticated about policy. If the law forbids or frustrates their desire to make and share free content, then they will not have to be mobilized to fight back; they will mobilize themselves--and in a spirit of confidence rather than resentment. Alternatively, the creation of new media technology could actually make policy irrelevant. The law might not be able to block people from creating their own media.

Questions raised during the conversation:

1) Will people really prefer “alternative” media if they have a choice, say, between amateur video clips and MTV? One answer is that they will prefer the alternative stuff, because it’s better. The most popular blogs, for example, are independently produced; corporate blogs are relatively unappealing. Another answer is that most people will prefer MTV, but it’s still important to support a minority voice.
2) Where can funding come from? There’s a lot of dissatisfaction with foundations as the source, because then everyone is on “an allowance” from powerful organizations. (Plus, foundation funds are pretty limited.) Although most people at the conference are strongly anti-corporate, they are interested in sustainable, independent business models.
3) Why are the most popular blogs still produced by highly educated white males? The technology is cheap and open—not perfectly so, but as close to perfect as we are likely to see. Neither policy nor technology stands in the way of equality in the blogosphere. Nevertheless, a privileged group tends to dominate. Maybe the demographics will change over time. Or maybe media technology and policy are not the only important reasons for inequality.
4) Is it most helpful to frame the struggle for “free” or “independent” or “alternative” media in radical leftist terms? I am not hostile to a leftist political conversation in which people consider new media forms as tools to get the social and political outcomes they want. It is also true, however, that many people on the center and the right (including the radical right) do not like the mainstream mass media and would support “alternatives.” So if the goal is really an open, non-corporate media system, it might make more sense to build a left-right coalition.

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May 20, 2005

"free culture" conference

This evening and over the weekend, I'll be attending a conference on "free culture" organized by Kathryn Montgomery and colleagues at American University. I'll be the least hip person present, since everyone else will be either techno-savvy or into some kind of subversive cultural form (such as political hip-hop), or both. My plan is to listen and learn. There's a pre-conference blog with a list of participants. Facilities have been arranged so that everyone can be online and blog away during the whole meeting, if so inclined.

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May 19, 2005

Archon Fung: "Deliberation Before the Revolution"

My friend and colleague Archon Fung has published an article entitled “Deliberation Before the Revolution: Toward an Ethics of Deliberative Democracy in an Unjust World” (Political Theory, Vol. 33, No. 3, Spring 2005: pdf).

"Deliberative democracy" is an ideal: people are supposed to exchange ideas, values, and arguments freely, in a variety of formats and genres; and their discourse (alone) is supposed to determine the outcome. In real life, social inequality, bureaucracy, secrecy, force and threats of force, bargaining, prejudice, and many other non-deliberative factors influence outcomes. How should someone who is committed to the ideal of deliberative democracy behave in an imperfect world?

Fung rejects two options. The first is to act in a purely deliberative way despite injustice. He thinks it is naive to commit oneself to give reasons and arguments (and nothing but reasons and arguments) even when powerful people refuse to listen. Strikes, boycotts, lawsuits, voter-mobilization campaigns, nonviolent protests, and even occasionally violent uprisings may be necessary. At the same time, Fung believes it is a mistake to abandon deliberation altogether until the "revolution" comes--in other words, until there is enough political equality and until institutions are well enough designed that deliberation can prevail. If one waits for the "revolution" before becoming a deliberative democrat, then the imperfections of our current order can justify abandoning all pretense of deliberation and simply trying to amass power. That is a path to cynicism and corruption.

Fung favors a middle course. The realistic (yet idealistic) deliberative democrat should try to make the world more deliberative through effective political activism, but he or she should be ethically constrained by certain deliberative norms. Specifically, the activist should keep in mind the goal of making institutions more fair and more influenced by reasons. He or she should assume that others will deliberate in good faith until they show by their behavior that they will not. The activist should exhaust deliberative forms of politics (e.g., giving arguments, organizing open meetings) before resorting to non-deliberative tactics. And any non-deliberative responses should be strictly proportional to the situation. Just because my opponent has been somewhat deaf to my arguments or somewhat secretive and authoritarian, it doesn't follow that I may abandon deliberative norms altogether and simply use force.

Fung's article covers other ground and very usefully analyzes a case-study (the "living-wage" campaign at Harvard). I endorse his argument and will use it in my own work--specifically, as Rose Marie Nierras and I continue to interview activists from the developing world to learn their attitudes toward deliberation.

I would only differ from Fung in emphasis. I think there are very serious dangers to abandoning deliberative forms of politics, even in the face of injustice. Some activists say, "Social inequality is so bad that people don't know, or cannot effectively express, their own interests. Therefore, there is no point in trying to organize deliberation or in heeding its results. Social change first; talk later." I think this attitude (which is not Fung's, certainly, but a common one) is arrogant, because the activist assumes that he or she knows what a just society would look like. He grants himself the right to manipulate others to get the social change he wants. Not only is this unethical, in my view, but it can be foolish (if the activist misconceives justice) and unsustainable. Mobilization campaigns that pit the disadvantaged against the strong may win tactical victories, but they tend to peter out. To achieve lasting social change, one typically needs partnerships, social trust, shared information and ideas, and some degree of consensus.

Thus, although I agree with Fung that we should steer a middle course between idealism and Realpolitik, I think we too often overlook the power of deliberation and the dangers of abandoning it.

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May 18, 2005

Senator Frist, the Constitution, and filibusters

This morning, on the Senate floor, Majority Leader Bill Frist said:

Mr. President, I rise today as the leader of the majority party of the Senate.

But I do not rise for party. I rise for principle.

I rise for the principle that judicial nominees with the support of a majority of senators deserve up-or-down votes on this floor. ...

The minority should allow senators to fulfill our constitutional responsibility to give advice and consent and vote.

A statement of constitutional principle by the Senate Majority Leader deserves respectful scrutiny. So let's scrutinize.

The Constitution famously says, "The President ... shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint ... Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States." "Consent" means a decision, and collective decisions require a rule. Senator Frist believes that the rule ought to be what he calls an "up-or-down-vote," but he really means a vote scheduled for a particular time, in which, if a quorum is present, a majority of those voting shall prevail. This rule is not specified in the Constitution, and it is only one rule used by legislative and other constitutional bodies. The Senate often uses the rule that Senator Frist opposes, which is to decide by majority vote of those present, but only if 60 senators are willing to allow the vote to proceed. In general, the decision-rule in Congress is a concurrent majority vote in both houses; and committees determine what is voted on. To propose a constitutional amendment requires the support of "two thirds of both Houses." Criminal juries (which are also constitutional bodies) normally require unanimity to convict.

Any decision-rule has its advantages and disadvantages. The status quo in the Senate, which allows filibusters, may favor moderate judicial appointments. I think this is good; a lifetime appointment to a co-equal branch of government should be able to pass muster with 60 Senators. In contrast, simple majority voting would allow a party to place its own partisans on the bench if it controlled both the White House and the Senate. There are also disadvantages to the current filibuster rule. But I don't see how any rule is more constitutional than any other. It would be consistent with the Constitution (although unwise) for the Senate to demand unanimity on judicial appointments.

The Constitution mentions "advice" as well as "consent." I have long felt that the spirit of this provision would be met if the president and the Senate conferred prior to a nomination. Thus I believe the Senate should propose, and the president should seriously consider, a list of possible judges and justices and a set of criteria for their selection. But no president has welcomed such true "advice."

In the absence of prior advice, presumably the spirit of the Constitution requires at least serious communication between the Senate as a body and the president. The Senate ("the world's greatest debating society") communicates best by allowing everyone to speak. Thus, arguably, the filibuster advances the constitutional requirement to "advise" by promoting debate.

However, if we make this argument (and I find it appealing), then the minority should block presidential nominations only by spending time actually debating the merits of a nominee and closely related issues. In other words, the minority should have the right to exercise an old-fashioned filibuster, which is a talkathon on the subject of the controversy. (In contrast, in modern filibusters, the Senate moves to other business until 60 votes can be mustered to end debate.) The advantage of a genuine, old-fashioned filibuster is that citizens can observe the debate and decide for themselves whether the delay is merited.

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May 17, 2005

young African Americans and Latinos turned out in force

According to CIRCLE's latest fact sheet (pdf), voter turnout among young African Americans rose by 15 percentage points between 2000 and 2004, from 38 percent to 53 percent. For Latinos, voter turnout rose by 21 percentage points between 2000 and 2004, from 32 percent to 53 percent. In the last election, young Latinos and African Americans voted at the same rate as young Whites. Whites under the age of 30 favored Bush, but Kerry took the under-30 vote because of solid support from young Latinos and an overwhelming lead among young Blacks.

Young voters are becoming more diverse over time, as a result of a more diverse population and increased minority turnout:

Estimating turnout by race is an inexact science, since the actual race (or ethnicity) of a voter is never officially recorded. At CIRCLE, we joke that our latest fact sheet is two pages of results plus three pages of caveats. (I spent a lot of time helping to write the latter.) However, all cautions aside, this study is based on apples-to-apples comparisons and makes reasonable estimates.

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May 16, 2005

inequality & social class

I spend time inside three schools--a Washington prep school that our older daughter attends, our younger daughter's D.C. public school (which draws from families of very diverse race and income), and a Hyattsville high school where I do some civic work. These are three worlds. People in each building have different expectations, they talk differently, they evaluate one another according to different criteria, they have different experiences. And everything in each school is of a piece. The clothes, the architecture, the explicit rules, the curriculum, the vocabulary, even the food--all match. Although life will bring a few surprises, it's powerfully obvious that the kids at the prep school are getting ready to run America, the ones in Hyattsville will mostly stock shelves and answer phones, and the students in the diverse school will have diverse paths--largely forecast by their parents' current situations.

Today's New York Times launches a series on social class. There are some zippy graphics on this page. You can see, for example, that inequality is growing and that 75% of families that were in the bottom income quintile in 1988 are still in that quintile today. Of those currently in the top fifth, more than half were already there in 1988. These statistics don't surprise me; in fact, I would have guessed that fewer families had ascended economically in the last 17 years.

What replicates social inequality in America: families' financial assets, their culture, their social networks? Students at a fancy downtown Washington prep school have more knowledge and better cognitive skills than those at a standard comprehensive public school. Cognitive skills may result from nature or nurture, but in either case they are economically valuable. Since a prep school is selective, it can pick applicants who have the skills to prosper later in life. However, cognitive skills are not everything. We see a great deal of inherited inequality in the US despite differences in measured skills. Christopher Jencks notes (pdf, p. 52): "If one compares American workers with the same test scores and the same amount of schooling, the Americans' wages vary more than the wages of all Swedish, Dutch, and German workers."

Many Americans believe that there is less equality in the United States than in other developed countries because there is more competition here; and competition generates wealth. However, within the wealthy countries, there is no correlation between efficiency (wealth produced per hour or per person) and inequality (Jenck's pdf, p. 53). There is more inequality in the United States than in most Western European countries because our top tax rates are lower and the basket of services for poor people is smaller. The poorest Americans have much less real, after-tax purchasing power than their counterparts in Western Europe.

Why should we care? I don't believe that it's any of my business if other people are richer than I--not even if they are much richer. That's because at my income level, I already enjoy the security and the range of choices that our society is capable of providing. But there are many millions of Americans who can't afford education or travel, nor can they choose what work to do or where to live. They receive lousy health care. There are also billions of human beings whose poverty sharply shortens their lives and limits their freedom. It is not because equality is good in itself, but because poverty limits freedom and welfare, that we should care about inequality.

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May 13, 2005

why the Democrats must tackle entitlements

I understand the tactical argument for allowing Republicans to impale themselves on the President's Social Security proposal. Republicans have put themselves in a position where they must either claim that they can create private accounts at no net cost to the Treasury (a claim the exposes them to powerful criticism), or else admit the real costs of the proposal, in which case they must defend unpopular tax increases or benefit cuts. If the Democrats were to introduce a real plan of their own, it would also necessarily contain new taxes and/or benefit cuts, and then the situation would be muddy. They have a rationale for not proposing a plan (Social Security is not in a crisis), and it's convenient for them to leave the Republican proposal as the only option that attracts public attention.

However, imagine that the Democrats' best-case scenario comes to pass. Not only do they defeat the President's plan in Congress (probably in the Senate), but they make Republicans so unpopular that the GOP loses a national election--either in 2006 or in 2008. Is this scenario a victory? Not at all. As long as the Democrats lack a mandate for some alternative radical change in social policy, their tactical maneuvering will merely protect the status quo. But the status quo means slow national decline, as middle-class retirement entitlements plus debt service eat up a growing majority of the whole federal budget, the economy is constrained as we face a new wave of competition with China and India, and there are no funds available to address poverty, education, environmental protection, crime-prevention, or urban renewal. This decline would not be like the one that occurred in Western Europe after World War II, when major powers lost their global privileges but protected their own least advantaged increasingly well. This would be a decline that hit the poor hardest.

In any case, I'm not confident that what I called the "best-case scenario" will come to pass. I don't believe that Democrats and liberals have a reputation for problem-solving right now. In fact, the Democratic base itself seems discouraged about the potential of government. If the relatively liberal or progressive party lacks a reputation for problem-solving, then people will always vote for the more conservative alternative, no matter how much they dislike its record. Given the choice between no solutions and no solutions, voters will choose the party that is likely to hold down taxes--as we learned last November.

Perhaps it would make sense for Democrats to embrace a two-stage plan. In Stage One, they would let the Republicans run rapidly off a cliff. In Stage Two, they would propose a unified alternative. During Stage Two (by the way), the Democrats' headline needn't be "social security reform"; social security should be considered in the context of overall federal domestic spending. But the Democrats would need to explain how they propose to balance federal budgets as the Baby Boom retires.

While Stage Two can be postponed for a little while, a long delay will be fatal. It takes years to develop, vet, and build support for an ambitious, unified agenda. The Bush plan may not be going anywhere, but it could occupy attention for a year or more. By that time, the Democrats' would have run out of time to develop a vision for 2006, and 2008 would be alarmingly close.

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May 12, 2005

high school reform meeting

CIRCLE is planning a public event on high school reform for July 6 in Washington. A formal invitation will be circulated shortly, but anyone could contact me to express an interest in attending.

The National Governors Association recently found that “America’s high schools are failing to prepare too many of our students for work and higher education.” Even though a diploma is seen as a minimum requirement for entry into the workforce, one third of all adolescents (and half of all African American and Latino students) do not complete high school at all. Many who do graduate are not prepared for the 21st-century economy. Various fundamental reforms are being considered to increase academic success and students’ economic potential.

The discussion about high school reform often overlooks schools’ civic mission, which is to prepare young people to participate in democracy. However, research tells us a great deal about how schools should be organized to achieve civic outcomes.

Some people believe that one particular reform proposal has both economic and democratic promise. They want to transform traditional, large, omni-purpose, relatively anonymous high schools into institutions of smaller size, with more coherent focus, more student participation, and more connections to the surrounding community.

On July 6, we plan to discuss the following question: To what extent would such alternatives to traditional large high schools enhance (or block) students’ academic success and their education for democracy? Speakers will include experts on fundamental school reform, experts on civic education, educators, and students. There will be opportunities for questions and a plenary discussion.

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May 11, 2005

against "spoonfeeding" the public

Because both of Maine's Senators are swing votes on the question of filibustering judicial appointments, that state is now the focus of intense lobbying and advertising. However, the Times' David Kirkpatrick finds that "most citizens have only a hazy idea of what the fuss is about. In interviews with about two dozen Mainers in Portland, Augusta and their suburbs during this week's Senate recess, none had a clear understanding of the Senate procedure at the heart of the debate: the filibuster, a tactic that allows a minority of senators to stymie the chamber by standing against the 60 votes needed to close a debate."

All else being equal, it is a Bad Thing that people don't understand the issue that is likely to consume their Senate for a month or more. It means, among other things, that strongly ideological interest groups enjoy more power than they would if everyone were following the issue.

People are certainly capable of understanding a filibuster. I'm always amazed at how many people can write software, play an instrument and understand music theory, or organize complex financial transactions--all problems that I find somewhat intimidating but that are harder to grasp than a filibuster.

I'm professionally committed to the idea that we should teach children and adolescents more about politics and government. However, I don't believe that 40-year-olds will remember the definition of a filibuster because they learned it in ninth grade. Civic education is important because it provides a baseline of understanding so that people can begin to follow the news. The news media could do a better job of explanatory journalism, but if people don't want to learn about Senate procedures, no amount of explanation will help.

Ultimately, I believe we need several layers of politics. The top layer is national and international affairs, and it must be a spectator sport for most citizens. We want people to be interested and informed about national and global issues so that they can vote well, but extensive participation is unrealistic. There must be other layers in which direct participation is possible and potentially rewarding. As my colleage Steve Elkin argues, municipal politics is an excellent source of civic education, because the scale is large enough to matter (and to encompass diversity), yet small enough for people to grasp and to affect. Also, municipalities must grapple daily with perhaps the core issue of any market democracy, which is how much to benefit investors in the interest of economic growth.

If people worked in local politics (and at least twice as many held local office 50 years ago as today), then they would understand legislative processes first-hand. They would also have identities as active citizens that would motivate them to follow national news. My friend and co-editor John Gastil has found that members of juries--with the exception of juries that deadlock--are considerably more likely than comparable people to vote in elections. At first, this finding doesn't seem to make much sense: jury service is profoundly different from voting. The only reasonable explanation is that "citizenship" is one thing in people's minds. If they become active citizens in one domain, they behave that way in others, too.

Thus, instead of trying to make Maine residents (of any age) understand the filibuster, I would put my energy into involving them in town and county affairs, co-op and condo boards, student associations, union locals, and other political bodies of human scale.

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May 10, 2005

using blog software to strengthen a geographical community

The Prince George's Information Commons is our local attempt to use the new electronic media to support community and civil society. (It's my own small effort at the kind of civic development that I called for in yesterday's post.) I recently installed MovableType on the Commons webpage. That's software that was designed for blogging; I also use it on the page you're reading. The Prince George's Commons doesn't look much like a blog. I've downplayed the date of each contribution, because entries won't be posted all that frequently. Some entries will be very long and labor-intensive. For example, the "oral history of desegregation" that's posted near the top of the homepage took me, two colleagues, and 10 kids most of an academic year to create.

I turned to blog software because I wanted to build a database into which many people's projects about the County could be entered. On the homepage, you can now see short intros to the latest projects. You can also browse all the current and past work via an intertactive map, a set of timelines, a set of category headings, and a search function.

All these features are operational in a preliminary way. Thus one can use the map to look for archaeological digs in the County, or use the timeline to find all the projects concerning the 1800s, or look at a category like "work by Northwestern High School students," or search for a phrase like "Mt Rainier." You can also easily post comments on all pages, thus creating a "commons" feel.

There isn't actually much work on the site as yet. However, I am guiding 17 undergraduate students who are conducting research projects right now; and a group of high school students is completing a large project on nutrition in their community, funded by National Geographic. So the database will grow rapidly. Meanwhile, I'm excited by the idea that I can now approach another professor or a school teacher--or church or neighborhood group--and easily explain to them how they might conduct some kind of research project and contribute the results to the community by putting it on the Commons website.

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May 9, 2005

Gorgeous George, Jim Traficant, and some thoughts on populism

On Crooked Timber, Daniel Davies explains why "Gorgeous" George Galloway was able to knock off a Labour incumbent and win a Parliamentary seat last week. For a long time, "Gorgeous" was an outrageous leftist Labour MP from Glasgow, famous for his successful libel lawsuits, his constant deep tan, his fancy clothes, his reputation for corruption, and his personal relationships with several dictators, including Saddam (to whom his last words before the invasion were: "Sir, I salute your courage, strength and indefatigability"). Galloway was expelled from Labour, which cost him his Glasgow seat; but last Thursday, he won a triumphant return to Westminster. He will represent Bethnal Green & Bow, once the very heart of Cockney England, a poor East-End district that now has a large Bangladeshi population.

America has had several Gorgeous Georges of its own: most recently, former Representative Jim Traficant (D-OH), who was renowned for his corruption trials, his blatant toupee and outrageous 70s clothes (worn well into the 1990s), his infamatory rhetoric (especially the one-minute House speeches punctuated with the phrase "beam me up"), and his unsavory friends--local mobsters, in this case, rather than Arab dictators. Just as "Gorgeous" was kicked out of Labour, Traficant was expelled from the Democratic caucus and then the U.S. House. Gallaway is a Marxist, and Traficant is an anti-tax populist, but they share almost eveything else (including precisely the same views on most social issues).

I happened to be in Youngstown, Ohio, Traficant's home town and electoral base, when he faced his final trial. Youngstown is a very hard-hit former steel city. My host had deep Youngstown roots as the son of a former Steelworkers Local president; he introduced me to many acquaintances of diverse classes and backgrounds. I recall a guy who had done federal time for drug-smuggling, a straight-arrow assistant football coach, and others. Quite a few of these people were Traficant fans. They knew that Youngstown was an economic disaster and that Traficant was unlikely to make it any better. But they admired him for "sticking it" to the IRS and the Justice Department. This was a man who, when charged with taking bribes as sheriff, persuaded a local jury that he had been conducting an undocumented, independent sting operation. Many Youngstown people were rooting him to pull it off again.

Daniel Davies explains Gorgeous George's victory in terms that could also describe Traficant's long careeer:

They voted for Gorgeous George [in Bethnall Green & Bow] for the same reason that the Glaswegians voted for him again and again, with ever-increasing majorities. Because he puts on a bloody good show, and more importantly, because he gets right up in the faces of the people at the top of the tree.

You see, it’s entirely laudable and sensible to vote for someone [this is a reference to the defeated Labour incumbent] who will spend morning noon and night tirelessly plodding away making incremental gains on your behalf and trying to smooth over one or two of the little inconveniences that make life slightly, but tangibly and materially, more difficult to live. The sensible thing to do would be to continue to vote that way, and hope for gradual and marginal progress toward a better tomorrow for our grandchildren.

But that’s living small. Living small, in the sense of knuckling down and grinding away at a system which is based on a hierarchy that has you at the bottom of it, accepting your place in that hierarchy and beavering away at the task of making your position at the bottom of the pile as tolerable as possible. ... But for the health of the soul today, sometimes you need to live large. And if the only way to live large is to vote for a George Galloway ... from time to time, then so be it. The purpose of professional wrestlers is to provide a spectacle of grotesque chaos while laughing in the face of the normal order of things, and the purpose of a certain kind of socialist politician is very similar. It’s not grown up, it’s not sensible and it’s not constructive, but it is exactly the kind of impulse on which any hope of a genuinely different society has to rest.

If the Bangladeshis of Bethnal Green & Bow want to chuck away eight years of New Labour in order to give a good old 'eff off' to Tony Blair, then I say good luck to them. And furthermore, I say 'bollocks' to anyone on the 'decent left' who has the temerity to lecture the actually existing working class on what some imagined 'decent working class' of the mind should be hoping and dreaming.

I'm quite open to the charge that I'm just a bourgeous goo-goo (proponent of "good government") from the "decent left" who can't understand the need for emotional release in places like Youngstown and Bethnall Green. But let me suggest that poor communities need not choose between voting for humdrum professional politicians who make small positive changes, or else casting protest votes for outrageous blowhards. Even when the working class has no truly effective political leaders, a third route is open to them. That is to develop a civic culture in which large numbers of citizens are capable, individually and collectively, of improving their community in small but significant ways. Instead of voting for a professional to make things modestly better, people can improve matters themselves, thereby multiplying their power and gaining a much deeper kind of satisfaction that you can possibly get from watching George G. or Jim T. on TV.

Areas that are very poor also tend to have relatively weak "civic engagement"--few people feel capable of political action, there are not enough networks and associations, power is tightly controlled by a few. To some extent, surely, being poor hurts the political culture. But I suspect the reverse is true, as well. Although Youngstown is mainly suffering because of the collapse of the US steel industry, it would be better off if more residents felt that they were competent, responsible citizens. Tupelo, Mississippi is strikingly more prosperous than any other community in the region, and some serious analysts believe that the reason is a strong local tradition of civic engagement. Robert Putnam argued that the South of Italy was not less civic than the North because it was poorer, but vice-versa--the South had failed to develop economically because its civic culture was too weak. No amount of aid from the central government could help it to develop, because in the absence of a civic culture, the money just flowed to the mob.

In a place where people feel responsible and capable as citizens, they will never vote for a Gorgeous George or a Jim Traficant. Nor will they be satisfied with a mainstream politician as an alternative. They will see the job of economic development as a shared responsibility and opportunity. All this is easy for me to say, I know. But that doesn't make it any less true.

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May 6, 2005

realism in civic education

As the Stanford psychologist William Damon observes, if you ask students to define "democracy," they tend to say that it means equal power for all plus the freedom to do what you want. But freedom and equality are in tension. In a system of one person, one vote, majorities will support laws that constrain individual choice. In a free polity, people will accumulate various forms of capital (cash, knowledge, social networks) that give them unequal political power. Even taken separately, freedom and equality are utopian goals. We don't know how to achieve perfect freedom. A minimal state would leave young people at the mercy of their parents and deprive many citizens of the education and economic security that are the basis of free choice. Yet if we have a government, we do not have perfect private liberty. Likewise, we don't know how to achieve complete political equality. In any commercial system, wealthy people have more political clout than poor people. As Charles Lindblom argued, firms have a "privileged position" because they can always withdraw investments from a community or nation that harms their interests. There seems to be no way around that logic. Even in communist and socialist regimes, party leaders accumulate power and hand it down to their children, as if they owned "the people's" farms and factories. Finally, if we could maximize both freedom and equality, it is not clear that we would want to do so. We also care about prosperity, sustainability, the conservation of nature, pluralism, cultural excellence, community values, and other goods that trade off against each other.

Young people should think about these tradeoffs, so that they can make intelligent choices and not be disappointed by the failure of utopian hopes. For what it's worth, the following would be something like my own view: We live in a commercial polity that is deeply imbued with, and dependent on, prosperity. In order to have economic growth, it is necessary to cede some political power to the people who make decisions about investments. As a result, they will live better than their fellow citizens. The questions become: Who makes decisions about investments (a few very rich individuals, professional corporate managers, or many investors)? What motivations guide them? (For instance, an educated, landed aristocracy will have different motives from a publicly traded corporation.) And how can we make sure that the power of investors is really used to promote general prosperity rather than very narrow self-interests?

A "realist" civic education would be quite different from what we give most young people today. It strikes me that standard social studies teaching combines excessive idealism about grand abstract goods with reflexive cynicism about our actual institutions. So young people think that "democracy" means perfect freedom and equality, but "the government" and "politicians" merely answer to the highest bidder. In truth, the modern state does have perverse and corrupt incentives, but it should be measured against a realistic standard.

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May 5, 2005

Social Security reform: statecraft as soulcraft

According to an article by Jonathan Rauch:

Earlier this month, a White House aide named Peter Wehner (director of strategic initiatives) sent selected conservatives a memo making the case for Social Security reform. ... The memo had little to say about long-term growth and other economic effects of reform. It stressed moving 'away from dependency on government and toward giving greater power and responsibility to individuals.' At the libertarian Cato Institute, Michael Tanner, the director of the project on Social Security choice, makes the same case. 'We're changing fundamentally the relationship of people to their government,' he says. It would be 'the biggest shift since the New Deal.'

Bingo. Once you cancel the zeros on both sides of the equation, neither creating private Social Security accounts nor ratcheting down the growth of future benefits would be an economic milestone. Conservatives need to frame Social Security reform as a dollars-and-cents issue, but that is not really why they are excited. What they really hope to change is not the American economy but the American psyche.

Many critics see this as a clever and duplicitous trick, a kind of plot to engineer lasting Republican majorities. They may feel the same way about the small-scale grants to "faith-based" organizations that the Bush Administration is now making. These are peer-reviewed, competitive grants, but they are designed to support a specific constituency (poor, mostly minority religious leaders) that could swing from Democratic to Republican if they received enough financial support from a conservative administration. (See this Times article by Jason DeParle.)

These efforts at "soulcraft" (i.e., using policies to change values) have Democratic parallels. Many liberals want Social Security to provide universal coverage, not because that makes the most economic sense, but because they want everyone to feel a sense of connection to (critics would say, "dependence on") the federal welfare system. Liberals have long sought to fund constituencies and movements that would support liberal policies, from farmers to big city mayors.

I oppose the Bush Social Security reform because I think it's bad policy, and because I dissent from the values that conservatives want to inculcate. However, I do not believe that they are playing foul when they try to reform social policy in order to change "the American psyche." In order to achieve social change, you need policies that support constituencies that can demand, sustain, and help implement your ideas. Good political leadership requires strategic thinking about that whole package--not about policy by itself. Assuming that you favor a society of individual opportunity (and risk), then you should not only advocate less government, but also try to undermine those federal programs that create constituencies for federal welfare. By the same token, there is nothing wrong with liberal "social engineering" that attempts to adjust society itself so that more people will support liberal values. Every policy, no matter how moderate or ad hoc, has effects (intended and otherwise) on our political culture. We might as well be intentional about our soulcraft.

So I endorse my friend Chris Beem's call for legislating morality through social policy, as long as we respect two cautions. First, the debate should not only be about the values we want to inculcate in the long term. Even if, for example, we endorse the idea of enhancing American individualism, that doesn't mean that the dollar cost of Bush's Social Security reform proposal is worth the price. Very wasteful policies cannot be justified because they would change hearts and minds. Second, the whole debate should be as open and public as possible. Citizens should realize that not only their retirement packages, but also the nation's political culture, is at stake.

[ps: Anyone who really wants to get into the fiscal details of Social Security should check out Steve Johnson's "social security simulator," an amazing tool that let's you forecast results based on various policies and various assumptions about economic growth, demographics, etc. See also the Simcivic homepage for lessons derived from this flexible model.]

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May 3, 2005

neuroscience and morality

I recently had occasion to poke around in the growing literature on neuroscience and the morality.* I have not had time to read some of the big and important books on this subject, so the following are just preliminary notes, largely untutored.

Some evidence from brain science suggests that people need emotions in order to reason effectively about human behavior. Patients with damage to certain brain regions are able to think clearly about many matters but cannot make smart practical judgments, even in their own self-interest. An old example was Phineas Gage, the Victorian railwayman who lost a portion of his brain in a freak accident and could think perfectly well about everything except human behavior. He also lacked emotions. Often patients with similar brain damage are devoid of all empathy and guilt; they act like sociopaths. It seems that moral emotions (such as care) are biologically connected to all reasoning about human beings.

These studies support Aristotle's view, according to which an emotion is always a combination of desire and cognition. Anger, for example, is “desire with distress, where what is desired is retribution for a seeming slight, the slight being improper” (Rhetoric 1378a). I could get red in the face and have a high pulse rate, but I wouldn’t be “angry” unless I believed that someone had done wrong. Empirical beliefs and moral interpretations form part of my emotional state.

Some leading brain researchers hypothesize that human beings evolved to respond emotionally to categories of situations. These instinctive responses allowed people to read one another and generated the limited altruism necessary for group survival in prehistory. Moral reasoning and theory then arose post facto. Today, we use principles to rationalize judgments that we make on the basis of instinctive emotions. For example, the Golden Rule developed as a generalization from our emotional reactions to concrete cases. However, our intuitions are often inconsistent. For example, we oppose killing an individual to save more lives, but we favor inaction when it would have the same effect. We regret an involuntary action that harms other people, but we don't feel bad when we do the same thing without any consequences. (For example, as Michael Slote observed, if you stray across the median and kill someone, you will feel terrible for a long time; but if you make the same driving mistake and nothing happens, you will soon forget about it.) These response make little sense within most moral theories, but they can be explained as a result of an emotional adversion to active killing that arose in prehistoric times.

In essence, the brain researchers believe in an Aristotelian theory of the emotions plus a Darwinian theory of morality. The Darwinian part of their account strikes me as bad news, because it suggests that our moral intuitions are instincts that developed so that our ancestors could preserve their genes. Our instincts are biased in various ways: for example, in favor of our genetic relatives. Therefore, we cannot rely on our intuitions as guides to truly good behavior, yet we are so "wired" that instincts powerfully influence us. Fortunately. the Darwinian explanation seems empirically less certain than the basic finding that emotions and cognitions are interdependent.

The neuroscience raises but doesn't answer important normative questions: What kind of moral reasoning can we reasonably expect of human beings? Are we at our best when we rely openly and fully on emotions and/or narratives, or when we try to use moral theories or rules? Which features of human practical reasoning are good, and which are bad?

*See, for example, Joshua Greene and Jonathan Haidt, “How (and Where) Does Moral Judgment Work?” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 6, no. 12, (2002) 517-523; Steven W. Anderson, Antoine Bechara, Hanna Damasio, Daniel Tranel and Antonio R. Damasio, “Impairment of Social and Moral Behavior Related to Early Damage in Human Prefontal Cortex,” Nature Neuroscience, vol. 2, no. 11 (Nov. 1999), pp. 1032-1037.

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the school trip to Washington

I'm quoted in a wire service article entitled "A Rite For Generations. School trips again are a capital idea. With terror fears abating, students are returning to meet the nation's symbols." As I told the reporter, Gil Klein, I don't think there's any specific research in favor of taking kids on fieldtrips to Washington. But I like the idea. I thought of my Mom, who took her class of elementary students from Syracuse to DC in 2000 or 2001. They raised all the money for their trip, travelled on a shoestring, did lots of preparation during the preceding year, and had an unforgettable experience. I also remembered my own first visit to Washington when I was a teenager, and what an impression of nobility I took from the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol.

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May 2, 2005

federalism, for liberals

There are good tactical reasons for the American left to embrace federalism, just as Republicans in the era of George W. Bush have favored the national government at the expense of the states (witness No Child Left Behind and the Patriot Act). In the nation as a whole, there is a slim majority that's culturally conservative, yet many large states are culturally liberal. Therefore, if states make their own policies, many Americans will live in jurisdictions that provide access to abortion, stem-cell research, education that mentions Darwin, and gun control. But if the federal government dominates, all these policies will be threatened--everywhere.

Meanwhile, states are in a position to address social problems if they can innovate freely. For instance, it should be possible to cut the cost of health care almost in half while improving outcomes. After all, our government spends as much per capita on health care as European states do, and then American citizens spend thousands of dollars more on private insurance, deductibles, and fees--all the while leaving 40 million people without preventative care. A state could solve this problem, but only if it could withdraw from Medicare and Medicaid and spend the same amount of money on a single-payer system. Likewise, we spend billions on farm subsidies that drive up consumer prices, harm nature, and reduce incomes in the developing world. Many a "blue" state (predominantly urban and suburban) could opt out of the subsidy system, save money, and improve agriculture. States could also experiment with legalizing marijuana or reforming criminal sentences.

Since the New Deal (but not before that) liberals have been the main defenders of the national government, while conservatives have made principled arguments in favor of states' rights and decentralization. The high-minded arguments on both sides often go like this:

federalist: First of all, state governments are closer to the people, so they should exercise more power than the federal government does. Indeed, for democratic reasons, we should honor what Europeans call "subsidiarity": the principle that authority should always be concentrated at the lowest practical level. Second, federalism enhances pluralism. We live in a diverse nation; one set of policies cannot benefit everyone equally or reflect local values. Third, states retain rights as the original parties that contracted together to form a constitutional union. Finally, as Brandeis said, states are laboratories of democracy. They can experiment at an appropriate scale (big enough to matter, but small enough to limit the consequences of mistakes.)

nationalist: The United States is one market with free movement of human beings, goods, and capital. One market requires one set of consistent policies. It is simply inefficient to have 50 sets of regulations that firms and individuals must comply with. Besides, if states set their own policies, they will compete in harmful ways. They will try to externalize their problems by, for example, allowing their industrial plants to pollute downwind states, or cutting welfare benefits so that poor people will move away, or skimping on education and then recruiting workers whom other states have educated. The result will be a race to the bottom. Finally, we are one national community, bound together by a shared mass culture and common history. We have moral obligations to everyone in this community. Residents of Connecticut should provide assistance to the Mississippi Delta; Nebraskans should care about Brooklynites, and vice-versa.

I have called these "principled" arguments, as if they were general and abstract. In fact, they are almost all contingent. They depend on changeable matters, such as one's social priorities, the nature of the national majority versus the majority in various states at any given time, and the most serious problems of the day. (The one truly principled argument is the claim that states retain rights from before the ratification of the Constitution, but this doesn't move me at all, because I'm only concerned about human beings, not about regimes.)

Because the high-sounding arguments for and against federalism actually depend on shifting conditions, the left and the right have regularly traded places. At any given time, one can usually hear passionate, and probably sincere, arguments in favor of federalism coming from the side that stands to benefit most from it. During the Progressive Era, many liberals (with the exception of Herbert Croly and his friends) favored decentralization and "home rule," because they believed that they could build experimental, progressive regimes in places like Milwaukee and New York State if the conservative national majority just left them alone. Republicans were nationalists who "waved the bloody flag" and charged Democrats with "rebellion" (as well as "rum" and "Romanism"). From the 1930s through the 1960s, mainstream Northern Democrats often favored a strong national government because they saw local governments as bastions of racism and corruption, both in the rural South and the big-city North. Besides, they had a governing coalition behind them, while conservatives were a national minority. Republicans and Dixiecrats became the guardians of localism.

I think that the tactical situation today again makes decentralization a good deal for the left and a bad one for conservatives. Furthermore, I'm unimpressed by the principled arguments for or against federalism. Therefore, the left should seize the states' banner--in the pragmatic tradition of Louis Brandeis. Let Massachusetts, Maryland, California, Washington State, and New York be laboratories of democracy for awhile, and let the South and Great Plains go their own way.

Unfortunately, real federalism would require difficult changes in national policy. States cannot experiment if one third of their budgets are devoted to highly regulated federal health programs, if their schools are governed by federal rules, and if their criminal laws are set by Congress. Perhaps liberals could join with conservative supporters of states rights to form a new coalition for decentralization--call it the "live and let live" movement.

Posted by peterlevine at 7:08 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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