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October 31, 2006

the republic of conscience

At Campus Compact's 20th anniversary, Mary Robinson gave the keynote address. She is a distinguished lawyer, former President of Ireland, and former UN Commissioner of Human Rights. At one point, in her soft Irish accent, she read Seamus Heaney's "The Republic of Conscience," a poem that he has now given to Amnesty International. Read all 39 lines, but this is how it starts:

When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.

At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.

The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.

No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.

Posted by peterlevine at 7:16 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 30, 2006

the origins of government

Would this work as a definition of a government? "An institution designed to outlast individual human beings that operates within a fixed geographical territory; it has permanent fiscal accounts, offices with mutually consistent and complementary roles that are held temporarily by individuals, and real property. It has some authority over all the people and institutions within its territory (where 'authority' means the ability to make and enforce rules claimed to be legitimate)."

If this definition works, then Florence had a government in 1300. Dante, for example, held various offices for his city, was paid for his work out of public accounts, made binding decisions while he was a city magistrate, and represented the government abroad. When he was exiled, he left the jurisdiction and employ of Florence; his office and legal power passed to another man.

In Dante's time, England basically lacked a government. That is not to say that England was disorganized or backward. The English erected great cathedrals, castles, schools, and universities; their leading cities were international entrepôts; their knights were capable of ransacking France. Nor was England an individualistic and atomized society--on the contrary, people were bound to one another by obligations, often inherited and unshakable.

But there was no English government. A baron was a personal vassal of the king, to whom he owed certain duties and from whom he could expect protection. Each baron had many vassals who owed him duties (as men personally obligated to other men). And each peasant was a vassal of a minor lord, entitled to certain birthrights, such as use of particular fields and woods, but obligated to work the land of his ancestral village and share the crop with his lord. The borders of the realm depended on what fiefs the monarch had inherited; thus the "national" territory might shift with each change of king.

None of the offices of the realm, from monarch to peasant, was governmental in the modern sense. Take Justices of the Peace: they were the closest equivalents of modern police, but they were not paid, trained, or overseen. They were just vassals of the monarch who were morally obligated to preserve the King's Peace by sword or by persuasion. There was a public treasury, the Exchequer, but it had very minor importance. Even when Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558, she was expected to pay for what we would call "government" (e.g., foreign embassies) out of her inherited wealth, rents on the extensive lands that she personally owned, plus some import duties. Her claims to sovereign power were controversial, and in any case, she lacked the personnel, the files, and the budget needed to "govern" in the modern sense.

She did obtain an effective espionage service when Sir Francis Walsingham started paying for secret information out of his own pocket; Elizabeth then authorized him to supplement those payments from her treasury. Even so, the English secret service was really just a group of Sir Francis' servants and retainers, and he was a personal retainer of the Queen. When Walsingham died, so did the organization.

In men like Walsingham, we see the origins of government. He was a professionally trained expert (a lawyer), not a nobleman with any hereditary powers. He held an appointed office, Mr. Secretary, which he was free to quit. He structured his civil service as a bureaucracy and tried to serve the permanent interests of England as a Protestant state, not merely those of his Queen. However, had Elizabeth married François, the Duke of Anjou and Alençon (as she threatened), then Walsingham would have faced a choice. This Puritan lawyer could have become a personal servant of a Catholic French nobleman, or he could have quit public life.

The medieval case shows that we could have elaborate social structures without governments; that is a relevant conclusion at a time of globalization, when governments are losing authority over fixed territories. It is not clear, however, that we can have elaborate social structures and personal liberties without governments.

Posted by peterlevine at 7:19 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

October 27, 2006

on opportunities and outcomes in education

Today's dominant educational legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), requires outcomes--but it does not require opportunities or other "inputs." Presumably, policymakers were skeptical about the quality of mandated opportunities, even if there were adequate funding. If, for instance, the federal government told schools that they must provide science classes, or after-school activities, or service-learning opportunities, some schools would offer very ineffective, hollow versions of these programs. Would they be considered in compliance with the law even if their outcomes were poor? Instead, Congress said that schools must achieve specific outcomes--mainly, reading, math, and science scores--but they could choose their own methods. (This is a simplification, but close enough for argument's sake.)

The focus on outcomes instead of opportunities bothers me for several reasons, although I understand and do not dismiss the reasons behind it.

First, NCLB--unavoidably--selects a small list of outcomes: all ones that can readily be measured in high-stakes exams. Those of us who also care about civic knowledge and habits, artistic development, foreign languages, and moral learning are faced with a dilemma. Either we demand tests in our favored areas (some of which aren't very testable), or we try to smuggle our subjects into schools without testing them. The latter course is difficult when schools are struggling to get their kids through the required exams.

Second, a focus on outcomes encourages us to think of children and teenagers as people who are prone to fail. We work hard to identify those most "at risk" and to intervene so that they avoid clear marks of failure (mainly, bad test scores). As a result, we may set our sights too low, forgetting that flourishing people need more than adequate test scores. As Karen Pittman says, "Adolescents who are merely problem-free are not fully prepared for their future." Worse, we may overlook young people's potential. They are capable of serving others, creating works of art, and organizing constructive activities. Treating them as bundles of problems instead of assets can help to drive them out of school, or so I strongly suspect. This is an argument for guaranteeing every American child opportunities for positive development.

Third, not everything we do in school should be measured by its effects on individual students. Whatever skills schools may provide, they are also places where we spend some 18,000 hours of our lives. Some activities during those hours ought to be instrinsically satisfying or else meaningful because they benefit other people (or nature), not because they enhance students' individual skills.

A school is a community, and communities ought to have news sources, discussions of their own issues and problems, and opportunities to serve. Thus I would support student newspapers and other media; students' discussions of local issues; and service programs even if they had no demonstrable impact on students' skills or knowledge.

These activities should be done well. There is a big difference between a fine scholastic newspaper and a poor one. But the difference is not measured by the impact on kids' reading scores. It has to do with the seriousness, breadth, and fairness of the coverage and the impact on students' knowledge of their own community. Likewise, the quality of service projects has much to do with whether the service actually addresses problems, quite apart from whether the participants gain skills and knowledge.

The other side of the argument is that some of our children cannot read or understand basic math. They are at great risk of failure in life. They will be unable to participate as citizens or create works of art if they are poor and sick and prone to arrest--all of which are consequences of illiteracy. Our urgent priority must be to identify them, help them, and punish those adults who "leave them behind."

Well, maybe. But that strategy is no use if kids hate school and drop out, or if kids pass our reading exams but cannot use written texts for practical purposes, or if kids make it through school but don't know what to do with their lives.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:56 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 26, 2006


We've been doing a lot of radio lately, because radio news programs seem interested in CIRCLE's data on young people and civic engagement. Just today, I'm scheduled for a station in Norfolk, Virginia, College Connection (a syndicated radio feed), and the Kojo Nnamdi show on 88.5 FM in Washington, DC. I mention all this because the last can be heard live at 1:30 pm eastern via WAMU.

(You can stream the archived show, for what that's worth, by clicking here.)

Posted by peterlevine at 12:54 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 25, 2006

school choice

(O’Hare Airport, Chicago) I just attended a very stimulating large conference on “values and evidence in educational reform,” organized by Crooked Timber’s Harry Brighouse and the Spencer Foundation. There were panels on standards and testing; charters and vouchers; and small schools--major controversies in educational policy today. The panels combined statements by passionate advocates of each reform; careful and dispassionate reviews of the empirical literature; and philosophical analysis of the underlying moral issues.

I’d like to summarize the most challenging of the presentations, but I’m not sure whether the ground rules permit such publicity. So instead I’ll offer a thought about “choice” in education. Given the prominence of vouchers in the public debate (although not in our actual school systems), people tend to equate “choice” with parents’ options about where to send their kids, using public money. But there are other critical choices that people can be allowed to make; any given policy will combine several of these in varying degrees:

  • Parents’ choices about where to try to enroll their kids
  • Kids’ choices about where they want to enroll and whether to attend school at all
  • Kids’ choices about which particular classes and other activities to participate in
  • Schools’ choices about which kids to admit (or actively recruit)
  • Teachers’ and coaches’ choices about which of their students to involve in various classes and activities
  • Teachers’ choices about where to work
  • Schools’ or school systems’ choices about whom to hire as teachers and administrators
  • Schools’ choices about what to teach and how to teach it
  • Adult citizens’ choices about how to assist or influence all kids’ education
  • I doubt there’s a single ideal recipe, but I am at least somewhat enthusiastic about giving families choices among schools and giving adults choices about what and how to teach. (There is, however, a profound question about whether adolescents or their parents should choose schools, under various circumstances.) I don’t much like allowing public schools to choose their students, because then they can take the easy road to success: selecting and admitting those who are easiest to teach. Allowing teachers to choose where to work clearly worsens inequality--many of the best qualified instructors place themselves in easier school buildings and systems. However, simply denying choice to teachers is impossible: they can always quit altogether.

    We already have an educational system characterized by choice and constraints. The question is not whether to increase or reduce choice, but who should be allowed to choose what and when. The considerations mentioned above are just the beginning of that discussion.

    Posted by peterlevine at 6:08 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    October 24, 2006

    smelling memories

    (On my way back to Chicago for another meeting.) Sit quietly, close your eyes, and recall the scent of a lemon ... soy sauce ... pepper ... gasoline ... a baked apple. Inhale through your nose as you remember these smells. I find this entertaining, and I can get quite precise about it. For example, I can choose whether to remember a bitter lemon smell (with some of the white pith), or the pure scent of the inside of the fruit.

    It appears that memories of smells decay more slowly than other sensory memories. This is a bit surprising, because "each olfactory neuron in the epithelium only survives for about 60 days, to be replaced by a new cell." Dr. Maturin in one of the Patrick O'Brien novels notices the power of smells to restore memories and hypothesizes that it's because we don't have many words for scents. He thinks that because we translate our visual and auditory experiences into language, we tend to forget them, whereas we retain our olfactory sensations in their raw form.

    When people (like O'Brien and Proust) write about memory and smell, they usually describe the power of real scents to evoke lost memories. The reverse is interesting, too: the power of deliberate recollection to conjure up imaginary smells.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:38 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

    October 23, 2006

    public voice online

    I am writing this post in a public voice. I don't expect to know most of my readers; therefore, I try to say something that might interest at least a subset of the whole population--a "public." I hope not only to interest readers, but to influence their behavior in ways that are relevant to shared or common concerns. I avoid obscure references to my own life and completely personal issues and interests.

    It's not the number of visitors that makes my voice "public." When I wrote my first blog post almost three four years ago, I expected hardly anyone to read it. Nevertheless, I tried to use a public style. In contrast, a MySpace user may have 100 "friends" and attract a thousand hits a day, but because he adopts a highly personal tone and talks about private matters, his voice isn't a public one.

    A public voice is a potential source of influence and even power. Young people must be deliberately taught to communicate publicly. Otherwise, their communications in public spaces (such as the Internet and community meetings) will be ineffective. But private discourse is also valuable, and we should be able to keep it confidential. Thus, for instance, email and instant-messaging should be protected against most forms of evesdropping so that private discourse can stay that way.

    I am arguing, in short, for a distinction between public and private voice. I realize that this distinction is problematic. When it developed in the 17th-19th centuries, the border between the public and the private was gerrymandered to protect privilege. For instance, everything pertaining to the family was considered private, hence not of concern to outsiders--which meant that fathers and husbands could dominate in their own homes and no one else had enforceable rights. But the fact that the line between public and private is problematic doesn't mean that we should abandon it altogether. People should be able to use new media for purely private, intimate expression; they should also know how to use the Internet for public purposes.

    Some contemporary theorists define public communication in highly stringent and demanding ways. According to Jürgen Habermas (or Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson), speaking publicly imposes a set of obligations. When in "the public sphere," one must advance arguments that any rational person can accept. That means that one may not express arbitrary opinions, assert purely selfish interests, or appeal to authorities--such as Scripture--that others reject. One may not shift positions when speaking to different audiences or give reasons that contradict one's conclusions. On this view, the public speaker is a kind of ethical and rational legislator, addressing an assembly of peers on matters of public concern.

    These definitions seem much too stringent for the practical purpose that interests me, which is teaching young people to be reasonably effective in public domains. I would define a "public voice" as any style or tone that has a chance of persuading any other people (outside of one's intimate circle) about shared matters, issues, or problems. This broad definition encompasses topics beyond conventional politics. For example, bad software is a shared concern; and one can write a blog to persuade others about how to fix technical problems. Bad customer service can be a public issue if one chooses to address or organize one's fellow customers instead of complaining privately to the company. In these cases, one's voice is "public" even though the issues belong to the private sector.

    We may disagree about which topics are legitimate for public discussion. For instance, disclosing one's own sexual history may be inappropriate--or it may be a means of challenging prejudices and limits. Despite these disagreements, however, it is pretty clear that standard MySpace chatter is (or ought to be) private. But most good blogs are public. And young people need to understand the difference.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:18 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    October 20, 2006

    free speech and school discipline

    The most interesting case discussed at yesterday's conference involved an assistant principal at a Texas high school. Some of her students had created a MySpace page that ostensibly belonged to her. They made her seem to be a lesbian and attributed various false and inflammatory opinions to her. She was truly horrified by this experience. She felt violated, and she faced tangible consequences (harassing phone calls, comments at work, etc.).

    It seems pretty clear that the assistant principal has standing to sue the students in civil court for defamation. I don't know the legal standards for defamation, nor the whole truth of the case; but civil courts are competent to decide such matters.

    The trickier question is whether the school may make a disciplinary case out of such behavior.

    On one hand, the students allegedly defamed a member of the school community. Although they probably made the MySpace page from their home computers, the results can be viewed in the school and may affect working conditions and discipline there. Perhaps the school should be allowed to suspend or otherwise punish the students.

    On the other hand, the students exercised speech on their own time. For the school (an arm of the state) to punish speech has First Amendment implications, especially since there would be no due process. The alleged victim in the case would be able to decide that the MySpace page aimed at her was defamatory (not mere satire); and her decision could not be appealed.

    I felt very sympathetic to the administrator in this case, but I'm inclined to think that public schools should not be able to punish students for acts of expression undertaken off school property. Some expression is unacceptable and even illegal, but that doesn't mean that it's schools' business.

    (By the way, I'm not saying that MySpace and other websites are off limits as sources of evidence of student misbehavior. If a kid posts a comment about breaking school rules, administrators are free to use that information. If you don't want people to read or see something, don't post it online.)

    Posted by peterlevine at 1:43 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    October 19, 2006

    free speech online

    I'm still in Chicago, now for a meeting on Free Speech in Schools ("a McCormick Tribune Foundation Summit on Youth, the First Amendment, and the Information Age"). Because of the schedule for the day, I don't expect to be able to write a substantive blog post. But the issues that we'll discuss include the censorship of school newspapers, restrictions on new media such as MySpace, filtering software in school libraries, and students' support for the First Amendment.

    Meanwhile, another Chicago foundation, MacArthur, today announced its big initiative on Digital Media and Learning. One subtopic in that initiative so far has been censorship and free expression online, but MacArthur is also supporting work on civic engagement, gaming, media literacy, credibility, and identity online. The website is worth a visit.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:37 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    October 18, 2006

    a production of Lear

    (Chicago) Last night, I saw King Lear at the Goodman Theater. Stacy Keach was the King, and the director was Robert Falls. It was a "strong" production, in the sense that the director's choices were bold and potentially controversial. For example, the setting (stunningly produced) was somewhere in post-Soviet Russia or Eastern Europe.* Lear, Cornwall, and Edmund were either gangsters or Putin-like dictators. The "knights" were riot police.

    I thought all of the director's choices were defensible, and some were brilliant. For example, it was a good idea to make Cordelia a quietly rebellious teenager who detests her family's vulgarity. The actress, Laura Odeh, is small and young-looking and wears plain jeans, whereas her sisters are gangster molls. Her rebelliousness plausibly explains why she refuses to make a speech in praise of her father.

    Likewise, the setting reminds us how unjust is Lear's original regime. He recognizes the injustice himself, once he loses his knights:

    .... A man may see how this world goes
    with no eyes. Look with thine ears: see how yond
    justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark, in
    thine ear: change places; and, handy-dandy, which
    is the justice, which is the thief?

    I also liked the violent, urban setting. Regan and Cornwall order Gloucester's castle "shut up" against Lear. The stage directions tell us that the banished men wander on a "heath"--a natural place. Nature is a major motif in the play, always opposed to artifice. Several characters wrestle with whether nature is just or cruel. But the word "heath" is never spoken on stage, so it is a legitimate idea to make that barren place into nighttime streets, populated by the poor, the naked, and the crazy. When Edgar, Gloucester, and Lear are cast out, they become homeless--just like the homeless men in our cities.

    Robert Falls' bold directorial choices remind me of a general point. Any written text dramatically under-describes what is literally going on. It gives us only partial information about setting, clothing, "blocking," tone of voice, pacing, facial expressions. Even a staged or filmed production must leave much to the imagination and will be seen differently by different people. But the director and cast fill in some missing details.

    We might think that their first task is to figure out what is literally going on, so that we can watch and make up our own minds about general themes. But any intepretation of the literal meaning of the text must be informed by a theory of its general meaning. So, for example, Robert Falls knows from the end of the play that Lear will come to see his own kingdom as deeply unjust, arbitrary, and artificial. Therefore, Falls sets Act 1, Scene 1 in a Russian gangster's club. If Lear's regime is brutal, then Kent (his most loyal follower) must be a bit of a thug. That is how Stephen Pickering played him last night.

    Likewise, toward the end of the play, Regan suspects a sexual relationship between Oswald and her sister Goneril. ("I know you are of her bosom." "I, madam?" "I speak in understanding; you are; I know't.") Therefore, several scenes earlier, Falls introduces Oswald and Goneril in flagrante delicto. That is an extreme case of using gesture and stage position to illustrate a theme.

    That scene underlines the play's pervasive sexuality, which is often overlooked. Regan and Goneril are sexual rivals for wicked Edmund. Falls also thinks that Lear is sexually jealous of his youngest daughter. In this production, the King is not enraged by her first word -- "nothing" -- but by her explanation:

    They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
    That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
    Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
    Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
    To love my father all.

    Overall, Fall's production could be described as nihilistic. He chooses, for example, to have Goneril suffocate Regan and then kill herself, joining a heap of bodies on stage. And Albany literally rapes his wife Goneril while he curses her:

    Thou changed and self-cover'd thing, for shame,
    Be-monster not thy feature. Were't my fitness
    To let these hands obey my blood,
    They are apt enough to dislocate and tear
    Thy flesh and bones: howe'er thou art a fiend,
    A woman's shape doth shield thee.

    I don't know if those are good choices, but there is no question that Lear is a bleak play. Since it is set in a pagan world, Shakespeare need not assume divine providence or a morally ordered universe. Post-Soviet Russia seems an ideal metaphor for cosmic disorder and cynicism. "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. / They kill us for their sport."

    *Charles Isherwood, the NY Times reviewer, says that the setting is Yugoslavia. That makes sense: a kingdom divided in parts turns to anarchy.

    Posted by peterlevine at 12:54 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    October 17, 2006

    celebrating Campus Compact

    (Chicago) I'm here to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Campus Compact, a network of 1,037 colleges and universities. Campus Compact supports and encourages several crucial trends in higher education: a move from "service" to collaboration; a rediscovery of geographical communities; a reflection on colleges' power as employers, builders, and consumers; and a turn to sophisticated research that requires learning with and from non-academics.

    Institutions that embrace such work are recovering their fundamental purposes and missions, which are too often forgotten amid competition to attract the most qualified students and to generate the maximum number of peer-reviewed articles. Those measures of success are essentially pointless; what matters is whether we help our students--and the broader society--to develop through combinations of teaching, service, and research.

    In the Campus Compact network, there is now an impressive array of excellent practice. Rigorous research (of which more is needed) is beginning to show the value of service-learning, community-based research, youth-media production, public deliberation, and other forms of engagement. However, such work will not endure or spread unless we can change policies regarding accreditation, tenure, promotion, and funding. Change cannot be accomplished one campus at a time, because institutions are forced to compete with one another. An important role of a network like Campus Compact is to press for reforms that change incentives for many institutions at once.

    The value of Campus Compact's work extends beyond higher education to American democracy as a whole. The formal political system has become highly efficient at manipulating people to obtain outcomes that professionals (consultants, candidates, and lobbyists) have chosen. Sometimes, the professionals' goals are idealistic. But, as Joe Klein wrote recently, the public "has been sliced and diced by ... pollsters, their prejudices and policy priorities cross-tabbed, their favorite words discovered by carefully targeted focus groups." People know that they are being manipulated, and they resent it.

    In contrast, the work that Campus Compact supports is open-ended. Organizers of community-based research or service-learning do not decide what should be done and then motivate, cajole, or manipulate students and community partners into doing it. Instead, they help students and partners make up their own minds about their goals and tactics. This approach reflects the best spirit of liberal education; it builds citizens' capacities for self-government; and it introduces Americans to a kind of politics that they should also expect from political parties and government agencies.

    In several other respects, the work that Campus Compact supports is a powerful alternative to the mainstream of modern American politics.

  • In general, we invest far too little in the civic education (broadly defined) of young people, even though research finds that early civic experiences have lasting effects. But Campus Compact advocates and encourages effective youth civic development.
  • In general, our politics is constrained by the fact that investments can quickly be moved away from communities that decide to impose regulations (or cultural norms) that businesses don't like. But Campus Compact is a network of 1,000 important economic institutions--colleges and universities--that are rooted in their communities and that increasingly see their own interests as tied to their localities.
  • In general, we treat young people as baskets of problems or potential problems and rely upon surveillance, assessment, diagnosis, discipline, and treatment to stop them from acting in damaging ways. But Campus Compact embodies the alternative approach of "positive youth development," which recognizes that young people have special assets to contribute to their communities--creativity, energy, idealism, and a fresh outlook. If they are given opportunities to contribute, they develop in healthy ways. While major recent policies (such as the No Child Left Behind Act) have very little to say about providing positive opportunities for youth, Campus Compact and its members take that responsibility on themselves.
  • In general, our politics is state-centered. Liberals want the government to accept new tasks, such as health insurance; whereas conservatives believe that problems would be mitigated if the state were shrunk. Governments are important, but they are not the only institutions that matter. Furthermore, a state-centered view of politics leaves citizens little to do but inform themselves and vote. Campus Compact epitomizes a citizen-centered politics in which people form relationships with peers, deliberate about their common interests, and then use a range of strategies, some having little to do with the state.
  • I do not believe that we should turn our current political system upside-down so that it is completely open-ended, citizen-centered, local, and oriented toward youth development. But the overall balance today is wrong, and Campus Compact is helping to restore it.

    Posted by peterlevine at 12:01 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    October 16, 2006

    single-payer and democracy

    (On my way to Chicago for Campus Compact's 20th Anniversary.) On Friday, I heard a good paper by David DeGrazia, who argued for a single-payer health insurance system. Everyone would be insured by the federal government. Healthcare providers would be private companies, but the government would be the only "payer."

    I generally favor this approach, but I asked a devil's advocate question--just to provoke discussion--and ended by convincing myself that single-payer would pose serious risks.

    What would the government pay for, and how would it set prices? If it paid too much, it would waste taxpayers' money. If it paid too little, services would be inadequate. And if it paid for the wrong things, it would waste money and provide bad services.

    The procedural answer is that the government would negotiate with representatives of physicians, nurses, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies to set prices. In principle, the government would represent us, the people, and would set prices in the public interest. But no government represents "the people" in an unproblematic way. Campaign contributions, professional lobbying efforts, differences in seniority among legislators, gaps in voter participation by class, asymmetries in information, differences between swing districts and safe seats, clashes between local and national interests, incumbents' advantages, organized interests versus general interests, threats to withdraw capital, human ties between lobbyists and officials, prospects of corporate jobs for former public servants--all these factors distort decisions by democratic governments.

    Thus I can easily imagine that negotiations between Big Government and Big Medicine would produce excessive payments and bad priorities. Huge hospitals would be built in favored congressional districts, but there would be inadequate preventive care for weak political constituencies, such as the urban poor. Health care would be like defense--lavishly funded, but with striking gaps. Just as we have stealth bombers but not enough body-armor, so we'd have sweetheart deals for Eli Lilly and Co but not enough pediatricians in poor neighborhoods.

    This nightmare scenario has not beset Medicare, which is a single-payer system for those over 65. But Medicare sets prices based on market signals. If there were one "payer" for all medicine, there would be no market. Besides, the new Medicare drug benefit is a nightmare.

    Probably single-payer wouldn't be worse than the status quo. We spend more in taxes on health care than the Germans or the French do, yet we must also buy private insurance; and so many people are left uncovered that our health outcomes are poor. All that is true, yet I can easily imagine single-payer evolving into a giant duopoly (government plus medicine) that worked only for those interests. Any advantages over the status quo would be modest, at best.

    Since "civic engagement" is my hobby-horse, I'm tempted to say that we need single-payer health care along with a more participatory democracy. Higher turnout, more competitive districts, better informed voters, a revived watchdog press, and procedural innovations such as Citizen's Juries or Deliberative Polls would help. (Citizens would be randomly selected to set priorities after deliberating.) Maybe community groups could build clinics and hospitals that would enter the negotiations representing genuine grassroots interests.

    But civic engagement is quite weak in the United States, and strengthening it is a hard struggle. We democrats can't "assume" better public participation any more than economists can assume perfect information or efficient markets. Assigning a huge new responsibility to the public sector might stimulate democratic participation. Or it might overwhelm the public's capacity for self-government, given the civic institutions and habits we have today.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:37 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    October 13, 2006

    unions in China

    The New York Times reports that China is prepared to strengthen labor unions. The regime solicited responses to the proposed legislation and received 190,000 comments. I can't tell whether the law would make a real difference: it may be inadequate because "it does not provide for independent unions with leaders chosen by their members and the right to strike." (pdf). The Times, however, claims that the law would "give labor unions real power for the first time."

    Unions could raise wages and working conditions in China, reduce wage pressure on workers in other countries, and enhance political pluralism inside the world's largest dictatorship. However, the American Chamber of Commerce and various American companies are against the proposal, modest as it is. They argue that stronger unions would move China backward toward socialism. In fact, unions would be a huge move forward toward pluralistic democracy. (The Communists never tolerated independent unions.)

    The American Chamber's White Paper takes a relatively moderate tone:

    The new draft Labor Contract Law, scheduled for enactment by the end of 2006, contains much that would affect the operations of multinationals. AmCham commends authorities for their recently announced decision to invite public comment. Concern over the draft legislation is high given a variety of its provisions. For example, under a recent draft, if an employee was hired under a thirty-six month contract and terminated for cause after six months, the firm would still need to compensate him for another thirty months of pay. AmCham acknowledges China’s need and desire to target unethical employers, for which provisions such as these may be targeted, but the impact of these and other equally onerous provisions on responsible FIEs serve to undermine the attractiveness of China’s labor market, one of the key factors that make China such an enticing place to do business.

    I'm not sure if the 30-month provision is wise, but it may be a red herring. The Times and Global Labor Strategies assert that the American Chamber is working against the whole new labor law. The Chamber represents so many firms (e.g., Wal-Mart, Google, UPS, Microsoft, Nike, AT&T, and Intel) that it's hard to envision a targeted response. If we could single out a few leaders in this effort, I would definitely boycott them. I can't think of a clearer case in which the companies to which we give our money use it against our interests and against human rights. Alas, there are so many culprits that it's extremely hard to boycott them.

    (One of my articles in defense of unions was pubished in China, or at least I gave permission for it to be translated into Chinese.)

    [Addendum: I'm beginning to think, based in part on a conversation with a Chinese activist I know, that the Times's lead misled me. The proposed law would not in any way increase the independence of unions in the PRC. It would impose some new labor laws, but they might not be enforced fairly. Workers would have no voice in their enforcement. There would be no increase of pluralism or democracy.]

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:41 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    October 12, 2006

    option c

    Kevin Drum (whose blog I like enough to check several times daily) wrote this a while ago:

    If Democrats win in November, they're still going to have a very limited amount of power to get things done. Policy-wise, they're going to remain pretty constrained, and that means they can go in two basic directions: (a) acting as the party of moderation and focusing on bipartisan 'good government' proposals, or (b) using the subpoena power of Congress to investigate the hell out of what's been going on in the executive branch for the past six years.

    Drum suggests investigating the hell out of Bush, because polls show that there aren't many moderate voters who would support option a.

    It took me several days to realize what's wrong with this. It omits option (c): Develop legislation that might actually address some of our nation's fundamental issues, such as global warming, incredible rates of crime and incarceration, high school dropout rates of nearly one-third, economic transfers from Gen Y to today's retirees, loss of blue-collar jobs, vulnerability at the ports, etc. The necessary legislation might be moderate, or it might be radical--the important question is whether it would plausibly address our most crucial issues.

    I am fully aware that most good legislation would be defeated in at least one house or would face a veto. But then Democrats could take the issue to the voters in '08.

    To anticipate an objection: Isn't the malfeasance of the current executive branch a national problem that is worth addressing? In my opinion, it is a problem, but one that is soon to end with the departure of the administration. It doesn't require legislative action as our deeper social, environmental, and security problems do. Finally, all Americans except the ones who identify strongest with the Democratic Party will be suspicious of an elaborate series of investigations. They will think the Dems are trying to achieve partisan advantage, not genuinely working on public or national or common problems.

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    October 11, 2006

    Schumpeter in '06

    (En route to Annapolis for a meeting with state officials.) It strikes me that the '06 election is a great illustration of Joseph Schumpeter's theory of democracy--unfortunately.

    Schumpeter did not see elections as opportunities for people to deliberate, debate, learn, or help to specify the public good. Elections were simply competitions among political elites (parties) that promised to provide agreed-upon goods, such as GNP and security, more efficiently than their rivals. Voting was a check on tyranny and incompetence, not a way to express values.

    In 2006, the Democratic leader of the House calls for tax cuts but decries Republican deficits. The Democrats excoriate the Administration for its handling of Iraq, but do not offer an alternative foreign policy. In other words, they endorse the same values as the Republicans but promise to do a better job as managers.

    Schumpeterian democracy is better than none at all. And it is highly tempting for the Democrats to make this year's election a referendum on competence, given the Republicans' record. But it means that the '06 election will not be an opportunity for Americans to review our basic priorities, such as tax cuts versus public services, or aggressive interventionism versus multilateralism, or growth versus environmental protection, or federal power versus localism. None of those issues is on the table.

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    October 10, 2006


    (Athens, Georgia): I've been at numerous meetings lately. They all concern the civic engagement of young people, but they draw remarkably diverse participants.

    At a meeting on digital media and youth civic engagement, 10 out of 11 people seated around a table in a hotel suite at Newark airport have their laptops open while we discuss papers. There's an official conference "back channel" on which you are free to email everyone present. People talk about "dumping the code" from documents into "wikispaces." There is a strong air of philosophical anarchism in the room: participants most admire authentic, unregulated youth expression. They also use the term "affordance," which I must look up on Wikipedia.

    At a summit on youth leadership at the Holocaust Museum, a substantial proportion of the audience consists of pastors from rural African American churches that have been burned to the ground by racists. The pastors are diverse in terms of backgrounds, religious denominations, and politics, as I learn from speaking with them. But at the end, they rise in turn to speak in sonorous terms, with rhyming cadences. One denounces the use of "time outs" in discipline. If he'd been given time outs, he says, he'd have simply taken a break and then gone right back into mischief; and by now he'd be in the pen, not a pastor. Spare the rod, spoil the child.

    At a downtown Washington Marriott for the annual meeting of the National Conference on Citizenship, Robert Byrd waves his crutches and invokes the Lord as he delivers a stemwinder of a speech in defense of the Constitution. Not long before him, the Attorney General had stood at the same podium and defended the administration's policies--of very dubious constitutionality--regarding habeas corpus. Public school kids from Philadelphia watch these luminaries via closed-circuit TV. I have no idea what they're thinking.

    At the University of Georgia, we sit around a long seminar table watching PowerPoint slides with regression coefficients, learning about the effects of John Stewart on young Americans' political views as measured in surveys. Later, we file into the student union to watch old clips of educational TV shows. Two clips from 1965 stick in my mind. One shows a man sitting behind a desk, reading a long and intensely boring lecture about the law and how men make it to restrain other men's behavior. This is civic education that makes your skin crawl.

    However, we also see footage of CBS's "Town Meeting of the World" from the same year. Students from Mexico City, London, Paris, and Belgrade ask uncensored questions of Dwight Eisenhower, Thurgood Marshall, and Arthur Goldberg--via satellite connection. The students dress like Frank Sinatra or Doris Day, but they ask incredibly informed and pointed questions. For example, if the United States supports democracy, why (asks a Mexican student) has it invaded Latin American countries 132 times? Eisenhower replies that we renounced intervention under FDR and would never do it again. The student counters with the case of the Dominican Republic, where US Marines had landed earlier the same year. Arthur Goldberg answers rather testily. It is a remarkably unscripted moment. We see more authentic "youth voice" than would ever be allowed on television today. But the same questions still need to be asked.

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    October 9, 2006

    record low turnout in the primaries

    (In Athens, Georgia, for a meeting on youth and the news media.) According to Curtis Gans, dean of the turnout experts, participation in the 44 states that recently held Democratic primaries was 8.4 percent of those eligible to vote, a record low. Turnout in the 40 states that held Republican primaries also set a pathetic record: 7.2 percent.

    As Gans notes, this doesn't mean much for November. In both 1982 and 1994, people stayed home in the primary and then turned out in force for the main event, defeating many incumbents in high-turnout elections. However, the low participation in primaries is itself a problem. Gans says, "the degree of decline (57 percent since 1966) and the level of average turnout ... in statewide [primary] races is a danger to American democracy."

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:45 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    October 6, 2006

    cause célèbre

    (En route to Chicago for an American Bar Association meeting.) Last week, a leaked National Intelligence Estimate made headlines by asserting that the Iraq war was a “cause célèbre” for jihadists. That topic has since been knocked out of the newspapers by a congressional sex scandal, tragedy in Amish country, and other riveting stories. However, I’ll weigh in belatedly and say that I don’t believe the “cause célèbre” argument was ever a good one to make against the war. First of all, it’s a fancy French phrase. Besides, we sometimes should and must do things that rile up the other side. If (contrary to fact), the invasion of Iraq had been wise, legal, and in the best interests of that nation, it would still have given terrorists a “cause célèbre.”

    For me, a sufficient argument against the war is that it violates one of the few substantial elements of international law. Members of the United Nations simply may not invade one another without the explicit authorization of the Security Council. However, this argument is not politically very potent, because it seems legalistic and likely to uphold UN interests against those of the US.

    Thus I would emphasize a different argument, which (as Henry Kissinger once said on another topic) has the “additional merit of being true.” The invasion of Iraq was part of the war on terror, but it was a colossal strategic error in that war. It helped the jihadists by knocking off a hated secular dictatorship, under such conditions that fundamentalist movements would likely replace it. It put hundreds of thousands of mostly young Americans right into the Middle East where they were vulnerable to being attacked; more have died there than on 9/11. It created a profound dilemma: Winning the counter-insurgency would require deep and daily engagement with Iraqis, which would be extremely dangerous; whereas protecting US troops in Iraq would require separating them from the population, which would make it impossible for them to succeed. Above all, the invasion made the United State responsible for handling a violent struggle among Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Kurds, Arabs and Persians that we are poorly equipped to understand, let alone resolve. And if we fail, the consequences range from a massive loss of credibility, to terrible suffering, to the creation of a jihadist state at the head of the Persian Gulf.

    In fact, one could say that there were only two ways for jihadists to achieve a strategic victory against the United States after 9/11: by obtaining and using weapons of mass destruction on US soil, or by luring us into the middle of a civil war in the Mideast. We gave them the latter victory and must devoutly hope to avoid the former. That we also gave terrorist recruiters a “cause célèbre” is almost beside the point.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:49 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    October 5, 2006

    survey of college students' civic literacy

    The Intercollegiate Studies Institute recently released a survey showing that college students don't know much about American history, constitutional principles, and economics; and they hardly gain knowledge over their four years in university. The biggest gains are supposedly found at the least prestigious institutions. At fancy schools like Brown, Georgetown, and Yale, knowledge actually falls between freshman and senior year.

    I was all set to praise and quote the report, because it draws attention to topics--civics and history--that I fear we overlook. The failure of prestigious schools to add value would confirm my suspicion that higher education is largely about conferring status--not educating students.

    However, I have serious questions about the methodology of the report, which simply surveyed groups of freshmen and seniors and compared the differences. There is no mention of dropout rates. It is very likely that the less prestigious schools, where students apparently showed a lot of improvement, also have high dropout rates. Their seniors score higher than their freshmen because those who make it to senior year are the academically successful survivors of a winnowing-out process.

    For example, the report praises Colorado State University for adding 11 points to its students' knowledge scores. But Colorado State has a 6-year retention rate of only 63%, meaning that four in ten of its students leave without getting a degree. CSU seniors were probably better students back in their freshman year than many of their peers who left without graduating.

    The report draws a related inference about the quality of teaching. Each course that a student takes on a topic like American history correlates positively with knowledge scores--more so at Grove City College than at Georgetown. The report infers "better course content and teaching at schools such as Rhodes, Calvin, and Grove City College." But again, students who complete a course in American history at unselective colleges tend to be successful compared to their average classmates, many of whom do not complete many credits at all. At Brown or Georgetown, students who take history are no smarter or better informed than their peers, who may take anthropology or microeconomics instead.

    There are other problems in the report. For example, there's an obvious "ceiling effect" at schools like Yale, whose freshmen outscore the seniors at any institution in the study. It is hard to add value when your incoming students score high, especially since they may reasonably go on to study other subjects than history, economics, and government.

    Finally, the report asserts that "students from intact families -- those who report having two parents married and living together -- demonstrated greater civic learning than did students whose parents are separated or divorced or where at least one parent is deceased." The impact after statistical controls are applied turns out to be one percentage point--maybe statistically significant, but awfully small.

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    October 4, 2006

    glasses that are partly full

    I don't mean to dwell too long on our new survey (described yesterday), but I find the press coverage an interesting study in subjectiveness. Based on the very same release and oral presentation ...

    Matt Stearns and Rick Montgomery wrote in the Kansas City Star: "Apathetic, detached? Not today’s young people. A study finds that 15- to 25-year-olds are more involved in their communities than expected." Their lead is: "Turns out, the seminal rock band The Who was correct: Gloomy stereotypes about civic detachment to the contrary, the kids are all right."

    But David Alexander wrote in Reuters (picked up in the Boston Globe and elsewhere: "Few U.S. youths involved in civic life: study." His lead is: "Nearly two-thirds of young Americans are disengaged from political and civic life and only a quarter regularly vote, a survey released on Tuesday showed."

    And the Philadelphia Inquirer printed Matt Stearns' piece under this headline: "Younger folks do their civic duties, a study confirms; Involvement for those 15 to 25 in some cases neared elders' levels."

    So which is it? All of the above, of course. It's a mixed story, as we realized when we thought about how to pitch it. I did hope that the headlines would be positive (although I'm not at all surprised to see the negative ones). Perhaps there's no one valid way to capture a complex picture in one short phrase, which is what a headline must be. But we think a positive summary is closer to the truth in this case.

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    October 3, 2006

    new CIRCLE survey of youth

    I'm at the National Press Club, about to release the result of a major new survey of American young people. [It has been covered, so far, by Reuters, Fox News, the Scripps Howard wire, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other McClatchy Newspapers, the Kansas City Star, on p. 1, and the Washington Times. Coincidentally, John Bridgeland and I also have an op-ed in today's Washington Times.] The report is available on the CIRCLE website. From the press release:

    The Future of American Democracy: A Mixed Picture More Young People Are Involved,

    But Nearly 1 in 5 Are Civically and Politically Disengaged

    African-American and Asian-American Youth Most Engaged

    Washington, DC – Conventional wisdom is challenged by a new report on the political and civic involvement of young Americans. Young people are working in many ways to improve their communities and the nation by volunteering, voting, protesting, and raising money for charity and political candidates. In addition, African-American and Asian-American youth are the most engaged, according to the study conducted by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE). But, the findings also show that a large group of young people are completely disconnected from civic life.

    In the last year, more than 36 percent of young people aged 15-25 volunteered, nearly 20 percent have been involved with solving community problems, and almost a quarter had raised money for charity. Many of the civic and political indicators showed only small differences between this age group and those aged 26 and older.

    Despite this higher-than-expected level of engagement, the study does show that nearly two-thirds of young Americans are considered disengaged, with nearly one in five not involved in any of the 19 possible forms of civic participation. “Participating is good for kids’ development. Our schools and communities need their contributions. And their civic development is crucial for the future of our democracy,” said CIRCLE director Peter Levine.

    “Knowledge matters. Among the young people who are disengaged – for instance, those who have not volunteered, contributed to solving community problems or raised money for a charity – more than 25 percent could not answer any basic civic knowledge questions,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, Research Director at CIRCLE. “But when young people get involved, their knowledge of the world around them increases. This is pattern is particularly clear among those who identify as regular voters. Only six percent of young regular voters could not answer any of the factual questions.”

    African American youth are the most politically engaged racial/ethnic group. Compared to other groups, African Americans are the most likely to vote regularly, belong to groups involved with politics, donate money to candidates and parties, display buttons or signs, canvass, and contact the media. Asian American youth - surveyed here for the first time across a wide range of civic indicators – are by far the most civically engaged. They are most likely to work on community problems, volunteer regularly, boycott, and sign petitions.

    The 2006 National Civic and Political Health Survey is the most up-to-date and detailed look at how young Americans are participating in politics and communities. The results can be found at www.civicyouth.org.

    Other major findings include:

  • Increase in Anti-Immigrant Sentiment and Drop in Acceptance of Homosexuals. Young people are more favorable toward gays and immigrants than older people are, but since 2002, there has been a 5 point increase in those who say immigrants are a burden to our country and a 7 decline in those who say that homosexuality should be accepted. On the other hand, 67 percent of youth say they have confronted someone who said something that they considered offensive, such as a racist or other prejudiced comment
  • Immigration Protests Drew Mass Youth Support: 23% of immigrant youth and 18% of young children of immigrants reported that they had protested in the past 12 months. In contrast, young people who were born in the U.S. to parents born in the U.S. reported a protest rate of 10%.
  • Majority Tuned In to Politics and News - Young people appear to be paying attention to politics and following the news - 72 percent say they follow what's going on in government and public affairs at least some of the time. There is a strong relationship between following the news and being civically engaged.
  • Posted by peterlevine at 9:01 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    October 2, 2006

    purple nation

    We're just back from a high school reunion in Macon, Georgia. Bush took 58% of Georgia's vote in 2004, and 96% of the "white conservative protestant" vote in the state. At the reunion, nobody talked about politics, but religion was freely discussed, and it was clear that most participants were conservative and protestant (and white). We live in DC, where only 2% of exit poll respondents described themselves as "white conservative protestants" in 2004, and Bush took just 9% of the vote.

    This seems a good time to mention "A House Divided: The Psychology of Red and Blue America," a recent article by D. Conor Seyle and Matthew L. Newman in The American Psychologist. The authors criticize the omnipresent map of red states and blue states. They contend that this map is not merely a flawed device for representing our situation; it also affects us in troubling ways.

    The map is a misleading representation because it organizes America along one dimension and divides all the states into just two categories. In reality, there are differences among Democrats and among Republicans, and there are big regional variations within states. Sometimes, the line between red and blue seems clearly inappropriate. For example, Pennsylvania and Ohio are pretty similar politically; but on the map, Ohio is as red as Utah, and Pennsylvania is as blue as Vermont.

    This misrepresentation may have negative effects:

    1. It can make the political minority in a state feel marginal and demoralized, although sometimes they have great political potential. (For example, Kerry took Bibb county, where Macon is located.)

    2. It can prompt the two groups to move to their extremes, following a well-known pattern in social pyschology.

    3. It can instill a sense that we are fundamentally divided into two identity groups, whose members not only vote differently, but also worship differently, eat different food, and hope for different futures for their children. To a large extent, that's false.

    It's worth contrasting the red-versus-blue scheme with old-fashioned party labels. The "Democratic" label is a cue to think about electoral politics; and electoral politics is about disagreement and competition. To call yourself a "Democrat" may prompt positive feelings among fellow Democrats and negative ones among Republicans--which is fine. Even people who vote differently can get along well when they're not talking about politics.

    In contrast, "red" and "blue" appear to be "unique and overlapping" categories (as Seyle and Newman write). They indicate a person's culinary taste, regional accent, denomination, race, preferred means of transportation, favorite news source, and practically everything else about him. If we think in such categories, it's hard to cooperate even when we happen to agree.

    Senator Obama was right:

    The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an 'awesome God' in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we've got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:33 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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