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August 31, 2007

national service

Time Magazine's editor, Rick Stengel, makes the case for a large-scale but voluntary national service program in an editorial that accompanies a whole cover issue on service and volunteering. It's a useful contribution because:

  • It's a concrete policy recommendation that would respond to a widespread feeling that our communities and democratic institutions have weakened dangerously. Stengel assembles rather specific ideas for federal service programs.
  • Stengel wisely builds on our experience with existing projects. Domestic service goes back to the New Deal, but the most immediately relevant programs are part of AmeriCorps, which was founded in the Clinton years
  • Stengel wisely recommends a voluntary program. He writes, "Americans don't like to be told what they have to do; many have argued that requiring service drains the gift of its virtue. [The new programs] would be based on carrots, not sticks." I would add another reason. It is crucial to offer high-quality programs, and we'll need to build those incrementally. A universal requirement would doom many young people to poor programs, with counter-productive results.
  • Service opportunities for people in their twenties would help them navigate an increasingly long and difficult transition to adulthood.
  • Service has potential appeal to conservatives and liberals, and it's a big enough idea that it could help to define a campaign or party.
  • Posted by peterlevine at 2:22 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    August 30, 2007

    good news about NCLB

    Rep. George Miller, who leads the House Democrats on education policy and strongly backed No Child Left Behind, has issued draft language regarding reform of that Act. It says, in part:

    Title I, Part I, includes a new program to provide funds to low-income districts to support high quality instruction in music and arts, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, history, geography and physical education and health. Funds would support expanding the amount of instructional time in such subjects, developing high quality curriculum, providing essential materials and textbooks and partnering with community- based organizations to increase student learning in these subjects.

    This is a big deal in my little world of "civic ed." But I'd suggest it matters to all Americans, and the full argument goes like this:

    Children who have experiences to participate as citizens and learn about their communities and politics flourish better in adolescence and develop lasting habits of civic participation that benefit our democracy.

    ... but ...

    Current education policy revolves around the testing of reading and mathematics. As a result, schools, and especially those with low rates of academic success, are cutting civics, arts, and community partnerships.

    ... so ...

    We need incentives for schools--especially those with low academic performance, which usually enroll mostly poor kids--to provide civic opportunities. And this is what Mr. Miller appears to be trying to do.

    Posted by peterlevine at 1:49 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    August 29, 2007


    If Senator Larry Craig opposed gay rights and said hostile things about gays while occasionally soliciting gay sex, he was hypocritical. Hypocrisy is one of the easiest faults to prove, but it is not one of the worst faults, especially in a leader.

    Hypocrisy is easy to establish, once the facts are out, because it involves a contradiction between the person's statements and his actions. (Likewise, lies are evident when a person's statements contradict what he knows or believes.) You can have very few moral commitments and very little knowledge of issues, and yet detect other people's hypocrisy.

    But what if Larry Craig were completely heterosexual and totally faithful to his wife, yet anti-gay? In my view, his position would then reflect injustice and intolerance. These are worse faults than hypocrisy; they have far more serious consequences. But many Americans are uncomfortable about charging anyone with injustice. That's because: (1) the charge is controversial, given that definitions of justice vary; (2) the accusation reflects deep moral commitments, which are incompatible with moral relativism or skepticism; and (3) the claim requires knowledge of issues and policies. The issue of gay rights happens to be relatively easy to understand, but I would argue that Senator Craig's votes on economic policy display equally serious injustice. To make that claim, I have to follow politics fairly closely and develop strong moral commitments.

    Thus I think that Americans who are disconnected from politics and issues tend to jump on evidence of hypocrisy as if it were very momentous (and interesting) news, whereas far worse faults are ignored.

    (It's not even crystal-clear that Larry Craig is a hypocrite, because one could oppose certain rights for gays and yet be gay or bisexual, without a contradiction. If Craig is a hypocrite, it's not because of his policy positions but because he falsely denies being gay himself--or so his accusers claim. I happen to feel considerable sympathy for a gay person who hides his orientation, given the general climate of intolerance and the tendency of police to entrap gay men. But hypocrisy, while not the worst moral fault, is wrong. The wrongness, it seems to me, lies in the failure to treat other people as responsible and rational agents who can make decisions on the basis of facts. Instead, the hypocrite feels it necessary to deceive in order to get the results he wants. This is manipulative; it is using someone else as a means to one's ends, not as an end in himself. But of course there are many forms of political manipulation that do not involve hypocrisy--for example, fear-mongering and exaggeration.)

    Posted by peterlevine at 6:12 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

    August 28, 2007


    (On the MARC commuter train) I just spent the day in Baltimore, first with a community-based youth group (Students Sharing Coalition), and then at a public high school, City College High. Baltimore is the next city up the east coast and the major metropolis in the State of Maryland, which employs me at our flagship public university. Thus I have reason to be interested in, and to care about, Baltimore--and I do. However, the University of Maryland is deep inside the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, and my family and I are residents and citizens of the District of Columbia itself. Thus I don't know Baltimore particularly well. I do feel moved, after a day in the city, to note that it is a complex and varied place. The Wire, while an excellent piece of realistic fiction, hardly describes all aspects of a city rich in stately architecture and full of civic institutions. It turns out that many kids who attend City College High School live in the specific neighborhood where The Wire is filmed; some have acted on the show; and Ed Burns is an alumnus. Yet The Wire depicts a community in which no one is on a path to academic success, whereas City College High School is evidently a fine and successful institution. Just an hour or so in the hallways and classrooms told me that it's a school with high expectations, good order, and positive energy. This is not to say that The Wire is false--only that reality is complicated.

    Posted by peterlevine at 5:13 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    August 27, 2007

    portrait of a library

    Last April, I posted a poem that Stephen Dunn wrote about the home in which I was raised--a home most remarkable for the 30,000 books that my Dad has collected and used for his scholarship. People liked the post, presumably because of Dunn's fine poem rather than my short commentary; and several readers requested pictures. On our latest visit to Syracuse, I took some photos and turned them into a short movie segment (below). It starts outside, works its way through the house to the attic, and ends in the basement, where most of the books are kept in library stacks.

    I'm not satisfied with the aesthetics. You're looking at the house under a pretty harsh direct flash, which turns dark-blue walls pale-blue, whitens the pine shelves, and reveals the wood behind the books. But at least I've documented the objects that Dunn wrote about, including the chairs that his ghosts sat on and the "startling print" upstairs.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:46 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    August 22, 2007


    We'll be in Upstate New York until August 24th, and I'm going offline to rest and recharge. No posts here until the 27th.

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

    August 21, 2007

    the British shift to participation

    While on our side of the Atlantic we struggle to promote themes of public participation (see the November Fifth Coalition for some ideas), in Britain, the new Government has fully embraced civic engagement. As Polly Toynbee writes in the Guardian:

    Ministers keep saying it - the key to success in social programmes is through breathing new life into communities. Research into what works in urban renewal finds engaging the people is the only answer. On Monday the new "neighbourhood renewal action plan" is launched, designed to reach down into the heart of the poorest places, promising to rebuild communities from the bottom upwards. The word is local "empowerment".

    The vision of the celestial city looks something like this: parents are involved daily with schools. Churches and local groups run after-school clubs, tenants on estates control their own budgets. All local departments pool their budgets, working together to offer whatever local people want most. Mentors guide and support young offenders, aspirant businesses, struggling readers, prisoners or depressed young mothers, connecting the disconnected. Thus local government is re born as people use the rusty levers of power in their communities.

    This is exactly the vision that inspires me and my colleagues. But Toynbee puts her finger on two problems. First, encouraging public participation runs exactly against the hallmark of "New Labour," which has been efficient, accountable public administration. New Labour doesn't throw money at problems or bury people in regulations. Instead, "every social programme comes with rigorous targets to be monitored ruthlessly. Every penny of public money is tied up in a public service agreement, where departments deliver or die on their Treasury contracts." There were reasons for this style of government, and it's not obvious that Labour can deliver both efficiency and participation.

    Second, "there is no clamour for community involvement. It is a top-down prescription in a time when people have deserted the churches, the Rotary Club, the WI, political parties and trade unions. They don't tell the pollsters they hanker after committees, minutes and points of order."

    What Oscar Wilde said about socialism is also true of civic empowerment: the problem is all those meetings. We will release a survey on October that measures Americans' appetite for public participation. I'm not going to reveal any results until then, but suffice it to say that the question of demand is important.

    Toynbee suggests investing money in public facilities so that they are comfortable, attractive, and welcoming. She notes that in the early 1900s, British public buildings were much nicer and more dignified than average British private homes. Now public and nonprofit institutions are decrepit and depressing, but homes are more comfortable than ever before. No wonder people prefer to watch the telly than hang out at the community center.

    Toynbee argues that financial investment in the public sector is a precondition of civic engagement. She sees this as a principle that distinguishes the left from the right (notwithstanding Gordon Brown's post-partisan rhetoric.) But interestingly, Toynbee (who stuck with Labour and refused to join the Liberal Democrats) cites Joseph Chamberlain in a favorable way. Chamberlain was a Liberal politician, not a socialist or a trade unionist. Perhaps a strategy of public investment, decentralization, civic mobilization, and state cooperation with civil society is the authentic heritage of British Liberalism; and Gordon Brown's Labour Party ought to head in that direction. In the US, we have similar traditions to draw on.

    (Most Americans who visit England see medieval and renaissance sites or stay in London, so they don't understand the tremendous civic infrastructure of British provincial industrial cities in the Victorian era. Cities like Birmingham and Liverpool had public and nonprofit institutions, local pride, and social networks to rival or surpass Tocquevillian America. These institutions arose in the great age of the Liberal Party.)

    Posted by peterlevine at 12:09 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    August 20, 2007

    Susanna Clarke's industrial revolution

    I think this is a fairly obvious point, but I can't find it elaborated anywhere in the web: It seems to me that Susanna Clarke's very entertaining novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is an allegory of the Industrial Revolution. (Crooked Timber's John Quiggin sort of says so, but very briefly.)

    In real life, steam-driven mass manufacturing was born in the North of England. The financial, human, and social capital came in part from old Northern cities like York. But York did not become a major manufacturing center--that was the fate of cities like Manchester and Sheffield, which basically sprang up in the early 1800s.

    The Industrial Revolution began during the Napoleonic Wars when, for example, pulley blocks for British ships were mass produced. But new manufacturing techniques did not seem to alter the war profoundly. Meanwhile, the new techniques were being used to create specialized luxury goods, such as Wedgwood pottery. The use of steam power and interchangeable parts was still a gentleman's pastime and an interesting sideshow.

    But these innovations expanded beyond anyone's control or expectations. Suddenly, factories that burned fossil fuels and used interchangeable parts were producing most of England's ordinary products (such as clothes); were employing a large proportion of the population; were threatening to enable mass human slaughter through deadly armaments and chemicals; and were changing the landscape itself--driving iron railroads across it and tearing the mountains open for coal.

    [Spoiler warning: I reveal the conclusion of this very suspenseful novel below the fold.]

    In Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, it is magic that is born (or reborn) first in the old city of York, among gentleman amateurs. Magic plays an amusing role in Wellington's Peninsula Campaign, but the outcome is the same as in history. Magic also amuses the London populace and entertains some gentlemen. But then suddenly it explodes beyond the control of a few amateurs and transforms both the social order and the landscape, especially in the North. Straight new roads open up; the countryside is turned upside down. The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, a fairy who represents the decrepit old country order and green nature, is literally crushed under a different kind of nature made of rocks and minerals. A new regime begins, in which the child of slaves (i.e., the working class) promises to rule rationally and dispassionately. The small-scale, arbitrary cruelties of the pre-modern order are over, but no one knows whether the future will be bright or bleak.

    I read the book more than a year ago, but I am confident that the analogy could be further substantiated with evidence from the text. I only recall one major difference between magic in the novel and steam power in real life. In the novel, magic is a medieval practice, reborn after a mysterious hiatus in the early-modern period. In real life, industrial manufacturing had some pre-modern antecedents--people mention tin-mining in Tudor Cornwall, for example. But basically it was new and "revolutionary," not a rebirth of anything. I can only assume that Clarke wanted to break the analogy with manufacturing for aesthetic reasons--her references to a lost medieval world are remarkably persuasive.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:43 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    August 17, 2007

    service interruption

    This is our cable box, outside our bedroom window. It was flattened by a large truck while I was on a conference call a few minutes ago. Our high-speed Internet access goes through there. I'm now online though my cell phone. It's slow, so I'm getting off. Happy weekend.

    Posted by peterlevine at 4:41 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    August 16, 2007

    principles of a discipline of citizenship

    I've written before about the lack of an academic discipline relevant to civics or citizenship. If there were such a discipline, it might adopt the following principles:

    The ultimate purpose of studying politics is to decide what should be done. That requires understanding ethics, strategy, and empirical facts and their causes.

    Human beings have political agency that is worth studying, despite the power of big institutions. What human beings should do is an important question, not just how institutions should be organized.

    Notwithstanding the previous point, it is crucial to understand how institutions reward or discourage ethical participation. It is not helpful to exhort people to be good citizens if they face barriers or collective-action problems.

    Politics is not just the interaction of people or organizations that have different interests. It is also the process by which opinions, values, interests, and identities are formed. In other words, values are not exogenous to politics; they emerge from politics.

    Politics is not zero-sum. There is an important aspect of politics that is creative, that expands the store of public goods.

    People begin as powerless and voiceless infants and develop into active citizens. Human beings are agents in their own development, but they also need appropriate opportunities to develop political skills and identities. The opportunities must come in an appropriate sequence.

    To understand politics often requires direct experience and real-world experimentation, not just data and laboratory-type experiments.

    Politics is not merely a cost; it can be an intrinsic good.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:11 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    August 15, 2007

    opportunity economics and civic participation

    The Hope Street Group is an organization founded by young business people who believe in growth, innovation, and opportunity, but do not believe that the current economic system provides opportunities either adequately or fairly. They favor more investment in human capital, reform of taxation and financial markets, and programs to give people second chances at entrepreneurship. Hope Street Group has laid the groundwork for effective political action and will soon be better known thanks to a $1 million Omidyar grant.

    I am a member of HSG. I know there are debates about whether GDP growth is an adequate measure of progress, and about whether we can achieve social justice through investments in human capital (rather than changing the bargaining power of labor versus capital). I have nothing original to contribute to those debates, and I'm agnostic about some of the key questions.

    But I believe that democracy and civic participation work better when people have a sense that the pie is expanding, and specifically, when people believe that there can be more for all if we cooperate voluntarily. There is a powerful, optimistic kind of populism that says: We can make wealth, and everyone can be better off, but we need to make sure that everyone is included in productive work. This is much better than the kind of populism that presumes there is a fixed quantity of goods, of which the powerful have taken more than their fair share. Optimistic populism promotes public investments in education and infrastructure, whereas resentful populism assumes so much distrust that it ultimately undermines public programs. Resentful populism also generates bad politics: division, hyper-partisanship, retreat into interest groups, and ultimately demobilization; whereas a populism of abundance encourages dialogue, participation, innovation, and creativity.

    Posted by peterlevine at 4:35 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    August 14, 2007


    Americans may be bracing themselves for a replay of 1975, but the conclusion of the US war in Iraq will be quite unlike the debacle that ended our involvement in Vietnam.

    Some in the Bush camp like to revive the specter of '75 because it makes any withdraw from Iraq seem disastrous. Surely we cannot once again allow Americans to be airlifted off the roof of our last stronghold in a key country. If Democrats cause such a withdrawal, they can be blamed for the defeat--that is the implicit threat. For some opponents of the Administration, the idea of Vietnam redux also has appeal: it associates George W. Bush with the ultimate kind of failure, a battlefield defeat.

    But it won't be like that. In Vietnam, our sworn enemy--the Viet Cong--overran the whole country in which we had been fighting for more than a decade, established an effective but repressive central government, completely banished us and our allies, aligned the country with our global rival, and sent many of our former clients fleeing onto the high seas in tiny boats. This was a textbook example of the end of a war. We were the losers; they were the winners.

    In Iraq, after major US combat operations cease, the flag will still fly over the US Embassy. The Embassy will probably remain one of the most important power centers in the country, disbursing billions in aid and coordinating various military operations for years to come. There will likely be whole brigades of US soldiers stationed "in country," at least in the Kurdish north. The national government may lack effective control over its territory or may tilt to Iran, but in either case I'm sure it will keep lines open with the US and Europe. Meanwhile, our sworn enemy, al Qaida in Iraq, will face serious challenges. The Shiite majority will do its best to wipe al Qaida out--with the help of Iran and some ruthless Shiite militias. Most of al Qaida's foreign jihadists will move on to countries where they can get an easier shot at the US, Europe, or Israel. Iraq may be in a desperate condition, but it will not be in the hands of our enemy.

    If the US reduces its presence dramatically and a new administration directs its attention elsewhere, the Western press corps will pay diminished attention to the internecine conflict and humanitarian disaster that drags on in Iraq. That means that the domestic political consequences of withdrawing are smaller than people imagine--much smaller than the consequences of Vietnam. The moral stain of the War is enormous, but it won't play out as a military defeat unless our politicians collude in portraying it that way.

    Posted by peterlevine at 2:25 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    August 13, 2007

    "vertical farms" and the new political economy

    Since the Industrial Revolution, fossil fuels have reduced human--and animal--drudgery. This has generally been a blessing, although we are now in danger because all that burned carbon is messing up the global climate. (And wars have been fought over oil.)

    The blessing of carbon is certainly a mixed one nowadays for older industrial cities like Baltimore, Detroit, or my hometown of Syracuse, NY. You can think of a city as an economy, with imports and exports. Energy is a major import; and we should count not only the electricity, oil, and gasoline that is literally moved into the city, but also the energy components of food, clothing, waste processing, and other necessities.

    Fossil fuels have replaced work, but there is not enough rewarding work left in our older cities. The cities have to pay, somehow, for the fuel they import. The best way would be to produce exports, but manufacturing is cheaper in the developing world, and the knowledge economy belongs to people with excellent educations. The old plants lie empty--like Sparrows Point, near Baltimore, which once employed 30,000 people in steel and shipbuilding. The biggest employers in Baltimore City today are the government and private health and education facilities: together, they provide 165,000 out of 350,000 total jobs. Those positions are subsidized by state and federal taxes, but at insufficient rates. You could almost say that Baltimore purchases its fossil fuels and other necessities using Medicare, Medicaid, Title One Education funds, and state aid to schools--all funded by taxpayers who have little love for the inner cities. (I mention Baltimore because it's nearby, but the same is certainly true of Syracuse, New Haven, and other cities in which I have lived.)

    The most appealing alternative I can think of is to replace fossil fuels with rewarding human labor that must be done on-site and cannot be outsourced. That is a tall order, especially if we expect the labor to be both rewarding and accessible to people without college degrees. But there are glimmers of hope. I love the idea of vertical farms that would produce hydroponic fruits and vegetables right in the city, using solar power, waste water, and skilled human labor instead of fossil fuels. Think of the nutritional, environmental, educational, social, and even aesthetic advantages if we could pull this off. (The picture is a design by Chris Jacob.)

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    August 10, 2007

    the ethics of taxing hedge funds

    The debate about taxes for hedge fund managers is an opportunity to consider the rationale for taxing various kinds of income at different rates. The narrow issue is that hedge fund managers pay capital gains taxes instead of income taxes on their earnings, even though their livelihood comes from managing other people's investments. The broader issue is that we tax income, capital gains, consumption, property, and various imports at different rates. I'm inclined to say:

    1. The degree to which we deserve the money we make and spend varies enormously, depending on risk, effort, and especially the public impact of what we do. You can work hard producing a product that is bad for other people's security or health (or for nature), and in that case, I hardly think you "deserve" your income--in the moral sense of desert. Or you can sit back and accrue interest on your trust fund, in which case I am unmoved by your claim to deserve what you have. However ...

    2. It's problematic for the government to tax at different rates depending on the moral value of people's work. I don't deny that moral distinctions can be made, but can we trust the legislature to make them? Can Congress manage to make distinctions across the whole of a modern economy, without lumping behavior into crude categories? And do we want the government to collect all the information it would need to make really wise judgments?

    At best, Congress would have to review all kinds of private behavior and readjust taxation constantly. In fact, that's what it does, and the result is a tax code that hardly fits in one bookcase and that shifts every year. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist 62, "a mutable policy ... poisons the blessing of liberty itself. It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?" Hamilton understood the kind of "liberty" that Friedrich von Hayek championed--the ability to plan without having to guess what some other power will do. For Hayek, the rate of taxation was not as important as its stability and transparency--and he had a point.

    3. But the government needs money. In fact, it needs more money than it collects. It's a terrible waste to borrow almost $9 trillion, on which we must pay $400 billion in annual interest. It is immoral to pass that debt to our kids. No one really argues that we can cut federal spending deeply enough to close the annual deficit, let alone pay off the debt. And society would work better if the government actually picked up an additional expense (paid by our taxes): universal health insurance. Even if you disagree with the last point, you pretty much have to concede that the government needs somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.5 trillion per year to operate.

    3. If the government needs money, it ought to take it from the people who will miss it least. Losing one dollar matters a lot more to someone who lives on the minimum wage than it does to a hedge fund manager.

    Thus I'm for raising taxes on hedge fund managers. There's an argument that we ought to "incentivize" risk-taking, but I suspect that managing a hedge-fund would be adequately rewarding even if the effective tax rate were 15 percentage points higher. As for the argument that risk-taking is virtuous, I think that's quite beside the point. Any urban public school teacher exhibits a lot more courage than a hedge fund manager, but we don't and can't tax income in proportion to personal virtue.

    A better system would actually tax wealth (not annual income) at one smoothly graduated rate, regardless of the source. That's the fairest way to raise funds, given the declining marginal utility of money. But I'm not sure how we could measure accumulated wealth well enough to tax it.

    Posted by peterlevine at 12:50 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    August 9, 2007

    looking for a Nabokov heroine?

    Since yesterday afternoon, about 300 people have reached this site after searching on Google for the words "Nabokov" and "heroine." They are reaching an old post of mine about Lolita. I can't find any website that links to that post; all the visitors are coming straight off Google. Their IP addresses indicate that they live all over the English-speaking world, from Cape Town to California. Something must be prompting interest in this combination of two words; my wife suggests it's a crossword puzzle clue.

    I often receive visitors looking for "Lolita," thanks to my article on Nabokov and various posts about him. I don't think most of these visitors are expecting to find what I provide. No pictures or videos here, just a stern reminder that Dolores Haze, Nabokov's great heroine, is an orphan child taken prisoner and raped by a middle-aged pervert. There is no evidence whatsoever that she wants to have sex with Humbert Humbert, but plenty of signs that he physically abuses her. She is remarkably resilient; Nabokov once said that he admired her more than any of his creations. It is amazing that this scion of the Russian aristocracy, educated at Cambridge, multilingual and erudite, could have made a gum-popping suburban American "tween" into his tragic heroine. Stereotypes dissolved in Nabokov's acute and humane vision.

    [8/17/2009: Several people have emailed to confirm that the occasional popularity of this post is due to crossword puzzle clues that seem to pop up in different newspapers every few months. By the way, if you need a Nabokov heroine with a three-letter name, try "Ada."]

    Posted by peterlevine at 12:50 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    August 8, 2007

    politics and a medium of choice

    Kos (Markos Moulitsas Zúniga) gave a very strong speech about what the netroots have accomplished. I wasn't anywhere near the Yearly Kos convention, but the transcript is online here or you can click below to watch.

    Kos is modest about his own contribution but argues that creating an online forum allowed thousands of people to become leaders:

    It’s a world in which the gatekeepers in the traditional media, political and activist establishments can be easily bypassed. It doesn’t matter whether the elite think we are respectable or not. They have no right to judge us.

    It is those leaders – YOU -- who are changing your country. Me? I’m just a guy who built a website. You – the thousands of YOU -- have taken hold of Daily Kos and so many great sites like it to become your own leaders. YOU are running for office. YOU are walking precincts. YOU are making campaign phone calls, talking to neighbors, families, co-workers – YOU are bringing passion back to true progressivism. YOU are building the institutions of our new progressive movement – MoveOn, Democracy for America, ActBlue, TPM Media, SoapBlox ... The culture of entrepreneurship you’ve created will provide the foundation for our future progressive majority.

    All of this is true, and good news. I happen to find the discussion on DailyKos a little too tactical and insufficiently focused on visions for America. But there's some good material over there. Besides, it's better for many people to debate and influence political tactics than for tactical decisions to be left to a few professionals.

    Still, I think the hand-wringing about the dominance of white men in the blogosphere is not merely PC. Old white men dominate the US Senate because there are major barriers to access and political power is unequally distributed in society. The demographic composition of the Senate reflects those underlying facts. The great question is whether online politics can shift the distribution of political power. To achieve that, we would need more than a few thousand individuals to enter the political debate. We would need a change in the underlying balance of power, which would be reflected in more diverse participants. In other words, diversity is not only a goal; it is evidence of social equity.

    But the Internet is a medium of choice. So is TV, in the age of cable. Both reflect a powerful shift toward consumer choice as the central organizing principle of society. Choice is great for the politically active: those with knowledge, confidence, and interest. They have access to countless channels of information and can add their own opinions and ideas. But if you lack a political identity, choice allows you to avoid politics altogether.

    In the past, you might sign up for a union because you needed a job. The union had an incentive to give you political confidence, knowledge, and interest, whether you wanted to be political or not. Unions were thus mechanisms for changing the underlying political balance of power, and they had an impact. It's not at all clear to me that the Internet (or the various net-based forms of political organizing) have had comparable effects.

    Posted by peterlevine at 1:38 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    August 7, 2007

    lobbying, ethics, and the impact of norms

    According to David K. Kirkpatrick in The New York Times, "The new law [on ethics and lobbying that awaits President Bush's signature] has quickly sent a ripple of fear through K Street. ... 'They might as well just pull up the paddy wagon outside the Capital Grille,' one lobbyist said, referring to a clubby steakhouse near the Capitol that is a well-known K Street hangout."

    We shouldn't hate or hound lobbyists. "Lobbying" means professionally petitioning the government, which is an explicit First Amendment right. I was a registered federal lobbyist myself (for Common Cause in the early 1990s), and I'm rather proud of that record.

    Common Cause spent no money at all to benefit politicians: not even snacks that might cost pennies. We were Puritans in Gomorrah. At its best, lobbying is simply an exchange of ideas and information. But I don't think it ever can be only that. There must be an interface between the public sector and the organized private sector (businesses and associations). The latter will always use money to influence the former. Walling policy off from money is like separating love, sex, or religion from commerce--never entirely successful.

    But that doesn't mean that any rules are as good as any others. In fact, we need reforms that go much deeper than the new ethics law. The obstacle to fundamental reform is political. Organized special interests benefit from being able to use money to influence policy. All incumbent lawmakers have some interest in preserving the status quo. The public dislikes money in politics, but this is a classic issue that pits very diffused, abstract public interests against tangible private interests. It's no contest.

    Our best chance is to preserve and strengthen the moral norm that money isn't proper in politics. Love is not prostitution, the temple is not the marketplace, and lawmaking is not a business exchange. It is, or ought to be, shameful to mix any of these things.

    Unfortunately, norms are fragile. When, for example, Mitt Romney chose to launch his presidential campaign before a symbolic backdrop of 400 fundraisers dialing for dollars, he flaunted--and threatened to destroy--the norm that money and government don't mix. It was like an aristocrat bragging that he has bought his title; if he gets away with it, there is no more aristocracy. The same could easily happen to the spirit of republican government and rule of law.

    This is why the new ethics law is important. It makes people uncomfortable about paying for influence. It makes money in politics seem shameful, or at least shady. It therefore preserves the ethic of republican government.

    According to Kirkpatrick, some lobbyists are afraid of unjust prosecution. For example, under the new law, a lobbyist could be criminally liable if his employee failed to disclose something of value that he had given to legislative staff. I don't want people to be unjustly prosecuted. But the tensions and fears that lobbyists are feeling right now result from the fundamental tension between the rules of a market and the rules of democratic government. A better solution would be more radical reform--for example, public financing of political campaigns. Perhaps the only way to achieve such a reform is to make explicit the moral tensions that currently arise at the border between the market and the government, to burden lobbyists with rules and prosecute them for violations; in short, to make them symbols of our deeper problems.

    Posted by peterlevine at 3:29 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    August 6, 2007

    "getting them involved"

    Michael Hill wrote a profile of me in Sunday's Baltimore Sun. He gave me quite a lot of space to talk about my usual obsessions: public participation, civil society, youth, and so on. His biographical sketch probably makes my life seem more coherent and "purpose-driven" than it has actually been--but I guess I led him to that. Hill is an interesting reporter, in any case, who has written several previous pieces about the public's role in politics in which he quotes Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg (authors of Downsizing Democracy), Harry Boyte, and others.

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:37 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    August 3, 2007

    lowering the voting age

    The Michigan State House is considering a bill to allow citizens aged 17 at the time of a primary to vote if they will turn 18 on or before the general election. (To be more precise, the bill would put that proposal before the voters as a constitutional amendment.) I'm generally in favor of lowering the voting age by a year or so, because then students will become eligible to vote while they are still in high school, and voting can become part of the curriculum. They can learn the mechanics of registering and casting a ballot and also discuss issues in a moderated forum (the social studies classroom).

    Eric Plutzer and others have found that voting is habitual--once someone casts a first vote, typically she continues to participate for decades. Consequently, lowering the voting age could be a way of increasing turnout, if the election became an opportunity for some basic voter education.

    This is an argument for enfranchising all 17-year-olds. The Michigan proposal is more complicated and less inclusive that what I would favor, but it reflects an intuition that people who are going to be allowed to vote in a given election ought to be able to participate in the primary, as well. The bill would be a modest change, but better than nothing.

    Posted by peterlevine at 1:53 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    August 2, 2007


    I'm in a day-long meeting, without a lot of time to ruminate and write, but this is a good chance to link to an ambitious new website: TerpImpact. It's a portal for students at the University of Maryland who might be interested in becoming more civically engaged (in various ways). It not only offers opportunities for volunteering and political action, but also provides intellectually stimulating material about civic engagement and learning. I think this is a model for higher education.

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:21 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    August 1, 2007

    Feingold and La Follette

    On Monday evening, I went to a party to celebrate my friend Sandy Horwitt's recently released book, Feingold: A New Democratic Party. I haven't read the whole book yet, but it's very engaging. I share Sandy's view that Senator Russ Feingold is a fitting successor to Senator Robert M. La Follette, Sr., who held the same seat a century ago. La Follette is the hero of my New Progressive Era, and I wrote quite a lot about him that didn't make the final cut. I spent some time with his papers and read most of the major studies of him. La Follette was a true hero, but he was a tragic hero, most of whose causes failed. The reason, I think, is that he never resolved some fundamental dilemmas of modern democratic politics: how to make government effective without making it technocratic; how to mobilize people for popular reform without reducing their capacity to deliberate and form their own views; how to appeal to common interests without losing sight of the particular interests that make us human; how to separate the public sector from private money without shielding government from innovation; how to retain the spirit of the neighborly community in a mass society.

    On the basis of Sandy Horwitt's book, it appears that Senator Feingold is a serious student--and emulator--of La Follette. The modern Senator has the same moral compass as Fighting Bob. He is reacting to the current war much as La Follette responded to World War One, and he abhors G.W. Bush much as La Follette denounced Wilson. (Those two presidents are similar, I've argued.) Feingold is as independent as the founder of the Progressive Party was. But I don't think that Feingold, or anyone in our time, has resolved the problems of mass democracy that arose at the beginning of the 20th century. His agenda of political reform lacks a large and passionate constituency, and that's because of the atomization and technical rationality of modern society. Sandy evokes the small-town Wisconsin values that shaped both La Follette and Feingold (many decades apart), but he doesn't say--because nobody knows--how to make those values salient in a nation of 300 million.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:18 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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