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September 28, 2007


Does it ever seem to you as if the United States, having grown in relative domestic peace and stability since 1945, is now choking on itself like an old lilac bush that nobody trims? I am trying to avoid a medical cliché, but surely we are clogging our arteries, letting toxins build in our organs; softening, sagging, and losing our will.

For example, our major manufacturing industries cannot generate decent jobs, in part because they seem unable to innovate, and in part because they are carrying the expense of health insurance for their workers and retirees. For all our firms and households, the health system is amazingly expensive, yet it is riddled with inefficiency, error, and inequality. The technology is impressive; the incentives are perverse.

We choose where we live on the basis of the quality of the schools, which (in turn) is mostly a function of the affluence of the people who live around them. We thus sort ourselves by privilege and leave a substantial minority with dismal prospects.

The neighborhoods with the failing schools are often dominated by the sale of illegal drugs. Perhaps our drug policies reduce the tonnage of narcotics that we consume as a people, but at the cost of violence and rampant incarceration in the very places that begin with the fewest resources.

Our colleges and universities serve mainly to sort people by social class and to confer advantages on the already advantaged. As a side business, they run quasi-professional football and basketball teams.

Our congressional districts are "rotten boroughs," gerrymandered to prevent competition. Our very land is planted with corn and soybeans that are turned into artificial products, all because our taxes subsidize particular crops while funding agribusinesses to lobby to preserve their advantages. Our bodies are glutted with the refined sugars that the land yields at our expense. While we chew, we sit and watch screens on which tawdry spectacles are interrupted only by incessant advertising for disposable goods that pile up in landfills. We borrow from abroad, burn mountains of carbon, send our young overseas to fight in lost causes, and toss away a trillion dollars on an optional war.

These times demand serious work from all of us, and leaders who call for us to contribute.

Posted by peterlevine at 10:43 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 27, 2007

the drawbacks of thinking about discrete educational programs

I gave a speech this morning (early this morning) to recipients of federal grants for service-learning. People in the audience run programs that meet the criteria of the Learn & Serve America program: they provide a certain amount of community service to each child, connect the service to academic work on the same topic, etc. This is the dominant way that we think about education today: as combinations of programs that can each be defined according to general criteria. Their average impact can then be measured (holding other factors constant), and we can decide to fund, require, reward, or test only the types of programs that we think work. See the What Works Clearinghouse for the quintessence of this approach.

This was also the approach we used in writing The Civic Mission of Schools report (2003), which identified six "promising practices" for civic education: classes on American history and civics; moderated discussion of current issues; extracurricular activities; student voice (i.e., honoring students’ opinions about school policies); simulations of legislation, diplomacy, and courts; and service-learning (i.e., combinations of community service with academic study). Since 2003, the evidence of positive effects from service-learning has increased.

However, as I told this morning's audience, there are several pitfalls to basing policy on service-learning, or any such "method," "approach," or "practice":

1. Practices that are institutionalized and defined receive the most support, even if they are not the most important. In our field, two of the "promising practices" in civic education get most of the attention: social studies classes and service-learning programs. I think that’s because they have budget lines (albeit too small) and job titles. In contrast, there's very little organized advocacy in favor of student voice in schools or extracurricular activities, because no one has a powerful self-interest in advocating for them.

2. There may be a risk that schools check off one or two of the promising practices and consider themselves to be meeting their civic missions. There is no research that allows us to say that particular combinations of practices work better than one program or another. But my gut tells me that you need a comprehensive approach. If, for example, you offer a single service-learning project but everything else about the school "teaches" the kids that they are not active and responsible citizens, it's hard to believe the service-learning course will work. Certainly, the effects of social studies classes and service-learning programs, while statistically significant, are not very large.

3. Such practices have to be done well. We should be concerned with quantity, quality, and equality. Quantity means how many kids get the opportunity. Quality means how good it is. And equality means how evenly is it distributed. There is a tendency for service-learning to degenerate into pretty meaningless exercises and for the high-quality opportunities to reach only the students who are bound for college.

4. Service-learning and other discrete educational programs need to be connected to much broader purposes or they will become ends in themselves. Service-learning can be connected to two ambitious movements:

  • The effort to redefine adolescence as a time of positive opportunity and contribution, not as a time of risk.
  • The effort to reform society by getting young people involved in changing institutions for the better.
  • If we merely offer service-learning because research studies find that it has positive effects on test scores or behavior, it will be stripped of its essential purpose and will degenerate. This is what happened, in my opinion, to the curricular innovations of the Progressive Era.

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    September 26, 2007

    my life's message in a nutshell

    Click below for a short video.

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    September 24, 2007

    how the world looks to $25 million

    I spent yesterday at a board meeting of a nonprofit that has an endowment of about $25 million--not very big, but big enough to employ a major investment firm that sent two guys from the West Coast to make a presentation about market conditions. Since I don't have millions of my own to invest, nor a stake in any private company, I'm not used to seeing such presentations. It occurs to me, however, that there's a substantial class of Americans--call it the ruling class--that does listen regularly to investment advice. The kind of presentation I saw yesterday reflects an influential worldview.

    I noticed, first of all, that the presentation was very cogent and comprehensive. Almost all the information came from public sources, so we should be able to obtain the same ideas from business magazines, daily newspapers, or even the television. But I don't recall seeing such a neat package of trend lines and statistics presented in the Washington Post or New York Times. If corporations and investors are willing to pay for general advice about market conditions, I wonder why news organizations don't provide it to their readers. In size and talent, newsrooms must rival the research departments of investment banks; but they produce very different kinds of information. One reason may be that the target audience of the business section of a national newspaper already gets the kind of presentation I saw yesterday, and they are interested only in breaking news and features.

    Second, I observed that "the economy" looks pretty good from the perspective of $25 million. To be sure, there is a risk of a downturn. The guys from LA put the odds of a recession in '08 at 30% (with due humility about their foresight). But the past five or six years have been very impressive--we've seen solid returns, productivity growth, and moderate inflation and unemployment. If you wonder why the Bush years don't provoke outrage down at the Rotary Club, it's because business people see the world from the perspective of an investment bank.

    Third, I was struck by the gap between an investor's interests and the national interests. An index of "emerging market stocks" has far outperformed US stock indexes, and we were told that that trend will continue, mainly because of the lower cost of manufacturing overseas. This is bad news for the US, but not for $25 million, which can happily move.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:35 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    influence of parents

    Libertarians and free-marketers like to think we are free except when we are constrained by laws and governments. Liberals and socialists like to think that people are affected substantially by the state--potentially for the good. None of us takes seriously enough what we know in our bones. We aren't free, because we begin as completely helpless little beings within mini-states called "families" where the adults have enormous power. How they raise us largely determines what we will value and how we will make our way in the world.

    I write this with no autobiographical intent. My own parents did as good a job as is humanly possible in helping their children to develop autonomously. And my wife and I are, to quote Bruno Bettelheim, "good enough parents"--I am not plagued by guilt on that score. But the experience of being a parent does bring home the enormous power that role gives you: a power so great as to make almost any government seem almost marginal.

    To illustrate the point .... America's Promise uses survey questions to gauge the degree to which parents are supportive of, and close to, their own teenage children. These questions probe subjective impressions of "closeness" plus the frequency of talking frankly about important topics. America's Promise classifies parents into three tiers of involvement.

    Look at the differences in opportunities that children obtain, depending on the closeness of their family relationships. For example, if your parents are very interested in, and emotionally close to, you, there's a two in three chance that you'll have safe places to play and work and constructive ways to use your time. If your parents are uninvolved, your odds fall to one in five.

    These results are not controlled for anything, such as family income or parental education. It would therefore be a mistake to draw causal inferences. Maybe the root cause is something like money rather than the subjective attitude of parents. Nevertheless, these correlations are striking and they make both libertarian and left-liberal political theories seem inadequate.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:09 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    September 21, 2007

    civic skills/workplace skills

    America's Promise has identified five supports that every child needs to develop successfully: caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, effective education, and opportunities to help others. The America's Promise research team frequently releases interesting studies showing the positive consequences of having these five supports and the unequal degree to which we provide them.

    The latest published report (pdf), entitled "workforce readiness," identifies several skills that are essential for success in the workplace: decision-making, teamwork and leadership, communication, working with diverse people, computer skills, and money management. The Alliance's survey data show that most students report few opportunities to develop any of these skills; and outcomes (as assessed by the kids themselves) are unequal. For example, "fewer than half (46%) of the youth surveyed believe that they communicate well with others. African American youth were nearly twice as likely to report poor communication skills as white youth."

    For those of us who want schools to develop civic skills, these data provide an opening. Surveys cited by the Alliance show that business employers want workers who can communicate, collaborate, and make decisions in diverse groups. If we can harness that demand to persuade schools to teach such "soft" skills, we should be able to prepare students better for active citizenship. That will require more team projects in schools and less narrow preparation for paper-and-pencil tests.

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    September 20, 2007

    Lévi-Strauss lives

    Did you know that Claude Lévi-Strauss, the great structuralist, is still alive? He has survived all the major French post-structuralists for whom he was a foil. Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault are all dead. There is an opportunity here for a little "revanche." I think the man should write a book called Post Post-Structuralism, by Claude Lévi-Strauss. It wouldn't matter what he said; he would have the last word.

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:42 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    September 19, 2007

    where morality comes from

    Nicholas Wade's New York Times article, entitled "Is 'Do Onto Others' Written into Our Genes?" started off badly enough that I had a hard time reading it. Stopping would have been a loss, because I appreciated the reference to YourMorals.org, where (after registering) one can take a nifty quiz.

    Wade begins: "Where do moral rules come from? From reason, some philosophers say. From God, say believers. Seldom considered is a source now being advocated by some biologists, that of evolution."

    First of all, the evolutionary basis of morality is not "seldom considered." It has been the topic of bestselling books and numerous articles. Even the student commencement speaker at the University of Maryland last year talked about it.

    More importantly, Wade's comparison of philosophers and biologists is misleading. Biologists may be able to tell us where morals "come from," in one sense. As scientists, they try to explain the causes of phenomena, such as our beliefs and behaviors. We call some of our beliefs and behaviors "moral." Biology may be able to explain why we have these moral characteristics; and one place to look for biological causes is evolution.

    But why are we entitled to call some of our beliefs and behaviors moral, and others--equally widespread, equally demanding--non-moral or even immoral? Why, for example, is nonviolence usually seen as moral, and violence as immoral? Both are natural; both evolved as human traits. Moreover, not all violence is immoral, at least not in my opinion. Not even all violence against members of one's own group is wrong.

    Morality "comes from" reason, not in the sense that reason causes morality, but because we must reason in order to decide which of our traits and instincts are right and wrong, and under what circumstances. Evolutionary biology cannot help us to decide that. If biologists want to study the origins of morality, they must use a definition that comes from outside of biology. One approach is to use the definition held by average human beings in a particular population. But why call that definition "moral"? I would call it "conventional." Conventional opinion may, for example, abhor the alleged "pollution" caused by the mixing of races or castes. It is useful to study the reasons for such beliefs, but it is wrong to categorize them as moral.

    Perhaps I wrote that last sentence because of my genes, my evolutionary origins, or what I ate for breakfast this morning. Whether it is true, however, depends on reason.

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    September 17, 2007

    coming of age in your thirties

    She gives a short, mirthless laugh. "It's no wonder we're all in such a mess, is it? We're like Tom Hanks in Big. Little boys and girls trapped in adult bodies and forced to get on with it. And it's much worse in a real life, because it's not just snogging and bunk beds, is it? There's all this as well." She gestures though the windscreen at the field and the bus stop and a man walking his dog, but I know what she means.

    That's from Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, a very entertaining and well-constructed novel that I just finished reading. It belongs to the genre of coming-of-age stories in which the appealing male hero realizes that other people also matter and that happiness will require commitment. Compare and contrast James Atlas' The Great Pretender, Martin Amis' The Rachel Papers, or all the early Phillip Roth.

    What struck me, though, was the age of Hornby's protagonists. These people are turning into adults in their mid-thirties, not their early twenties like Portnoy. Come to think of it, that's not a surprising phenomenon. We're living longer, women can safely bear children later, and there are impressive returns to education--including not only school and college, but also such educative experiences as internships, living abroad, and experimenting with jobs. Under these circumstances, people who can delay do delay all the irreversible markers of adulthood.

    Laura says to Rob in High Fidelity, "You'll keep your options open for the rest of your life, if you could. You'd be lying on your deathbed, dying of some smoking-related disease, and you'd be thinking, well, at least I've kept my options open. At least I never ended up doing something I couldn't back out of." She's describing Rob's amusing character flaw, but it's more than that--not just a personal trait, but a consequence of investing in people's "human capital" for the first four decades of their lives so that they can produce economic goods and children for the next three decades before comfortably retiring.

    Overall, I think this is progress. People are developing their own rational autonomies by learning and experimenting before they make critical decisions about work and family. One drawback, obviously, is inequality. While some take a decade after college to explore their options, others have left school at 16 and have few choices at all. Hornby's novel is not really about inequality, but it is about the ethical dimension of delaying adulthood. What makes it time to start the real business of life? How should one treat other people during the period of exploration? (I'd say that no 16-year-old owes any friend or romantic partner a lifelong commitment, but I feel differently about a 30-year-old. Why?) What are the appropriate purposes of exploring one's options?

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:36 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    motives and incentives in the Iraq war

    I'm generally against imputing motives to political leaders. I don't think we can know what they want; there are too many screens and interpreters between them and us. Motives don't necessarily matter, because a leader can do the right thing for bad reasons, or the wrong thing with good intentions. Finally, looking for motives encourages us to rely on the wrong criteria of judgment. For instance, a change of position looks like a "flip-flop," suggesting that the politician's motive is to attract votes. Consistency over time looks like evidence of sincerity. But we should want leaders to change their minds as circumstances evolve, not show that foolish consistency which is the hobgoblin of small minds.

    Although I generally resist inferring motives, it is a different matter to analyze the incentives that apply in a given situation. Once we understand the incentives, we may be able to change them. And changing the incentives is worthwhile, because over time, on average, all else being equal, institutions will act in accord with the incentives.

    It has been widely noted that the Bush Administration has an incentive to prolong the Iraq war until the next administration, which will then take the heat for the withdrawal. This does not prove that George W. Bush wants to "run out the clock." He may want to win and he may believe that some kind of victory is either possible or probable if we stay in Iraq. But the incentive structure probably influences and distorts administration policy in favor of staying the course.

    Likewise, several commentators (e.g., Tom Friedman) argue that the United States should consistently and loudly denounce each major terrorist attack that kills Muslims, thereby contesting the false notion that we kill Muslim populations whom terrorists defend. But the incentive for the Bush Administration is to minimize all mass killings in Iraq, in order to argue that our troops are keeping the peace. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) says that civilians in Washington, D.C. are at "far greater risk" of violent death than "average civilian[s] in Iraq." I don't know why he and his colleagues say such things--maybe because they believe them. But the incentive for the administration and its allies is certainly to downplay mass killings in Iraq, even if the result is a lost opportunity for public relations.

    Of course, the Democrats in Congress face incentives, too. If they do not shorten the war, there will be considerable disillusionment in the country, especially among new voters on the progressive side. But disillusionment by itself doesn't cost incumbents elections. Prolonged war will be much worse for Republicans than for Democrats. Democrats will have an antiwar presidential ticket, and in most of their districts, their candidates (incumbents or challengers) will be less hawkish than the opponents. If the war continues unabated, turnout may be low because of disillusionment, but I suspect that the Democratic margin will be enormous--a landslide. On the other hand, seriously challenging the president and shortening the war carries all sorts of political risks for the Democrats, who then become responsible for what unfolds in Iraq.

    More incentives: To borrow $1 trillion to fight the war and let our children pay it off later with interest. To push our volunteer forces to the limit without expanding their numbers with any kind of draft. To remain in a state of high fear and antagonism toward several foreign countries, justifying all kinds of expansions in federal power and spending. To import carbon fuels from some of those same countries to burn in the atmosphere.

    In short, the incentives line up to promote disaster. Even if one imputes somewhat decent motives to some of our leaders, we are in trouble.

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    September 14, 2007

    Flanagan on "Second Life"

    Connie Flanagan, who is one of the very best developmental psychologists who studies civic and political development, has opened a discussion about virtual worlds over at the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning blog. She writes, "our material world is sorely lacking in [free] spaces, especially for young people. ... The political potential of free spaces is that they allow us to imagine what our worlds COULD be, what our institutions could look like, and what values we want to bind us together." Any comments belong with Connie's post.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:44 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    September 13, 2007

    the rust belt

    I spent Tuesday in Dayton, a city that I have visited several times each year since 1987. I go there to work with the Kettering Foundation, but the city reminds me of my hometown of Syracuse, NY--also a former manufacturing city that once depended on automotive plants. As we drove past the big GM plant in Moraine, OH (where shifts have recently been cut), the driver of my shuttle told me that he had worked for decades at Dayco, an auto parts manufacturer. Dayco was bought out and, according to my driver, the new owners got rid of everyone over 50. So now he drives a shuttle bus for $7/hour plus tips but no benefits. He works seven days a week and sometimes has to sleep in the airport if a late flight is badly delayed. He looked at least 60 years old.

    It's not an unusual story, but it's a story worth telling and retelling. (By the way, tip your driver.)

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    September 12, 2007

    the Education Trust and the narrowing of the curriculum

    When the Education Trust speaks, newspapers listen. Recently, I wrote to celebrate the new draft of legislation by Rep. George Miller that would broaden the way schools can demonstrate satisfactory progress. Mr. Miller, the leader of the House Democrats on education policy, would allow schools to measure outcomes in subjects like civics, not just reading and math. There are strong opponents of this reform. Kati Haycock, President of the Education Trust, writes:

    No federal education law has been more misunderstood than No Child Left Behind. But despite all the complaints, no federal law has accomplished more for the poor and minority children historically shortchanged by our education system.

    While we continue to press for closing the achievement gap and preparing all students for the real-world challenges of college and career, the federal law must maintain a laser-like focus on ensuring that all students are proficient in reading and math. Congress should resist calls to add more measures to the current accountability system that would provide "extra credit" for schools failing to meet the needs of their students in these two fundamental subject areas.

    The "adequate yearly progress" standard was designed to be easily understood by parents, educators and policymakers. The clarity of the accountability system shouldn't be muddied by variables that let schools off the hook for poor performance in reading and math, even for just one group of students. Instead, Congress should provide funding for the additional supports and resources that research has identified as critical to academic success -- strong, effective teachers empowered by rich curricula tied to high-quality assessments of student learning -- and target those resources to the schools that need the most help.

    The Washington Post masthead editorial echoes her, whether intentionally or not. So does Fred Hiatt in his Post column, and the New York Times in two masthead editorials. The first:

    The country’s largest teachers’ union, the politically powerful National Education Association, would like to see the law gutted. Fortunately, the chairman of the House education committee, George Miller, Democrat of California, has resisted those pressures. Even so, his proposed changes in the law’s crucial accountability provisions, put forth in a draft version of the House bill, may need to be recast to prevent states from backing away from the central mission of the law.

    Some critics warn that one provision might allow schools to mask failures in bedrock subjects like reading and math by giving them credit for student performance in other subjects or on so-called alternate indicators.

    And the Times repeats these points today, citing the President of the Business Roundtable, John Castellani, who testified against "troubling provisions in a draft reauthorization bill that would allow schools to mask failure in teaching crucial subjects like reading and math by giving them credit for student performance in other subjects or on alternate measures of performances."

    The position of the The Education Trust and Business Roundtable has a legitimate place in the debate. But there is certainly another side, which the Times and Post ought to consider. Considerable evidence now shows that: (a) schools are cutting important subjects to meet the federal testing requirements in reading and math; and (b) students aren't really reading or understanding math better when they perform better on the required tests. In fact, the more a state improves its scores on the NCLB-required tests, the more its scores fall on other, independent assessments of literacy and math. Students would actually read better if they knew some history and civics and had a sense of why it is important to be able to read the news and write about social issues.

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    September 11, 2007

    Gordon Brown on civic renewal

    (from Dayton, OH) I'm a bit disappointed by the small role that themes of civic renewal and citizen participation have played so far in the US presidential campaign. But recent developments in Britain are remarkably promising. If Thatcherite conservatism could migrate from the UK to the USA, maybe we can borrow their new civic orientation.

    Thus consider these excerpts from Prime Minister Gordon Brown's recent speech to the National Council of Voluntary Organisations. ...

    Brown starts by depicting a set of "big challanges" that are too complex and too mixed up with personal behavior and culture to be fixed by government alone. As he says later in the speech, "When we think about how to tackle the big challenges we face it is increasingly the culture in which we live our lives that matters, our beliefs and aspirations, the values and norms that shape our goals and the boundaries that we set and are prepared to set for the way we behave in our families and in our communities."

    Thus, he argues, it is necessary to tap the energies and ideas of many citizens in a decentralized way: "Britain needs a new type of politics which embraces everyone in the nation and not just a select few, a politics that is built on consensus and not division, a politics that is built on engaging with people and not excluding them, and perhaps most of all a politics that draws upon the widest range of talents and expertise, not narrow circles of power."

    Brown emphasizes that we live in a time of civic innovation and idealism, even if governments and bureaucracies sometimes feel tired and overwhelmed. "And although ours is an era in which many of the traditional structures of society and association and voluntary engagement have declined, I have also seen round the country as I have visited different communities new and vibrant forms of civic life, social and community action, multi-media technologies that have transformed and are transforming the scope and nature of civic participation."

    As in the United States (where community development corporations, land trusts, and other nonprofits are now significant economic actors), so in Britain, "the words voluntarism and voluntary action no longer fully capture [what is] happening daily in our communities. There are 50,000 social enterprises with a combined turnover of £27 billions. Half of the population, as we know, volunteers at least once a month. We have to reach out and connect with this new energy and enterprise and it is urgent that we do so because of the profound new challenges that I believe this country faces now and for the future cannot be solved, cannot be met by top-down solutions simply by saying, as people often did in the past, that the man in Whitehall knows best."

    Brown cites crime and climate change as two examples of issues that the government cannot solve alone. The latter problem, he says, "demands that we combine international action and investment with the direct personal and social responsibility and commitment of ordinary people in every community of our country."

    Although Brown calls for consensus, his position is itself an ideology (and so much the better for being one, in my opinion). He steers his way between neoliberalism and socialism: "So I do not agree with the old belief of half a century ago that we can issue commands from Whitehall and expect the world to change, nor can we leave these great social challenges simply to the market alone."

    Although Brown recognizes the strength and dynamism of the nonprofit sector, he worries about its weak connection to formal politics. "In the 1950s 1 in 11 people joined a political party, today it is 1 in 88. Once political parties aggregated views from millions of people, now they need to broaden their appeal to articulate the views of more than the few. ... And this is not because politicians are necessarily as individuals less trustworthy or because they work less hard, nor does it mean the end of political parties. Party politics remains at the heart of a representative democracy, it reflects inevitable differences of values and principles and it is fundamental to citizens to have a clear choice of programmes and policies. But I believe that the evidence shows that the depths of people's concerns cannot be met by the shallowness of an old-style politics."

    At this point, Brown begins to outline practical ideas for increasing citizen voice in policy. "We have already taken the step of publishing the legislative programme in draft, inviting comments and views, and for the last six months I have been discussing and working through how to do in a more consultative way that involves people in debating the issues that matter - drugs, crime, antisocial behaviour, housing development or even foreign policy issues like Iraq where there are public discussions."

    The first step will be to "hold Citizens Juries round the country. The members of these juries will be chosen independently. Participants will be given facts and figures that are independently verified, they can look at real issues and solutions, just as a jury examines a case. And where these citizens juries are held the intention is to bring people together to explore where common ground exists."

    Brown explains that "Citizens Juries are not a substitute for representative democracy, they are an enrichment of it. The challenge of reviving local democracy can only be met if we build new forms of citizen involvement to encourage them in our local services and in new ways of holding people who run our services to account. So we will expand opportunities for deliberation, we will extend democratic participation in our local communities."

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:37 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    September 10, 2007

    a palindrome*

    America, you Jerusalem reborn!
    No profligate, old-world, ruined people, you.
    Behold: peace. You're principle without pain and dishonor.

    Dishonor and pain without principle: your peace.
    Behold, you people: ruined world!
    Old, profligate. No reborn Jerusalem you, America.

    *Distantly inspired by Yehuda Alharizi's "Palindrome for a Patron" [12th or 13th century] as translated by Peter Cole and cited by Harold Bloom in the June 28 New York Review of Books.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:13 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    September 7, 2007

    mark your calendars

    At CIRCLE, we're working on two reports whose contents are embargoed, but both contain a lot of interesting new findings about Americans' demand for civic participation and their engagement in relatively impressive forms of civic work:

    On October 4th in Washington, the National Conference on Citizenship will release a major national poll. It helps to reveal how many and which Americans are currently involved in deliberation and public work.

    On November 7th in Washington, CIRCLE will release the results of a major national study based on our interviews with 386 college students on 12 four-year colleges and universities. Like the NCoC study, but in different ways, it probes deliberation and attitudes toward politics and civil society.

    Posted by peterlevine at 1:04 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    September 6, 2007

    creative thinking

    Just a few recent items from my inbox that reflect that creativity of the movement for civic renewal:

    1. Warrior to Citizen: The Center for Democracy & Citizenship at the University of Minnesota has formally launched its effort to help returning veterans reintegrate into civilian life. The emphasis is not on services, therapy, or sympathy. Instead, the Warrior to Citizen campaign recognizes that veterans have skills and knowledge that they can use for the benefit of American communities, if they are treated as assets. The coalition includes military and veterans' organizations, higher education, mayors, and 250 priests, among others.

    2. Resident Leaders: The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University is placing experienced undergraduates in dorms specifically to help first-year students engage in their communities. They join the traditional residential assistants (RAs) who help with academic and personal matters.

    3. The Whole Child: The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), which is a huge membership organization, has launched a campaign to fight the narrowing of the US curriculum and to defend arts, civics, service, and other crucial aspects of education that are at risk of disappearing from our schools.

    Posted by peterlevine at 3:53 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    September 5, 2007

    or what you will

    On reading Twelfth Night recently, I was moved by the ending. Feste the Fool is left standing alone to sing of the cold winter, when the rain it raineth every day. Twelfth Night marks the end of Christmas, an interlude from work. This particular Christmas in Illyria also seems a break from the weather, for no one speaks of cold even though most of the action is outdoors. A willow cabin seems sufficient shelter. These are perhaps the "Halcyon days" of the winter solstice, what we would call an "Indian summer" (cf. 1 Henry VI, I,ii,131).

    This Christmas is also a break from war and--most strikingly--from family. Orsino, Olivia, Viola, and Sebastian, the romantic leads, are all orphaned and childless. There is no mention of any family, either, for the minor characters of Sir Andrew Aguecheeck, Sir Toby Belch, Malvolio, Antonio, Maria, and the Fool. Since these characters have no parents or children, they have no one to govern them and no responsibilities. Virtually any of these people could be paired with anyone else. Even gender is no bar, for Viola is dressed as a man and attracts Olivia's love. Illyria is like summer camp or freshman year at college. The characters are not wanton, but for them, everything is undecided.

    The marriages of Olivia and Sebastian, Viola and Orsino represent a happy ending, but also the end of the interlude. After their weddings, Illyria will have a governing structure; families will be created in separate households. Immediately before everyone leaves the Fool alone on the stage, Orsino carelessly addresses his fiancée by the name she has used in her guise as a man:

    Cesario, come--
    For so you shall be while you are a man,
    But when in other habits you are seen,
    Orsino's mistress, and his fancy's queen!

    Orsino still sees Viola as "Cesario" and wants to postpone their marriage (and her transformation into a woman) until after the play ends. Maybe his slip of the tongue is homoerotic, but I think it is something else as well. Orsino wants to prolong the interlude, the time when he pines for a distant lover to the sound of "high fantastical" music, no one is attached to anyone, people drift freely from court to court, and you can do what you will. But the Fool is the most knowing character throughout the play, and once Orsino sweeps offstage with his retinue, the Fool sings of the winter that is adult life:

    But when I came to man's estate
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain
    'Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate
    For the rain it raineth every day.

    Posted by peterlevine at 12:46 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    September 4, 2007

    7 questions about the campaign

    On the front page of Saturday's Washington Post, in a "Campaign Memo" addressed "To: The Voters" about "The Seven Things You Need to Know about the 2008 Race," Dan Balz addressed the following questions:

    1. Is the Clinton campaign a true juggernaut -- or is that just what she wants everyone to believe?
    2. Is there a Republican front-runner?
    3. Is anyone on either side positioned to break into the top tier?
    4. Does the new, turbo-charged calendar make Iowa and New Hampshire more important -- or less?
    5. Is it too late for Al Gore or Newt Gingrich to get into the race?
    6. Do ideas matter in this election?
    7. When do I really need to start paying attention, and should I trust the polls?

    These are questions for spectators who are considering following the 2008 campaign as they might follow the NFL season--as a contest among professional teams. The big underlying question is: Who's going to win? But what if you follow the campaign as a citizen concerned about the country and the world? Then your questions would be quite different:

    1. What are our problems as a country?
    2. What are some leading diagnoses and interpretations of these problems?
    3. What should we do about our problems?
    4. What role do I have?
    5. What role does the next president of the United States have?
    6. What are the candidates saying about how they would play their roles if elected?
    7. What does other evidence (such as the candidates' records, behavior on the campaign trail, choice of advisers, and core constituencies) tell us about how they would play their roles?

    Perhaps Dan Balz would say that he cannot address my questions without editorializing. But he can hardly claim that he merely provides "the facts," since his memo is full of declarative judgments about the horse race. (In his magisterial opinion, it is too late for Gore and Gingrich. No candidate has proposed any significant big ideas yet. Etc.) Besides, I'm not asking the Post to tell us what our problems are and how to solve them. I'm asking them to give us the factual basis to help us make up our own minds--along with a sampling of interesting views quoted from a variety of experts and activists.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:29 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    September 3, 2007

    a thought for Labor Day

    Nelson D. Schwartz, the New York Times, August 26:

    Although corporate jets tend to use smaller airports in the New York area, it's possible that a crowded 737 might have to wait for a tiny Gulfstream to take off in Miami or at Dulles, outside Washington.

    The users of corporate jets defend this practice, saying they deserve equal takeoff rights. "On a business flight, you might have people going to Wall Street from companies who are creating jobs and generating billions of dollars in commerce," Mr. [Steve] Brown [of the National Business Aviation Association] says. "People on a commercial flight might be going on vacation or going to New York to go to the theater."

    The old populist and socialist reply was: Workers make things of value. Those who boss them around or make profits from investments are just skimming off the top. In the words of Ralph Chaplin's "Solidarity Forever" (1915):

    It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;
    Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid
    * * *
    All the world that's owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone.
    We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone.
    It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own.

    According to the labor theory of value, those people sitting in the Gulfstream jets are "idle drones." The ones who wait in coach class (or those who cannot afford to fly at all) are the people who create all value. Pope John Paul II seemed to agree; see On Human Work (Laborem exercens) of 1981.

    But the labor theory of value is problematic, because clearly the people in the Gulfstreams "work," even if all they do is make decisions about where to invest. Their work can have an enormous influence on the products of the economy. If affecting output is a measure of how much they work, then it is they who build the cities and dig the mines.

    And they are enormously well paid for their pains. Corporate executives take home about 400 times as much pay as average workers. They use some of that pay, as well as their leverage over corporate resources, to obtain conveniences, such as flying in corporate jets that use public runways. And they feel important and worthy, as Mr. Brown of the National Business Aviation Association implies.

    If one's work is to make decisions, there is no doubt that one's impact is consequential. But the consequences can be negative instead of positive. To paraphrase Mr. Brown, those people on the Gulfstreams might be flying to Wall Street to make boneheaded decisions that cost jobs, or selfish decisions that benefit them at the expense of their workers. Their risk is very limited; their expected gain is enormous.

    Further, we might wonder whether their salaries and perks are worth the cost. Imagine that a corporate executive adds $10 million to the company's bottom line by making a good decision. Does that mean that the company needs to pay him $10 million to obtain his services? Not if the decision was basically determined by the facts, in which case anyone with appropriate technical skills could have made the same call. Not if the decision was basically lucky, in which case the company could have flipped a coin. And not if the decision was determined by many of his underlings' input.

    The theory of markets suggests that companies in a competitive environment will never overpay for decisions, any more than they will overpay for crude oil or real estate. But that ignores the possibility of very systematic bias among the whole class of decision-makers, who are likely to overestimate the impact of their own brains and underestimate the importance of the people who work for them. Labor Day is for the folks in coach, and those who never fly at all.

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:19 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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