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January 31, 2009


I lack all relevant scientific expertise, but biochar sounds very promising to me. Basically, the idea is that you burn "biomass" (crops, trees, used paper, kitchen waste, etc.) with minimal oxygen. You can accomplish this by getting a fire going and then covering the biomass with soil while it smolders--the ancient technique--or by burning it in a special kiln, or even by microwaving it. This process produces the following products, in a ratio that you can control:

1. A stable form of carbon that will not return to the atmosphere for at least hundreds of years. This product also makes an excellent fertilizer.
2. Various valuable chemical byproducts.
3. Three forms of fuel: solid (charcoal), liquid (oil), and gas.

If all we wanted to do was mitigate global warming by removing carbon from the air, we could grow crops (which pull carbon out of the atmosphere), burn them in kilns, and store vast quantities of biochar in its stable form. But that's expensive to do on a massive, global scale. The other uses of biochar--as fertilizer and fuel--make it economically valuable.

When people burn biochar as fuel, they do put carbon back in the atmosphere. But the fuel is highly efficient, and you can keep the residue as stable carbon. The result is a fuel that actually lowers atmospheric carbon when you combine its production and its use. If we substitute biochar for coal or oil extracted from under the earth and then burned, the benefit is huge. Likewise, if instead of creating arable land by setting rain forests on fire, we turn trees into biochar fertilizer, we can produce productive farmland with dramatically less damage.

Biochar could be produced on an industrial scale by firms or agencies that would sell biofuel to replace fossil sources, such as coal and oil. It could also be produced by households or villages for their own local use. That opens the possibility of a decentralized process that could be socially empowering. To get this going, it might be helpful (I'm speculating here) to invest public funds in developing new kilns and processes.

Nothing is a panacea, and some skeptical points are listed here. But overall, this sounds like the most promising strategy I've heard of.

Posted by peterlevine at 6:51 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 30, 2009

micro-politics in a committee room

I spent two days of this week with a federal advisory committee, deciding what questions to ask on certain official surveys. I was struck (as I sat with my colleagues in an underground hotel room), that various combinations of "discourses" were governing the discussion:

Each of these discourses confers power or status. If you wanted to get a particular item included on the survey, you could probably improve your chances by impressing colleagues with your savvy as a traveler or by talking like a knowledgeable parent--or by letting everyone know that you have downloaded the previous years' data and done a fancy statistical analysis. In other words, status transfers (I suspect) from one domain to another.

It strikes me that some people gravitate to issues that can be decided by applying rules. They are relieved, for instance, when a decision can be made automatically by superimposing the rules of statistics and the bureaucratic structure. Other participants chafe against such limits and feel comfortable making case-by-case value-judgments.

Some people jump at the chance to express opinions when their favored discourses arise. If you're a statistics jock, you speak up whenever an issue is statistical. If you have a nine-year-old at home, you mention anecdotes relevant to the fourth-grade data. It's partly about making pleasant conversation, partly about contributing good insights--and partly a matter of status and power. This is not to say that everyone is trying to maximize their influence. Some are sincerely modest and diffident. But power is present.

No setting could seem less like the "agonistic" political spaces that impressed Hannah Arendt. She admired ancient Greek agoras and revolutionary assemblies in which people expressed their inner selves in heroic speeches and deeds. I've been hanging out with nerds in a hotel conference room. But politics is everywhere, and that's not a bad thing.

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January 29, 2009

bringing a Maine mill town back together

(Washington, DC) Jesse Ellison has a good story in Newsweek about how Somali immigrants are helping to revive the decayed mill town of Lewiston, Maine. At first, there was severe conflict between the older residents and the newly arrived Somalis, who represented the first substantial black population in the state. The mayor, famously, tried to stop more Somalis from coming. But now the conflict has subsided, jobs are returning, income is up, and crime rates have declined--all thanks in part to immigration.

I visited Lewiston last fall to meet with folks at the Harward Center for Community Partnerships at Bates College. I also know some people at the National Civic League, which awarded Lewiston its All-America Award in 2007. So I can add a few background points to the article.

First, it turns out that Somalis chose to settle in Lewiston, a traditionally French Canadian Catholic town, because they believed its culturally conservative values would be comfortable for their families. That means that the powerful cultural clash that ensued was ironic. But I think one reason the French Canadians were resistant was that they needed people to acknowledge their own history of discrimination in New England. Once that was recognized, they could proceed to a dialogue about what to do next.

Second, I'm told that young people wrote the whole application for the All-American City Award. In general, students from Bates and the other area colleges are making a big difference through research, service, writing, and activism projects that help connect the city's communities. (For instance, this photo essay.)

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January 28, 2009

measuring what matters

(Washington, DC) I am here for a meeting of a federal committee--one of dozens--that helps to decide which statistics to gather from public school students. We are especially focused on socio-economic "background variables" that may influence kids' success in schools. What to measure often boils down to what correlates empirically with test scores or graduation rates. For instance, a combination of parents' income, education, and occupation can explain about 15%-20% of the variance in test scores. And so we measure these variables.

But the mere fact of a correlation between A and B doesn't mean we should measure both. We could look for correlations between the length of students' noses and the weight of their earlobes. Instead, we look for covariance between parental income and the total number of questions a kid can answer correctly on a test that we write and make him take. Why? Because of moral commitments: beliefs about what inputs, outputs, and causal relationships matter ethically in education.

So it's worth getting back to fundamental principles. These would be mine:

First, the quality of schooling (education that the state provides) should be equal, or should actually be better for less advantaged kids. Quality does not mean effectiveness at raising test scores--it means what is actually good. That may include intrinsically valuable experiences, such as making and appreciating art. But quality probably includes effective practices that raise scores on meaningful, well-designed tests.

Second, it's good when outcomes are equal, but equality trades off against other values, such as freedom for children and parents, and cultural diversity. Also, a narrow focus on equality of outcomes almost inevitably leads to narrow definitions of success and can put excessive pressure on teachers and kids.

Third, individuals' aptitude probably varies (and the degree to which it varies is an empirical question), but every kid who is not performing very well could probably perform better if he or she got a better education. Thus differences in aptitude do not excuse failure to educate.

Fourth, out-of-school resources affect educational outcomes. These resources vary, and that is not fair. We should do something to equalize kids' chances. But resources fall into various categories that raise different moral questions:

1. Fungible resources, such as parents' income or wealth. We can compensate for these inequalities by, for instance, spending more on schools in poor communities. (We tend to do the opposite, but I am writing about principles, not reality.) Note, however, that family income alone explains a small amount of variance in test scores.

2. Attributes of parents that cannot be exchanged or bought, such as their knowledge, skills, abilities, social networks, and cultural capital (ability to function well in privileged settings such as universities and white-collar businesses). It is interesting, for example, that the number of books in a student's home is a consistent predictor of educational success. This is related to income, but it's not the same thing. You may be more educationally advantaged if your parents are poor graduate students with lots of books than rich but vapid aristocrats, especially if your parents devote time to you. The challenge is that parental attributes cannot be changed without badly restricting freedom.

3. Prevalent attitudes, such as racial prejudice/white privilege, that may affect students' self-image; or values relevant to education, such as the belief in Amish communities that a basic education is sufficient. These attitudes vary in how morally acceptable they are. But they have in common the fact that the state cannot change them without becoming highly coercive.

In the end, I think we measure parental resources and their relationship to test scores because we think that (a) it's especially important to compensate for inequalities in cash, and (b) we presume that test scores measure educational success. Both presumptions are debatable, but I believe them enough that I'll keep attending meetings on how to measure them better.

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January 27, 2009

collaborative problem-solving: the fake corporate version

I am back in DC (for the third trip in two weeks), and this time I am greeted by hundreds of Chevron ads asking Metro riders to "join" the company in saving energy by making various personal sacrifices. The real audience for these posters, I presume, consists of policymakers, reporters, and other "influentials" who may ride the Metro.

A generous estimate suggests that Chevron spends less than 4% of its "capital and exploratory budget" on renewable fuels. So, of the $16 billion-$20 billion that it spends every year developing new energy sources, 96% goes to extracting more carbon fuel from under the earth's surface to be burned.

The company tells different stories in its ads and in its filing for the SEC. The latter is meant to be read by investors. It is full of sentences like this: "An aggressive 2000 well drilling program in the Gulf of Mexico Shelf enabled the company to develop opportunities to offset field declines in production to less than 2 percent between years." The word "renewable" does not appear in the SEC filing; "conservation" appears only in the context of a legal settlement for "alleged air violations at Chevron's El Paso Refinery."

Chevron's "will you join us?" campaign might offend us on several levels--it's patronizing, misleading, and designed to protect activities that harm the earth. For me, an added insult is Chevron's misuse of the spirit of voluntary cooperation that is so prevalent right now. Yes, we need to come together to protect the environment, using a range of strategies that includes private behavioral changes, initiatives within organizations and communities, technological innovations, and government action. People seem to be in the mood to show responsibility and to work together on solutions. It is utterly galling to see that spirit appropriated for a PR campaign designed to protect the prerogatives of a world-class corporate polluter.

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January 26, 2009


My father, Joseph M. Levine, died last year on this date. This is my obituary or appreciation of him. On the advice of a reader, I also put a photo of him on this blog for one year. I've taken it down, although I'm leaving a prominent link to his obituary.

I suppose that if you live for 75 years and then people miss you sincerely for the rest of their lives, you have lived well. The traditional words for this day certainly seem apt: "May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us."

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January 23, 2009

the executive order on transparency, participation, and collaboration

President Obama signed this order on his first full day in office. It looks promising. I am particularly pleased that the Administration sees transparency, participation, and collaboration as related. There is a broad and strong movement for transparency, which I support. Many good-government and civil-liberties groups understand the importance of freedom of information, and there is even an important Act by that name. But knowledge (by itself) is not power. Power, or the capacity to act, requires relationships, motivations, opportunities, training, and models--not just facts. The executive order suggests that the Obama Administration understands this:

My prediction is that transparency will improve in the Obama Administration--certainly above the poor baseline set over the last eight years. I am sure there will be at least some experiments with participation and collaboration. The question is whether these habits will become pervasive. The executive order is a great start, but implementation will be hard.

This, by the way, is an opening for all of us in the civic engagement field: "Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public input on how we can increase and improve opportunities for public participation in Government."

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January 22, 2009

people power (notes from the Inauguration)

Monday morning: the Delta shuttle to DC is disappointing. It's only two-thirds full, and some of the passengers (to judge from their cell-phone conversations) are not going to the Inauguration.

I meet the rest of my family at National Airport, coming in from Atlanta. Their flight is more like what I'd been hoping for. I watch the passengers disembark; they are predominantly older African Americans, dressed up, and beaming. The Metro is also a scene of jubilation. I figure I have spent close to 7,000 hours on the Metro so far in my life. I have often seen it as crowded as this, but I have never seen it so jammed with rookies. No one knows where we are or what to do next. But the atmosphere is supportive, friendly, and patient.

There are almost two million extra people in town, yet right away we see Imani from my daughter's former 3rd-grade class, and her Mom. This sets a pattern: during the rest of our visit, we meet about a dozen old friends and neighbors in the midst of the vast crowds.

Monday afternoon: At our neighborhood's CVS drugstore, the manager is out in front of the cash registers, organizing customers into lines, offering to assist each one, and generally acting like a gracious host. He is an African American man of about 65. Of course, I don't know his biography, but he reminds me of many lifelong DC residents I have met. I sense that this is his city, that this day is of enormous importance to him, and that he wants every last visitor to feel welcome. The City of Northern Hospitality and Southern Efficiency is turning into its very opposite.

Across the street from the house where we are staying, a small clutch of protesters holds signs identifying Barack Obama with the Beast of the Apocalypse. I consider reminding them to be nonviolent, and wish they were elsewhere.

At a party for one of the Campaign's policy committees, the actor Forest Whittaker speaks, followed by the man nominated to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Donovan. Donovan says that he was initially humbled and even overwhelmed by his appointment, but then he started to get a flood of emails offering help and helpful advice. He decided that he couldn't do the job, but we could. This is very much in the spirit of the day.

Tuesday morning: Our hosts are European journalists, and one of them feels he must reach his assigned seat on the Mall to cover the Inauguration properly. My family and I are supposed to be in the Rayburn House Office Building for a party at 9 am. But the television is full of stories about amazing crowds, closed roads, and packed Metro stations. So we strategize about how to get downtown. Our host heads off by bike. We hitch a car ride to Dupont Circle and then walk--joining rivulets, then streams, and finally a mighty estuary of human beings on the Mall.

We find a place to sit inside the World War II Memorial, far from the Inauguration but within clear sight of two Jumbotrons. The Memorial (built in the 1990s) is unfortunately reminiscent of fascist architecture. Fascists, of course, could fill vast monumental spaces with their followers. A massive assembly of human bodies is politics at its most elemental. Our power today is great--we could storm into the Capitol if we chose to. Such power is neutral; we could assemble either for good or ill. It strikes me very forcefully that these people have assembled for good. They are inclusive, peaceful, hopeful, respectful, and serious. When the very distant master of ceremonies asks the official guests to "take their seats," we all sit down on the ground--which is great because the kids can see the Jumbotrons. The whole group rises and sits several times in unison.

It is a civil crowd. According to press reports, some people on the Mall chant when they see Bush: "Na Na Hey Hey … Goodbye." The people around me (to judge by their buttons and hats) are fervent Obama supporters. But they applaud George W. Bush politely when the new President thanks him for his service. There is no sign of dissent when Rick Warren gives his invocation. I should emphasize that I am all for protest and conflict. But it is impressive to see a powerful, victorious, mass movement that is modest, disciplined, and self-limiting. We hear later that the police make no arrests whatsoever during the Inauguration, and a friend of a friend who works for DC Homicide says that it is a remarkably crime-free 24 hours, despite the extra two million people and all the alcohol they are consuming.

On the way out, the millions file through streets of empty office buildings, watched by emergency and police officials. It is eerily reminiscent of 9/11, when I was in the same city. But this time we are passing through the streets voluntarily, in peace. Obama spoke the literal and plain truth, on behalf of all Americans, when he said, "for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

All the academic literature says--with ample justification and evidence--that levels of civic participation are low, that voluntary collective action is only possible in small groups, that politics has little salience. Yet one in every 150 Americans is using his or her body for a peaceful political act. They have come from every part of the country to do so, some on chartered buses, with no place to stay or to eat. They have brought their babies and their grandparents with them. And they are filled with love for one another.

We find warmth and food in a crowded restaurant. My phone has been out of service for a few hours because of the enormous demand. An email shows up--it's a very positive peer review of a book manuscript of mine that's under review. If a pollster asked me, "Are you better or worse off since the Obama Administration began?" I would have to say, "Much better off."

Tuesday Evening: We first visit an unofficial ball in the Cosmos Club on Massachusetts Avenue. Many of the guests attended Harvard Law School with Obama and volunteered heavily for him this last year. It is a mature crowd, and not too giddy, but the atmosphere is quietly jubilant. We also have tickets to the official Youth Ball, despite not being at all youthful any more. We join an enormous line of real youth in fancy clothes. The night is cold. The line moves along for an hour or so and then stalls, for us, right about where John Hinkley fired his shot. We are still standing there when the presidential motorcade arrives and the new First Couple slips into the building. We give up 15 minutes later and go back to the Cosmos Club for some reviving champagne. The youth who were turned away from the Hilton are a little grouchier than anyone we've seen so far--they paid $75 each, came from across the country, and were oh-so-close to Kanye West, Barack Obama, and a few thousand of their own delirious peers. But considering their disappointment, they are a remarkably resilient group. A few text messages, and they are off to the next thing.

As for us, we're in bed by 12:30 and ready to answer emails the next morning. What did the man say? "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."

Posted by peterlevine at 3:26 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 21, 2009

for I will consider my dog Barkley

For I will consider my dog Barkley.
For he has no inkling of things metaphysical.
For he never meets a creature who is not his friend.
For if he worships, it is done his way.
For first he sniffs incessantly in circles.
For secondly he tugs the leash.
For thirdly he tastes whatever he finds.
For fourthly he chews and recalls.
For fifthly he sits on a lap and sleeps.
For he is an enthusiast.
For he knows not jealousy nor suspicion.
For embarrassment troubles him not.
For when anyone lies on the ground, he rushes to resuscitate.
For, tho he is brave, shadows and mean dogs frighten him.
For sad sounds disturb him.
For he can flatten himself like a gerbil to pass under gates.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent gamboler.
For he can detect tiny scraps of food.
For he is much more waggery than gravity.

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January 20, 2009

on the Inauguration of Barack Obama

We are in Washington, DC, for the Inauguration--attending some parties and trying to catch a glimpse of the actual event. This blog is carefully nonpartisan, because I believe there is an important nonpartisan agenda for civic renewal, which is the goal of my work and my writing. I think I was reasonably fair and even-handed here during the campaign. I tried to analyze the Clinton/Obama debate in a neutral way and I wrote very positively about John McCain. I have derived ideas and principles from modern conservatism.

But I was also a passionate supporter of Barack Obama, starting in 2004. I was honored to serve on his campaign's Education Policy Committee and Urban & Metropolitan Policy Committee for many months. I have high hopes for his presidency.

I am excited that he is African American--and his race is inseparable from other aspects of his persona--but that is definitely not why I voted for him. I am pleased that he was the youth candidate, winning an unprecedented 66% of the under-30 vote. I study and promote youth voting; but his popularity among Millennials was not why I voted for him. He is a wonderful speaker, and his words enrich our public life and even our language at the beginning of the 21st century. But that is not why I voted for him.

I voted for him because he comes straight out of the movement for what he calls "active citizenship," and he is going to try to bring that movement back into national politics. His background includes community organizing in Chicago (the birthplace of community organizing), seminars on civil society with Robert Putnam, and civic education as a law professor. He has judged youth media contests and organized service events. His wife has worked for an AmeriCorps program and organized community partnerships for a major university. These are basic ingredients of the movement that I think represents the best of America today. (You can follow recent news from such programs here.)

For those of us in that movement (and it is open to all), our job must now shift. We must be custodians of the ideas that inspired Obama. He will need to compromise and deal with other issues and problems, and he will probably lose perspective. We need to keep thinking and talking clear-sightedly about active citizenship. If leadership is deciding which pressure to cave to, we can help by applying some pressure from the civic side. As the new President said all along, this election is not about him; it's about us. I like the idea of a "citizens' oath of office." Nothing would conclude the remarkable Obama Campaign better than a mutual pledge to take our own, independent, public role seriously for the next four years.

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January 19, 2009

discussion and service on MLK Day

USA Service.org, the official site that promotes service activities on Martin Luther King Day, was kind enough to ask me to post a blog entry over the weekend. I reproduce it here as an appropriate offering for today:

Between now and January 19th, we’ll feature a series of guest bloggers on USAservice.org. Today we’re pleased to share a post by Peter Levine, Director of Research and Director of CIRCLE (Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement).

Just a few days before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he said:

“It is always a rich and rewarding experience to take a brief break from our day-to-day demands and the struggle for freedom and human dignity and discuss the issues involved in that struggle with concerned friends of goodwill all over our nation.”

We have lost Dr. King, but we must continue that discussion.

I'm Peter Levine from CIRCLE at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Citizenship & Public Service. I also represent a consortium of groups that organize nonpartisan discussions and deliberations in communities around America.

My colleagues and I believe that service is essential, and that it is best when it involves reflection and discussion. This weekend, volunteers can meet to choose their issues and plan their service. On January 19th, after completing a service activity, volunteers can reflect on what they learned and what they should do next. Such discussions can help turn thousands of MLK Day service events into powerful opportunities for learning, analyzing issues, forming human connections, and addressing serious, long-term problems.

Americans who volunteer on MLK Day may plan to conduct additional service together in the months ahead. They may decide to recruit others to join their efforts, conduct research, create public art and media to inform people about their cause, make changes in their homes, companies, and careers, advocate for policy changes, or even launch new organizations. They may reflect together on profound issues, like the ones that kept Dr. King thinking, conversing, organizing, and learning all his life.

USAservice.org has posted a great new toolkit to help Americans organize “Citizen Action Conversations” connected to service. The guide is flexible, but it has contains practical ideas for how to organize a productive conversation.

President-elect Obama has said, “I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am President of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or one program--this will be a central cause of my presidency.” It is up to each of us to serve and to make our service as meaningful as possible. A great way to start is by combining a service event with a Citizen Action Conversation on this Martin Luther King Day.

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January 16, 2009

people who flop at Oxford

Reading Ingrid Rowland's very enjoyable and insightful biography of Giordano Bruno, a parallel occurred to me:

In 1583, in mortal danger from the Inquisition, a European exile comes to Oxford University in search of a professorship. He has wild and evocative ideas, writes brilliantly, but has not organized his thought into a consecutive or comprehensible system. He is equally adept at fiction, poetry, philosophy, and magic. He disdains the mainstream mode of philosophy (Arisoteleanism) and refuses to use the standard method of analysis (syllogistic logic). He hates the vulgar crowd but has egalitarian and libertarian theoretical ideas. English dons seem to him provincial, naive, and ill-mannered; he dispenses backhanded compliments about their distinguished academic garb while privately noting that they know more about beer than true philosophy. They find him laughable--passionate, irascible, nonsensical, and almost impossible to understand because he insists on pronouncing Latin like Italian. (Whereas they pronounce it like Elizabethan English.)

In 1934, a young philosopher comes to Oxford in search of a teaching job and a refuge from Nazi Germany. He has radical but somewhat inchoate ideas. He largely shuns the logical positivism and empiricism that are mainstream at Oxford and dabbles in phenomenology, music, sociology, and other disciplines. He writes beautifully and allusively but also elusively. He is a Marxist with very refined aesthetic principles. Oxford academics find him "a bit of a comic figure" (A.J Ayer), partly on account of his "anxiety." He finds them naive. "It is quite impossible to convey my real philosophical interests to the English, and I have to reduce my work to a childish level."

Giordano Bruno, Theodor Adorno: two guys who got "job talks" at Oxford that never panned out.

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January 15, 2009

kids in the economic recovery plan

I'm getting lots of email from activists who've heard that programs they favor are in the House stimulus package. I cannot confirm any of this, but supposedly there is money for community service programs: $200 million for AmeriCorps and funds for YouthBuild and Community Service Employment for Older Americans. I'm for that. My new article entitled "The Case for Service" is online as a pdf.

I have also seen reports of very substantial increases in funds for children, including $14 billion for school construction and $13 billion for Title I education (aimed at high-poverty schools). Most interesting for those of us in the education-reform-and-innovation business: $1 billion for "21st century classrooms," $300 million for Job Corps, and $300 million for teacher quality.

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January 14, 2009

against impunity

(Tampa airport) The rule of law means that individuals may not be prosecuted unless they have violated specific laws. Of course, when they do violate such laws, they should be punished. The people who most need to be punished are those with power, above all those who wield public power secretly.

It's important that officials in the national security apparatus react to any illegal proposal with immediate resistance. They must think, "We can't do that--it's against the law." There's a widespread view that to expect such scruples is naive. In popular fiction, presidents and CIA agents casually break laws all the time. But I actually believe that respect for the law (perhaps tinged by fear of the law) is very widespread in the intelligence and military worlds. We saw it when numerous officials balked at illegal acts in the Bush years.

Yet there is reason to believe that certain high Bush appointees violated laws. One example was the deliberate authorization of domestic wiretaps in violation of the FISA law. Regardless of whether that law is good, the president's men had no right to ignore it. Another obvious set of cases involved torture. No court has proven that officials like Donald Rumsfeld violated US laws by authorizing torture--but that charge is believable enough to be investigated. The Senate Armed Services Committee says, for instance, that Rumsfeld directly caused detainee abuse at Guatanamo; and Susan J. Crawford has concluded that some of that abuse constituted "torture." That amounts to a claim that Rumsfeld committed a serious crime.

All the political considerations argue against an investigation by the executive branch under President Obama. The public has never shown much concern about the mistreatment of foreign prisoners. Most people define "torture" very stringently. I think voters are mad about the war, but invading Iraq was legal under US law. I don't think they are mad about the abuse of people like Mohammed al-Qahtani, the alleged 20th hijacker. In general, prosecuting the previous administration looks vindictive. And investigating the intelligence agencies could make them into very formidable enemies of the new president.

These political considerations should count. President Obama will have difficult tasks to accomplish in the essential interests of the nation, including deep economic reform during wartime. He cannot win many battles at once; he must choose. Not to address a given issue isn't a failure--it can be an essential tactical choice.

On the other hand, we cannot tolerate a culture of impunity. If high officials are basically known to have broken the law, and nothing is done about it, the rule of law suffers. Impunity is common around the world. To the extent we have avoided it, that is one of our great strengths.

I think I would prefer to see investigations proceed without much connection to the new administration. Civil lawsuits would be great if they have any chance of succeeding (although I suspect they are impossible in national security cases). Congressional investigations are welcome as long as Congress manages to get its other work done as well. We might be lucky if federal attorneys chose to bring cases in their own districts. And I suppose the Obama Administration could launch a slow, deliberate, "Truth Commission"-style process that would take a couple of years to get near the senior Bush people. That way, the economic agenda would have succeeded or failed by the time there were any high-profile hearings.

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January 13, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

(Tampa) We saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire over the weekend. It was very enjoyable--suspenseful, beautiful to look at, and romantic. It did pose a philosophical or theological question that I've pasted below the fold--because I can't discuss it without spoiling the suspenseful conclusion.

Assume that the premise of the movie is true. Some powerful supernatural force ensures that two very attractive young people who have suffered badly throughout their lives attain happiness and enormous wealth together at the end. Does this demonstrate that the world is good--or, as Salim says in his least breath, "God it great"? I feel quite the contrary. If there really were a divine force capable of arranging the fates of men and women, and if that force were content with making two beautiful people happy while allowing another 10 million citizens of Mumbai to live in the poverty, oppression, and violence depicted in the movie, this force would be a diabolical one. In the terms of the movie:

Q. Why are so many people suffering?
A. So it is written.

That sounds like very bad news to me. But it's a characteristic problem with romantic fiction that the broader situation recedes into the background as we focus on the lovers at the center.

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January 12, 2009

should lying to the public be a crime?

This is an argument from my side of the aisle, so to speak, that really upsets me. (Frank Rich, Dec. 13):

It is not against the law to lie to the public or to start a war on false pretenses. Because those acts are not illegal, Libby was not charged with them. He was not investigated for lying to the public; no evidence to that effect was ever put before a jury. No one examined him to see whether his assertions were (a) false and (b) knowingly so. He could not defend himself in court against an accusation of deliberately misleading the American people, because no such accusation was made. If, as Frank Rich apparently wishes, Libby was convicted because he lied to the public about a war, that was a flagrant violation of the rule of law, one of whose fundamental principles is nullum crimen et nulla poena sine lege ("no crime and no punishment without a law").

Having gotten that off my chest, I'd like to raise a more theoretical question: Would it make any sense to create a criminal law against lying to the public? The elements of this crime would have to include intent and serious consequences. In other words, it would be a defense to say that you didn't know your information was wrong; and it would be a defense to say that your lie was inconsequential. The law could govern any public utterance, or only certain contexts, such as formal speeches given by high officials. We already have perjury laws that apply to sworn testimony; these would be broadened. Another precedent is the Oregon law that says that candidates' personal statements in state voter guides must be true. Former Congressman Wes Cooley was convicted of falsely claiming that he had served in the Special Forces.

In favor of this reform: Lying is wrong. It can cause serious harm to other people. Lying by public officials can undermine the public's sovereignty by giving citizens false information to use in making judgments. Although it can be challenging to prove intent, that is certainly possible in some circumstances, as we know from perjury trials.

Against: There could be a chilling effect on free speech, because people who participate in heated debates do occasionally stray from the truth. It would be bad to suppress such debates altogether. Also, criminalizing lying would shift power from the legislative and executive branches to the judiciary, which might therefore become even more "political." The reform might reduce the public's sense that we are responsible for scrutinizing our government's statements and actions and punishing bad behavior at the ballot box.

Finally, it would distort the political debate if there were frequent, high-stakes battles over whether individuals had knowingly lied about specific facts. Often a specific prevarication is not nearly as important as someone's bad values and priorities. For instance, the Bush Administration very publicly and openly denigrated the importance of foreigners' human rights and chose an aggressive and bellicose strategy. These were not lies; they were public choices that unfortunately happened to be quite popular.

Posted by peterlevine at 10:42 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

January 9, 2009

service and reflection on MLK Day

The Corporation for National and Community Service, other federal agencies, and various private groups have been working for some time to turn Martin Luther King Day into an opportunity for civic work--a "day on," not just a "day off." The Obama Administration seems likely to ramp that up, starting this year. King's birthday (Jan. 19) is also the day before the Inauguration, and the Obama and Biden families will themselves participate in service. USA Service.org is a new vehicle for posting service events so that other citizens can find them. You are encouraged to post your events there.

Service is best when it includes elements of analysis, deliberation, collective planning, and reflection. It would be very helpful for individuals and groups to post events on the USA Service website that go somewhat beyond "service" in its narrowest sense. Deliberations, dialogues, organizational or planning meetings, charettes, and even cultural events with strong civic components would be good additions, in my opinion. They would help to portray a wider range of civic work.

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January 8, 2009

this blog turns six

My first post was on January 8, 2003. This is post number 1,493, which equals just slightly less than one per work day over the six years. (I am compulsive about blogging.)

I don't think I changed my approach to the blog much this year--I'm still serving up a mixture of commentary on politics (with a strong civic/populist lens), some light cultural criticism, and some links to civic projects. I'm pleased that there are more and more fellow bloggers professionally committed to civic renewal--please see my blogroll.

I continue to feel that there's no tradeoff between blogging and other work that a researcher/academic does. When I'm working on an article, speech, or lecture, I usually post notes or excerpts here first. And sometimes a post leads to a publication. For instance, I was asked to turn this entry on the Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act into a scholarly article; and I gave permission for this one to be reprinted in a high school textbook--in Canada, I believe. Thus, as long as I'm functioning, I'm confident I'll keep blogging in '09.

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January 7, 2009

empowering citizens to make sure the stimulus is well spent

If we are going to borrow a trillion dollars from our kids to spend now on economic recovery, the money had better be well spent. Avoiding waste and fraud is a political imperative; Obama's reelection may depend on it. It also seems important economically. A big rationale for fiscal stimulus spending is to restore confidence. My guess is that people will feel confident if they believe a trillion dollars is being well deployed--less so, if they think it is being wasted.

So far, the President Elect has announced that he's hiring a management consultant, Nancy Killefer, of McKinsey & Company, as a "chief performance officer" and that he will be looking for efficiencies and cuts everywhere in the budget. I think this is essential. Fully compatible with my populist resistance to technocracy is a recognition that it's better to be efficient than inefficient--especially with public money--and that experts can help achieve efficiency.

Yet we can also engage ordinary citizens in overseeing and shaping the use of a trillion dollars of their money. They can add enormous value through sheer numbers of brains and also because they know their own communities best. Equally important, the experience of participating can add legitimacy.

Three tools occur to me, but there are probably more:

1. "Crowdsourcing" the budget. This would mean putting all the details of federal revenue and expenditure online and building a structure to allow people not only to view the data, not only to post individual comments and opinions, but also to accumulate analysis. The structure might be some combination of a wiki, visualization tools, and comment threads--I yield to others who understand these things better than I. (Some helpful ideas are coming from the right.)

2. Participatory Budgeting (PB). This is a policy of setting aside a proportion of government expenditures (usually capital spending) to be allocated by citizens in local deliberative sessions. In Brazil, where PB originated, the sessions are large, face-to-face meetings. Britain and other countries have picked up the model. It has been found to cut waste and corruption, in part because citizens who choose how to spend money become invested in overseeing the implementation. By the way, I don't see why the conversation couldn't be virtual as well as face-to-face.

3. Large-scale deliberations, along the lines proposed by AmericaSPEAKS, about big budgetary choices at the national level.

Posted by peterlevine at 9:02 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

January 6, 2009

inauguration fever

We've recently returned from some vacation time in our former hometown of Washington, DC. I was struck by the depth and breadth of excitement about the inauguration and the new administration. We didn't interview a representative sample of the city's population, but we did talk to people from many walks of life, including individuals who have no professional connection to politics or government. Virtually everyone has a plan for Inauguration Day, an opinion about the new appointments, and an eagerness to talk about various aspects of the Obama Administration. In the Metro, the regular commercial advertising (for instance, Ikea's posters) almost all makes punning references to "change" or "yes we can." The Metro tickets themselves show Barack Obama's face. The Post has a daily "Inauguration Watch" feature, and everyone knows when the Obama kids are arriving in town.

Part of the reason is that DC voters chose Obama over McCain by 92%-6%, and Obama over Clinton by 76%-24% in the primaries. Obama was a great fit for most of the voting blocs of the city: working-class African Americans, highly educated African Americans, progressive political activists of all races, and young tech-savvy folks.

In the Boston area, some people are sophisticated about national politics. They may teach it, or they may have done stints in Washington, or they may be political junkies. Nevertheless, it is perfectly possible to ride public transportation every day or talk to parents of your kids' friends and not hear a word about the transition. In DC, you can't go more than five minutes without an opinion, a plan, a comment, or a prayer.

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January 3, 2009

partisanship and civic renewal

In The American Prospect, Henry Farrell argues that partisan activity is helping to restore "civic engagement"--voting, discussing, and grassroots activism. This is ironic, in his view, since Barack Obama emerged out of a nonpartisan movement for civic renewal and presented himself as somewhat post-partisan on the campaign trail. In the 1990s, Obama had joined Robert Putnam's Saguaro Seminar, one of the important gatherings of intellectuals who tended to view citizenship in deliberative or communitarian terms and who decried hyper-partisanship. According to Farrell, "when Barack Obama speaks about how citizens can transcend their political divisions to participate in projects of common purpose, he is drawing on the arguments and ideas from these intellectual debates of a decade ago." Yet Obama won by tapping the energy of a highly partisan grassroots movement that may now challenge his administration from the left. "Scholars have misunderstood the basis of civil society," Farrell claims. They have hoped for civility, deliberation, and solidarity when competition and debate are more to the point.

I personally believe strongly in the value of political parties, which have the motives and resources to draw people into politics. Parties also provide opportunities for activism and leadership and offer choices to voters on Election Day. As I told the Christian Science Monitor in 2006, "Polarization tends to be a mobilizing factor in getting out the vote." At CIRCLE, we helped to organize randomized experiments of voter outreach with the goal that the parties would learn new techniques and compete more effectively for our target population (youth). I believe we and our colleagues had some influence on the parties and thereby helped boost turnout. We also funded a study that found that parties were under-investing in their young members. Again, our goal was to persuade them to become more effective.

Thus I wouldn't say that Farrell reaches the wrong conclusions, but he does stereotype other scholars of citizenship. He writes, "None of the civic-decline academics, whether they focused on voter participation, social capital, or the quality of deliberation, saw much use for political parties or partisanship." In fact, parties and competition got a lot of positive play within what Farrell calls the "academic movement to reverse civic decline." His list of academics is selective, and some of the ones he mentions are favorable to parties. For instance, Theda Skocpol has written voluminously on parties; she advocates reforms to make them more participatory and competitive. Perhaps, as Farrell says, Robert Putnam "underplayed" the role of parties by depicting them "as merely one form of civic participation among many"--but Putman took a communitarian line that many of his colleagues criticized. For instance, what about Bill Galston, who is not only a political scientist who favors reforms to enhance party competition, but also an active strategist for the Democratic Party? Or what about Barack Obama, who has moved strategically from nonpartisan community organizing to elected office?

Jane Mansbridge was a participant in the discussions that Farrell briefly recounts (including a well-known meeting with President Clinton); and she is perhaps the most famous critic of a narrow definition of "politics" as party competition. Her great early book is entitled Beyond Adversary Democracy. Yet a quick online search of her work yields characteristic passages like this one (pdf):

Compared to Mansbridge, political scientists like Steven Rosenstone and John Mark Hansen, Diana Mutz, Dan Shea, Nina Eliasoph, Marshall Ganz, and Sidney Verba and colleagues are far more favorable to parties and sharp ideological debate. A particularly clear example is Nancy Rosenblum, who was a scholarly adviser to the National Commission on Civic Renewal, a ubiquitous participant in related discussions in the 1990s, and author of a book called On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship.

My own ideal is a variegated political ecosystem that provides opportunities for ideological and partisan competition as well as neutral fora for open-ended discussions and traditions of collaborating across party lines. These varieties of politics check and balance one another. They also provide individuals with choices--which is important because different circumstances and temperaments require different styles of participation.

I think Farrell might share this goal. He writes: "Political conflict between parties with clearly diverging political platforms has its own pathologies, just as does the bipartisan-consensus politics it is replacing." This seems like a balanced view, much in keeping with the mainstream discussion of civic engagement. I only object to his effort to portray his own position as original and iconoclastic, when it is actually quite standard.

An emerging view seems to be that Barack Obama uses post-partisan rhetoric, either naively or vacuously, but his actual effectiveness is as a mobilizer of Democrats for liberal causes. In my interpretation, Obama has a richer and more comprehensive idea of "politics" than we have seen for a long time, from either left or right. His ability to see the value of parties and trans-partisan networks was one reason his campaign was so successful. It was also characteristic of the academic discussion that was one of his many influences.

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January 2, 2009

free travel and Inauguration tickets for civic engagement

This announcement arrived by email and is worth spreading around:

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