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March 31, 2009

national service passes

Today, Congress passed the GIVE Act, also known as the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which will expand AmeriCorps by 170,000 positions and direct much of the service toward three national priorities: reducing the high school dropout rate, conserving energy, and providing health care to needy people. Contrary to some rumors floating around the rightward reaches of the blogosphere,* the program is completely voluntary and will, I'm sure, have to turn away most of its eager applicants. (Also, it funds independent nonprofits that provide service opportunities; it's not really a national corps.) My full analysis is here.

The Act represents the biggest expansion of civilian service since the New Deal. In a way, the story of "service" has been continuous since the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s. Its thread passes from the CCC to the Peace Corps, VISTA, the Points of Light Foundation, AmeriCorps, and USA Service Corps.

But I think the Kennedy Act represents a major milestone for a particular movement that arose in the 1980s to promote voluntary, educational service opportunities for young people. The Campus Opportunity Outreach League or COOL was founded in 1984, Campus Compact in 1985, Youth Service America in 1986, City Year in 1988, and YouthBuild USA in 1990. These groups and their supporters helped make voluntary national service a popular issue and achieved the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993, which launched AmeriCorps. But after that launch, AmeriCorps always had to struggle with declining resources. The Kennedy Act puts it back on a growth path. Many of the leaders of the effort to pass it are veterans of the 1992-1993 struggle.

The immediate next step for the movement is to get the Act fully funded, and then help to implement it well so that the volunteers really learn and make a difference on the three important problems. That is a tall order by itself.

Unfortunately, the task is bigger still. As I've argued before, no national service bill can engage most Americans in productive civic work. AmeriCorps is open to citizens of all ages, but most volunteers will be young adults who can take a year for educational service or k-12 students who will benefit from the service-learning provisions. We must treat the Kennedy Act as a positive step and a momentum-builder, but not as an adequate way to fulfill the President's pledge to make "service and active citizenship" a "central cause" of his administration.

*A Google search will reveal lots of comments that equate the bill with the Hitler Youth or with various Communist organizations. (Conflating Nazism with Communism seems to be a standard trope on the right.) In fact, if you search for "Obama active citizenship," most of the hits will be right-wing responses that mention Hitler. This reaction is evidence of profound distrust for Democrats and for the federal government in some quarters. Moderate Republicans tend to like voluntary national service because of its moral orientation and its suggestion that citizens--not the state--can address public problems. But if you start with the assumption that federal authorities and Democrats want to steal all your rights, then a national service program for youth must indeed sound creepy. First big rallies, then a massive crowd on the National Mall shouting "O-BAM-a," then the government buys banks and car companies, and finally a "national service" bill passes. It's all enough to frighten you--if you start out as profoundly disaffected and suspicious. Such a reaction would be easy to mock, but I recommend taking the underlying fear quite seriously.

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March 30, 2009

strategic and open-ended politics

The Washington, DC public school where my daughter used to study and my wife used to teach is a little chaotic, inefficient, and inequitable, but it is also very diverse, participatory, and tolerant. It has its successes: academic, ethical, and cultural. In other words, it is a public institution (and a community) that can easily flourish or fail--or do a bit of both at the same time. Many adults devote attention and passion to trying to make it flourish, rarely in unison but with overlapping values and goals.

One of the most obvious problems that this particular school faces is the system's bureaucracy, which is often arbitrary and wasteful. Charter schools are permitted to operate independently of "downtown." They have grown to such an extent that more than half of Washington's public school population now attends charters. So whether to turn our old school into a charter is an obvious issue for discussion. As a matter of fact, I didn't notice much talk about charters--partly because many people were ideologically opposed to them, and partly because a group of parents had actually left the school to launch a charter. But it's easy to imagine a conversation beginning.

With that background, consider two ways that a charter debate might unfold within a school like ours:

1. Strategic politics: Advocates favor charters (in general) for several quite different reasons. Some see them as means to introduce competition into education. Others see them as opportunities for teachers to obtain professional autonomy and dignity. For either group, an individual charter school is an experiment designed to test a general principle. That principle can generalize, not only beyond the individual school, but beyond education altogether. For instance, libertarians have seen charters as a way to demonstrate that competition can improve outcomes even for one of the most traditional and accepted functions of government--the school. If charters work, libertarians feel they gain an argument in favor of a different kind of society, which is also why some of their opponents try to block charters. Again, libertarians provide only one example; there are also leftist charter-advocates who want to test principles of localism and teacher-control.

Unless you are an unethical ideologue, you must care about local issues, such as the impact of any policy on individual kids and the proper timing, risk, cost, and inconvenience of a particular change. You should also be open to the possibility that your experiment will fail. Yet if you are strategic, you believe that society as a whole would be better off if your theory were applied more generally, and you are right to look for opportunities to test it responsibly. From that perspective, a school is a chance to try the theory.

2. Open-ended politics: Members of our old school community might not be interested in charters, pro or con. They might care instead about what's good and bad in their own school and how to improve it. In other words, their unit of analysis might be the building and the people in it, not something as general as charters, let alone competition or professionalism. Each participant in such a debate would have slightly different objectives and different beliefs about what works. But they would share a primary concern for the particular institution.

Most people will bring into such particularistic discussions some prior opinions about general concepts, such as bureaucracies, charters, teachers, competition, liberalism, etc. But if their focus is on the school itself, such concepts will arise as just one type of consideration among others. Instead of debating whether charters advance a general cause, they may be concerned about the school principal (who happens to be good at her job), and ask how she would fare if the school became a charter. Or they might worry about the effects of any controversial change on the cohesion of their community. For them, turning into a charter competes for attention and credibility against modest, everyday changes, such as beefing up the fifth-grade curriculum or raising more money at the annual auction. They look inside the "black box" of the school and are concerned about each teacher, curriculum, test, and rule.

I am not against strategic politics. I have my own general beliefs and I think they matter. But I think that open-ended politics is:

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March 27, 2009

the purposes of the humanities

I just heard an anecdote: several candidates for president of a major university were asked about the purposes of the humanities. All but one talked in terms of "art appreciation." As a result, the committee--which included scholars from the humanities--selected the one remaining candidate, who understood how to talk like a modern humanities professor.

This anecdote reminded me of a scientist whom I used to hear holding forth to his graduate students at a take-out restaurant in College Park. Once he advised them to take an art appreciation course to meet women. Apart from other problems with this advice, the University of Maryland does not offer art appreciation. It offers art history, a discipline that sees itself as just as rigorous as the natural sciences.

Within the humanities themselves, I think the prevailing view is almost the opposite of this scientist's. Rather than teach "appreciation," we teach critical distance. A major goal of a class in English or art history is to help students learn how cultural products are made and how they function so that the students shed their automatic reactions and assumptions. When we understand works of art and literature, sometimes we like them more, but sometimes less. The point of a humanities course is not to raise or lower approval, but to enhance critical understanding.

My own view is that critical distance is a moral stance, and often a good one; but it is only an example of a moral position. In general terms, the purpose of the humanities is ethical thought. What ethics demands is sometimes criticism, but sometimes it is tolerance, solidarity, or even appreciation. The sciences and social sciences provide information relevant to ethical choices, but they deal with "is," not "ought." Only the humanities address, in various ways, the questions of how one should live and how a society should be structured.

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March 26, 2009

civic engagement of non-college bound youth

At CIRCLE, we are primarily interested in the civic engagement of disadvantaged or marginalized young people. One simple definition of that group is people who are not on course to attend college. This is a slideshow about them and how they relate to politics and communities.

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March 25, 2009

out of time for a blog today

I'm obsessive enough to blog daily--since January 2003--but this is one of those days that was long enough (with travel, meetings, and various kinds of work) that my brain is now completely out of power. Back online tomorrow.

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March 24, 2009

Arne Duncan on schools as community centers

I happen to be flying to Chicago today for a meeting on young people and civic engagement. The Chicago Public Schools were led by Arne Duncan until President Obama made him Secretary of Education. Many people who want to elevate democratic (or civic) education from its lowly status in the Department have hopes for Secretary Duncan. He was, for example, supportive of the Mikva Challenge, a great program that enlists Chicago teenagers in constructive political action and teaches them academic and political skills. In the clip below, he eloquently defends the idea of the school as a community center--also a concept with roots in Chicago, the city of John Dewey and Jane Addams.

I got this clip from the excellent Coalition for Community Schools, which has landed the Secretary for its conference.

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March 23, 2009

an accelerating cascade of pearls (on Galileo and Tintoretto)

This is a detail of Tintoretto's "Tarquin and Lucretia" (1578-1580), which belongs to the Art Institute of Chicago but is now in Boston for the astounding exhibition entitled "Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice." (Probably never before have so many comparable paintings by these competitors been hung together.)

In the detail, pearls are strewn across Lucretia's clothes; Tarquin has just broken the strand. The spheres are caught on their way downward, spaced at growing intervals.

People have always known that objects move, and have always depicted motion in still images--since the ancient cave paintings. But I think Tintoretto's painting may reflect a new way of thinking about motion and space. The image represents a precise instant at which each pearl would occupy a different and predictable location because of the mathematical laws of nature. The objects are frozen, but their locations allow us to infer their movement.

Galileo revolutionized science by claiming that nature was a book written in the language of mathematics. Tintoretto painted Galileo's portrait from life in 1605-7, which shows that the two geniuses knew each other. By 1638, Galileo had proved (either in a real experiment on the Tower of Pisa, or in a thought-experiment) that objects of different weights would fall at the same accelerating rate. And forty years later, Tintoretto was interested enough in this Galilean conception of time and space that he painted pearls accelerating down Lucretia's chest. It was another thought-experiment.

In Tiepolo's "St. Dominic Instituting the Rosary" (1737-9), the rosary itself plummets at high speed from an enormous sky painted on the ceiling of the Gesuati Church in Venice. That is an excellent example of baroque theatricality, but not a unique one. By then, Europeans automatically thought of motion in Galilean terms. Tintoretto was perhaps the first to paint that way.

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March 20, 2009

our dog can read

This is my wife, Laura, a reading specialist, with our dog Barkley, age 8 months.

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March 19, 2009

making tests

I'm at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, NJ, helping them to cook up a test. There are many cooks at work on this particular broth. In fact, what strikes me most about the process of designing a national student assessment is the enormous complexity of the process. There are laws, policies, rules, budgets, curricular standards and objectives, "items" (i.e., questions of various types), answer keys, trainings and guides for scorers, data from preliminary laboratory tests of items, pilot tests of whole exams, statistical results from the pilot tests, revised items and instruments, final results, statistical scales, summary measures, and reports. There are content experts, item-writers, statisticians, psychometricians, scorers, trainers, trainers-of-trainers, and various layers of contractors and government agencies and reviews.

If you are prone to distrust or dislike pencil-and-paper exams (and I understand and respect those arguments), all this apparatus may seem like a bureaucratic and technocratic nightmare. Indeed, any test involves countless value-judgments, guesses, and compromises, often buried in technical or administrative jargon. There is something extremely "Weberian" about a government-sponsored exam or assessment. It is a classic example of the effort to standardize and measure in order to control and improve.

On the other hand, if you are not directly acquainted with the process of test-design at the federal level, you might not realize how many different people struggle to develop and implement tests that reflect ethical principles of fairness, reliability, relevance, and social significance. The result is, if nothing else, the product of a lot of hard work.

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March 18, 2009

the administration's civic engagement agenda

This is a very interesting report of a meeting convened by Beth Noveck, the new director of the White House open government initiative. Participants included many of the best scholars and practitioners in the field, and the discussion summary is available for all to see. Beth apparently began by saying, "We’re looking for ideas and recommendations on how to create a more transparent, participatory, and collaborative government."

Meanwhile, the civilian service agenda continues to move forward. There was money for AmeriCorps in the stimulus package, and the GIVE Act (HR 1388) is moving in the House. [Update at 5:30 pm: it passed today.] This is the equivalent of the Senate's Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act. It would dramatically enhance the quality and quantity of service opportunities and would direct federally-funded service toward three major social objectives: carbon reduction, health care, and high school dropout prevention.

I see these as two important planks of a "civic platform." I have spent considerable amounts of my own energies in support of transparency and online engagement, on one hand, and service, on the other. In fact, my first national summit on service was in 1988, when I was an undergraduate; and my first full-time job was at Common Cause, where I worked on disclosure issues.

But I think these two planks are inadequate on their own. They will enlist specific subcategories of Americans in civic engagement. Certain people will get very excited about commenting on federal policy in interactive websites; others will spend a year of their lives tutoring or building houses. The vast majority of citizens, however, will do neither. Besides, neither commenting/discussing nor direct service exhausts the types of work that active citizens should do. In the worst case, the active commentators online will develop ideas that no policymaker can enact, and the AmeriCorps volunteers will provide direct assistance without addressing deep social problems. Both groups may be discouraged.

Other important planks should include:

Finally, I would describe all the workers who are paid from stimulus funds--including the majority who work in the private sector--as active citizens and would call on them to discuss, plan, collaborate, and serve.

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March 17, 2009

presidents who do too much

A major question in the blogosphere right now is whether the Obama Administration is trying to move on too many fronts at once. For instance, Bill Galston's New Republic piece entitled "Barack's Too-Long Wish List" was discussed all over the place and may have even prompted a presidential reply. Obama said, "When we issued the budget, ... they said, 'Boy, these Obama people, they’re really ambitious. They’re taking on health care. They’re taking on energy. They’re taking on education. Don’t they know that there’s this bank crisis right now? We’ve got to do one thing at a time.'" The President then argued for addressing education, energy, and health care along with the financial crisis.

There haven't been all that many new presidents in American history, so it's hard to know empirically how they should act in their first six months. Our only evidence is a small set of case studies. Galston mentions Jimmy Carter, who "sent a flood of proposals down Pennsylvania Avenue, so many that Congress soon bogged down in near-gridlock. By the end of his first year, American[s] were beginning to wonder whether Carter could get things done and--worse--whether he was up to the job."

Franklin Roosevelt is famous for his ambitious agenda, but Galston notes that: (a) things were dramatically worse in 1933 than today, and (b) FDR actually focused first on the economic emergency and then used his early successes to build momentum for other reforms.

I don't know how many initiatives is too many, but I'd observe that the number of different topics that an administration addresses (call that n) is only one variable that may affect its success. It's hard to tell whether Carter failed because his n was too high--or whether FDR has his face on the dime because he got n just right. I can think of other explanations for both outcomes.

Specifically, the Zeitgeist was against poor old Jimmy Carter, as we can tell now that the Owl of Minerva has taken flight. Most of the industrialized countries moved substantially right after 1970. Liberals had already enacted the popular parts of the welfare state. They had consolidated prosperity for a majority of their populations, who were decreasingly generous toward the remaining poor. Keynsian policy couldn't seem to handle stagflation. Liberal coalitions had shattered on the shoals of controversial social issues. Conservatives offered law-and-order and lower taxes, and that was a winning package. The only reason Carter was elected was that Richard Nixon had administered a deadly wound to his own party that took eight years to heal. It was hardly time for an ambitious liberal agenda.

This analysis doesn't mean that Obama is wise to send a bunch of new proposals down Pennsylvania Avenue. It only shows that there isn't a very clear historical analogy, and the president has to blaze his own trail. The important questions are: How interconnected are the various topics he's addressing? How strong and well conceived is each set of proposals? How urgent is each topic? And how much can Congress handle? (But that last issue is only one among many.)

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March 16, 2009

Shih Chieh Huang

Mr. Huang is a youngish artist who uses cheap, discarded objects (soda bottles, baggies) and electronic components such as motion-detectors, LEDs, and fans to create objects that seem animal. My family and I saw his installation at RISD this weekend. It was like a whimsical aquarium; anemone-like creatures on the floor deflated their plastic bags shyly when you walked near them, and the big jelly-fish-like thing in the middle turned to watch you with its human eyes. It all sounds like something that Pixar or Disney would create. I respect their talents, but Huang is a studio artist rather than an entertainer, and I think the difference has to do with the following factors. He has a sense of humor but doesn't play for laughs. His use of banal waste products to make lovely organic objects stimulates subtle ideas about nature and human action without driving home an obvious point. He leaves the wiring and electronic gadgets unconcealed; there's no pretense to being something other than an art installation. Most important, Huang is a fine and careful individual craftsman. My little daughter and I were inspired to make something somewhat similar when we got home, and I developed a sense of how remarkably hard it would be to copy a Huang.

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March 13, 2009

coming of age in a winner-take-all society

These are some winning words from the National Spelling Bee, by year:

1932: knack
1940: therapy
1973: vouchsafe
1975: incisor
2001: succedaneum
2004: autochthonous

The tremendous increase in difficulty is sometimes taken as evidence of rising achievement (e.g., in Strauss and Howe's book, Millennials Rising.) But compare the national achievement rates in reading, as measured by the Federal Government's National Assessment of Education Progress:

High school reading scores are totally flat, and far from adequate in a competitive, 21st-century economy. (And these results reflect only youth who are still enrolled at age 17; one third drop out before graduating.)

This pattern seems to be a perfect example of what Robert H. Frank calls the "winner-takes-all" society. It only takes a few superb contestants to make an entertaining national Spelling Bee competition that's fit for TV. Given the rewards of winning, hundreds of thousands of American kids will enter, and the very best will rise to the top. The Spelling Bee process doesn't have any relevance to, or direct effect on, the remaining 99.999% of kids.

By itself, that's not a problem--in my opinion, awesome spelling achievement is a parlor trick that any computer can perform to perfection. But the same logic applies to more important competitions as well: admission to an engineering school, becoming a partner in a law firm, being drafted to the NBA, getting a seat in an orchestra, or making tenure at a good university. The few who make it to the top win bigger rewards than ever before, because the process of selection is increasingly efficient and the base of contestants is larger. The excellence of the winners is impressive. But the effects on the rest of the population are problematic, at best.

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March 12, 2009

a new book on the way

Palgrave Macmillan has offered me a contract to publish my "Dante book" (which needs an actual title--and I'm not sure what that should be). I have been working on the manuscript for 14 years, and it has gone through many profound structural changes as my thoughts have evolved and as I've assimilated useful criticism. It is great to think that the project will be done and between covers within months.

Here is the beginning of the introduction:

This is a book of humanistic scholarship: specifically, literary criticism and moral philosophy. Those are my roots, even though I spend almost all my time on quantitative social science or policy analysis. My day job is to study and promote "civic engagement" or "active citizenship"; and it has proved useful to study those topics empirically. (Hence CIRCLE.) I don't think either phrase appears in this book manuscript. But there is a deep connection in my mind, which I hope to make explicit in a later project.

The thesis of my "Dante book" is that an indispensable technique for moral judgment is the description of concrete, particular situations in narratives. I argue that no set of principles, no procedure, no algorithm for weighing values, and no empirical data could ever replace this process of description. It is an art and a skill; some people practice it better than others, and it can be taught. But it is not the special province of any credentialed experts, such as lawyers, economists, or moral philosophers. It cannot be replaced--even in a distant utopia--by rules or systems.

In my "Dante book," I draw some conclusions about the purposes and methods of the humanities. (In fact, it has been suggested that I entitle the volume, Dante's Moral Reasoning: Reforming the Humanities.) In my other work, I follow the implications beyond the academy into the domain of politics. We cannot tell what is right and good unless active, engaged citizens discuss concrete cases. They will only be motivated to discuss and to inform their conversations with experience if they have practical roles in self-government. That is the fundamental connection between my two main interests: moral judgment and civic engagement.

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March 11, 2009

hot-potato socialism

The New York Times asked Barack Obama whether he was a "socialist." He said no and then called back, saying, “It was hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question." The word is incendiary in American politics, and the president was obviously taken aback and perhaps concerned that his answer had not be forceful enough. But those of us who are not automatically appalled by the word "socialism" can reasonably ask whether we are on a socialist path. After all, the government is considering owning banks and providing universal health care.

I don't think there's a consensus definition of the word; distinguished thinkers have used it in various ways. From a rigorously libertarian perspective, any taxing and spending is socialist unless it is essential to protect individual freedom. So any government that funds things other than the police, courts, jails, and the military with mandatory taxes is socialist. But that means that every functioning government is socialist; the only question is to what degree. In the United States, marginal tax rates are much lower than they were in the 1950s, but are likely to rise by the equivalent of a few percent of GDP.

In short, if the tax rate is the issue, than we are less socialist than we've been for most of the 20th century and less socialist than other countries, but every society is socialist. Since this conclusion seems unhelpful, I would define the word in a more radical and precise way. A socialist society, in my view, is one in which "the people" own the major productive assets, things like farms, factories, and service industries. "The people" cannot own something in the same way that I own my cell phone. Private ownership means that my wishes directly affect the object; I can use, alienate, or destroy the object pretty much at will. "The people" cannot do that, because they are plural. If they disagree, they do not all get what they wish. And even if they are unanimous, each may not feel that his or her preferences caused the outcome.

Still, it is plausible to talk of public or popular ownership in several situations. A government can own a productive asset and can represent the people through a combination of regular competitive elections, negotiation among parties, and freedom of speech and debate. Or the workers in a given firm or farm can own it as voting shareholders. Worker ownership might be considered popular ownership of the economy as a whole, if everyone were a worker somewhere. In the Communist Manifesto, 6 out of 10 planks related to state or worker ownership of productive assets.

By this definition, the functioning societies of today do differ in how socialist they are. It is common for European democratic governments to own and directly manage major industries, such as arms manufacturers, railway lines, and oil companies. There is very little such ownership in the United States.

Nor is "socialism" (so defined) even a remote possibility here. The most radical proposal for health care reform--which no one gives any serious chance of passing--is Single Payer, under which the government would fund health care. But the doctors, hospitals, and drug companies would still be private enterprises and would compete for customers. The government may end up possessing banks, but only by default and for the shortest possible time. That sounds like "hot-potato socialism," if it is socialism at all.

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March 10, 2009

snapshots from February and March

Out of the bathroom window in the middle of the night, a scene from an expressionist painting. The moon, too large, glares through black tree limbs. Snow forms a smooth shape, a pearly pool, amid the trunks. Houses stand at crazy angles.

A woman is running, screaming up Winter Hill in Somerville toward a gas station, where a knot of people stands. One of them is a police officer. Her dog lies on his side as if asleep.

False spring on Brattle Street: grand Victorian houses, an anthology of architectural styles. Joggers, toddlers in strollers, buds on the manicured foliage.

On a beach near Gloucester, the vacation houses have a slum-like look. They are small and boarded-up for winter; the streets are deserted in the cold sea air. There's a game of horse-shoe on the sand, and dogs run joyfully in the surf.

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March 9, 2009

flypmedia's "meet the millennials"

I happen to be quoted/filmed in this FLYP cover story, which contains lots of good, basic information about today's young voters. But I recommend it for a different reason: it's a great example of multimedia journalism, complete with charts, text, music, and embedded videos. I'm more of a linear, one-paragraph-at-a-time kind of reader, but this format is obviously compelling and I'm not sure I've seen anything like it before.

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March 6, 2009

critical thinking about "critical thinking"

Here are three interestingly complementary comments. The first is from the moderate-conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks:

The second comment is from the influential Yale literary and queer theorist Michael Warner (hardly a moderate conservative, nor a pundit--although he might be a pandit). In a chapter entitled "Uncritical Reading," Warner writes that the standard justification of college-level English is to teach students to be critical readers, ones who aren't fooled by various forms of ideology, emotion, bias or writerly tradecraft.

Warner ends with a quote from the philosopher Bernard Williams (who, considering his politics as a British social democrat, makes a nice third leg of this stool):

Williams is skeptical about this ideal of separating the "criticizing self" from "everything that a person contingently is." To put the point in my terms (not his): We can criticize any value. We can always ask, Why? Why should people have freedom of speech? Because they have equal dignity. But why should they have equal dignity? When moral words and phrases have emotional appeal, we can learn to disassociate ourselves from the positive emotions by asking critical questions. That process, carried to its relentless conclusion, leaves nothing.

Thus a good life is not simply a critical one; it also requires appreciation of contingency and solidarity for others. In my opinion, it is right to appreciate the diverse values that people have inherited (for contingent reasons) and to feel solidarity with them despite these differences. In that case, critical thinking and critical reading are not satisfactory goals of education, at any level. Some critical independence is valuable, but there must also be a positive affective dimension.

A separate question is to what extent critical thinking really dominates at institutions like Harvard. My sense is that the faculty report that Brooks quotes is only part of the picture. Universities also powerfully teach respect or even reverence for various institutions and traditions. Indeed, they try to teach students to revere academia itself--not mainly as a venue for critical debate but as a social gatekeeper and arbiter of norms. The fact that "critical reading" takes place in the seminar room helps to justify the institution's major function, which is to bestow membership and recognition on some and not on others.

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March 5, 2009

thinking about scarcity

Environmentalists rightly argue that we should be much more aware of scarcity. Resources run out; there is only so much waste that the earth can absorb; and exploiting habitats causes species to vanish. Environmentalists are not the only ones who recommend paying attention to scarcity. A budget, for example, is a representation of limited resources. Any household, organization, or nation should live within its budget. Raising awareness of scarcity is a project that I can sign up for.

On the other hand, some resources are not finite. We can make as many new cultural products as we want. Works of art, music, or literature from one cultural background need not deprive other traditions of space or resources. Ideas spread without losing their value; often they gain importance because of their diffusion. As Jefferson wrote, "He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me."

The Internet is another great example of a basically infinite resource. (Computers use electricity, but the amount of energy per byte is cut in half every 18 months.) More generally, there is no obvious limit to the growth and diffusion of human opportunity, so long as that growth takes the right forms. We cannot all get richer if that means that we all buy Hummers. But we can all get richer.

When scarcity dominates people's thinking, they are unlikely to trust others. We may cooperate if we feel that we must, since resources are limited; but we seem to cooperate better when we are optimistic and expect everyone to win. There is "an association between distrust and economic insecurity and a limited-good view of the world" (Orlando Patterson, "Liberty Against the Democratic State," in Mark E. Warren, Democracy and Trust, p. 155). Harry Boyte once argued on this blog that creative civic populism arises in times of optimism and growth, whereas narrowly technocratic and hierarchical politics is more typical when people are conscious of scarcity. Twentieth-century fascism played off scarcity, while FDR promised an infinite expansion of opportunity.

I would conclude that an awareness of scarcity is not intrinsically virtuous. It all depends on whether the good in question is actually scarce. We should be frugal with limited resources, but generous and extravagant with goods that that can be created infinitely.

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March 4, 2009

the worm turns

Several months before the 2004 election, I wrote a post entitled "what's wrong with the left, and what we can do about it?" I criticized the belief that Democrats lost elections because Republicans had unfair advantages or played the game better. At that time, many liberals were blaming Fox News and Karl Rove for their problems and were developing a presidential election strategy that revolved around better "messaging." I suggested (as a thought-experiment) that we imagine what Democrats would say to the American people if they had two hours of uninterrupted time. Then all the machinations of spinmeisters and biased media would be irrelevant. I claimed that Democrats would have nothing inspiring to say about the future of America. I then proposed several directions that could be more engaging: a theme of stewardship; a commitment to bold, persistent experimentation; a good-government reform platform; and an agenda of helping everyone to be creators and contributors to the commonwealth.

When that year's Democratic Convention was all about John Kerry's macho biography and the stupidity of George W. Bush, my heart sank (although a speech by the new Senator-Elect from Illinois moved me).

But political history has since moved with remarkable speed. The Obama Campaign was inspirational and forward-looking. Themes of stewardship, experimentation, good government, and creativity/service were prominent. An additional issue is now paramount and creates an urgent need for deeper change: the economic collapse. The recovery effort opens great opportunities for better stewardship, transparency, reform, and public work.

Meanwhile, Republicans are debating whether they should be openly saying that they want Obama to fail. (I remember private conversations about Bush in 2002-4 that had a similar flavor.) When your critical "message" about your opponent is your focus, you are in deep trouble. The lack of intellectual vision on the right now matches or surpasses what we saw on the left just four years ago.

Posted by peterlevine at 11:40 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 3, 2009

on the radio, talking about the Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act

I was a guest this morning on WNPR, public radio in Connecticut. The hour-long call-in show is archived here. The topic was national and community service, and specifically the Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act, on which I have blogged before. There were some good questions about whether paying for service cheapens it, whether AmeriCorps volunteers replace regular employees, and whether taxpayers should be required to fund service. There were also many supportive callers, and apparently more were on the line when we ended. My co-panelists were Chris Meyers Asch, proponent of a US Public Service Academy, and Gina McCarthy, Connecticut's Commissioner of Environmental Protection (which is considering a state conservation corps).

Posted by peterlevine at 12:23 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 2, 2009

Winograd and Hais, Millennial Makeover

I've belatedly read Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais's book, Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics, which is available in a post-election, paperback version. Winograd and Hais (fellows and bloggers at NDN) presciently predicted a sharp Democratic turn in American politics, thanks to a new generation of Americans who were more likely to vote and more aligned with the Democratic Party than their predecessors. They also advised exactly the kind of campaign--with a softer ideological edge, heavy use of social networking tools, and promises of transparency and participation--that carried Barack Obama on his improbable journey to Washington. Obama won by appealing to the very values and preferences that Winograd and Hais detected among Millennials; and young voters were his advantage from the Iowa Caucus through Election Day. I think John McCain's loss was almost inevitable, but Obama, Clinton, or Edwards could have won the nomination. Obama took it on the strength of young voters.

We found similar generational patterns to Winograd and Hais in our recent paper entitled "The Millennial Pendulum." Our paper added one small methodological refinement--we tracked political opinions over time for several cohorts--but didn't provide much of a literature review. Any bibliography should start with Winograd and Hais.

Our work at CIRCLE is complementary to Millennial Makeover. We are interested in the policy opportunities afforded by a new generation that seems more concerned about equality than their predecessors were. And we are interested in all young adults, including college students at institutions like Tufts, which is a leader in developing the civic skills of active and enthusiastic Millennials. However, our emphasis is somewhat different. Winograd and Hais are in the business of predicting how today's young people will vote and otherwise engage, and advising older leaders on how to engage them effectively. If you are interested in these questions, two directions will seem natural:

In contrast, we are primarily concerned about policies for young people. We study the quality, availability, and distribution of educational, civic, and political opportunities. From that perspective:

These two tracks of research are not competitive, but can inform each other. Good policy requires successful political strategy; and it's a smart strategy to propose good policies. For example, NDN proposes that we invest more in the computer training of working-class Americans--an idea that the President picked up because it is both a wise investment and smart politics. I don't think that the Millennials who vote are sufficiently aware of inequalities in their own age group, partly because they attend schools and colleges that are more segregated and stratified than was the case in my youth. The ones who are discussing carbon emissions on Facebook have not even met their peers who lack access to computers. But their core values are egalitarian, and that provides an important opening for good policy.

Posted by peterlevine at 1:44 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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