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September 30, 2009

much better than a town meeting

If you or a group that you're part of wants to discuss health care policy without descending into the kind of shouting matches that dominated August, the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forums have just the tools you need. Click through to a work book, other background materials, and a guide to holding a neutral, productive dialog in your community.

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September 29, 2009

against caricaturing your opponents

If you spend a lot of time, as I do, on sites like Steve Benen's Washington Monthly and The American Prospect, you can get at least a daily dose of outrageous remarks by Republican politicians and conservative celebrities. These comments often combine fallacy, bias, malice, and myth. (As an example from the last few days, The National Review says this week that Barack Obama "likes tyrants and dislikes America [and] is trying to get control over as much of our lives as he can.")

Meanwhile, if you spend time reading the open comments on newspapers and other news sources, you can find plenty of similarly outrageous statements all on your own. In addition to the flaws cited above, these amateur contributions tend to be poorly spelled and ungrammatical.

Spend your time this way, and you can convince yourself--or reinforce your presumption--that you are dealing with an opposition that's stupid and mean. Compromise then seems foolish. Unfortunately, large numbers of Americans vote for the same candidates as the shock jocks and right-wing politicians whose frightening quotes fill liberal blogs. So it's hard to avoid the conclusion that you are dealing with a fairly benighted population. Either there is something fundamentally wrong with them, or else the media system is somehow capable of misleading the public and distorting their views.

But selective quotation is a very poor "research method." As long as the pool of material available for quotation is large, you can get any result you want. I think it would be possible, for example, to fill a daily blog with nothing but thoughtful and conciliatory comments by elected Republicans. Likewise, conservative bloggers are able to find outrageous statements by liberals to fill their pages.

Whatever the truth may be about "conservatism," selective quotation is no way to find it. Not only is this method intellectually lax, it yields bad strategy. It leads us to misunderstand the real reasons that substantial numbers of Americans disagree with us and thus prevents us from persuading them. For instance, relatively conservative Americans may fear the Democrats' health plan because they are skeptical that the government can keep its promises to cut costs, not because they believe that President Obama is a socialist Muslim born in Kenya who hates America.

Although I'm sure some Republicans in Congress disagree, many leading ones seem to share Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's view that President Obama is headed for "a massive electoral defeat." I think they have been reading too much of their own side's polemics (including selective quotations from liberals that seem far from mainstream views). As a result, they are not revising their own policies in ways that might help them to regain a majority. The long-term polling trend suggests that they really only have about 20-25% of the population on their side and should be seriously rethinking their positions:

But there is equal danger for Democrats. The President has but a bare majority--less on difficult issues such as health care and climate change--and faces valid doubts and criticisms. The worst way to get majority support for a Democratic legislative agenda would be to convince ourselves that we are only dealing with Michelle Bachmann, Glenn Beck, and the National Review.

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September 28, 2009

being an informed consumer of polls

Nate Silver is accusing the Strategic Vision polling firm of making up its data (which would be much cheaper than collecting it!). I don't know the truth about this case, but I'm especially interested because one of the disputed Strategic Vision polls found extremely poor knowledge of civics among Oklahoma students--and civics is my main interest.

In any case, this seems an opportune moment for some remarks about polling, in general. I've been involved (usually with collaborators) in commissioning nine national surveys using at least five different firms. I've had mixed experience, ranging from deep respect to real concerns. All the firms I've been involved with have been basically reliable, but polling is not a pure science. There is an important aspect of art or craft, and quality is inconsistent. If you take survey results as precise and fully reliable, you're naive. But if you reject high quality surveys because you don't like the results--something I've seen happen on many occasions--you are equally mistaken. Although polling is an art or a craft and not a pure science, a good poll is far from arbitrary.

Polling would be more of a science if probability sampling really worked. The theory suggests that you can say something about a whole population based on a small number of respondents, randomly selected. But it is never possible to achieve pure random selection. That's partly because there is no list of all Americans from which names can be drawn; you have to use a substitute (such as randomly generated telephone numbers) which must omit some individuals. To make matters worse, most people don't agree to be surveyed. The response rate is always far below 50% and very uneven across demographic groups. So if you randomly dialed a bunch of phone numbers and took down the answers of the first 1000 people who agreed to be interviewed, you would have a deeply biased survey.

Instead, all pollsters I've dealt with use some combination of demographic quotas (i.e., they contact people randomly until they have enough respondents within each particular category), lists of individuals who are likely to respond, and weighting. To "weight" a sample after it's been collected, you adjust it to match the whole population. If, for instance, you have only half as many young white males as their prevalence in the whole community, each one's responses must count for two.

Every survey I know of has been weighted, but it makes a great deal of difference how. To double the responses of 150 young white males is not a big problem; but sometimes three young Latino males can be counted for 100. That stretches the representativeness of the sample past the breaking point. There is also a huge question about what categories to use for weighting. You can weight a sample to match the ethnic, age, and gender composition of the whole population but still get badly biased answers to opinion questions if you don't weight to religion or political party. But if you weight to everything, you haven't really taken a survey.

A pollster can reduce the need for weighting by making dogged efforts to interview the first people who were randomly selected to be interviewed--but that's expensive. It's much cheaper to move on to someone else and then "weight" after the fact. Even the most dogged efforts never yield particularly high response rates, which is why weighting is unavoidable.

I have focused here on sampling issues, but of course the questions one chooses to ask on a poll also introduce all kinds of bias. Writing good questions is very much an art, and no amount of statistical testing for reliability and validity can ever tell you for certain whether your questions are good.

At CIRCLE, we are an unusual client because we never purchase a report from a survey firm. We purchase the data, including the unweighted dataset. We then spend a lot of time analyzing the sample and making judgment calls. Sometimes, we will refrain from talking about particular subsamples because the weights are too large. In one case, we threw out a whole national poll that had cost more than $100,000 to collect because we did not believe it was reliable.

If you're a regular reader of polls in the news, you can't analyze the raw data. You have to rely on intermediaries, such as reporters, editors, clients, and associations of pollsters, to separate the wheat from the chaff. I don't believe that simple distinctions (such as random-digit-dialing versus online samples) are all that helpful, because there are tradeoffs between the various methods. You can only hope that the intermediaries you trust have looked closely at response rates, quotas, and weighting schemes. It's also helpful to apply some common sense--for instance, I find it difficult to believe that Oklahoma students know as little as Strategic Vision claims--and to compare more than one poll if they are available.

Finally, I wouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Most respectable pollsters struggle very hard to get representative samples and to ask good questions. Their results are more reliable for certain purposes than others. (For instance, an estimate of the frequency of a behavior--like "37% of people volunteer"--is less reliable than a pattern in the data, such as "volunteers are much better educated than non-volunteers.") But certainly it's wise to credit their basic findings about what people like and what they believe.

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September 25, 2009

to Birmingham and back

I'm going to speak today in Birmingham, Alabama. Since I live near Boston, Massachusetts and will not be staying overnight, that means a long trip there and back--slightly more than 1,000 miles each way. It still impresses me that this kind of a day is possible. Forget about the Internet; I'm amazed by jet planes.

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September 24, 2009

memories of Broughton Castle

William Fiennes has published a memoir about growing up in Broughton Castle near Oxford. In today's Times, he says he that he resisted "writing about growing up in such a big house" in case "people would laugh at me," but then he decided, "‘Look at this. What a world of images.’ How could I be a writer and not sing about all this? ... Here was a microcosm, a place surrounded by a ring of water, and everything a writer could want to write about was going on here--wonder and excitement and love, but also loss and difficulty and violence and fear and strangeness."

I was at Broughton Castle in November 2007. I was attending a conference, and a visit to Broughton was an optional break. My family and I had just learned that my father might have cancer in his lungs. We were waiting for results, but it was hard to communicate with the US, and nothing would be known for hours. So I went along to Broughton for a distraction.

Lord and Lady Saye and Sele greeted us and were warm, gracious, unpretentious, and amusing hosts. They were the only people in the castle, so they collected our donations and gave us the tour. We saw both the magnificent public rooms of their castle--medieval to Georgian--and their cozy private spaces with children's art on the refrigerator and vegetables on the counter. My fellow visitors were English, polite but at ease their their hosts. There was a joke about the difficulty of pricing a home like Broughton, which hasn't been sold since the 13th century.

This was exactly the kind of place that I had visited throughout my childhood, guided by two parents who have professional knowledge of English cultural history. So I felt comfortable and nostalgic--also deeply sad that my parents couldn't be with me. The Baron and Baroness are in their eighties, and I couldn't help wondering whether my parents would also be able to enjoy that decade together.

At the same time, I experienced a less defensible emotion: competitiveness. Thanks to my upbringing, I have a detailed understanding of places like Broughton. For instance, as soon as I saw a fireplace upstairs, I knew it was an extraordinary piece, and it turned out to be an almost unique example of Italian Renaissance art from the England of Henry VIII. King Henry had a whole palace, Nonesuch, decorated by Italian Mannerist artists, but it burned to the ground. The Broughton fireplace is an extremely rare surviving work by the sculptors of the lost Nonesuch. And here I was, a Yank among Englishmen, being guided by a self-deprecating aristocrat who probably knew everything about the art in his house but pretended to be naive. I secretly wanted to lecture everyone about what they were seeing (and therefore about what I knew). I did keep my mouth shut except for a muttered aside about the fireplace.

Almost as soon as we returned from this short visit, I learned that my father's cancer had spread and was inoperable. Six weeks later, he was dead. The last time in my life when I could have hope for him was during the ride back from Broughton along green sunken lanes. So now I have something in common with the writer William Fiennes: the castle where he was raised is also for me a place of nostalgia, fondness, and regret.

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September 23, 2009

Reforming the Humanities (coming soon)

My new book is in production and has a cover and an Amazon page. It's entitled Reforming the Humanities: Literature and Ethics from Dante through Modern Times. Two blurbs are on the back:

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September 22, 2009

how Obama is post-partisan

This is exactly the point I tried to make in a lengthy blog post some time ago:

If Barack Obama is "post-partisan," it's not because his positions are middle-of-the-road or ideologically indistinct, nor because he is prone to compromise. It's because he doesn't want to use policy debates as proxies for a grand ideological struggle between statist liberalism and libertarian conservatism.

Paul Krugman recently wrote that Mr. Obama "needs to get over" his "visceral reluctance to engage in anything that resembles populist rhetoric." Obama is often populist, but not in Krugman's sense, which means strong support for government regulation. I don't think Obama's reluctance to go down that path is "visceral" at all (unlike Krugman's yearning for the old time liberal religion). On the contrary, Obama knows that (a) most Americans are not very ideological, and (b) among Americans with ideological motivations, conservatives outnumber liberals. In the latest Gallup survey, "57% of Americans say the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to businesses and individuals," and 38% think it should do more. Twenty-four percent would like to see more regulation of business and industry; 45% think there is too much already. Public opinion has moved sharply against regulation in the last year.

I think it's foolish to try to turn this tide with presidential rhetoric or with policy devices like the public health insurance option, which is supposed to demonstrate the advantages of government management. Americans' skepticism of government is built into our political DNA. Skepticism has risen with decades of poor performance by parts of the government; and the recent bailouts increased it further. We already have plenty of examples of good government programs, including Medicare and Social Security, that should suffice to demonstrate the advantages of federal leadership.

If a president avoids ideological proxy battles and tries to expand health coverage by using the most convenient and efficient tools possible, he can have most Americans behind him. If one of those tools really is a public health insurance option, I'm for it. But I think Obama knows much better than Krugman how to play the politics of this.

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September 21, 2009

assessing ACORN

ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) is the epicenter of today's political struggle. It was already a target of angry criticism during the 2008 election because of its radicalism and its links to Barack Obama--and perhaps because it is one of the only effective interest groups for poor people. (It claims 400,000 families in its membership.) Both houses of Congress recently passed bills to strip ACORN of federal funds after a video surfaced in which ACORN staff were shown providing illegal assistance to actors pretending to be, respectively, a pimp and a prostitute. ACORN replied that the behavior caught on tape was unacceptable but that many other staffers had refused to help the actors--some even called the police--and that the tape may have been doctored.

Because of ACORN's sheer size and its symbolic importance, we need to reach fair and informed judgments about it. Maybe Democrats and liberals should throw it off the bus, or maybe we should defend it. I am cautious about reaching any judgment, because I know that it's hard to make a fair and accurate assessment of a large organization that is the target of unrelentingly hostile scrutiny. One problem with the "gotcha" video (apart from its hostile motivation), is its lack of reliability. Who knows, for example, whether the discarded video from other encounters would make ACORN look very ethical? And perhaps you could get similar footage if you traveled around the country trying to entrap staff from the Red Cross or the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The evidentiary value of the video is low.

Thus it's with deep uncertainty and humility that I confess my own misgivings about ACORN. There was, first of all, the astounding news that the board covered up a $1 million case of embezzlement to prevent embarrassment. I blogged about that--as an angry former donor whose money had been stolen--and I did receive a personalized and very strongly worded apology. The apology made a difference to me, but the original scandal reinforced my feelings about ACORN's worldview. ACORN thinks of poor people as victims, and itself as a victim because it stands with them. There are villains who are out to get the poor, and ACORN is good because it is on their side. That kind of attitude can excuse bad behavior and cover-ups. More than that, it can cause you to underestimate the capacities of poor people and opportunities for collaboration.

A classic ACORN event displays the victimization of poor people and the wickedness of some rich and powerful group (who then become even less likely to collaborate). For instance, I once described an ACORN protest against federal welfare policy. The angry crowd that ACORN assembled shouted down the sole member of Congress who chose to address them, Rep. Charles B. Rangel of Harlem, demanding that he answer their questions and meet with them in New York City. One of the rally's organizers (a Harvard graduate) explained: "Most of the crowd are people living with the reality of fairly extreme poverty in their own lives, and they are rightly angry."

The organizers of this protest apparently believed that they could speak for poor people, whose main need was more federal welfare spending. Their strategy for winning such aid was to parade welfare recipients before Congress and the press, emphasizing their deprivation and anger. (They also displayed the political naivety and weakness of these people.) The protest organizers implied that anyone who did not completely endorse their demands was their enemy. And of course they failed completely.

In contrast, community organizers such as the Industrial Areas Foundation like to build up the confidence, skills, and power of poor people and make allies out of any powerful leaders and institutions who will cooperate. Their goal is to work with the powerful as equals, with mutual respect and accountability. Time and time again, the latter kind of organizers report that ACORN is a major problem.

For instance, in Community Organizing: Building Social Capital as a Development Strategy, Ross Gittel and Avid Vidal focus on LISC (the Local Initiatives Support Corporation), which supports collaborative community development in poor areas. They write:

Again, in Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood, Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar tell the story of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Bostons South End. They devote a whole section to "friction" with ACORN. They write, "By the time ACORN first expanded into Massachusetts in 1980, it had already developed a reputation among progressive organizers and funders for not working in coalition with other organizations. In Boston, it was seen as invading the turf of Massachusetts Fair Share."

In the 1980s, ACORN set up a "tent city" in vacant, city-owned land to pressure Boston to build affordable housing. "DSNI members were angry not only because ACORN, seen as an outsider to the neighborhood, had focused on Dudley Street without first contacting DSNI, which had been so carefully structured to empower residents and break the pattern of outsider-agency domination. But also DSNI ... had successfully negotiated with the city to stop disposing of vacant land until the neighborhood was able to complete a comprehensive neighborhood development plan and exercise community control." (Medoff and Sklar proceed to describe "angry exchanges" and charges that ACORN members pretended to be from DSNI when they canvassed for money.)

These are anecdotes that depend on testimony from people who have struggled with ACORN. Maybe ACORN's side of each story would be convincing. But I could multiply these examples, and they add up to an indictment. I think partisan Republicans are attacking ACORN with poor motives and unethical methods. They dramatically exaggerate its funding and impact, when it appears to be in pretty rough shape. But there is a valid critique from the left. The two critiques are related because the same tactics that antagonize ideological conservatives also disempower poor people at the grassroots level and disrupt progressive coalitions. I wouldn't throw ACORN off the bus, but I am for strengthening the alternatives.

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September 18, 2009

women's leadership in the 21st century

Linda Tarr-Whelan has a distinguished background as a nurse, union official, civil servant, and diplomat. Her latest book is Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World. She argues that women are still far from adequately represented in leadership positions, and she provides practical advice for changing that.

Here is the audio of a recent teleconference about the book, with Tarr-Whelan and my colleague Allison Fine:
To pre-order Linda Tarr-Whelan's new book visit Amazon

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September 17, 2009

C-SPAN broadcasts our panel on the Obama Civic Agenda

Our Institute of Civic Studies last summer ended with a very spirited public debate about the Obama Administration's Civic Agenda. Our "text" was candidate Barack Obama's promise: "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 program; this will be a central cause of my presidency." The questions we addressed included: What did Barack Obama mean? What should he have meant? What has the Administration done so far on this issue? What should it do? And what should we do? The speakers were:

C-SPAN (a US cable channel) recorded the event and aired it this morning. The full video and some transcribed text is here. (Unfortunately, C-SPAN's video is not embeddable on my blog.) We hope to create a short, edited version of this program, which is more than two hours long.

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September 16, 2009

Facebook: civic strengths and weaknesses

Facebook is an "egocentric network." That's not a disparaging remark; its egocentrism is a source of its strength. As a Facebook user, you maintain and refine your own profile and explore a network of people who have one thing in common--they are all connected to you. Because we are interested in ourselves and our relationships, participation in an egocentric network is appealing. Millions of people have been motivated to join and to invest time enriching Facebook's database with text, images, and video (material that benefits others as well as themselves).

To be sure, you can move away from your own page by examining friends' profiles and their lists of friends; but as you move out into the network, you have access to progressively less information. That's not a bug; it's a feature. Facebook protects strangers' privacy and keeps our focus where our main interests are--close to home.

Facebook does have advantages for doing civic work (discussing issues, organizing events, collaborating to address problems). Nowadays, it is definitely smart to use Facebook to communicate and organize. But it also has limitations, which explain the failure of Facebook's "Causes" application to raise much money and the decision of the Obama campaign to move off Facebook to MyBarackObama.com.

Because Facebook is an egocentric network, the user cannot see the network from a community or social perspective. Our only vantage point is our own Facebook page, not any place outside the network from which we could see the whole thing. That means that:

Our emerging network map of the Boston area is the opposite--it's "community-centered" rather than egocentric. This image shows the part of the existing map that covers Somerville, MA:

As this map grows and we add tools for search and analysis, it will become increasingly powerful for community organizing. But its weakness is the mirror of Facebook's strength. We need a lot of people to contribute content, not just once, but over time to keep the map current. Because the network is not egocentric, it's unlikely that people would be motivated to add and update information--even once we make it completely open and "wiki-style."

That's why our main goal is to integrate the community-centered map with egocentric networks such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Our current plan for doing that is here. In essence, we want people to be able to stay where they are (on their egocentric networks) but benefit from the data in the community map without a lot of hassle.

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September 15, 2009

glum councillors

Via the Local Democracy blog, I find myself reading Glum Councillors, a UK blog that "will doggedly collate images of councillors looking glum whilst pointing at holes in the road, wearing hard hats or presenting oversized cheques." It lives up to its bold promise, providing an impressive collection of images ripped from local politicians' websites, along with trenchant commentary. For instance ...

Who says the Internet hasn't transformed democracy? When I was a lad, you'd have to wait for years to see a real, live glum politician standing over a brick-and-mortar pothole. Now they're all just a few clicks away.

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September 13, 2009

Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Orwell

Tolstoy hated Shakespeare and thought that other people's admiration for him was "a great evil, as is every untruth." Orwell's response, "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool," is a rich and wise essay that probably expresses more of what I believe than almost any other 10 pages in English. It includes many interesting asides, for instance, about the relationship between aesthetic and moral judgment, Tolstoy's personal resemblance to Lear, and--quite timely for us--a warning not to equate libertarianism/anarchism with real love of freedom:

Orwell is not in the least pious about Shakespeare. His essay is full of high-handed complaints like this one: "Tolstoy is right in saying that Lear is not a very good play, as a play. It is too drawn-out and has too many characters and sub-plots. One wicked daughter would have been quite enough, and Edgar is a superfluous character: indeed it would probably be a better play if Gloucester and both his sons were eliminated." (I don't agree in the slightest, but we have to acknowledge Orwell's independence.)

In any case, the main theme of the essay is a defense of Shakespeare as a "humanist," and one might summarize the debate as follows. The elderly Tolstoy hated the world because people suffered in it. But he thought (along with Schopenhauer, Gandhi, and Christian ascetics) that the world was so organized that one could achieve happiness and redemption by renouncing the everyday temptations and evils of it. As a person, Tolstoy tried to renounce his title, estate, money, and copyrights--although, like Lear, he found that abdication is not easy. As an author, he also increasingly favored renunciation. As Orwell notes:

Shakespeare, in sharp contrast, was a man of the world--to a fault. ("He liked to stand well with the rich and powerful, and was capable of flattering them in the most servile way.") His love of the world was the essence of his art. It led him away from simplifications, generalizations, theories, and moralistic endings. It made him want to depict every kind of thing and character and to keep his own judgments off the stage. It made him love speech to the extent that he could write complete nonsense for the sheer music of it. "Shakespeare was not a philosopher or a scientist, but he did have curiosity, he loved the surface of the earth and the process of life."

I am deep into War and Peace but not finished with it, and I cannot say whether the younger Tolstoy was already ascetic enough to be an opposite of Shakespeare. Whether to embrace or renounce "life" is an explicit question for Andrei, Pierre, and Marya, among other characters in War and Peace. When Prince Andrei is gravely wounded at Borodino, he is filled with a love for life that makes him embrace and forgive the odious Anatole Kuragin, whom he had once wanted to kill in a duel. The "life" that Andrei loves is highly abstract; its "best and happiest moments" are exemplified by times when, "in his most distant childhood, ... burying his head in the pillows, he had felt happy in the mere consciousness of life." With your head buried in pillows, you are not aware of anyone in particular. Andrei could be one of those who love humanity but can't stand people. Shakespeare, I think, was just the opposite--he liked each one of his characters without thinking that the whole business meant anything. "Ripeness is all," as Edgar puts it (having just seen Lear, Tolstoy-like, defeated).

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September 11, 2009

politeness, protocol, military discipline

I personally found it offensive when Rep. Joe Wilson called the president a liar during a speech to Congress. That's partly because the president was not, in fact, lying. (Even if some illegal immigrants might occasionally--and illegally--receive health coverage under the president's plan, he was not "lying" when he said, "the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.") The outburst also showed a lack of personal respect for Barack Obama. One of the reasons that I find such disrespect offensive is that Mr. Obama, as an individual, deserves a high degree of respect. Mr. Wilson and I evidently disagree on that matter, but I am confident he is wrong.

There is a separate question whether people in Mr. Wilson's position are entitled to call any presidents of the United States "liars." Many presidents have indeed lied, and some believe we should have less decorum in Washington and more "accountability moments." The British House of Commons is a spectacle of abuse and recrimination that many find emblematic of democracy. I once watched a particular parliamentary exchange in England with graduate students from the developing world, who were stunned by the freedom it represented. The exchange went something like this:

But successful organizations combine such frankness and openness with decorum. The British Prime Minister, for example, is enormously powerful and spends most of his or her time in venues that are completely decorous, controlled, and closed. Prime Minister's Question Time relieves some pressure within this generally hierarchical system. That hierarchy--greater in some respects than ours--is helpful for obtaining progressive change when the Prime Minister happens to be progressive.

On our side of the ocean, there has been some decline in respect for official leaders. For instance, I'm pretty sure that thirty or fifty years ago, had a president chosen to address the nation's schoolchildren, school administrators would not have thought it necessary to inform parents. And if they had sent a note home about the speech, most parents would have said, "Well, Johnny, you'd better pay attention in school tomorrow." Now substantial numbers of parents are quick to attack both the schools and the president for indoctrinating their kids.

This trend is good, in part--reflecting an increase of freedom. It is also bad, in part, especially for progressives who expect the public to entrust more of their money to the federal government. That requires a degree of respect for high public offices and for those who legitimately hold them. Expecting people never to criticize the president would push "respect" much too far. But it seems a reasonable rule that Members of Congress should not blurt out personal attacks during formal speeches. George W. Bush deserved that level of decorum as well as Barack Obama.

Finally, Rep. Wilson is not only a Member of Congress but also a Colonel, US Army (ret.). I'm not sure what to make of Major General Paul D. Eaton's comment that "Retired Colonel (Representative) Joe Wilson's conduct last night is a breach of military protocol and represents a further departure from the historic good order and discipline I expected, in the past, to see from the GOP ..." I appreciate that respect for democratically elected officials is an important ethic for uniformed military officers. But if military discipline is supposed to cover former officers who serve in Congress, I fear a militarization of this democratic space. Colonel Wilson was not allowed to disparage the Commander in Chief in any public venue. Surely Representative Wilson has a right to bitter attacks on the president, albeit not during a formal address to Congress. Barack Obama is not Mr. Wilson's Commander in Chief (nor mine), although he is our president.

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September 10, 2009

poor public knowledge does not mean we need more courses

It seems like every week Americans fail a survey about their knowledge of some important matter, and an expert or politician demands that we require students to study it. In my field, for example, American adults show poor knowledge of the Constitution (many more can name the Simpson family than the five freedoms in the First Amendment). Politicians seize upon such statistics to demand that we "teach the Constitution."

But we do teach the Constitution. It is included in almost all state standards, and often tested on high-stakes exams. At least 80% of high school students take at least one semester of American Government or Civics, which typically revolves around the Constitution. Nevertheless, in an elaborate study that my colleagues and I conducted, we found that (a) studying the Constitution made only a modest impact on students' ability to answer survey questions about the Constitution; and (b) state requirements made absolutely no difference in what students knew. Even if state requirements did boost students' knowledge, it would be an open question whether such knowledge lasts.

Besides, we could play this game all day--citing important survey questions that Americans fail to answer correctly, and demanding that these subjects be mandated in our schools. For example:

1. According to the the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation, "45 million Americans think the ocean is a source of fresh water; 120 million think spray cans still have chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in them even though CFCs were banned in 1978; another 120 million people think disposable diapers are the leading problem with landfills when they actually represent about one percent of the problem; and 130 million believe that hydropower is America’s top energy source, when it accounts for just ten percent of the total." Sounds like an argument for mandatory environmental education--which I would support in principle, but many states already have such mandates.

2. A plurality of Americans believe that "God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years," even though almost every student has to study evolutionary biology.

3. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, "In 2006, more than one-third of the public (37%) thinks HIV might be transmitted through kissing, 22% think it might be transmitted through sharing a drinking glass, and one in six (16%) think it might be transmitted through touching a toilet seat. More than four in ten adults (43%) hold at least one of these misconceptions."

Before we jump to the conclusion that a curricular mandate would solve any of these problems, we need to ask: 1) Does a snap telephone survey of factual questions yield valid information? (Maybe people would do a lot better if they had a chance to prepare.) 2) Is educating kids the best way to reduce ignorance among adults? (That implies that factual information imparted in high school lasts for decades.) and 3) Do educational mandates cause good outcomes in classrooms? (I doubt it.)

The alternative is to work on improving the actual impact of instruction on important topics.

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September 9, 2009

civic engagement in recessions

I am going to DC today very briefly for the release of the 2009 Civic Health Index by the National Conference on Citizenship. As in past years, we did most of the technical work for the NCoC's Index. The title of their report is "Civic Health in Hard Times," and the main finding is that engagement has really fallen this year.

The following graph didn't make the final report, for appropriate reasons--it seemed a bit ambiguous and not necessarily persuasive. But I think it's interesting enough for a blog, if not for a shiny national report.

It graphs the NCoC's Index of Civic Health--composed of our favorite 40 indicators, from volunteering to following the news--along with the unemployment rate. In general, the relationship is positive (a healthy .59 correlation). When unemployment gets worse, people engage more--perhaps to meet increased need, or possibly because some of them have time on their hands. But there was an exception. When unemployment reached and surpassed 10% in the 1980-82 recession, civic engagement fell pretty sharply, driven in large part by a decline in volunteering.

We think we're seeing a similar dip in 2009. My best guess is that modern civic engagement depends on a funded infrastructure. You can't tutor kids if the school lays off its literacy coordinator. You can't read to kids if the library branch is closed. Thus, when the economy really gets bad, even though the need for engagement is high, opportunities suddenly dry up and civic health falls.

(I should note that the NCoC's report makes this suggestion, but not by using the graph shown above.)

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September 8, 2009

Facebook, Social Networking, and Community Organizing

Tomorrow (after a very quick trip down to DC and back for the National Conference on Citizenship), I'll start teaching a course at Tufts called "Facebook, Social Networking, and Community Organizing." It is a practical project course that will engage the students in mapping Somerville's civil society. The course website -- which will include a blog, a network map, and other interactive features -- is here. The syllabus is here.

Parallel to the project will be seminar on relevant theory. The biggest theoretical question in my mind is the relationship between new social networks--which are entirely voluntary and non-hierarchical--and traditional civic networks, which often involve structures. One thread in our class will pursue that question by looking at an enormously important social change in Boston's recent past, the struggles between working class whites and people of color and the resulting shifts of population.

Gerald H. Gamm, in Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed, argues that institutional structure is destiny. Jewish communities moved out of Boston because synagogues are independent voluntary associations. When individual members make choices to move, their congregations die and new ones form where the individuals have relocated. In contrast, Irish Catholic communities stayed in Boston because the hierarchical church was able to provide resources and set rules that kept their churches in place. The value judgments we draw from Gamm's book are debatable (for instance, was it bad that Jews moved out of Mattapan and African Americans moved in?), but the causal argument is clear: hierarchical structures are more resilient than voluntary ones.

On the other hand, parts of Boston's South End have been able to form new social organizations that promote the welfare and stability of the neighborhood and include people from different cultures and classes. These examples suggest that institutional structure isn't destiny; you can change it. Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar tell one such story in Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood. Like Gamm's, their book implies that we need order and structure; it's just that we can make new organizations.

The syllabus also includes books like Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks that celebrate the increase of "practical individual autonomy" that the Internet has given us. The Internet is more like a set of synagogues than a single community organization, let alone a global church. But what kinds of problems can a decentralized voluntary network solve? What problems or vulnerabilities does it create? And how can we achieve both autonomy and resilience?

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September 7, 2009

precedents for presidential speeches to schoolchildren

There is a huge controversy about whether President Obama should make a speech to students (and whether schools should show it). I don't dismiss the criticisms as merely partisan or paranoid; I can understand that direct speech by the nation's most powerful man would provoke concerns, especially for people who trust and admire this president much less than I do. Still, I favor the speech. If you assume it will have some political significance because an elected official will speak, you might consider the evidence that statements by authority figures do not persuade kids to agree, but rather provoke them to have critical conversations.* Too often, we keep civic and political issues out of schools because they offend some parents, and then we create zones free of civic discourse.

At the same time, Obama's speech is likely to have minimal political content. It will mostly be an exhortation by the head of state to study hard. Barack Obama has some potential to motivate students academically, which seems beneficial if it works.

Whatever you think about this particular case, you should know that there is absolutely nothing new about such an address. Before TV, presidents often issued proclamations to American school children that were intended to be read in all schools. For instance, Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed in 1907:

Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation to be read to American schoolchildren at the beginning of the school year, Sept. 15, 1917. He said, "every pupil in the United States can find a chance to serve our country. The school is the natural centre of your life. Through it you can best work in the great cause of freedom to which we have all pledged ourselves."

I assume many more such speeches could be found--I located these two in 15 minutes of web searching.

More recently, in the age of modern communications, Ronald Reagan made a speech that was nationally broadcast on TV and radio and intended for students in American classrooms. The first president Bush made a speech intended to be watched in schools that also boosted his administration's education policy. And the second president Bush provided "parents and teachers' guides" that encouraged students to read his biography and that of Dick Cheney.

We seem to have survived all this--not just the power of the presidency reaching into our humble schoolhouses, but also the use of instructional time for anodyne messages from our heads of state. If this particular controversy creates a precedent, it will not be the idea that presidents can address the nation's children. (They have done that for at least a century.) It will rather be the principle that irate citizens can block elected officials whom they don't like from being seen or heard in schools--and that would be another blow to civic education.

*E.g., Yates and Youniss find that a powerful dose of Catholic social doctrine does not convert predominantly Protestant African American students, but provokes them to reflect on their own values. McDevitt and colleagues (in a series of papers including this one) find that political debates in school stimulate critical discussions in the home. Colby et al. find that interactive political courses at the college level, although taught by liberal professors, do not move the students in a liberal direction but deepen their understanding of diverse perspectives.

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September 4, 2009

in the news

Mary Ann Zehr has a piece in EdWeek, unfortunately behind a firewall, that's headlined, Celebrities Lend Weight to Promote Civics Education . She begins, "Actor Richard Dreyfuss, former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, two retired U.S. Supreme Court justices, and several nonprofit organizations are each working on a piece of the puzzle of how to ensure that civics education gains a bigger foothold in the K-12 curriculum." She quotes me about the trends in civic education. I say that it's a myth we once taught civics and have since dropped it--but there are big disparities in the quality of civic experiences that different kids get.

Elia Powers has a piece on St. Louis Beacon entitled, "Engaging Young People’ (Part I)" It begins, "The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) is a regular stop on my morning web search. Based out of Tufts University near Boston, the nonpartisan research center puts out a lot of national reports on young voter trends and volunteering statistics – just the kind of snapshots that help convey an impression of how engaged (or not) young people are in civic life. Those snapshots are bound together in an album of sorts in a new book (have I given away the name already?), “Engaging Young People in Civic Life ,” out this month from Vanderbilt University Press. The book’s thesis is that young people are already largely engaged, and that too much attention has historically been paid to their shortcomings." Powers then interviews the two editors, Jim Youniss and me.

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September 3, 2009

ethical reasoning as a scale-free network

All of us have many ethical thoughts--about this person, that activity, and also about general concepts like virtues and principles. Some of our ethical thoughts are linked to other ones. One entails another, or trumps it, or incorporates it. So you could make a diagram of my moral or ethical worldview that would consist of my thoughts and links among them.

What kind of network would it be? And what kind of network should it be? These are, respectively, an empirical/psychological question (the answer to which might differ for individuals) and a moral/philosophical question (which probably has one correct answer). By the way, instead of asking these questions about individuals, one could pose them for cultures or institutions.

Ethics might turn out to involve one of three kinds of networks:

1. An ordered hierarchy. This kind of network map would resemble the organizational flowchart of the US Army. At HQ would be some very general, core principles, mutually consistent: like Kant's Categorical Imperative or the utilitarian principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. Division commanders would be big principles like "no lying" or "spend government money to reduce suffering." The footsoldiers would be particular judgments. The chain of command would ideally be clear. Real people might have confused structures, but then we should try to rationalize them. The purpose, for example, of trolley problems is to identify the core principles of people's ethics so that inconsistencies can be reduced.

2. A random-looking network. In a truly random network, any node has an equal chance of being linked to any other. As in a bell curve, the node with the most links would not be that different from the mean node. Our ethical map would not be truly random, because there are reasons that one moral thought entails another. But the links among concepts and opinions might be distributed so that they were mathematically similar to those in a randomly-generated network.

I doubt that this is good description of morality. David McNaughton and Piers Rawling are correct to say that some ethical concepts are "central." They are not just more weighty than other concepts (as rape is more weighty than jaywalking). They are also more central in the sense that they turn up more often and we rely on them more for judgments (“Unprincipled Ethics,” in Hooker and Little, eds., Moral Particularism, p. 268.)

3. A scale-free network: This is a mathematical phrase for a network in which just a few nodes have enormous numbers of links and basically hold the whole thing together. Scale-free networks have no "scale" because there's no typical number of links that can be used to create a scale of popularity on the y-axis. Instead, popularity rises asymptotically according to a "power law." From wikipedia:

"An example power law graph, being used to demonstrate ranking of popularity. To the right is the long tail, to the left are the few that dominate (also known as the 80-20 rule)."

In the case of ethics, we might find that equality, freedom, self-improvement, and compassion were power hubs with enormous numbers of links. Gratitude, fidelity, etc might appear in an important second tier. (I am drawing here on W.D. Ross's list of prima facie duties.) Not cutting ahead in line would be out on the "long tail" of the distribution, along with reading Tolstoy and smiling at bus drivers.

Empirically, I think we could find out whether people (some or all of them) had scale-free moral network maps in their heads. One method would be to obtain a lot of text in which they reasoned about ethical issues--say, interview transcripts. One would identify and code concepts and connections among them, justifying each addition to the map with a quote. Whether the network is scale-free then becomes a mathematical question.

Philosophically, I like the idea of morality as a scale-free network. It means that some concepts are much more important than others, but everything needn't rest on a consistent and coherent foundation. The network can be strong even though it accommodates tensions. Further, since there is no foundation, doubting any one premise doesn't undermine morality as a whole. It just knocks out one hub and the traffic can be redirected. Finally, this metaphor helps us to think about differences in ethical thinking among individuals and among cultures. It's not that we have incommensurable perspectives, but that our network maps have (somewhat) different hubs. That suggests that dialog is possible even though disagreement should be expected (which sounds to me like the truth).

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September 2, 2009

Martha's Vineyard, August 2009

Objects in view: one set of sculpted cliffs,
Venerated by the Wampanoags,
Topped by a Yankee lighthouse whose clocklike beam
Won the Paris Exposition prize, one
Steaming sea stirred by an African storm,
One red sunset, one skipping long-limbed child,
My child, whose footprints the sea erases.

Too much to say about all this, too hard
To say it; too many layers, too wide
The scope, from Pilgrims' footfalls to the trope
Of ocean sunsets as the end of all.
Too much Homer, Arnold, Childe Hassam.
A place we travel hours to admire
Is no sight to try to praise in words.

Better to turn from the loud-resounding sea
To other sites where long-limbed daughters play,
Suns set, and settlers built on worshipped land:
Takeout windows, mowed weeds between sidewalks
And parking lots, driveways, on-ramps, strip malls.
Love not only what glimmers and is vast,
But just as deeply our own darkling plain.

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September 1, 2009

Vernon Jordan as network hub

In his very accessible and enjoyable book Linked, Albert-László Barabási uses Vernon Jordan as an example of a "hub," someone who collects an extraordinary number of links within a network. (It turns out that networks naturally develop such hubs if one node is added at a time and there are benefits to linking to already popular nodes.) At the time Linked was written (in 2002), Jordan served on a record-setting ten corporate boards of Fortune 1000 companies, meaning that "he regularly meets 106 other Fortune 1000 directors" and was within three degrees of separation from almost all the 6,724 directors of America's largest companies. This centrality made him a useful person to know if you wanted to raise some cash or create a partnership, if you had a legislative or political problem, if you were thinking of a presidential run, if you had a scandal to hush up, or if you were interested in getting on a corporate board yourself.

Muckety (which is fun to play with, in case you haven't already), shows Vernon Jordan's current network as follows:

I find this map interesting for several idiosycratic reasons. I'm getting ready to teach a course on networks. I'm struck by Ward Just's depiction of today's Washington as a city of "fixers," who profit from their network-centrality instead of their formal titles. I'm concerned about the history and strategy of the civil rights movement and wonder whether Vernon Jordan's success is helpful. (It may be; I just don't know.) I'd like to know who really runs today's Democratic Party. Finally, I just spent a few days with my family near Oak Bluffs, MA--albeit without linking to Mr. Jordan in any way besides spatial propinquity.

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