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January 29, 2010

Film Your Issue

The What's Your Issue Foundation has launched its 2010 Film Your Issue Competition with a YouTube channel, blog posts, and Twitter feed.

People between the ages of 14 and 24 are invited to submit 3-minute videos with their ideas for improving society. "Prizes include having your winning video shown to senior Obama administration officials in D.C., flying to L.A. for an awards show with Sony Pictures, a Student Pass to the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and Apple products like a Macbook or iPod Touch. Winners will be selected by a VIP Jury, including Tom Brokaw, our own Chad Hurley, Yoko Ono and Nicholas Kristof, and by public voting on YouTube."

An incredible asset of this project and its founder, HeathCliff Rothman, is their ability to draw celebrity support. They've got Jack Black saying "Dude, I can't wait to hear your issue," and George Clooney saying, "Film Your Issue brings your voice into the arena. It belongs to you." I've had fun advising them a little bit, and I look forward to the winners.

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January 28, 2010

our work with games

I begin with the philosophical premise that we should treat young people as actual citizens, capable of doing actual public work and politics. I don't begin with great enthusiasm for simulations or play-citizenship. On the other hand, there is evidence that real youth-led civic projects often lower kids' sense of "efficacy"---their belief that they can make a difference. My friends Joe Kahne and Joel Westheimer reviewed ten excellent programs--mostly focused on low-income students--and found that students' efficacy tended to fall.

The reason seems clear enough to me. Gather a group of 14-year-olds, tell them to identify a problem that is important to them, and give them a few hours a week to work on it. They will begin with a typical adolescent American sense of optimism--We can make a difference!--and will end in disappointment. The challenge is worse if they are poor. Suburban kids may choose something like traffic congestion in the school parking lot as their problem, come up with a great idea, and get thanks from their principal for their excellent thinking. Inner-city kids may choose homicide, homelessness, AIDS, or racism as their problem--and end in frustration.

So we are experimenting with curricula that mix realistic simulations with real-world work. We draw on David Williamson Shaffer's concept of epistemic games: enjoyable, computer-based simulations of adult roles. We are interested less in simulating fancy adult jobs (like ambassador to the UN) than in allowing kids to play roles that are actually accessible to them. The idea is to create a realistic but controlled context in which they can make a difference and learn concrete skills and knowledge. Playing the game takes them off the computer screen, because they must hold face-to-face team meetings, conduct research on their real communities, interview actual adults, and make final "live" presentations.

With our colleagues at University of Wisconsin, we have tested a pilot version of a game called Legislative Aide. A high school class simulates the role of staff to a fictional US Congresswoman who represents their real district. They go to a computer lab that becomes her district office. They receive emails from fictional characters who are senior Washington staff for the politician. They can also email each other. They are asked to interview real adults and develop an action plan for the Congresswoman. When the simulation is complete, they can do some real-world tasks that are part of the action plan.

We are applying to develop a similar game in which the class simulates the staff of a fictional environmental nonprofit with an EPA grant. In this game, scientific knowledge and skills are emphasized.

We have also helped write two applications to the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning Competition. They are for two versions of urban planning games. In both cases, the goal is to get teenagers around Somerville, MA to simulate the role of urban planners who are considering the momentous change that is about to hit their real city: the extension of the Green Line subway service. We hope that playing the game will not only teach the individual kids useful skills and concepts; it will also yield data about youth needs and priorities that can be transmitted to real planners and community activists.

The MacArthur grant competition includes a stage that invites public comments on applications. Please visit ours and comment.

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January 27, 2010

the path not taken (so far): civic engagement for reform

Yesterday, the Huffington Post published a short piece of mine about the Obama Administration's failure--so far--to engage the public in our great national challenges. A more complete version of the same argument follows.

As a candidate, Barack Obama made the strongest case since Bobby Kennedy in 1968 that we need to engage Americans in changing America. His biography and writing suggested that he knew what that would mean--concretely and practically. His civic engagement theme was popular with voters (although largely unreported by the press), and I believe it helped him win the primaries.

However, my own experience on two Obama campaign policy committees and my observations since then suggest that no one who has any influence in the party or the administration--other than possibly the president and the first lady--really understands the power of civic engagement. All the diagnoses of what's going wrong focus on top-down strategy: the Democrats are too arrogant or too cautious, they took too long or tried to rush too fast, they focused on health care when they should have attended to unemployment, they catered too much to Congress or they didn't give Congress enough leeway. Now the advice from all quarters is to change legislative objectives and to craft a new "message." This whole discourse ignores what could be the unique advantage of having a community organizer in the White House.

The "Active Citizenship" Theme in the Campaign

Announcing his presidential candidacy in Springfield, IL on February 10, 2007, Senator Barack Obama said, "This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change. (Cheers.) ... That is our purpose here today. That is why I'm in this race, not just to hold an office but to gather with you to transform a nation. (Cheers.) ..."

Ten months later, as he campaigned to win the Iowa Caucuses, Senator Obama described his work as a community organizer: "In church basements and around kitchen tables, block by block, we brought the community together, registered new voters, fought for new jobs, and helped people live lives with some measure of dignity. ... I have no doubt that in the face of impossible odds people who love their country can change it. But I hold no illusions that one man or woman can do this alone. ... That's why I'm reaching out to Democrats, and also to Independents and Republicans. And that is why I won't just ask for your vote as a candidate; 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 cause of my presidency."

What Did Obama Mean by "Active Citizenship?"

Based on Obama's writing and experience, I would interpret his general statements about "active citizenship" as follows. He believes that positive change comes from organized social movements, not from the government alone. (Michelle Obama hammered on this theme when she spoke last summer in San Francisco.) Social movements should be broad-based, not narrow groups of people who all agree with one another. They should promote discussion and collaboration across lines of difference--including ideological difference. Hence the need to build bridges to Republican citizens.

What critics of ACORN-style "community organizing" don't understand is that Obama's specific brand of faith-based organizing in Chicago was intentionally broad-based--not narrowly ideological, and certainly not partisan. As he said in May 2007, "politics" usually means shouting matches on TV. But "when politics gets local, when the person talking to you is your neighbor standing on your front porch, things change." In that speech, he called for dialogues in every community on Iraq, health care, and climate change.

Further, Obama believes that social change requires work by many people. We must tap their skills, energies, networks, and local knowledge. Government programs cannot substitute for public work; nor can rights or entitlements. The "work" theme has been strong and consistent in his speeches. For example, on the 100th day of his presidency, in Arnold, Missouri, he said, "We're living through extraordinary times. We didn't ask for all the challenges that we face, but we're determined to answer the call to meet them. That's the spirit I see everywhere I go. That's the spirit we need to sustain, because the answer to our problems will ultimately be found in the character of the American people. We need soldiers and diplomats, scientists, teachers, workers, entrepreneurs. We need your service. We need your active citizenship."

At the root of many of our problems, Obama argues, are fractured relationships--among Americans and between Americans and major institutions. Bad policies are not the ultimate cause of our problems, and solutions require repairing relationships--something that only people (not institutions) can accomplish. Finally, there is a strong moral dimension to this work. Personal moral choices are responsible for our national successes and failures; and social movements can change those choices. In New Hampshire in 2006, Obama said: "We are going to re-engage in our democracy in a way that we haven't done for some time ... We are going to take hold of our collective lives together and reassert our values and our ideals on our politics. And that doesn't depend on one person. That doesn't depend on me or the Governor or a congressman or a speaker. It depends on you."

Before the campaign, Barack Obama had been a broad-based community organizer, provoking moral discussions with diverse neighbors for social change. Because of his deep interest in the theoretical issues connected to that work, he was one of just two elected officials who joined Robert Putnam's Saguaro Seminar, a leading project on civil society. Michelle, meanwhile, ran an AmeriCorps program (Public Allies in Chicago) that emphasizes civic skills, and then she took the job of building better relationships between the University of Chicago and its surrounding communities. I had the privilege of meeting her in October 2006 at a Campus Compact conference. The themes that I have quoted so far ran deep in the lives of this couple.

Did the Civic Engagement Theme Help Obama Win?

The press, including liberal columnists and bloggers, paid virtually no attention to the civic engagement theme in the campaign. I transcribed several of the quotes given above from YouTube videos because I could not find them in any print coverage of the campaign. Reporters regard a statement about "active citizenship" much like a comment about how wonderful it feels to visit New Hampshire in January. It's just throat-clearing that precedes the attack or proposal of the day. Yet the videos clearly show rising applause at the civic moments in these speeches.

Within the campaign, policy advisers didn't pay much more attention to the civic themes than the press did. The campaign did endorse expanding AmeriCorps, as did John McCain. But the Democrats' proposals on matters like education and the environment included no concrete ideas for civic empowerment. A substantial proportion of Obama's advisers were liberal technocrats who believe that society is divided into distinct interest groups. Progressive change comes from mobilizing the weaker interest groups to vote and then promoting their interests. Legislation is complex and fast-moving, and only insiders and the heads of interest groups can really understand it. Good government means informing, motivating, and negotiating with political leaders. All of these premises are at odds with the candidate's own speeches, but I think that the "active citizenship" theme slipped past Democratic Party elites just as it escaped the notice of the press.

If the media didn't report on active citizenship, and the candidate's policy positions didn't reflect it, how could it help him to win? One reason is that voters now get direct, unmediated access to the candidate's speeches and his books. They could hear his civic rhetoric. I know, as an empirical fact, that they clapped and cheered at it.

More importantly, the campaign was structured in ways that reflected Obama's civic philosophy. Volunteers were encouraged and taught to share their stories, to discuss social problems, to listen as well as mobilize, and to develop their own plans. There was a rich discussion online as well as face-to-face. This deliberative style was particularly attractive to young, college-educated volunteers, who felt deeply empowered and who played a significant role in the election's outcomes, especially in Iowa. (And without Iowa, Barack Obama would not be president.)

The civic theme was consistent with Barack and Michelle Obamas' personal stories and so helped to create a coherent narrative. I don't believe that "narratives" determine general election outcomes (which can be predicted precisely based on macroeconomic indicators), but I do think that Obama told a better story than Clinton in the Democratic primary--and that mattered.

The idea of civic empowerment may not have generated major policy proposals, but it did play an important role in campaign debates. For example, Clinton and Obama argued over the meaning of the Civil Rights Movement, with Obama crediting the grassroots and Clinton praising Lyndon Johnson and other national leaders. That was a legitimate disagreement, but Obama's position was consistent with his whole campaign. A related argument arose between Obama and Paul Krugman of the New York Times, with Krugman saying that America's problem was the Republicans, and Obama replying (although not directly to Krugman) that the problem was our civic fabric.

What Happened After the Inauguration?

Once elected, President Obama signed the Kennedy Serve America Act, which triples the size of AmeriCorps. That means that about 250,000 Americans--mostly young--will perform civilian service for a year or so. On his first day of office, the president issued a strong executive order on Transparency, Participation, and Collaboration, and he renamed the White House Office of Public Liaison the Office of Public Engagement. The Administration took steps to release public information online so that citizens could use it, and the White House held online dialogues about how to implement the executive order.

The agenda so far has been strong on service and transparency, but almost entirely missing participation or collaboration--equal pillars in the original executive order. Service does not necessarily build civic skills or address fundamental problems; besides, even an expanded AmeriCorps offers no role to most people. "Transparency" means feeding information to organized interest groups, reporters, and a few independent citizens who have deep interests and skills in particular areas.

These forms of civic engagement are not nearly "edgy" enough; there is no fight in them. People are angry, in America--from the Tea Partiers to MoveOn. When citizens try to solve serious social problems, they identify enemies. They do not just hold hands and serve together; they strike back at those whom they perceive as threats. If "active citizenship" reduces to non-controversial "service," it will completely lose touch with the legitimate anger of the American people.

The White House chose to make health care their major focus and included no aspects of civic engagement in the deliberations about the bill, in their advocacy for the legislation, or in the design of the statute. There could have been real public discussions, instead of sham "Town Meetings" that were really speeches by politicians with time for Q&A. Progressive volunteers could have been encouraged to conduct face-to-face dialogues in their communities and to form relationships with one another (instead of merely finding themselves on the receiving end of an email list). The legislation could have included health co-ops as an experiment in engaging citizens in policy.

In other words, a range of civic engagement strategies was available to the administration, including a deliberative approach (bringing liberals and conservatives together at the grassroots level to develop policy options), a more partisan and ideological strategy (empowering progressive citizen-activists to build relationships and persuade neighbors), and/or incorporating community panels or local insurance co-ops into the bill itself. The White House chose none of these strategies but opted instead for an inside game, trying to negotiate their way to a bill.

A health care bill may still pass, and it would probably be on its way to the White House already if it were not for a weak Democratic senatorial campaign in Massachusetts. On the other hand, the emerging bill was strikingly fragile because no passionate, organized, credible group of citizens supported it. It had the endorsement of some smart, independent policy experts but no enthusiastic popular backing. Nobody "owned" it. Lincoln was right: "Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed."

The President's rhetoric has been subtly shifting from civic empowerment to a focus on his own personal leadership--from "we" to "I." Seeking the nomination in Iowa, Barack Obama said, "I hold no illusions that one man or woman can do this alone." More than two years later, responding to the Massachusetts Senate election, he said:

Before the Democrats turned to health care in 2009, they passed a stimulus package that could have been described--justly--as "public work." Thanks to the stimulus, some Americans are building roads, bridges, and schools. Some are monitoring federal spending on websites. Some are advocating for priorities. Some are volunteering time in the same schools and hospitals where the federal funds go. Some could also deliberate about where the money should be spent at the local level. All this should be called "active citizenship" and described as a common project. Instead, it turned into a service of the federal government to us--inadequate for the task.

I recognize the challenges. Empowering grassroots volunteers to advocate for health care might have yielded a peaceful army in favor of "single payer," which would then die in Congress. Public discussions of health care, even if moderated and appropriately structured, could be ruined by deliberate and angry opponents. No one knows for sure how to involve citizens in the administration of health plans over time. Yet the lack of innovation and experimentation in these areas is striking after the impressive record of the campaign. It is hard to identify anyone who even wants to try a civic strategy.

If "active citizenship" seems abstract and utopian, consider Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE), a program within the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). CARE makes grants to communities that have formed local partnerships to address environmental issues and determined their local needs. CARE also provides training and technical assistance and puts an interdisciplinary EPA team in partnership with each community. According to Carmen Sirianni, CARE has built a culture of collaboration and has obtained very energetic and enthusiastic support from EPA staff. However, as I understand it, CARE's funding has been cut by the Obama Administration. Major national environmental organizations have little enthusiasm for its style of policy; they want top-down directives.

On health care, it is probably too late to try a civic approach. Climate change is so obviously stuck in the United States Senate that it is the issue I would use. The inside game can't work. The bully pulpit is inadequate: after thousands of speeches by respected leaders and celebrities, there is still not enough political will for major reform of energy policy. Since negotiation cannot yield an acceptable bill, the administration should try a grassroots strategy that includes a genuine element of open discussion, not just "messaging." And the legislation should include strong support for citizens' work (not just volunteer service) to reduce our carbon emissions.

Six months ago, I was more persuaded by the risks of employing civic engagement to address a high-profile, deeply contentious issue like health care. I then saw the argument for ramming it through Congress. With that strategy in tatters, the case for active citizenship is stronger than ever.

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January 26, 2010

St. Teresa

We are going to Spain in February, for a short vacation. As we prepare, I am focusing on St. Teresa of Ávila, in part because of the opening lines of Middlemarch (which is my favorite book):

Teresa was always in peril of her life. Even her ancestry was a danger to her, for her grandfather Juan was a Jew. The Inquisition (skeptical of his conversion) paraded Juan through Toledo in a yellow robe embroidered with lying tongues. Who knows whether inwardly he recited the Ave Maria or the Hebrew psalms of exile?

Juan fled to Ávila and raised his son to be as good a Catholic as a man could be. The family became wealthy and attained the minor nobility. But then his granddaughter Teresa arrived to challenge and perplex them. First she ran away to a nunnery--which was not so unusual--but she would not behave like a proper nun, saying the ritual Latin prayers prescribed by tradition and authority. Like her grandfather’s grandfathers, she felt compelled to struggle with ancient texts and apply their paradoxes to her own implacable conscience. Like a Protestant heretic, she held private dialogs with Jesus in the common tongue, often perceiving him as a bodily (if invisible) presence in the room beside her. Other spirits also visited her as she exercised her prodigious memory and imagination. Angels arrived frequently as intellectual presences and once as a visible form. On one unforgettable occasion, a seraph drove a fiery lance again and again through her heart and left her scorched and tingling.

Women who summoned spirits through private incantations were generally known as "witches." Friends and elders warned Teresa that her visions could be diabolical, and privately she feared that they were. Yet her struggles with her conscience led inevitably to terrifying moments of insight, and her imagination made those moments tangible. It was not by choice that she was sensitive and receptive. But it was her choice to train her sensitivity through laborious intellectual and spiritual exercises. The results--audible conversations with invisible spirits, reports of fiery angelic penetrations--could hardly fail to provoke deep suspicion.

All of Spain’s most dangerous enemies acted rather like Teresa, whether they were Mayan priests in trances with bloody hearts in their hands, Protestants claiming brazenly that they conversed directly with God, witches fornicating with Satan, or mystical Jews and Moors enraptured by musty texts.

If her spiritual exercises weren't bad enough, Teresa was driven to condemn the social order by force of her example. Daughter of a wealthy knight, she had run away to a convent for gentle ladies. It was a comfortable place where spinsters lived together in only partial seclusion. One spoke there in refined accents, relied on servants for manual labor, entertained visitors, and expected the deference of the poor. The cloister was decked in American gold; the porcelain Christ-child on the altar wore the finest Manila silks. But the real Jesus had consorted with poor fishermen and prostitutes. When Teresa vowed poverty, she meant it. She founded a new convent that was utterly humble, just a rough stone shed with straw on the floor. She walked barefoot and ministered to the poor and sick. Her closest confidants were a motley assortment of women and men from every social background.

Teresa was a tireless organizer as well as a mystic. She traveled thousands of miles, wrote innumerable letters, personally founded scores of reformed convents. She took flawed human material and built institutions. Yet the arrogant powers always circled her. Her friend John of the Cross was kidnapped, imprisoned in a Toledo monastery, and there viciously flogged every morning for favoring reforms like Teresa’s and for writing unpretentiously moving poetry on her model. She eluded the same enemies year after year, clearly driven by a compulsion that commanded respect against all odds.

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January 25, 2010

how to respond to the Supreme Court's campaign finance decision

The Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United is reckless, inconsistent with its authors' own principles, and likely to damage our already deeply flawed politics. Many others have noted that the Chinese Government may now legally deploy billions of dollars to influence American legislation by spending money on our campaigns through innocuous-sounding front organizations. Companies don't even have to spend money if they can threaten to do so. And incumbent members of Congress can now blackmail corporations to spend on their behalf by threatening to legislate against their interests.

Still, some effective avenues of response are open to us.

1. The opinion says, "If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech." All right--we can't regulate political "speech" (which, the Court says, includes money). But we can certainly regulate the terms under which corporations are chartered and operate in the United States. The federal tax code, the Securities and Exchange Act, and many other statutes determine the conditions and terms of incorporation, placing many restrictions on firms that do not also apply to individuals. So let's try a law that says: No company that files taxes with the Internal Revenue Service may spend any funds to influence legislation or elections in the United States. The penalty for violating this provision is not "jail or [a] fine" for any "citizen"; instead, the firm is placed on probation, denied the right to seek federal contracts, and finally subject to losing its articles of incorporation.

Or we could say that when you apply to incorporate, you must acknowledge that the legal entity that will be created will not have the rights of a person under the United States Constitution but will enjoy only those rights expressly granted to it by statute.

Or we could just pass a statute saying that firms incorporated under the laws of the United States are not persons. Let the Supreme Court find a constitutional text about "corporations" that would render that statute unconstitutional.

Steps along the way might have broader public support than these. For example, we could introduce legislation saying that any corporation that receives any investment from a foreign government, foreign official, or sovereign wealth fund may not spend money to influence US elections. That could knock out most of the big players. I would dare members of Congress to vote against such a bill.

The House Democrats are also considering a law to require that shareholders approve political ads that companies run.

2. There might be a statutory fix for the Supreme Court decision. Companies are henceforth permitted to buy broadcast ads for express advocacy--I think that's the major change that the decision causes. The price of broadcast time is going to rise dramatically in the weeks before elections, as companies and their front organizations purchase time. Under the Fair Elections Now bill, however, candidates who comply with the provisions would get public subsidies and "a 20% reduction from the lowest broadcast rates." So they would actually be able to buy broadcast time for dramatically less than their corporate opponents. The Fair Elections Now Bill has Republican co-sponsors in both houses. You can support it by joining my first employer, Common Cause, and/or Change Congress.

These are my lead points. I would join many others in saying that the opinion is an illustration of judicial activism. The Constitution never mentions corporations or campaigns, but the conservative majority detects an implicit right of corporations to spend unlimited funds to influence elections. Presumably the justices have the power to divine such a right in the penumbra and emanations of the first and fourteenth amendments, notwithstanding nearly a century of votes by elected leaders, state referenda, and previous court decisions to the contrary. It is certainly possible that the decision will not do much damage, because corporations were already able to spend money to influence politics. But lawmakers have no right to gamble by enacting new policies that might have modest effects. Make no mistake: the majority of the Supreme Court acted like law-makers, not like the neutral umpires that Roberts depicted in his confirmation hearings. These lawmakers cannot be removed from office and their decisions cannot be appealed in the courts.

Finally, ever since I helped to lobby for campaign finance reform for two years in the 1990s, I have believed that limitations on spending are not really the solution. Money always leaks around the limits, and if you set them too low, you just penalize challengers who can't raise money as easily as incumbents. I favor clean, public subsidies for candidates rather than limits, and that approach is still permissible under Citizens United. But the decision does change the context. We may now see many billions of dollars spent in campaigns, and even if corporations do not actually buy ads, they will have pervasive power from their mere capacity to spend. Public subsidies are going to look paltry compared to these billions. I still think subsidies are the only solution, but the problem just became worse than it has been since Teddy Roosevelt's administration.

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January 22, 2010

student conference on deliberation

One of the highlights of last summer was a fascinating conference called No Better Time, which convened scholars, activists, leaders, and students who are committed to deliberation. Hundreds of people met at the University of New Hampshire for a rich set of discussions and working groups.

The student participants banded together and decided to create a national conference of their own. It's called Connect the Dots, and it will be held on March 3-6, 2010, Point Clear, Alabama. They are calling it "A national student conference on public dialogue, deliberation, community problem solving and action." It should be fantastic. Students, faculty, and practitioners should apply to present.

The host of the conference is the David Mathews Center. David is now the president of the Kettering Foundation and was the president of the University of Alabama in the 1970s. The center named for him is located in Tuscaloosa. Its "purpose is to foster infrastructure, habits, and capacities for more effective civic engagement and innovative public decision making."

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January 21, 2010

on Krugman's giving up

I've posted more narrowly about politics than I like to lately, but I can't resist responding to Paul Krugman's piece entitled "He Wasn’t The One We’ve Been Waiting For." Krugman writes, "Maybe House Democrats can pull this out, even with a gaping hole in White House leadership. ... But I have to say, I’m pretty close to giving up on Mr. Obama, who seems determined to confirm every doubt I and others ever had about whether he was ready to fight for what his supporters believed in."

1. Obama never said he was the one we were waiting for. He said (quoting a line from the Civil Rights Movement): "We're the one's we've been waiting for." This was in the context of explicitly arguing that change does not come from the top down, but from the bottom up. The lack of bottom-up pressure for health reform is a major reason why the bill is being dropped. No major progressive organizations or movements really fought for a bill that could pass Congress, and you can't win a legislative battle without grassroots support.

2. Krugman has been giving up on Barack Obama every few weeks since before the Iowa Caucuses. Krugman certainly wasn't waiting for Obama; he was predicting his failure. The President gets under Krugman's skin because he won't say what Krugman believes--for example, that Republicans are evil. We would all like to hear the President of the United States say what we happen to think, and it is frustrating when he says something different. But expressing Krugman's thoughts would be lousy politics, not to mention that Obama doesn't agree with them.

3. The diagnosis that this is all Obama's fault seems crazy to me. What about the chair of the House Progressive Caucus, Raul Grijalva, rejecting the Senate bill and proposing, out of sheer spite, that the Senate should vote on each element of the House bill, one at a time? Or what about the anti-abortion caucus in the House? Or Evan Bayh? Or Nancy Pelosi declaring that the bill is dead? Or Barney Frank?

Krugman's myopic focus on the White House makes sense only if he holds a Great Man Theory of History--and Obama is not great enough for him--or if the President just fundamentally bugs him by being too publicly polite to Republicans.

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January 20, 2010

Youth turnout was 15% in the Massachusetts Senate election

CIRCLE's press release just went out:

Massachusetts Senate Election: Youth Turnout Was Just 15%, Compared to 57% for Older Citizens; Young Voters Favored Coakley

Tisch College, Medford/Somerville, Mass - In the special election for Massachusetts Senator, young voters (age 18-29) preferred Democrat Martha Coakley over Republican Scott Brown by 58%-40% (with 2% for other candidates), according to a survey of 1,000 voters conducted on January 19, by Rasmussen Reports.

About 15% of Massachusetts citizens between the ages of 18-29 turned out to vote.* For citizens age 30 and older, turnout was about 57%.

For comparison: 25% of young citizens (age 18-29) voted in the 2008 Massachusetts presidential primaries, and 47.8% of young Massachusetts citizens voted in the 2008 presidential elections, according to CIRCLE’s analysis. Seventy-eight percent of under-30 voters in Massachusetts chose Barack Obama in the 2008 general election; 20% chose John McCain.

While national youth turnout was very strong in 2008 (when 52% of young American citizens voted), youth turnout in the 2009 Virginia and New Jersey Gubernatorial races was poor (17% and 19%, respectively), and even lower in Massachusetts this Tuesday. “Three state elections do not necessarily make a national trend, but there is clearly an issue right now with youth turnout and enthusiasm,” said CIRCLE director Peter Levine. “It will be interesting to see the turnout of young voters in November’s mid-term elections.”

According to the Rasmussen survey, most young people who did vote were enthusiastic about Coakley: 89% of her young supporters said they voted for her, not against Scott Brown; and 43% were “very favorable” toward her. Their most important issue was the economy, whereas for voters overall, the number one issue was health care.

Of those Massachusetts voters who said that health care was the most important issue in the Senate campaign (56%), 86% opposed the Democrats’ plan. That was probably one contributor to Scott Brown’s victory. But young voters favored the health care plan, 55%-40%.

Young voters were less likely to be “strong” supporters of President Obama than Massachusetts voters overall (30% of youth versus 35% of all voters), but they were more likely to support him at least “somewhat.” (Sixty-seven percent support the president somewhat or strongly).

* To estimate the turnout of young people who voted in the 2010 Massachusetts Senate Special Election, CIRCLE used the following data sources: (1) the number of ballots cast in the Sentate Special Election according to the New York Times (2) the youth share of those who voted, as reported by Rasmussen’s survey of people who said that they voted, and (3) the estimated number of 18-29 year old citizens taken from the 2009 Census Current Population Survey, December File.

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January 19, 2010

what's happening to the Democrats?

Q. Why are the Democrats losing popularity in national surveys?
A. The answer to that one seems pretty straightforward. There is an eerily close correlation between unemployment and presidential approval during recessions. John Judis provides the graphs for Reagan and Clinton; Obama's pattern is just the same so far:

Q. What should the Democrats do about unemployment?
They should do whatever they can, mainly because losing your job is a terrible thing, but also because the Democrats' political fate is tied to the unemployment rate. What they have done so far is the stimulus package, the auto bailout, and extending unemployment benefits. It's clear that the public doesn't give them credit for these steps--understandably, since unemployment is still at 10%. Probably the stimulus should have been bigger, but I have my doubts that the federal government could have spent more money faster without making major mistakes.

Q. What about the narrative?
Paul Krugman, E.J. Dionne, and Kevin Drum all agree that the Democrats' problem is not declining popularity. That's inevitable, given the economic picture. Their problem is a failure to control the interpretation, the public's grand "narrative" about what is going on. Dionne writes:

Narratives do not determine electoral results, which can be forecast precisely based on economic indicators. Narratives do influence which policies the governing party attempts. Bill Clinton felt much more constrained than L.B.J. because the national storyline had shifted between 1964 and 1992--in part due to Ronald Reagan.

But I am not at all sure that Reagan controlled the narrative better in 1980-1982 than Obama is today. While Reagan's popularity was sinking toward 40%, I don't think most Americans were buying his claim that liberals had wrecked the economy with their taxes and spending, and he was saving it with his tax cuts (and spending). They were more likely to think that a mean Republican was putting people out of work. Reagan won the narrative in 1984 for a simple reason: the economy had recovered strongly, and he was the president at the time. Obama is making the progressive case today, much as Reagan argued for conservatism. People don't believe Obama, because unemployment is 10%. I don't think they believed Reagan when the situation was equally dire in 1981-2. Once again, everything depends on recovery.

Q. What about the left's revolt against Obama?
It certainly does not surprise me that people to the left of Barack Obama are dissatisfied with his record so far--that was to be expected, given their expectations. I do think their level of anger is surprising and damages their own cause. Here, in the academia-dominated, liberal, affluent Western suburbs of Boston, I hear constant griping about the president, and some of the reasons seem to me downright mistaken. For example, the public option in the health care bill was almost pure symbolism; using it as a bargaining chip was smart--not a betrayal. The national decline in the president's overall popularity is a function of economic conditions. For the Democrats to lose steam in Cambridge and Brookline seems unnecessary and harmful. I blame my neighbors for that, not the White House.

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January 15, 2010

could a college education prevent Wall Street greed?

At the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, we are in the business of civic education (and therefore character education) for college students. At CIRCLE, we study the same topic. Given my role, people frequently ask me how colleges and universities should improve the character of their graduates so that they do not act like the Wall Street barons who recently wrecked our economy in their own selfish interests.

Unfortunately, most research finds that human beings are profoundly influenced by their immediate contexts. It's a bit of a myth that we have stable characters that will determine how we react in various contexts. If you place people in charge of an unregulated hedge fund, it doesn't matter whether they are religious, empathetic, and reflective; their behavior will be determined by immediate opportunities and expectations. Any hedge fund dealer will behave very differently from anyone placed in a seminary. Moreover, we tend to opt for the worst behaviors expected or allowed within a given context--we make the most selfish and short-sighted available choices. That's because we have internal defense attorneys who vigorously advocate our self-interests during our mental deliberations. I have seen no evidence that education can lastingly change those calculations.

But we do choose what contexts we place ourselves in. In 1970, 5 percent of male Harvard graduates worked in the financial sector. In 2007, 58 percent of male Harvard seniors said they were heading for finance jobs. It seems pretty clear to me that the shift of creativity, talent, and ambition from manufacturing and government to banking has deeply damaged us as a nation. And at a personal level, it has put those Harvard graduates in contexts where they are likely to sin (if you'll excuse the theological terminology).

Although I have never seen evidence that education can change people's choices within a given context, I have seen research demonstrating that educational programs and curricula influence career choices. Once someone works on Wall Street, the only way to influence his or her behavior is to change the rules: punish risky and socially damaging decisions. But before our students decide to go to Wall Street, we can open their eyes to alternatives.

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January 14, 2010

class, culture, and education

I am writing about the tendency of social problems to interlock, so that each problem can be seen as a symptom of the next one. I think I will take the Washington, DC schools as my starting point--mainly because I know them pretty well.

Educational outcomes in DC are very poor: less than half of public school students graduate on time. Spending per student is quite high (approaching $13,000), but the actual services delivered at the school level are worth much less than that. Many of the city's schools are chaotic and sporadically violent. There are excellent teachers--much more skillful and dedicated than I would be--but the system as a whole seems dysfunctional.

Two experiments are underway. First, one third of the city's students are now in charter schools, which are independent of the central bureaucracy. Second, the controversial chancellor, Michelle Rhee (who sweeps her symbolic broom in photographs for national news magazines) aims to clean up the bureaucracy itself. One strategy uses decentralization and choice; the other, efficient central management.

I hope one or the other solution works, but I am concerned about how embedded the schools are in broader problems. Thirteen of every 1,000 babies born in the District die in infancy, twice the rate for the United States as a whole. More than one third of the city's children are obese. The death rate for teenagers is more than twice that of the United States as a whole, and the violent crime rate is more than three times as high. Each of these problems can be seen as a symptom of the other ones.

There is also a question of motivations, which can lead to different diagnoses. The opening point is to ask why as student (under very difficult and often demeaning circumstances) should align his or her efforts with what the schools expect.

There was an answer half a century ago. In 1950, just as today, more than half of 19-year-olds in the District had not graduated from high school. But the city then housed 35,000 industrial workers, including more than one thousand each of machinists, typesetters, and automobile mechanics. Washington was not an industrial city (compared, for example, to nearby Baltimore, where 30,000 men used to work in the Sparrow Point steel mill alone). Because of the federal government, jobs like "stenographer" and "office boy" provided more positions in DC than factories did. Young people could obtain these jobs without college diplomas--sometimes without graduating from high school.

Because most adults held working-class jobs, there was a general atmosphere of order and respect for authority in the community. It was easy for young people to envision concretely the benefits they would obtain from completing school. There was crime and academic failure, but it was marginal, not prominent. Most adults would end up collaborating in teams of other people of similar background, with distant, middle-class authority figures keeping an eye on them. Work life was thus a continuation of classroom life, with foremen and office managers replacing teachers and principals. Youth culture reinforced a sense of solidarity, compliance, and limited trust for authority. Skills were concrete and could be learned on the job.

Today, only about three percent of the city's jobs are classified as "construction, extraction, maintenance, and repair," whereas more than half are "management or professional." If you obtain skills for the business and professional world and credentials to demonstrate those skills, you have wide opportunities in DC and elsewhere. Sex, skin color, and age are less profound obstacles than they once were. But it is a long way from a DC school to the professional world; the curriculum is much to easy to prepare students for college, and there are few role models in the community. Thus it is pretty much unrealistic that most teenagers will be self-disciplined enough to delay gratification and get themselves through school. Even if they do, the benefits will be hard to see. If most other students basically doubt the social contract and do not want to participate, it is difficult for any individual student to do comply.

Culture and class strongly determine educational progress. In her brilliant book Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Annette Lareau argues that middle-class parents, without regard to race, use a strategy of "concerted cultivation" to raise their children. They devote almost every waking minute of the day to giving their kids educational experiences. The children are very heavily scheduled with organized after-school activities, to the point that they lead hectic lives with much rushed traveling and many overlapping or conflicting appointments. Even ordinary conversations are opportunities to develop kids' cognitive and language skills. Parents use persuasion and negotiation to influence their children's behavior--a laborious and slow way to get them to comply, but one that constantly challenges them mentally. Kids talk as equals with adults, including teachers and physicians. In Washington neighborhoods like Georgetown and Cleveland Park, "concerted cultivation" can be observed on every street.

Working-class and poor parents, on the other hand, attempt "the accomplishment of natural growth." They are just as loving and concerned as middle-class parents, but they are much less likely to arrange activities, to teach verbal skills, and to negotiate. They protect their kids' health and safety and then leave them to be kids. They defer to schools and medical professionals to diagnose and address any problems that arise.

Lareau evidently likes all the kids in her study; she depicts them all sensitively and sympathetically. Nevertheless, her findings support strong and perhaps unexpected comparative value-judgments. The poor and working-class kids are in many ways more attractive than the middle-class ones. They obey their parents' (relatively infrequent) instructions without whining--which is the bad side of negotiation. They are creative and skillful in organizing their own activities, including complex games. They are almost never bored. They fight with their siblings much less than middle-class children do--in fact, they rely on their relatives for support and entertainment, and enjoy one another's company. They play happily in groups of mixed ages. Their parents like them to have free time because they don't want them exposed (yet) to the daily grind of adult life. An attentive observer can find just such behavior in the working class neighborhoods of Washington.

In contrast, the middle-class kids are immediately bored when not provided with organized activities. They compete for attention with their siblings. (After all, when Mom is at brother's soccer practice, she's not doing anything for sister.) They constantly bargain with adults, including authority figures. They have a pervasive sense of entitlement to expensive goods and individualized services. They lack experience working with others of different ages or solving problems without adult intervention. Again, each subject is a likable human being, but many aspects of middle-class family childhood are unappealing.

Although the middle-class kids are less attractive than the poor and working-class children, their parents' investment will probably pay off for them. The children of Georgetown and Cleveland Park have precocious skills of verbal expression and negotiation, time-management, and public performance that will serve them well in the white-collar world. They consider themselves entitled to excellent services and demand it from adults and institutions. Their expectations and behavior are perfectly in synch with those of middle-class professionals (teachers, coaches, and physicians), who respond to their needs. As kids, they are tired and quarrelsome. As grownups, they will prosper.

In Washington, DC, middle-class families that use a strategy of concerted cultivation almost exclusively send their own children to private schools or move to the suburbs once their kids each the middle grades. The students who are left in the public school are being raised according to "the accomplishment of natural growth," in a setting where the "natural" outcome is poverty.

This is just an example of the complex entanglements of culture, class (and also race) with public problems and institutions. It all makes me believe that only social movements--not the reform and restructuring of institutions--can really make a difference.

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January 13, 2010

addressing homelessness

Today I was with 75 formerly homeless young women, mostly mothers, who analyzed the causes of homelessness and developed action plans to address it. (I was one of several facilitators of their discussions.) They were struck by the fact that the state of Massachusetts spends $47,000 per year for each family in a shelter, for a total shelter budget of $113 million last year. But the average housing voucher that allows the recipients to stay in their own home costs the state just $7,200 per year. It would seem that by paying for permanent housing, the state could spread $113 million around a lot more poor people and improve their welfare. (Staying in shelters is linked to educational, health, and mental-health problems.) Recognizing this situation, the federal stimulus bill provides money for "Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing" as an alternative to shelter.

The women I worked with were very well-informed and smart about analyzing this issue. They saw various aspects and problems--and they asked tough questions about who benefits from the existing system, which they find indefensible. But I have my own theory about why the current system exists and will be hard to change.

Entering a shelter is something people try very hard to avoid. That puts a lid on how many people seek shelter--only the very desperate. On the other hand, many people would like--and, in my opinion, deserve--$7,200 in subsidies. If people could get subsidies by demonstrating need and a risk of homelessness, lots of people would qualify, and the state would have high costs. Instead, we are willing to spend $47,000 for each family that ends up in shelter, knowing that it is such an unpleasant experience that people will do anything they can to avoid it.

It's exactly like the old workhouses of Victorian England--you have a right to food and shelter, but you have to suffer and be degraded to get it.

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January 12, 2010

the French Encylopedia vs. Wikipedia

L'Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-1772) was a major contribution to Enlightenment civil society. Not only did it contain much knowledge (and maybe a dose of wisdom), but it specifically expanded civil rights and liberties by promoting classical liberal positions contrary to absolute monarchism, the army, and the church. It had 28 main authors, brilliant philosophes including Voltaire and Diderot, most of whom were amateurs in the sense that they were not paid to write--but they were a privileged and exceptional few. By my calculation, a new copy of the multi-volume first edition (beautifully bound in leather and illustrated) cost about as much money (456 livres) as an unskilled laborer earned in 16 months of work. The French Encyclopedia included many ground-breaking, highly original and even iconoclastic articles that changed disciplines and are still read today

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, has about 318 times more articles and roughly 85,000 active contributors. It is completely free for anyone with Internet access, and it expands freedom not because of a particular editorial commitment to liberal values, but because it is a massive, uncensored, public forum. Although it was set up for traditional encyclopedia articles, users now create live news pages as well. For example, as Clay Shirky notes, the terrorist bombings in London in 2005 were tracked in real time on a Wikipedia page created within minutes of the first explosion.

Wikipedia announces, "Visitors do not need specialized qualifications to contribute. Wikipedia's intent is to have articles that cover existing knowledge, not create new knowledge (original research). This means that people of all ages and cultural and social backgrounds can write Wikipedia articles. Most of the articles can be edited by anyone with access to the Internet, simply by clicking the edit this page link. Anyone is welcome to add information, cross-references, or citations, as long as they do so within Wikipedia's editing policies and to an appropriate standard."

Wikipedia and other peer-produced forms of knowledge demonstrate that sheer numbers of people can generate knowledge of great value. The value that they create is different from the contributions of the philosophes who wrote the Encyclopédie. I'm not sure there is a common coin with which we can compare the two, yet Wikipedia is certainly worthy of being named alongside the Encyclopédie. As proof, consider that the Wikipedia article about the Encyclopédie is itself a really good read.

There are also some interesting similarities. Although editors of the French Encylopedia chose authors, and Wikipedia is wide open, a Power Law applies in both cases--the most prolific 10% of authors contribute the majority of the content. In the former case, a man called "Louis de Jaucourt ... wrote 17,266 articles, or about 8 per day between 1759 and 1765." He sounds much like one of the dedicated enthusiasts who produces a vast supply of Wikipedia entries and keeps the whole thing alive.

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January 11, 2010

here comes everybody?

Over the winter break, I finally read Clay Shirky's book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Its virtues include good stories, a clear and accessible--rather aphoristic--style, relevant application of social theories (including Coase's theory of the firm, the Prisoner's Dilemma, and social capital) and balanced value-judgments. The basic phenomenon that interests Shirky is the dramatic fall in the cost and difficulty of organizing groups. Shirky recognizes that this change is not all for the good, but he argues that its effects are already profound. "Our principal challenge is not deciding where we want to go, but rather in staying upright as we go there. The invention of tools that facilitate group formation is less like ordinary technological change, and more like an event, something that has already happened. As a result, the important questions aren't about whether these tools will spread and reshape society, but rather how they do so" (p. 307-8).

I get the theoretical argument and find the examples persuasive, even exciting. But I am still struck by how little change has actually occurred so far. Maybe we are in a formative period and about to see some really big shifts. I don't see them yet.

Easy group formation should allow people to create valuable goods without organizing themselves into firms with costly overhead (HR departments, legal offices, executive suites). We should therefore see economic growth, with the engine being informal networks, like the programmers who create and refine Linux or the volunteers who build Wikipedia. Indeed, these are valuable and fascinating goods. Yet the last decade was one of the worst in the economic history of the United States. And the chief corporate rival of Linux, Microsoft, remains the third most profitable company in the whole country, with $17.68 billion in profits in 2008. I suppose you could argue that we don't count GDP correctly because goods like Wikipedia aren't priced. But it's evident that the economy is worse off, overall, than it was 10 years ago.

Easy group formation should have political effects; it should weaken authoritarian regimes and expand freedom of association, even under duress. One of Shirky's examples is the campaign to bring down President Alexander Lukashenko, dictator of Belarus. Its most remarkable and innovative feature has been its use of flashmobs. People assemble for harmless activities like eating ice cream, and the government arrests them because it cannot tolerate organized assemblies. That is a fascinating development--but Lukashenko is still firmly in charge four years after the flashmobs began in Belarus. I devoutly hope that the Green Revolution in Iran will be more successful, but if it is, I think the cause will be a split in the clergy, not just the availability of Twitter and Flickr.

Easy group formation should have sociological effects, making people feel less isolated and more trusting. Yet according to the General Social Survey, the proportion of Americans who feel they can generally trust others fell from 46% in 1972 to 32% in 2008. The decline has been fairly smooth and steady, and 2008 was the worst year on record.

The one really profound change that has already happened is the decline of metropolitan daily newspapers in the United States, caused by Craiglist and eBay. That's a perfect illustration of Shirky's thesis: individuals have been able to avoid the overhead costs (and profit margins) of the newspaper industry by selling directly to one another. So far, the net effects of that change seem bad to me--we have lost our main way of financing journalism. I can well imagine that we will end in a better place, with news peer-produced by citizens. Again, I don't believe we're there yet, and progress seems far from assured.

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January 8, 2010

this blog turns seven

My first blog post was on January 8, 2003. Since then, I have rather obsessively posted every single work day (except when we've been on family vacations). The archives of this blog have accumulated 1,377 posts and 969,405 words.

I try not to be self-referential, but once a year, on my "blogday," I reflect a little about this forum. In 2009, the big change was my decision to have each post automatically reprinted on Facebook (and, later, tweeted on Twitter). I've enjoyed the Facebook feed because it's an unobtrusive way to tell people about new posts; and then it's easy for them to comment or show that they "like" something I've written. I now direct people who want to comment on my blog to my Facebook page. I also waste a whole lot of my own time on Facebook ....

I don't think the content of my blog changed appreciatively during its seventh year. I wrote somewhat less about electoral politics and young voters, because there was no national election. I still tried to serve up a mix of news from the field of civic engagement, reflections on current events, some philosophy, some arts, and a bit of light verse.

In 2009, there were 83,800 visits to the main blog page. That doesn't count people who read the blog on Facebook or via RSS feeds. The number of visitors was almost exactly the same as in 2008, but there are huge seasonal variations. I know from seven full years of experience that I always get many more visitors in the spring and fall than in the winter and summer. November is typically the peak month, especially when an election draws people interested in youth voters. In November 2008, there were 13,186 visits to the main page, or 440 each day. The daily average for the year 2009 was just 230.

Would-be bloggers shouldn't seek my advice, since I've never built a large audience myself. But for what it's worth, I would advise thinking about your archive as much as your current posts. After a while, you will build up quite a store of text that search engines index. If you blog about only current events, your archive will be swamped by unimaginable quantities of other people's writing. No one finds my old posts about Bush and Kerry by Googling for those search terms. But if you blog about somewhat offbeat topics, your archive becomes a store of accessible material. I guess that 80% of visitors to my website do not look at my post of the day, but rather arrive at an old post via a web search. Of late, they have been looking for Nabokov heroines, my late friend Cole Campbell, what parents want for their children, and the Spanish Renaissance painter Juan Sánchez Cotán. I am happy to oblige such tastes.

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January 7, 2010

discussion and service on MLK Day (year 2)

Just a few days before Dr. Martin Luther King was killed, he said: "It is always a rich and rewarding experience to take a brief break from our day-to-day demands and the struggle for freedom and human dignity and discuss the issues involved in that struggle with concerned friends of goodwill all over our nation."

We have lost Dr. King, but we must continue the discussion. Many people are choosing to conduct service activities on Martin Luther King Day, which falls on Jan. 18th this year. Service is best when it involves reflection. Volunteers can meet to choose their issues and plan their service. After a service activity, they can reflect about what they have learned and what they should do next. Such discussions turn ordinary service events into powerful opportunities for learning, analyzing issues, forming human connections, and addressing serious, long-term problems.

Last year, the member groups of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium , which specialize in public discussions, created a guide for conversations to accompany service on Martin Luther King Day. Public Agenda Foundation and Everyday Democracy played leading roles in creating this guide. We have updated it a bit for 2010.

The guide is available for any group that wants to combine discussion with service on Martin Luther King Day. I am circulating it now and encouraging people and organizations to plan on using it in time for Jan. 18--although it is appropriate for any other day as well.

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January 6, 2010

why I am not a libertarian

I have a lot of respect for the pragmatic kind of libertarianism that says: Market solutions might work better than government programs, and we should try them. For example, I think it's right to experiment with voucher systems as alternatives to government-run schools. This experiment will either work or not (under various circumstances), but it's worth trying.

A voucher system would not, however, bring about true philosophical libertarianism. The government would still collect mandatory taxes to fund education, and would still make certain educational experiences mandatory for every child. In fact, voucher systems are standard in some of the Western European countries that we call "socialist."

True philosophical libertarianism says: Government taxation and regulation are affronts to personal liberty. My life is mine, and no one, including a democratic state, may take goods from me or direct my actions without restricting my freedom. At most, minor restrictions on my liberty are acceptable for truly important reasons, but they are always regrettable.

That doctrine simply does not feel plausible to me, experientially. Imagine that all levels of government in the United States reduced their role to providing national defense and protecting us against crimes of violence and theft. Gone would be an interventionist foreign policy, criminalization of drugs and prostitution, and--more significantly--publicly funded schools, colleges, medical care, retirement benefits, and environmental protection. As a result, a family like mine could probably keep 95% of the money we now have to spend on taxes, paying only for a minimal national defense and some police and courts. We would have perhaps one third more disposable income,* although we would have to purchase schooling for our kids, a bigger retirement package, and more health insurance; and we would have to pay the private sector somehow for things like roads and airports.

I have my doubts that we would be better off in sheer economic terms. In any case, I am fairly sure that I would not have more freedom as a result of this change. And freedom (not economic efficiency or impact) is the core libertarian value.

I don't think one third more discretionary income would make me more free because I know plenty of people who already have that much income and they don't seem especially free. With an extra billion dollars, I could do qualitatively different things from what I can do now; but an amount under $100,000 would just mean more stuff. Meanwhile, when I consider the actual limits to my freedom, the main ones seem to fall into two categories. First, there is a lack of time to do what I want. I suppose not having to pay taxes would give me a bit more time because I could work fewer hours. But my work is a source of satisfaction to me (and is also somewhat competitive with others' work). I would be very unlikely to cut my hours if the opportunity arose, nor would doing so feel like an increase in my freedom. The way to get more time is to stop wasting it.

Second, I feel limited by various mental habits: too much concern with material things, too much fear of disease and death, too much embroilment in trivialities. I hardly think that being refunded all my taxes would help with those problems, especially if I then had to shop for schools, retirement packages, and insurance. That sounds like a perfect snare.

I have been talking about me and my family. Whatever the impact on us of a libertarian utopia, it would be worse for people poorer than us. Unless you take a very dim view of the quality of government services such as Medicaid and public schools, you should assume that low-to-moderate income citizens get more from the state than they could afford on the market. They would have reason to worry that they could afford basic services at all, and such insecurity would decrease their freedom as well as their welfare.

Overall, economic libertarianism seems to me a materialistic doctrine. (Civil libertarianism, which I endorse, is a different matter.) You risk being called elitist for saying that we are unfree because we have too much stuff and care too much about it. But it happens to be true.

*I don't know how much my family spends on total taxes (income, sales, property, local, state, federal, Social Security, etc), but the Statistical Almanac of the United States says that 12% of all personal income goes to taxes, and I am presuming that we pay three times the average rate because we have higher income and live in Massachusetts.

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January 5, 2010

Habermas illustrated by Twitter

The contemporary German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has introduced a set of three concepts that I find useful. They play out in the 140-character messages, "tweets," that populate Twitter. Here are Habermas' three concepts, with tweets as illustrations. (I found these examples within seconds as I wrote this blog post.)

Lifeworld is the background of ordinary life: mainly private, maybe somewhat limited or biased, but also authentic and essential to our satisfaction as human beings. When in the Lifeworld, we mostly communicate with people we know and who share our daily experience, so our communications tend to be cryptic to outsiders and certainly not persuasive to people unlike us. Real examples from Twitter: "y 21st bday with my beloved fam, bf and bff :)" ... "Getting blond highlights for new year." ... "Thanks! You too! I hope you get a chance to rest over the weekend before 'life' comes back at us."

The Public Sphere is the set of forums and institutions in which diverse people come together to talk about common concerns. It includes civic associations, editorial pages of newspapers, New England Town Meetings, and parts of the Internet. The logic of public discourse demands that one give general reasons and explanations for one's views--otherwise, they cannot be persuasive. Examples from Twitter: "Is it time to admit that the failures in our intelligence on terrorism are not systemic/technical but human/cultural?" "Clyburn Compares Health Care Battle To Struggle For Civil Rights" ... "Reports from Iran of security forces massing in squares as new footage of protests is posted." (Note that each of these tweets had an embedded link to some longer document.)

The "System" is composed of formal organizations such as governments, corporations, parties, unions, and courts. People in systems have official roles and must pursue pre-defined goals (albeit with ethical constraints on how they get there). For example, defense lawyers are supposed to defend their clients; corporate CEOs are supposed to maximize profit; comptrollers are supposed to reduce waste in their own organizations. You can see the "System" at work on Twitter if you follow Microsoft ("The Official Twitter of Microsoft Corporate Communications"), The White House, or NYTimes.

When well designed, Systems can be efficient, predictable, and fair. But they prevent participants from reasoning about what ought to be done, because officials have pre-defined goals. Thus it is dangerous for the System to "colonize" the public sphere and the Lifeworld. It is also dangerous for people to retreat entirely from the public sphere into the privacy of the Lifeworld. The Twitter Public Timeline shows this struggle play out in real time.

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January 4, 2010

innovation in technology and the humanities

In an era of obvious technological change, we tend to overestimate the impact of new technological tools and overlook innovations in the humanities. The classic example is the Gutenberg Revolution. Supposedly, the invention of movable type, which lowered the cost of reproducing documents, shattered the control of the hierarchical Catholic Church and permitted Protestant reforms such as the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages.

I've argued before that this history is mistaken. To recap the main points: The Bible was translated into vernacular languages many times during the Middle Ages. Translation was allowed and even strongly encouraged by some leading thinkers. Erasmus, a Catholic, a critic of Luther, and an adviser to popes, wrote a manifesto in favor of translation: "I would to God, the plowman would sing a text of the scripture at his plowbeam, and that the weaver at his loom, with this would drive away the tediousness of time. I would the wayfaring man with this pastime, would express the weariness of his journey." His was not a radical position but had much medieval precedent.

Today, Catholicism has a reputation for opposing translation because after the Protestant Reformation, at the Council of Trent, the Church adopted that position. The story is not: 1) the Church opposes translation; 2) Gutenberg invents movable type; and thus 3) translation occurs. It is rather: 1) The Church generally encourages translation, 2) Gutenberg invents movable type, which is helpful to Protestant pamphleteers and translators who make specifically Protestant translations of the Bible; so 3) after 150 years, the Church bans translation.

But why were translations fairly rare and unimportant in the Middle Ages and then extremely influential and controversial in the Renaissance? The reason is innovation, but not a new technology. In the Middle Ages, the best way to read and discuss the Bible was to use the Latin Vulgate edition, originally translated by Saint Jerome. That was because Latin was a living, vital language, very widely taught and understood by literate people, and shared by Europeans from Iceland to Sicily. Also, the Vulgate was a good edition, made by a great scholar directly from Greek and Hebrew. Very few medieval Europeans knew Greek, let alone Hebrew, and they had poor or inconsistent texts of the Bible in those languages. Before it was possible to make a good translation into, say, English, they needed to invent Greek and Hebraic scholarship. Thus Erasmus, in his argument for translating the Bible into the vernacular, cites the "new and marvelous kind of learning" that has made this possible. He was talking about what we call the Renaissance, not the printing press.

Another change happened simultaneously that was just as important: the vernacular languages became worthy tools for translation. At first, in the wake of the Roman Empire, there were no languages like English, French, Dutch, Spanish, German, or Italian. There were rather local dialects of Latin or German that were different from village to village and had fairly rudimentary vocabularies. That is one reason that not only scholars, but merchants and minor officials, learned Latin from a young age--it was a better means of communication than their birth tongues. To create a real language took deliberate work. Literary authors had to develop vocabularies, often borrowing from ancient languages, and their works had to achieve wide renown so that the languages could unify. For instance, Dante helped to create Italian by writing so well in his own Florentine dialect, by borrowing thousands of Latin words, and by being so widely imitated throughout the peninsula.

Thus the story is not: 1) The Church kept the Bible under wraps by banning translations; 2) the printing press expanded freedom; so 3) the Bible was translated. It is more like this: 1) People used the Bible in Latin because that was the easiest and best language; 2) Modern languages developed as a result of literary and scholarly work; 3) Scholars learned Greek and Hebrew and created reliable editions of the original scriptures; 4) Martin Luther, John Wykliffe, and others were in a position to make vernacular translations, which, in turn, helped to form modern German, English, and other languages. I think all of this would have happened without Gutenberg, because the Renaissance was already well underway when he started printing around 1439.

The moral is to pay more attention to the growth of scholarship and literature when trying to explain great changes in society--not only in 1510, but five centuries later.


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