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March 31, 2010

bringing loyalty back

I understand "citizens" as members of communities (of any size) who take responsibility for building and improving those communities, along with the other members. In his short, classic book entitled Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Albert Hirschman argued that we have two basic options when we are dissatisfied with any institution or group, whether it is a restaurant, a church, a municipality, or a nation-state. We can leave it and join a different institution ("exit"), or we can try to persuade our fellow members to change it ("voice").

Exit is a human right: except in extraordinary situations, people should not be trapped in institutions. Besides, exit can improve the world, because institutions that lose members are forced to reform. That is the logic of market competition, and it works.

But voice is also valuable, and it is the harder path. When a city is de-industrializing or a school system is failing, exit will simply strip it of members and resources. It will not die completely--American Rust Belt cities and their school systems are not going to vanish like ancient Carthage and Thebes--but it will suffer from shrinking. Those who are left behind will be the weakest and the most vulnerable. These communities need internal reform and rebirth, and that requires voice. As Hirshman argued, loyalty is what causes people to exercise voice when exit is an option.

It would be difficult to measure the ratio of exit to voice in modern America, especially if one tried to assess the quality as well as the mere frequency of voice. Since I do not know how to measure this ratio, I cannot demonstrate that we are substituting exit for the voice and loyalty that we once had. But problematic examples of exit are widely visible.

Wealthy parents exit public school systems, and middle-class families exit cities for suburbs. Partisans exit politically heterogeneous communities in favor of homogeneous ones so that they do not have to persuade fellow citizens to agree with them. (Bill Bishop argues in The Big Sort that Americans now live in counties—and other fixed geographical jurisdictions—that are far more politically homogeneous than they were in previous generations, because we "vote with our feet." ) During the last third of the twentieth century, the composition of American civil society changed profoundly as people exited associations that were diverse in terms of occupation, social class, and ideology (but rooted locally) and instead joined single-issue organizations that advanced causes they favored. You don't have to use voice within a single-issue organization: it speaks for you. You can exit as soon as you cease to agree with its agenda. Finally, millions of Americans have exited public life altogether in favor of purely private concerns and networks.

Overall, it is my impression that we are substituting exit for voice. That may be a natural (although undesirable) process, because voice is the more difficult mode. But there are counter-trends, particular efforts to enhance voice. Three efforts exemplify the moral consequences of loyalty.

Positive Youth Development: The traditional way of thinking about adolescence (ever since G. Stanley Hall coined the word in 1904) has been in terms of risk and potential failure. An "adolescent" is becoming an adult—that is what the word means—but crises and tragedies can interfere along the way. Thus society’s obligation is to monitor adolescents for signs of delinquency, academic failure, risky behavior, and depression and to intervene whenever such problems loom. The intervention may be punitive or supportive, but it is always aimed at preventing a deficit state and returning the teenager to the normal path, which leads out of adolescence and into adulthood. There is nothing intrinsically valuable about being a teenager.

In the 1990s, strong evidence emerged that this model was counterproductive. Prevention programs generally proved unsuccessful in rigorous evaluations. Constantly monitoring adolescents for signs of failure conveyed the message that they were problems and encouraged them to feel alienated. This approach set a low bar, allowing many teenagers to evade adult guidance as long as they obeyed the law and did their homework. And for those who broke the law or dropped out of school, the interventions were usually unsuccessful.

Thus Positive Youth Development (PYD) arose as a theory that adolescents would "flourish" or "thrive" better if they were treated as assets and given opportunities to contribute through community service, the arts, or spirituality. Young people had distinctive assets, such as enthusiasm, creativity, and flexibility, that could be tapped to improve communities and to give them a sense of purpose and belonging. Evaluations of programs that used a PYD framework showed strongly positive results, as participating teenagers were less likely to drop out of school, become pregnant, and otherwise cause damage to themselves and others.

Most of the literature on PYD concerns its impact, which inevitably varies from one program to another and from one young person to another. Much evaluation research still remains to be done. One could also debate (with empirical evidence) how prevalent are various assets and deficits in our young people--for example, how many have musical talents versus how many are abusing drugs. But what interests me here is not the empirical evidence, which can cut either way; it is rather the desire of PYD scholars and practitioners to find models that treat young people as assets and that promote their thriving. Why should they hope that PYD works, when surveillance and intervention might be cheaper and more reliable? Why, when particular PYD programs do not work, do they look for improvements rather than drop the whole approach in favor of prevention and remediation?

The answer, I suspect, is a fundamental moral commitment. We should strive to treat the other people who inhabit our communities as fellow citizens, not as threats or problems. We should use voice to engage them, which means both talking to them and genuinely listening. We should invest in their civic skills: leadership, effective speaking, and organizing. Those premises apply even if our fellow citizens happen to be younger than 20. Thus PYD is fundamentally a manifestation of civic loyalty.

Asset-Based Community Development: Just as the standard model of adolescents emphasizes their problems and threats, so the standard view of poor urban or rural communities stresses their pathologies and lack of resources. In both cases, these assumptions have an empirical basis: teenagers actually get into trouble (sometimes fatally), and poor neighborhoods really do have problems.

Just to mention one example, in the 53206 zip code of Milwaukee, WI, during the pre-recession year of 2007, 62 percent of the men in their early thirties were in--or had been in--state prisons. Due to premature death and incarceration, women in their 30s outnumbered men by three to two. The average income of tax-filers (a small proportion of the population) was just $17,547, and 90 percent of these individuals were single parents. (Data thanks to Lois M. Quinn.)

It is easy and appropriate to catalog the deficits of this place. But the net effects of a "deficit model" of urban development can be harmful. It suggests that indigenous people and their networks have little capacity, so outside agencies must provide resources. But resources that simply flow from outside tend to be misallocated or otherwise wasted. Consider, for example, that 90 percent of the people who declared any income from working within Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code in 2007 lived outside it, and 56 percent of these filers were white (even though 97 percent of the zip code’s residents were African American). Welfare, police, and health funds intended for this community subsidized public employees who lived elsewhere. A deficit approach also encourages authorities literally to bulldoze buildings and other assets that have value, and it may motivate residents to try to exit.

Hence John L. McKnight and John P. Kretzmann have developed a model called "Asset-Based Community Development" (ABCD), which begins with making an elaborate public inventory of the assets, both tangible and intangible, of any community. Outside resources, such as funds, experts, and volunteers, are not supposed to flow until the community has assessed and discussed its own strengths. ABCD and Positive Youth Development come together in "community youth development" (CYD), which typically involves teenagers in assessing their communities’ assets. CYD is an alternative to the kinds of programs that remove "at-risk" teenagers from dangerous settings to work or study apart. Instead, CYD treats their relationships with their home communities as potentially positive for both. Again, there is a strong emphasis on developing the voice and skills of participants.
Like PYD, ABCD raises empirical questions: How many assets do our poorest communities possess? Does it "work" to emphasize their assets rather than their liabilities? Does this approach lead to better policies and outcomes? Once again, I think these issues are important and should cause us to refine and improve any specific ABCD program. But the underlying commitment is moral and immune to empirical evidence (short of a proof that ABCD always fails). The moral commitment is loyalty.

Relational Organizing: Survey data show that most Americans have no idea what "community organizing" means, but presumably the most famous example is ACORN, the large and controversial community-organizing group that now faces bankruptcy. ACORN exemplifies strategic organizing, which always starts with some kind of policy agenda, such as saving civilization by reducing carbon emissions or saving unborn children by ending abortion. Strategic organizers need to recruit and motivate strong supporters, find non-supporters who might be persuadable, and mobilize people who have special assets to contribute to the cause (e.g., money, skills, serious commitment, network ties, or fame).

In contrast, relational organizing does not start with a cause, but rather with a set of people--for instance, all the residents of a neighborhood or all members of a congregation. Relational organization groups such as the Industrial Areas Foundation in Texas or the PICO and Gamaliel Networks usually recommend a long initial process of listening and discussing to decide what the common cause should be. Because their commitment is to relationships, not to predetermined outcomes, their organizers do not select which individuals to mobilize because of what they can contribute to the cause. There is an ethical commitment to the relationship itself that can survive differences of opinion or failure to contribute effectively to the cause.

Relational organizing can occur within a homogeneous group, but it is related to "broad-based" organizing, in which there is a commitment to connect and listen to all sectors or perspectives within a geographical community. A broad-based organizer will want to make sure that liberals, conservatives, industries, environmentalists, religious and secular people are all "at the table." In this case, as in the cases of PYD and ABCD, the fundamental commitments are loyalty and voice.

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March 30, 2010

10 books that I would like to say influenced me

Various bloggers are listing the top 10 books that have influenced them. Some of these lists look pretty pretentious. I would be the first to admit that the books that have really influenced me are a miscellaneous bunch, starting with Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy World and continuing through various teen adventure novels, read-alouds for my kids (Go, Dog, Go! is up there), and a fair amount of downright junk. But there's benefit to listing books that you have actually read and that have shaped your serious, professional work--call them "aspirational influences." Here are mine, in the order I first read them:

George Eliot's Middlemarch, the great novel for grownups (because it begins instead of ends with a marriage). I first read it in a college-style seminar at the Telluride Summer Program for high school kids, and it was my earliest experience with real criticism: close reading, understanding a text in context, applying theoretical frameworks. That was eye-opening and inspiring. I have even deeper respect for the novel now, having re-read it in middle age. By the way, the city of its title is industrializing. It is in the "March" of its development, with a long summer of growth ahead. Many of our cities today are experiencing de-industrialization; they are at November. More than anything, I would love to read a Middlemarch of the post-industrial American city.

Edmund Wilson, To The Finland Station, which I read when I was a teenager. It introduced me to historicism, the idea that fundamental premises and values change from culture to culture and that modernism is a response to that recognition. Those were also basic ideas for my father, and Wilson helped me to understand his work.

Ernst Gomrich, Art and Illusion, which I also read when I was a teenager. It gave me a scheme with which to assimilate the Italian art that we had seen during six months living it Italy. Gombrich's theory is fundamentally not historicist: he sees painters as scientists, learning to represent objective nature by trial-and-error. I accepted both Wilson and Gombrich and tried to harmomize them in several long and unsuccessful undergraduate papers. I still think it is essential to reconcile progress and problem-solving (Gombrich and others) with some kind of relativism (Wilson and others).

Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, which I have not opened since I was about 18, but I read the whole thing then, and it made me want to be a political philosopher. It also helped to make me a liberal, although that outcome was probably overdetermined.

Shakespeare, King Lear. Hardly an original choice, but I have seen at least a half dozen productions and published a chapter about this great study of human love when life has no purpose.

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. Although I rarely quote him, my sense of moral reasoning is heavily Wittgensteinian. Moral concepts are not one kind of thing and do not all have one logic. They are miscellaneous but they work in their various contexts. Further, the Investigations exemplifies how philosophy is a kind of writing (to quote Richard Rorty); its form matters as much as its conclusions.

Theodore Lowi, The End of Liberalism (1969, revised in 1979), which argues that American politics has degenerated into negotiations among organized interest groups, while the notion of the public good had been lost in both academic theory and political practice. Lowi remains completely timely, alas.

Dante, Inferno--in the Robert Pinsky translation and glimpsed dimly in the original Italian. Dante is great to "think with." I've been struggling with him since I took three college seminars on the Divine Comedy, and this winter I published a book-length study of him. He is fundamentally alien to me but he challenges us with his strong and clear vision.

Nabokov, Lolita. Some of the worst misreadings in history are the ones that interpret this book as some kind of defense of Humbert or an argument for sexual liberation. Humbert is a monster; the hero is the child he rapes. Nabokov, the Russian aristocrat, could see the world from the perspective of a suburban, gum-popping, American tween, which was was a great feat of empathy and moral imagination. Humbert's sophisticated rhetoric almost erases her, in a profound illustration of tyranny.

Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House teaches the spiritual benefits of civic engagement, the need to respect ordinary people and vernacular cultures, citizenship as co-creation, and the value of listening with an open mind.

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March 26, 2010

guard dogs, human sleep, and the origins of culture

The fossil record shows evidence of domesticated dogs at least 31,000 years ago; the first date of domestication is unknown. Believers in the Great Leap Forward assert that human beings made rapid cultural progress starting about 50,000 years ago, when they developed dance, painting, hunting traps, burial, clothes, and jewelery. Could their dogs have helped their cultural development?

Early humans must have been unable to sleep soundly and dream deeply. They must have slept like other large mammals, with their senses sharply attuned to threats in the night. But once they had guard dogs with them, they could go into deep sleep. Surely that had significant benefits for their imaginations. Dogs retained their ability to sense danger while asleep, and humans used the same nighttime hours to refresh their brains and enrich their consciousness.

(This is mere conjecture, asserted with no evidence whatsoever. I haven't even seriously Googled the topic, let alone studied it.)

PS, the photo shows our dog Barkley zealously guarding my wife Laura.

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March 25, 2010

state, market, and original sin

Imagine that the pure and original human condition is freedom from all political constraint; and when governments intervene, they introduce arbitrary and illegitimate power. Then the market is Eden and the government is original sin. In that case, anyone who deliberately increases the scope of government must either be a purposeful or a deluded friend of sin. Regardless of what the Congressional Budget Office or the American Medical Association may say about the new health care act, it can only be a snake in the garden. The difference between literally "taking over one sixth of the economy" by nationalizing health care and merely adding some new insurance regulations and subsidies (as Congress did this week) is immaterial, because sin is sin. On this view, the only important political distinction is between those who would protect freedom from the state and those who would use government for their ends. Communists, fascists, liberals, and moderate conservatives--despite what I observe as profound differences--run together.

I am certainly not the first to note a similarity between this specific kind of libertarianism and religious thought. In 1922, Charles A. Beard argued:

About the middle of the nineteenth century, thinkers [in the field of Political Economy] were mainly concerned with formulating a mill owner's philosophy of society; and mill owners resented every form of state interference with their 'natural rights.' ... The state was regarded as a badge of original sin, not to be mentioned in economic circles. Of course, it was absurd for men to write of the production and distribution of wealth apart from the state which defines, upholds, taxes, and regulates property, the very basis of economic operations; but absurdity does not stay the hand of the apologist.

Beard wanted to rebut the idea that markets were primeval and natural by demonstrating that states originally created modern markets by seizing territory, chartering corporations, coining money, literally building physical exchanges, and so forth. But Beard's language suggests another point. The doctrine of laissez-faire echoes Christian principles, but almost precisely in reverse. (And to teach an inverted Christian doctrine would be blasphemous.) The conventional Christian view is that property was absent in Eden and among Jesus' apostles. Property entered because of sin; anointed or otherwise legitimate governments rightly restrain it with law.

I think Tom Paine represents an intermediary stage between the original doctrine (property is sin) and its laissez-faire inversion (property is pristine). In Common Sense, he writes:

[Natural] Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. This first is a patron, the last a punisher. Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil . . . Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence.

This is not yet philosophical libertarianism, because Paine thinks that government, like dress, is a good idea under the circumstances. But it introduces the association of government with original sin.

Glenn Beck waded into the same territory when he denounced churches that embrace "social justice." His sense of sin was religious, I think, although his doctrine was the precise reverse of what all Christian denominations still officially hold. Jim Wallis has a nice rebuttal in the Huffington Post. If the official and traditional religious position still influences believers, then Beck bit off more than he can chew.

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March 24, 2010

on Minnesota Public Radio

From 9 to 10 am Central Time today, I'll be on Minnesota Public Radio's show called Midmorning with Kerri Miller. It's a call-in show, so call in. My fellow guest will be Morley Winograd, co-author of Millenial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics. The topic is young people and politics.

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March 23, 2010

debating Bleak House

Steven Maloney has a thoughtful post about moral issues in Dickens' Bleak House. He cites two of my posts on the same subject, so this is a bit of a back-and-forth. I would summarize my thoughts about the novel as follows:

1. Mrs. Jellyby illustrates how an author's judgment of a character can be correct even though the same author's choice of that character is problematic. I find Mrs. Jellyby awful, as does Dickens. She is callously unconcerned about her own family because she is obsessed with an obviously foolish charitable scheme in Africa, a place of which she knows nothing. No doubt there were women like that in Dickens' day, when paths to national political and civic leadership were reserved for men. But bourgeois women were also struggling to play useful public roles despite a powerful cult of domesticity. Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch--for example--is a great soul largely squelched by her narrow opportunities for improving the world. So it bothers me that Dickens would choose to portray a woman who should just stop worrying about society and serve her family better.

Steven makes a fair point that a whole range of characters populates Bleak House, and both the men and women exhibit various levels of social and domestic responsibility. The fact that Messrs. Skimpole and Carstone are as irresponsible as Mrs. Jellyby reduces the misogyny of the novel. Yet there is no female character with any capacity for social improvement--despite the terrible needs that Dickens portrays--and that seems a flaw.

The general category that interests me here encompasses fictional characters who have genuine virtues or vices, but whose description reinforces a harmful stereotype.

2. I think that Bleak House is a nationalistic novel, encouraging readers to broaden their sympathies to encompass all Englishmen (while stopping at the coasts of England). That's certainly not my favorite ethical stance, but it's better than a narrower frame or a vacuous and sentimental concern for human beings in general. Such nationalism is a form of solidarity, not just empathy. Building the nation-state as a community of mutual concern was an arduous task that could still fail today. Bleak House (and the liberalism it represents) improved the world.

Steven makes an important observation about Mr. Skimpole, who professes literally not to understand his social obligations. That creates an interesting problem for moral assessment. I think Steven is right that Skimpole is ultimately a charlatan and his kind of non-understanding is either inexcusable or spurious.

I've written much more about the ethical interpretation of literature in Reforming the Humanities: Literature and Ethics from Dante through Modern Times (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

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March 22, 2010

the press turns to explanation, after the decision is made

"American consumers, who spent a year watching Congress scratch and claw over sweeping health care legislation, can now try to figure out what the overhaul would mean for them." -- Tara Siegel Bernard, today's New York Times.

Actually, the news media spent a year feeding American citizens a steady diet of stories about Congressional procedure, the possible impact of health-care reform on elections, and quotes that falsely described the bill or denounced its critics. Americans never showed any desire to watch Congress "scratch and claw." They would have appreciated some information about what various legislative bills would do.

Now that the bill has passed, reporters finally feel an obligation to explain it. Bernard's story lists the major provisions, although The Times also feels obliged to run a front-page "news analysis" of Obama's alleged strategy (he cast a "bet that the Republicans ... overplayed their hand"), a separate article about political fights to come, and a panoply of one-liners: "Freedom dies a little bit today ..." "It is almost like the Salem Witch trials ..." The ratio of substance to horse-race reporting remains low, but I predict that weekly news magazines and metropolitan dailies will begin to run helpful explanatory pieces.

The job of the press is not to tell us who won or lost, or how a bill will affect our votes in the next election. Its job is to give us information that we can combine with our values to reach judgments. Measured by that standard, the press failed spectacularly during the health care debate. Reporters are partly responsible for the public's deep misunderstanding of the bill--although the Democratic leadership also did a poor job explaining it, and we citizens should bear some responsibility, too.

Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist/blogger who studies such things, doubts that public misconceptions will dissipate any time soon. His research suggests that myths are stubborn and that efforts to correct them often backfire by inadvertently reinforcing the very misinformation that they seek to rebut.

As it must be, his work is based on data from the past, plus lab experiments. I think the health care situation may prove unusual, because (1) the legislation is momentous and will capture public attention, (2) the level of misinformation is striking, so there is lots of room for improvement, (3) people have incentives to learn what the bill means to them, (4) unless you are an ideologue, you have no motivation to reject positive information about the bill, and (5) trustworthy intermediaries, such as primary care physicians, have incentives to understand it and explain it accurately. I would be surprised if public understanding doesn't rise.

But there I go, prognosticating about public opinion--just like a reporter. The important question is what the bill will actually do. I encourage everyone to take a few minutes to find out, if you don't know already.

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March 19, 2010

the changing politics of flagrant rights-violations

Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman recently introduced the "Enemy Belligerent, Interrogation, Detention, and Prosecution Act of 2011" (PDF). This legislation would allow the executive branch to name any person (citizen or non-citizen, whether in the US or overseas) as a "high-value detainee" who can be held in military custody and interrogated without appeal and without Miranda rights. The act applies to anyone who "is suspected of engaging in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners through an act of terrorism, or by other means in violation of the laws of war, or of purposely and materially supporting such hostilities ..." Criteria to be considered in deciding whether to throw someone in the brig include "potential threat," "potential intelligence value," and "such other matters as the President considers appropriate." The Secretary of Defense and the Attorney General make the ultimate decision-- except when they disagree, in which case the President decides.

I hope it goes without saying that this is execrable legislation, monarchical or even dictatorial in its essence, and an insult to the core principles of the United States Constitution. But what interests me is the politics.

Until 2008, only civil libertarians would have been alarmed by such a bill. They were a subset of the Democratic base, and their party did not control the executive branch. Right-wing anti-government libertarians were terrified of terrorists and highly trusting of the Bush administration; thus many (not all) of them would have supported the bill. And the mainstream voter didn't care much about civil liberties. The political alignment favored legislation like this, although nothing as bad actually passed under George W. Bush.

Now we have a Tea Party movement composed of libertarian-leaning conservatives who are almost as afraid of the president as they are of terrorists. I think it would be easy to line them up against this bill. I'd use this line: "When President Obama and his Attorney General get really fed up with Glenn Beck, under this law, they can throw him in jail and there's no appeal." I know that President Obama would do no such thing. (And I know, just to be clear, that Glenn Beck is no terrorist.) But the Tea Partiers' fear is real, and in this situation, it should create a majority coalition against arbitrary executive power.

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March 18, 2010

what is a university?

I'm taking a training course for managers at Tufts, in which I learn techniques for assessing staff performance, mentoring, and so on. The idea is that Tufts University is a single entity that succeeds or fails as a whole. The job of managers is to maximize the degree to which all Tufts employees promote the organization's success. We can use carrots and sticks--but also the softer skills that I'm learning in the course, such as how to give advice effectively. For anyone who has absorbed a dose of Foucault, these softer methods may seem the most troubling, because they promise to reshape people's souls, not just their behavior, to fit the organization's imperatives.

My value-judgment is less negative. Tufts is an entity--a nonprofit corporation--that charges nearly $50,000/year for its main service (undergraduate education) and is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Those of us who receive Tufts paychecks need to promote the valid goals of the university in an efficient way. We could call Tufts a "bureaucracy," but that isn't a term of abuse. Bureaucracies arise to reduce slack and get things done.

At the same time, Tufts is several other things:

It can be a seen as a partially democratic community, in which autonomous agents (especially faculty and students) make collective decisions after giving reasons in public. Hence the faculty "senate," the student government, the newspaper, and the right of tenure, meant to protect freedom of speech. The Tufts community does not stand alone; faculty, in particular, also belong to disciplinary associations that are self-governing and quite powerful.

It can be seen as a zone of individual autonomy. An academic doesn't want to be The Man (or Woman) in a Gray Flannel Suit. Academics set a high value on doing what they think is right in relation to their own readers, students, colleagues, and The Truth. Autonomy trades off against bureaucracy and also against democracy, since one's colleagues may not know what is right.

It can be seen as a market competitor. Tufts is like a firm, competing with other universities (and some private companies) for faculty, students, grants, and contracts. Insofar as Tufts is a competitor, it must operate internally like a bureaucracy in order to ensure that its "agents"--faculty and staff--promote Tufts' interests and not their own. But it is not autonomous. The market, not the Tufts administration, decides what to value. If, for example, a senior professor gets an offer from Brown, we must match it to hold onto her. So Brown has made a decision about our personnel.

Finally, Tufts can be seen as a collection of individual entrepreneurs who are maximizing their own salary, security, status, fame, and quality of life in a marketplace. They are expected to seek external offers, publish for international audiences, form teams with colleagues at other universities, and otherwise pursue their own market position.

I don't actually believe that the ideals of democracy or autonomy can prevail, although they have some actual force and deserve moral respect. I think a university must be something of a bureaucracy and something of a platform for individual entrepreneurs. The hard part, for me, is when these competing values clash in borderline cases. For example, there may be a single process for evaluating, supporting, and disciplining all employees. But if the tenured faculty cannot actually be disciplined, the process is merely formal for them while it is highly consequential for receptionists and food workers. It is important to be clear about when we are each kind of institution, and why.

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March 17, 2010

public deliberation news

In lieu of a substantive post on this busy day, some links about public deliberation ... A new CIRCLE study finds that reorganizing a high school to encourage daily meetings about school policy boosted voluntary service. ... The deliberative democracy field responds to the Coffee Party movement. ... Detroit has a new plan for school reform that was developed in a highly deliberative way.

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March 16, 2010

evidence of humanity in a bureaucracy

(Phoenix, AZ) I'm here for the final stages of administering a federal educational test. That's an immensely complicated business, with more steps and people involved than I would ever have imagined. To mention just one glimpse into the whole operation: students complete short essays that must be scored by human beings. The scorers must be hired (which requires giving them standardized tests) and then trained. The training requires a detailed scoring guide for each test item, with many examples of real students' work. The training also requires trainers, who must be selected and trained. The trainers of the trainers, in turn, must be selected and trained. They all need guides and materials. As each group does its work, their performance is monitored by computers, and discrepancies are identified and rectified.

The guiding principles are consistency, standardization, reliability, and transparency. This is all very Weberian--it is a highly refined bureaucracy. And so it must be: test-takers and the public deserve consistency and transparency, and therefore everything must be recorded, disclosed, standardized, and tracked. Fittingly, we meet in a windowless room off a highway in suburban Arizona, surrounded by vast banks of computers. (More than 1 million individual essays will soon be scored at this center.)

The contemporary philosopher Jürgen Habermas distinguishes "system" from "lifeworld." The system must be organized and structured along Weberian principles. The lifeworld is authentic and human, but disorganized. As my colleagues and I review real samples of student work for the purpose of creating general "system" policies, the lifeworld emerges. The scanned copies of handwritten essays contain idiosyncratic outbursts, cute misunderstandings, and wild misspellings--evidence of life that it's our job to codify.

Habermas argues that system and lifeworld should be mediated by the "public sphere," by open and fair discussion of values. The design and implementation of federal tests involves countless value-judgments--for example, whether and how to define students' race. We on the federal advisory panel discuss such issues, but we have limited discretion, because legitimate decision-making power lies with the Congress and the public, not with any so-called experts. To the greatest extent possible, I would like to see educational standards, assessments, and statistics be topics of public inquiry and debate. None of it is secret, but the public debate is frustrated by an excessive deference to experts, superficial media, and a narrow focus on a few hot-button issues.

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March 15, 2010

more to life than individual attributes

(Phoenix, AZ) In my forays into social science (I am trained as a philosopher), I tend to read and write about variables that can be attributed to individual human beings. Individuals vote or don't, they graduate from high school or drop out, they live in Massachusetts or Texas, they support or oppose health care reform. I am interested in the distribution of these variables across populations, how they interrelate, and what causes them to change.

Reading Dynamics of Contention by Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly (2001) helpfully reminds me that there is more to life than that. These authors are concerned with the causes and courses of "contentious politics": social movements, revolutions and revolts, secession, communal violence, and waves of strikes.

They analyze mechanisms, processes, and episodes. Episodes are large historical events like the collapse of the Soviet Union or the achievement of political rights by African Americans. Mechanisms are specific phenomena that occur during episodes, such as competition among factions, repression by authorities, radicalization, or the diffusion of unrest from one community to another. A specific example (as an illustration) would be "cultural appropriation." When the French revolutionaries beheaded aristocrats and displayed their heads on pikes, they were appropriating the ancient ritual of execution used for treasonous nobles. When African American pastors began calling volunteers to the front of the church for civil disobedience, they were appropriating the traditional "invitation" period at the end of a revival meeting. These acts of appropriation were mechanisms within episodes.

In between mechanisms and episodes are processes, which are concatanations of mechanisms. For example, the Civil Rights struggle in the American South between 1955 and 1964 was a complex process that included many mechanisms (diffusion, violent repression, recruitment, brokering among groups, etc.). McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly emphasize that mechanisms combine in various unpredictable ways to create processes, whose outcomes are also unpredictable. There is no general pattern, such as rise-and-fall or radicalization-followed-by-collapse. But the mechanisms have general properties and logics.

For students of social change, the lesson is to look not only at individual attributes but also at group-level phenomena. A survey might never identify a historically momentous process, because only a small number of people may be involved, and even they may not know what they are doing until it is all over. The Patriots at Lexington and Concord knew they were defending some weapons; they had no idea they were creating a new nation. A survey taken in 1775 would have missed the process entirely.

For activists who want to change the world, the lesson is not only to promote changes in populations or in members of specific groups and programs. We must also use the best available and practicable mechanisms in the best combinations to achieve good outcomes. Learning to identify appropriate recipes seems an essential task for both research and practice.

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March 12, 2010

why the sixties wore jeans

(Philadelphia) In preparation for his visit to Tufts on March 17 (which you should attend if you are in the area), I have been re-reading Doug McAdam's book Freedom Summer. It is one of my favorite works of social science, combining sensitive and moving narrative history with a persuasive quantitative method to generate numerous important insights.

One of McAdam's significant themes is the role of the roughly 1,000 Freedom Summer volunteers in creating the New Left and the Counterculture of the late 1960s. In 1964, the volunteers were deliberately recruited from high-status universities and well-connected, rich or comfortable families. (The goal was to bring media attention and federal assistance when such elite students were arrested and beaten.) They arrived in Mississipi in chinos and short hair, often motivated by mainstream religious doctrines, and believing in the essential soundness of national institutions. They left radicalized, not only in their political opinions and diagnoses, but also in their career commitments and their ways of life. They literally left Mississipi in blue jeans, ready to form communes on their home campuses, where they were received as heroes and leaders.

Take the blue jeans: McAdam explains that seasoned SNCC staff wore denim in Mississippi to fit in with the agricultural workers whom they were trying to register. There was nothing cool about jeans in mainstream youth culture in 1964. But the SNCC staff seemed enormously cool to the 1,000 Freedom Summer volunteers, who imitated their clothes and idioms. Pretty soon they were back at Harvard and Berkeley, wearing denim and saying "dig it."

And the communes: McAdam writes that the original plan was to place the volunteers in African Americans' homes. That worked in some cases, but because of the violence or threats that host families suffered, it became necessary to house some volunteers together in group homes. Under conditions of exhilaration, terror, anger, and constant internal struggles among volunteers and staff, these homes became hotbeds of conversation and exploration. From cans of shared food money, to midnight meetings, to sexual experimentation, the Counterculture was born.

McAdam received attention recently for his study of Teach for America, which found disappointing effects on the participants. Comparing TFA and Freedom Summer only goes so far: nothing can (or should) rival the impact of joining a mass political movement that is the major national news story of the season and that--following the murder of three participants--changes American politics. I am struck, however, by the differences between being young in 1964 and 2008. No recent event compares to the intensity of experience, the deep generational fault-lines and generational identities, or the comprehensiveness of the changes that young people led in the mid-1960s. Many Millennials' parents weren't even born in 1964, yet I think the hangover lingers even today.

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March 11, 2010

the Common Core State Standards and active citizenship

Educational "standards" are general guidelines for what should be taught and assessed. They can have the force of law, and policymakers can be held publicly accountable for them. I think the general concept of explicit educational standards is good, because deciding what should be taught is a core democratic task, a matter of establishing values and priorities. The standards that govern our schools should be transparent. Of course, bad standards are worse than none, and many actual state standards are weak, miscellaneous and arbitrary, hopelessly unrealistic, or otherwise misguided. If Texas continues on its course to rewrite its social studies standards, Texas children would be better off with none.

A related question is who should set standards, and for whose kids? Most of the nation's governors and state school superintendents are now proposing a set of uniform state standards that would be voluntarily--but widely--adopted. The goal is to provide one set of good standards (streamlined, thoughtful, and ambitious but not onerous). This effort threatens local autonomy and citizen participation, but also promises to improve existing standards in many states. And the authors have tried to reduce the damage by proposing truly "core" standards in only two disciplines--English/language arts and science math--while leaving much to be decided at the state and local level.

My professional concern is democratic education or education for active citizenship. From that perspective, it could be problematic that the proposed standards are not for social studies or civics. National standards for only English and math could narrow the curriculum even further. On the other hand, streamlining standards in those two disciplines could actually increase space and time for civics.

Besides, English skills are civic skills, if they are well designed. I have read the proposed standards for English/language arts and see many openings for improving civic education.

That seems to be an intention. On p. 2, the document says, "Students who meet the Standards ... reflexively demonstrate the cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic."

Some specific objectives seem especially useful for civic purposes. For example, students in grades 11 and 12 are supposed to "Analyze how various authors express different points of view on similar events or issues, assessing the authors’ assumptions, use of evidence, and reasoning, including analyzing seminal U.S. documents (e.g., The Federalist, landmark U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions and dissents)."

Another example is the standard that says, "Present claims and findings with relevant evidence that is accessible and verifiable to listeners, and use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation." That is a very important skill for civic participation. By 11th grade, students are also supposed to "Cooperate with peers to set clear goals and deadlines, establish roles, and determine ground rules for decision making (e.g., informal consensus, taking votes on key issues, presentation of alternate views)."

The general thrust of the proposed Standards is to define outcomes, not methods or approaches, which are left to schools. But sidebars provide advice about methods, and sometimes that advice would be favorable to civic learning. For instance: "To become college and career ready, students must have ample opportunities to take part in a variety of rich, structured conversations—whole class, small group, and with a partner—built around important content in various domains."

The standards do not mandate a curriculum or syllabus, but they suggest readings, including "Letter from Birmingham Jail" by Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964) and America’s Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar (2005)--good choices.

I wish education reform today emphasized constructive ways to get communities involved in education, and this effort is very different: top-down. Yet I would acknowledge that the ideas in the document are thoughtful, not burdensome, and sensitive to democratic values,

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March 10, 2010

Edward Tufte and the stimulus

The Administration has sought the help of Edward Tufte in designing Recovery.gov. Tufte is the genius expert on how to present information visually. His books are visually stunning and persuasive. As a result of his guidance, Andrew Romano writes in Newsweek, Recovery.gov is "perhaps the clearest, richest interactive database ever produced by the American bureaucracy." It quickly tells you, for example, that very little of the money has been spent so far and that tax cuts are a bigger component than "contracts, grants, and loans."

It seems important for Americans to know these things, so that they can properly judge the use of their $787 billion and the Administration's stewardship--and perhaps also improve the performance of government through their advocacy. But in general, we are asking ever more of citizens and expecting them to be able to absorb ever more information. Disclosure of stimulus funding is one example; another is the Supreme Court's assumption that shareholders can discover the political positions of companies and withdraw their investments when displeased. (Apart from other problems with this decision, the duty to survey companies' political positions will impose steep new cognitive demands on citizens.)

I think better displays of information are promising and should be saluted. But using public information also requires skills and motivations (no matter how clear and attractive the graphs may be). Civic skills are very unequal and inadequate in the United States, and motivation is uneven. Although some individuals just happen to enjoy using public data, most people are motivated only when they are recruited into organizations or movements that have political or public agendas. Such movements are scattered and relatively weak today. So the paradox is better information, presented better, to a smaller number of interested people.

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March 9, 2010

no coincidence, comrade

In China, the Communist Party has held supreme power since 1949. Its original ideology was Marxist and anti-capitalist. Today, the Communist Party is strongly opposed to independent trade unions and favorable to corporate interests. The Communists appoint a leader for Hong Kong who opposes strong labor reforms and supports big business against the wishes of the more popular parties, which are to his left. The poorest 20% of the whole nation's population collects less than 6% of national income (just about the same as in the United States).

From 1974-88, the only legal party in Burma was the Burma Socialist Programme Party. The military seized power in 1989 and took "socialism" out of the country's name, but the same ruling class continues to govern. Today, children age 10 and 11 work 84 hours/week for $6/month, and the junta has jailed at least 30 trade unionists as political prisoners. The junta is now selling national assets to allies in the private sector.

In Vietnam, the only legal party is Communist, and its official ideology is Marxist-Leninist. Yet the country saw the second-fastest GDP growth in the world through much of the 1990s and 2000s, due to heavy foreign private investment and privatization. All workers are enrolled in state labor unions, and the government decides when strikes are legal. The poorest 20 percent of the population gets 7% of income, and almost all of that group are below the poverty line of $1.25/day.

These cases reinforce a general and important lesson. It doesn't matter what the original leaders of a political movement say. It doesn't even matter what those leaders privately think and want. What matters is the incentive structure that they create. The communist revolutions monopolized power, and monopoly creates incentives for private exploitation. Justice requires pluralism. That lesson can be hard for people to swallow because we align with the explicit values of one institution (such as the state, the market, or the law), and we don't fully accept the legitimacy of the others. But balance is essential even if that means preserving the power of sectors you don't much like.

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March 8, 2010

Obama, race, and democracy

I spent Friday and Saturday at an excellent conference on "Barack Obama and American Democracy." It was organized by Tufts historian Peniel Joseph and drew a diverse group of scholars and students, predominantly experts on African American history, politics, and culture. The discussion was rich and complex: this Twitter feed offers a feel for it.

The question for the final panel was simply: What does Barack Obama mean for American democracy? I said it was too early to tell, but I would break the assessment into three parts.

1. Obama as policymaker will strengthen democracy if he makes government work better and more equitably. Compared to some of the other speakers who explicitly addressed his policymaking, I was more supportive. I think passing a health bill like the one now before Congress would be quite a remarkable achievement, relative to my expectations about what is possible.

2. Obama as political reformer would help fix some of the grievous structural and procedural problems with our democracy, such as campaign finance abuses and the indefensible misuse of the filibuster. Such issues did not figure much in the 2008 campaign, presumably because they were not popular causes then. Thus Obama has no mandate for procedural reforms. Besides, the executive branch has relatively little leverage over these matters (as compared to its leverage in appropriations and foreign policy). Yet demand for deep procedural reform could build in response to the deepening crisis of our institutions, in which case the Obama years may be an era of reform, even if that doesn't originate in the White House.

3. "Democracy" also means the whole repertoire of civic and political acts undertaken by citizens. In many Americans' minds, that repertoire has shrunk to occasional voting and noncontroversial service, and wealthier Americans dominate even those acts. Barack Obama understands the full range of civic action better than any occupant of the Oval Office: he has a record of practicing, teaching, and studying robust and innovative forms of citizenship. His campaign was notable for its creativity in promoting active citizenship. His administration so far has not advanced that cause, but it will be difficult to do so from the White House and I am happy to give the Obama team some time to find its way.

Finally, strengthening democracy means tackling the specific crises facing the African American community. After this weekend's conference, I am more sensitive to the dilemmas of Black politics under the administration of the First Black President. African Americans in general are extremely supportive of Barack Obama and want to minimize criticism of him. That means that many are leery of directly advocating issues that disproportionately affect African Americans, lest they put the president in the position of having to pick between Black opinion and White opinion. Yet all other constituencies and interest groups feel free to make explicit demands.

Take health reform, for example. The best estimate (albeit with various caveats) finds that a lack of insurance causes 45,000 deaths in the United States each year. Twenty-five percent of adult African Americans lack health insurance, as compared to 15% of whites (source). Thus, in a sense, health reform is an "African American issue." A moderately disproportionate share of the lives saved will be Black people's lives.

On the other hand, if any individual or group seriously assessed the highest priorities for African Americans, I don't think health insurance reform would make the top three. Sentencing reform, educational equity, and youth unemployment would top my list. But all of these issues are more divisive and more difficult for a Democratic president to address than health care is. If the president were White, African Americans and others concerned with Black issues would be pressing for reforms on those fronts. With Barack Obama in the White House, the pressure is muted, and that's a problem.

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March 5, 2010

trust in government, trust in President Obama

President Obama took office during a terrible recession whose main scourge has been unemployment. He signed a $787 billion stimulus package, billed as a strategy for creating jobs. One year later, the unemployment rate is still almost 10%.

According to the CBS/New York Times poll conducted on Feb. 5-10, just six percent of Americans believe that the stimulus bill has created any jobs so far (although almost half think it ultimately will). Results in PDF are here. And according to Gallup, Americans believe that 50 cents of each dollar of federal spending is wasted. Since the federal government spends $3.7 trillion per year, that implies $1.85 trillion in total annual waste, or more than $6,000 of waste per person (adult or child).

You would think that a president who presided over a federal government that was understood to have spent three quarters of a billion dollars to create no jobs--a government that annually wastes $24,000 per family of four--would be profoundly unpopular. Yet the president's average favorability rating remains at 52.5%, with 40.5% unfavorable. How can this be?

» Barack Obama's personal style evidently appeals strongly to people. They are blaming Congress, not the president.

» They may show some tolerance for government waste because they also think that other sectors are profligate. (I would like to see a poll that asked what percentage of your power bill, your bank fees, your kid's tuition, or your car's sticker price was wasted.)

» Since the tax code is progressive, the median American is not spending $12,000 on federal taxes. The rich spend much more and pull the mean up. Perhaps people feel that they are wasting a few hundred dollars on ineffective new federal initiatives during the Obama years, and the president is not fully responsible for that cost.

Still, the fact that they observe all this waste explains the headwinds the Administration has encountered. No critique of their strategy or tactics is necessary.

(When I consider how I would answer these poll questions, I come up with the following responses. The stimulus has created jobs, as many as 2 million so far, but other trends are so bad as to leave us near 10% unemployment.

The government wastes money. Interest payments are basically waste, and that eats up 5% of federal spending. The government does not directly waste much money on health care, but it funds a wasteful private health care system to the tune of $829 billion, or 22% of the federal budget. If you assume some waste in other areas (such as defense, which consumes 24% of the budget), you can get to 25 cents of waste on the dollar. Fifty cents seems too high, however, since 26% of the federal budget is simply written as checks for Social Security and Unemployment benefits--and at least some federal medical and defense spending must be valuable. Popular areas like education are so small that they can hardly affect the level of waste.)

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March 4, 2010

Hamatreya II

Emerson begins his poem "Hamatreya" with a list of names: Bulkeley, Hunt, Willard, and the other founders of Concord, Mass. They speak, telling how they made the land theirs, divided it into parcels, and left it to their heirs.

In the second stanza, the earth laughs as these men try to transform her. The narrator says, "The hot owner sees not Death, who adds / Him to his land, a lump of mould the more." The earth then sings in her own voice: "Mine and yours; / Mine, not yours, Earth endures." When her song is done, the narrator remarks, "I was no longer brave; / My avarice cooled / Like lust in the chill of the grave."

That is how Emerson ends. Sixteen decades later, we live not far from Concord. The earth says,

Ralph Waldo is dead, turned to grit and mud.
Eight more generations have wriggled out,
Cried, drunk, grown, worked, shrunk, died since his voice stopped.
To me: a few smooth circuits round the sun.
I'll still be turning when they all are gone,
When something new crawls on my skin, and then
When nothing stirs, and dawn means plain white light
On silent stone.

            But they do swarm on me.
Their houses are like dust, but thick dust now.
My hills are hard to notice from their car
Windows as they fly down tarmac ribbons,
Burning carbon they draw from inside me.
I whose motion is endless, effortless
Salute their grim, relentless harvesting.

What are they to me? Just some of my mass,
Quivering briefly on my dry surface.
Yet when I ask what they are, what I am,
What each is for, I find I use their words.
They taught me my Concord was beautiful,
Its misty lowlands and its pale green hills.
If they asphixiate or cook themselves,
Who will remember the Concord they found?
I am no longer brave.

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March 3, 2010

talking with the adminstration

I will spend today in a meeting with representatives of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, the White House Office of Public Engagement, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and various foundations. We are meeting in the White House's conference center across the street from the main building.

I am on the record with a pretty sharp criticism of the administration's civic engagement work so far. See the longer version; the Huff Post summary; and a relevant C-SPAN broadcast from last summer. But of course I will be listening with an open mind, learning, and trying to be helpful in the meeting today.

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March 2, 2010

dispatches from the civic front

Detroit's population is about half what it was in 1950, the exodus compelled by a permanent closing of factories. Its official unemployment rate is currently 14%, highest of any large city. Its high school dropout rate is 75%. Michigan incarcerates five times as many people as it did in 1973 and spends 20% of its state’s general fund revenue on prisons.

But Detroit Declaration seizes the highest ground: "Cities are the greatest expression of civilization. Great cities are filled with people who exercise their talent and creativity as the catalytic risk-takers, doers, and leaders who forge the dynamic marketplace of ideas that grow places into prosperity. We are the people who believe in cities and pledge to align our energies for the benefit of Michigan’s largest and most storied city, Detroit." The declaration proceeds to list 12 principles that are general and abstract, yet carefully constructed to acknowledge Detroit's assets and uniqueness as well as the need to move forward. According to USA Today, 20,000 people have visited the website and 8,000 people have become "friends" of the Declaration's Facebook page.

Providence, RI is a handsome and sophisticated city, but it has experienced deep corruption; its unemployment rate is the highest in New England; and its local news media--badly hit by budget cuts--can no longer create a common space for discussion and debate or hold politicians accountable.

Enter the UNCaucus, a group of Providence residents who aim to "hire" the next mayor by creating a new unofficial job description, stimulating debate and discussion, covering the candidates, and promoting civic engagement. Like the Detroit Declaration, UNCaucus makes heavy use of Facebook.

The Tea Party consists of fellow citizens whose participation is welcome. I reject treating them as dupes of shadowy corporate lobbies or as racists. (Since racism is intermingled with ideology and economics in the United States, no movement is simply innocent--but I would need a lot more evidence before I would uniquely indict the Tea Partiers on that score.) All that said, their brand of politics seems the opposite of what we need. They interpret standard economic policies--like a stimulus during a recession--as signs of immanent tyranny, thus turning our mainstream debate into a struggle for our national survival. That creates a very difficult environment for governance and problem-solving--even if one happens to favor a smaller role for government.

The Coffee Party responds in just the right way, it seems to me. Their manifesto starts: "The Coffee Party Movement gives voice to Americans who want to see cooperation in government. We recognize that the federal government is not the enemy of the people, but the expression of our collective will, and that we must participate in the democratic process in order to address the challenges that we face as Americans. As voters and grassroots volunteers, we will support leaders who work toward positive solutions, and hold accountable those who obstruct them."

According to Katie Zernike in today's Times, the "organizers said they would invite Tea Party members to join their Coffee counterparts in discussions. 'We need to roll up our sleeves, put our heads together and work it out,' [a leader said]. 'That's, to me, an American way of doing this.'" Thanks to Facebook, the Coffee Party is now 40,000 strong and growing fast.

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March 1, 2010

in the crypt of the Medinaceli

A little more than a week ago, we were in Toledo, that ancient city where Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish faiths and cultures flourished and intermingled between the years 1000 and 1500. We spent the day wandering into cathedrals, mosques, and synagogues and along winding alleys that concealed lush patios. The driving wind carried wet snow.

My endurance for this kind of thing can be a bit greater than my family's, so at dusk, I proceeded alone to the Hospital de San Juan Batista, a vast Renaissance structure on the outskirts of town.

I turned out to be the hospital's sole visitor. I found my way to the chapel and then down into the crypt. Here, several stories underground, are buried grandees from the Spanish ducal house of Medinaceli, one of the most ancient in Europe. They include a duke who was shot by Republican forces in Madrid in the 1930s and his widow who lived alone in the Hospital--in grim splendor--for many postwar decades.

I took three steps toward the marble sarcophagi. Someone else took three steps behind me. I turned, expecting to see a guard: no one. I took two more steps, and two more sounded as clearly behind. You know that it was an echo. I knew it, too, but it was quite hard to believe it, hundreds of feet beneath this city of inquisitors, heretics, martyrs, and ghosts. The hair stood on the back of my neck, and I retreated before I could read the names on those tombs.

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