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June 30, 2010

doing good and doing well (civic engagement and happiness)

(On a northbound Amtrak train in Connecticut) I spent today at Wagner College on Staten Island, NY with knowledgeable colleagues from around the country. We were discussing the "psychosocial" effects of civic engagement. The idea is that people are better off when they participate in civic affairs, from volunteering to joining social movements. College students were the focus of today's meeting, and the theory holds that they would flourish or thrive better if they were more engaged in community and civic work. We have a grant at Tufts to investigate that thesis rigorously.

I think the literature shows pretty convincingly that if you offer disadvantaged or marginalized teenagers opportunities to serve or contribute in ways that are constructive and feel positive, they will do better psychologically. In field experiments, teenagers' rates of unwanted pregnancies and other bad outcomes have been cut through service programs.

But Doug McAdam showed rigorously in his book Freedom Summer that the successful college students who went to Mississippi to fight de jure segregation in 1964 paid a severe psychological price for their "service." Using statistical data with comparison groups and in-depth interviews, McAdam showed that the Freedom Summer experience made the volunteers more likely to be divorced, less likely to be employed, and less happy by the mid-1980s. Of course, they were heroes for their contribution to the Freedom Movement. But no one would argue that their kind of "civic engagement" was good for their psychological well-being--not to mention that three of them were tortured to death within the first week of the summer.

Thus, although I am eager to investigate the empirical link between civic engagement and well-being, I think we should not be surprised to find tradeoffs between doing good and doing well.

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June 29, 2010

the Russian spies, and me

(On the Acela train south of Boston) If yesterday's federal charges are correct, Russia decided to place 11 people in middle class American lives so that they could gradually "develop ties in policymaking circles." Their ultimate prize was secret information about "nuclear weapons, American policy toward Iran, C.I.A. leadership, Congressional politics and many other topics." To obtain positions where such information was available, the Russians allegedly were ordered to "pursue degrees at target-country universities, obtain employment, and join relevant professional associations to deepen false identities." Meanwhile, they kept in touch by means of classic cloak-and-dagger techniques and high-tech gizmos.

I find this strategy fascinating. I was born in the United States and had many advantages: educator parents, an identity as a white, male, native-born citizen, an Ivy League education and an overseas graduate school. I am ambitious, interested in politics, and eager to share opinions with policymakers, both for my own satisfaction and because I think I have something to offer them. I am curious about what is really going on in Washington. Like one of the alleged spy couples, I live with my family "on a residential street [near] where some Harvard professors and students live." In a sense, I actually have the identity that these alleged spies allegedly sought to simulate.

Yet in my 43 years, I have never found myself in a place where I know anything that couldn't be found with a Google search. I've met some famous people; they have never told me anything that would be news to the Kremlin. I have informed opinions--not about nuclear weapons or CIA leadership, but about congressional politics. Those opinions are based on books and articles that the Russian government can also read if they subscribe to JSTOR.

So what's going on? Perhaps I utterly misunderstand how the game of politics is played in the United States and consequently have failed to parlay my advantages into influence and insider knowledge. Or perhaps the Russians utterly misunderstand where valuable knowledge exists in the modern world, and how to gain it. Instead of spending all that money on spies (who are now at risk of long prison sentences), they could have sent some legal diplomats over to read good books, attend a few lectures, and do a Google search or two.

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June 28, 2010

Our Budget, Our Economy National Town Meeting

The main event of AmericaSPEAKS: OurBudget, Our Economy took place on Saturday. In video-linked meetings across the United States, some 3,500 diverse people deliberated about the federal budget and selected these recommendations:

They also said:

This process has been attacked from the left. Richard (RJ) Eskow blogged in the Huffington Post that the process was biased to "manipulate attendees into 'spontaneously' deciding that the social safety net must be cut (with some limited tax increases possibly thrown in for camouflage)." Escow says, "It's no coincidence that the self-described centrist group Third Way sponsored an event this week in Washington, just before this 'town meeting,' which also emphasized 'defeating the deficit.'" Third Way is not listed as a supporter or partner of the Town Meetings, but the Center for American Progress is. So if I wanted to play Escow's game in reverse, I could just as well write, "It is no coincidence that the Center for American Progress, a liberal group, held an event entitled 'The Case for Big Government' just days before the 'Town Meeting' that resulted in calls for tax increases." Sometimes a coincidence really is a coincidence.

Also in the Huffington Post, Dean Baker decried a process "rigged" to produce cuts in Social Security and Medicare--"no surprise [since] America Speaks is largely funded by Peter G. Peterson, the investment banker billionaire who has been on a decades long crusade to gut these programs."

That assertion happens to be flatly false. I serve on AmericaSPEAKS' board and can testify that Peterson provided less money for this particular initiative than several foundations generally depicted as liberal. Peterson certainly covers a very small portion of AmericaSPEAKS' overall budget. So I am inclined to counter Baker's accusation with another ad hominem: someone who makes up false statements about other people's budgets is not a reliable guide to budgetary issues.

But I think Dean Baker is a pretty reliable guide to federal priorities. In a different context,I would be prone to agree with him about budgetary issues. He and Eskow are entitled to critically review the briefing materials provided to the attendees. I doubt anyone on either side of the aisle loved every aspect of them, but I am confident that the intent was to give the participants maximum scope to come up with the results they preferred. If you read the materials and scan the supporters suspiciously, looking for bias, you will probably find some. If you are convinced that the hidden purpose of the effort is to cut Social Security, then you will read with a gimlet eye. The actual examples of biased statements cited by Baker and Escow strike me as pretty innocuous--or, indeed, as true--but that's because I have some overall trust in the process. I would also note the support of John Rother, AARP; Neera Tanden, Center for American Progress; Robert Greenstein, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; and Margaret Simms, Urban Institute, among other progressives.

The question is which process best serves democracy. Baker and Escow want to persuade opinion-leaders and the mass public of their position. They use strong rhetoric and attribute wicked motives to their opponents. They see danger in a process that involves recruiting representative Americans for a discussion that is out of their control.

I think the regular process of advocacy, debate, and charge-and-counter-charge has served us miserably. We do not get the policies that citizens proposed on Saturday, but rather utterly indefensible priorities that (by the way) lie far to the right of the Town Meetings' results. We also get a process that Americans despise as demonizing and manipulative.

Apparently, MoveOn urged its members to try to attend the Town Meetings, and if not admitted, to protest outside them. If they were successful in getting their people inside, they would turn the Town Meetings from a representative sample of Americans into a contest to see who could mobilize the most hard-core supporters. That is politics as we already know it. "Our Budget, Our Economy" is an experiment in a better way. Outsiders are entitled to criticize its materials and results. However, I find the desire to discredit it deeply discouraging. It illustrates an unnecessary and unhealthy gap between professional liberal policy advocacy and democratic or popular self-government.

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June 25, 2010

Public Conversations Project

Yesterday I met with board members of Public Conversations Project, an organization that brings people together to talk when they have reached an angry impasse over some matter of public or political concern. A great example is a series of conversations between pro-choice and anti-abortion advocates in Boston that started in 1990 and lasted more than a decade. PCP provides workshops, materials, and hand-on assistance. It operates both in the US and abroad. For an example of an overseas project, see this excellent conversation between Israeli and Palestinian journalists. PCP is a peer of several organizations with which I have worked more closely: National Issues Forums, Everyday Democracy, and AmericaSPEAKS. One distinctive contribution of PCP is to draw deeply on methodologies developed for family therapy.

While PCP applies family therapy to community-building and democratic work, Bill Doherty and his colleagues at The Families and Democracy Project use community organizing techniques to address issues that are usually treated by family therapists. Over-scheduled suburban families encounter stress when, for example, siblings have simultaneous, mandatory sports practices. Doherty and colleagues realized that this is a shared problem that can be addressed politically: parents should band together and demand more rational practice schedules.

The dynamics are not completely different in families, communities, and polities; they all need combinations of talk and work.

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June 24, 2010

government of the people needs a rebirth

I'm turning the mike over to Harry Boyte for today. Here's his latest op-ed:

Read the rest here.

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June 23, 2010

Civic Studies, Civic Practices Conference

July 23, 10 am through July 24, 4 pm
Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, Tufts University

Register Now

Please join us for this two day gathering of educators and activists to explore the theory and practice of citizenship. Through interactive sessions, we will focus on "citizenship" as creativity, agency, and collaboration - not as a form of membership that separates those who are in from those who are out. Scholars, students, activists, educators and others interested in this topic are welcome.

The conference will center on 12 interactive "learning exchanges." Those sessions and the rest of the agenda is described in detail here.

The conference immediately follows our second annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies at Tisch College. I am co-teaching the Institute with Karol Soltan (University of Maryland); the other participants are 20 excellent graduate students or experienced practitioners from across the United States and from several European countries. It is part of an effort to build the study of active citizenship into a serious and coherent intellectual enterprise.

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June 22, 2010

the European Charter of Rights on Active Citizenship

The "Charter" is an effort "to develop the concept of 'Civic Participation', which is mentioned in the European Constitution (art. 47 and art. 72, second part), but then not explained."

It is a draft for public debate. It aims to address "the paradox" that, "while citizens and their autonomous organizations are usually asked to contribute with material and immaterial resources to filling the 'democratic deficit' of the European Union, they are, at the same time, hardly considered and often mistrusted by public institutions."

The "right to participation" is thus defined: "Each individual has the right to actively participate, through Autonomous Citizens’ Organizations (ACOs), in public life." This may sound alarmingly collectivist--can't individual Europeans participate directly in public life?--but I think the goal is to supplement the extensive individual civil and political rights that are already enshrined in European law with a formal acknowledgment of associations.

ACO's are assigned rights in this charter, but most of them sound like rights already protected under laws concerning citizens' free speech and assembly. For instance, the charter says, "Whenever citizens’ rights and general interests are at stake, ACOs have the right to intervene with opinions and actions." European citizens already have rights to state their opinions, and they are within their existing rights if they choose to express themselves through associations. Thus the most interesting parts of the charter are the obligations imposed on governments to engage ACOs, plus the appendix that lists "best practices" for doing so.

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June 21, 2010

the public interest and why it matters

Special interests have overwhelmed the public interest--to the detriment of justice.

I believe that proposition, but it's important to acknowledge several valid points in favor of special interests. They arise whenever people are free; and therefore to suppress them, as Madison said, would be a treatment "worse than the disease." When we form distinct interest groups, society becomes diverse and plural; we are then a rich mosaic instead of a monotonous mass. When interests take the form of parties, unions, and pressure groups that advance sharply dissenting views, citizens gain choices and can govern by picking one clear path. And finally, justice sometimes demands the strong defense of discrete interests and values.

Picture, for example, members of the United Farm Workers Union marching for 340 miles from the grape fields of Delano to Sacramento behind the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, arriving on Easter Sunday 1965 to say, in the words of César E. Chávez, "We want to be equal with all the working men in the nation; we want just wages, better working conditions, a decent future for our children. To those who oppose us, be they ranchers, police, politicians, or speculators, we say that we are going to continue fighting until we die, or we win."

This was a manifestation of a "special interest," in the sense that the workers demanded legislation that would benefit them, they identified adversaries whose interests they decried, and they did so proudly in their own cultural and religious idioms, deliberately putting their distinct identity into the public domain and demanding recognition. Yet Chávez was surely right that they marched for justice. The public interest was served by their struggle.

Having acknowledged that point, I still maintain that we have lost the public interest among special interests. The Farm Workers' struggle was one kind of politics, but far more common is a routine controversy among economic interests. For example, optometrists and ophthalmologists frequently clash over the right to perform particular procedures. Their disputes become policy questions because state and federal governments license medical professionals for specific roles and also decide which procedures to reimburse through Medicare and Medicaid. Optometrists and ophthalmologists are organized and employ lobbyists and litigators. Although they often cooperate, they also clash. In recent years, optometrists have lobbied Texas, Florida, California, and Oklahoma for the right to perform eye surgery not requiring anesthetics. In 1987, optometrists won changes in federal Medicare rules which caused their share of the Medicare market almost to quadruple in one year.

Of course, there are other interests at stake, beyond the optometrists and the ophthalmologists--including patients and taxpayers. Somehow, all their competing claims must be adjudicated. Here are four solutions that can be defended theoretically:

And here are four ways that seem indefensible theoretically but that are very common:

I would call options 5-8 "corrupt"--not to fling around insults, but in a sober, technical sense. The public good that is the root meaning of "republic" is subverted when these methods prevail.

Each of the first four options, by itself, could solve the corruption problem (although not without creating new problems). For example, libertarians argue that money would lose its corrupting influence over politics if the government stopped regulating altogether and left people free to choose. Populists since William Jennings Bryan have argued that popular rule (referenda and the like) would make government clean. And many good government reformers believe that an insulated, professional, scientifically informed civil service could maximize benefits and minimize costs.

But the very fact that there are four plausible approaches to addressing conflicts among interests suggests that we have an intellectual problem--and of course, one could lengthen the list of approaches to include various kinds of environmentalism, religious doctrines, respect for traditions, and/or group rights. It appears that we need:

But what actually prevails is some combination of the four indefensible options.

One reason for this corruption is suggested by rational choice theory. Everyone is affected by the struggle between optometrists and ophthalmologists, but most of us to a very limited extent. The optometrists and the ophthalmologists are deeply affected. It therefore pays for them to lobby in their own interests, but it does not pay for the rest of us to organize on this issue. In founding Common Cause, John Gardner said, "Everyone is organized but the people." Maybe he was just stating an inevitable fact.

Another reason is pervasive social inequality. The homeless are a discrete group of modest number who share important interests. In those respects, they are comparable to realtors. Both groups should organize in their own interests. But according to the Center for Responsive Politics, "the real estate industry gave $135 million to federal candidates and campaigns in 2008, with the National Association of Realtors contributing the most by far, at $4.3 million." The homeless presumably gave approximately zero dollars to federal candidates in that year. The reason is not the size or structure of the two interests, but simply that realtors have a lot more money than homeless people. Since economic inequality is more pronounced in this decade than at any time since at least 1929, it would not be surprising if--to paraphrase E.E. Schattschneider--the choir of interest groups sings today with a "decidedly upper class accent."

The final reason is that we don't have a confident language or intellectual framework for discussing the public interest. Many intellectuals still argue that there is no such thing, that politics just is a clash of special interests. Certainly, hard-boiled political reporters depict politics that way. Most public administrators are still trained, as Robert Reich observed in The Power of Public Ideas (1988) either to facilitate endless negotiations among organized interests or to apply science and economics to identify the most efficient policies. Neither method can generate a claim about what is right or good. As Theodore Lowi wrote in his brilliant 1969 book The End of Liberalism, these methods "impair legitimacy by converting government from a moralistic to a mechanistic institution." Deliberation about principle looks naive and becomes an obstacle to smooth stakeholder negotiation, negotiated rulemaking, or cost/benefit calculation. The characteristic ethic of governance--deciding together what is right to do--is lost. And when governance turns into negotiation, the organizations with big bank accounts always win.

I don't know to what degree this last explanation--an intellectual one--accounts for the state we find ourselves in. I suspect it does matter, because when there is no robust, confident, public dialog about the public interest, we let Citizens United become the default theory. The natural dominance of well-funded special interests is left unchecked.

To return to César Chávez: he fought for an interest group but his rhetoric was intentionally universal. "We seek our basic, God-given rights as human beings. ... We seek the support of all political groups and protection of the government, which is also our government, in our struggle. ... At the head of the pilgrimage we carry La virgen de la Guadalupe because she is ours, all ours, Patroness of the Mexican people. We also carry the Sacred Cross and the Star of David because we are not sectarians, and because we ask the help and prayers of all religions." This was a moral claim on the public as a whole, which is the essence of good politics and what we risk losing today.

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June 18, 2010

labor action update

(At Roger William's own First Baptist Church in Providence, RI) I owe an update on the situation that I reported yesterday. I am attending the American Democracy Project meeting, which is taking place in the Westin Hotel under a union boycott. I have spoken at some length to three union organizers (one of whom had also read my blog post) and several Providence-based colleagues who are well informed about the situation. I attended a union rally at 7 am. I then crossed the picket line and moderated a plenary discussion at which colleagues addressed how to handle such controversial issues. Union leaders attended--as they had every right to do--and answered questions from the floor. In the afternoon, I marched on the picket line. I have also spoken separately with many fellow ADP colleagues and participated in a breakout session devoted to the labor dispute.

For what it's worth, my views are:

Conservative critics of higher education--and especially of "civic engagement" projects--might assume that participants at an ADP conference would be automatically and reflexively pro-union. What I actually perceive is a lot of deliberation and openness to diverse ideological perspectives. Conferees know that a labor dispute is a complicated business--it can cause collateral damage to third parties, for example. And we have come to this conference under all kinds of complex circumstances, not having individually chosen or paid to attend.

But none of that erases the individual obligation to make a decision. If you attend the ADP conference at the Westin, you have decided to cross a picket line. No amount of rumination on complexities and analogies negates that complicity. Yes, the hotel management and various other parties have perspectives that one can listen to. Yes, you should study and respect libertarian and other forms of conservative thought. But in the end, you have to decide. You can't take refuge in intellectual neutrality or in the other work you do--like educating young people, or creating open spaces for democratic dialog. A commitment to teach democracy back on your own campus doesn't make things any better for Local 217 of UNITE HERE in Providence. You own what you do--it's as simple as that.

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June 17, 2010

in a labor dispute

Many friends and I are converging on Providence, RI for the annual American Democracy Project conference. It is in the Westin Hotel, which is subject to a union boycott. Unite Here called a boycott when the hotel cut salaries and raised health care premiums. Just last week, the Westin laid off 50 workers, who will be replaced with contractors. The boycott has a Facebook page that you can visit.

The union is understandably calling for ADP to join the boycott. According to an email that I have received with identical text from 18 different individuals (so far), "The American Democracy Project is supposed to promote democracy, but patronizing this hotel supports the Westin Providence's violations of democratic rights. Please boycott this hotel and please do not cross the union picketlines there."

The problem, however, is that canceling the hotel contract would cost ADP so much money that I believe the organization would die. A boycott, as opposed to a strike, does not release ADP from their legal obligations to pay the hotel. And ADP is a small, scrappy, nonprofit outfit that serves public colleges and universities, with a strong emphasis on low-budget, non-selective institutions.

I have therefore decided to stick with the conference, although I am minimizing my own payments to the Westin. I will attend the union's teach-in and rally, but I will also enter the hotel for several sessions, including a plenary discussion on Friday morning about how to address issues like this one. Indeed, I will moderate that plenary. I plan to encourage participants to think about what we should do in the future.

This has been a tough call, and all of us are complicit--whether we patronize a hotel that exploits its workers or potentially kill an important nonprofit. I may have made the wrong decision, or there may not be a right one. I believe that all our work in democracy education is serious business. We do not just discuss, observe, and study institutions and teach young people to do the same. We populate, fund, profit from, and run institutions that regularly make and break human lives. Without taking ourselves overly seriously or giving ourselves too much credit, we need to recognize the heavy responsibilities we bear.

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June 16, 2010

populism and "the government"

Today's most prominent populists depict the government as alien to "the people." They say the government is a threat that needs to be checked and hampered.

A different populist tradition says, "This is the people's government. We paid for it, we built it, and it should serve our needs better." The clearest recent national voice for that strain of populism was John Edwards, in the 2008 campaign, but the tradition goes back to William Jennings Bryan and before.

For my own part, I'd put the matter a little differently. It is our government: of the people, by the people, and for the people, in Lincoln's phrase. Even in its current form, it is generally for us. Anyone is entitled to criticize the way the federal apparatus is run, but more than 80 cents of your tax dollar goes to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, interest payments on the national debt, and defense. Those purposes are supported by vast majorities of Americans. The government is by us in the sense that we determine its priorities, in rough strokes--for good and ill. We want low taxes and high spending, and that's why we get a deficit. The accumulating debt is not only "ours" because we must pay it off; it is ours because we demanded policies that necessitated borrowing. Finally, the government is of the people because the individuals who run it and work for it belong to regular American society and culture. They may not be statistically representative of the whole population, but they are not all that far off.

Having acknowledged that the government is ours already--we own it, legally and morally, and must take responsibility for it--we can turn to the ways it is not of, for, and by the people. In broad strokes, it may come from us, but money influences its decisions far too strongly. There are no realistic pathways for many Americans to enter politics and public life. In the government, power is distributed in ways that make it difficult for the public to hold leaders accountable. (For example, the present administration should be able to determine economic policy so that the public can vote up or down in November; instead, abuse of the filibuster creates deadlock.) The public discussion is structured so that we can't deliberate about common interests and learn from one another, but instead fracture into interest groups whose aggregate demands are irrational. Finally, the government is not of us sufficiently because it does not tap people's energies, ideas, and values sufficiently to solve public problems.

That diagnosis leads to a positive program that seems much more worthy to be called "populism" than any simple diagnosis of the government as the enemy of the people.

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June 15, 2010

engaging working-class youth

I am in a retreat with leaders who work with young people (ages 18-29) who have not attended college--basically, America's working-class and marginalized youth. Our colleagues provide a diverse range of opportunities, but all have civic or political engagement as one of their purposes. CIRCLE is the main organizer of this retreat, although we collaborated closely with our practitioner partners to design the agenda and facilitate the discussion. The conversation so far has been theoretically rich and challenging. I won't be able to reflect on it for some time, because my first task is simply to take it in. Most of our own research on this topic is collected here.

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June 14, 2010

overhead and the nonprofit business model

(On an AirTrain flight, Logan -> BWI): If you're a nonprofit that tries to run solely on grants and contracts from the federal government and foundations, you basically can't make it work. The grants and contracts will cover your expenses for funded projects, plus an appropriate share of overhead (also known as facilities & administration costs). But those revenues cannot be used to cover the cost of grant-seeking, which is time-consuming work, especially since no fundraiser succeeds with more than one proposal in three. Also, the grants and contracts basically will not cover R&D or public relations. But you cannot run a nonprofit enterprise without spending significant funds on development, R&D, networking, and PR.

Many nonprofits survive (and even flourish) by adding profitable fee-for-service work or by soliciting private donations by mail, in person, or in annual banquets. Those are appropriate strategies, but they can detract from an organization's mission if, for example, it starts serving clients who can pay its fees, or if its energies go into private fundraising.

Overall, I think Dan Palotta is right in his book Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential. It's too common to view all "overhead" in the nonprofit sector as waste, whereas R&D and development are treated as investments in the for-profit world. If the government and foundations want to help build and sustain institutions that do good in the world, they should be willing to pay the real cost of business, not just the itemized cost of each particular project.

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June 11, 2010

in search of status

(Washington, DC) Apparently, if you walk into a Russian club in Brooklyn or Cleveland on a Saturday night, you will see two or three gigantic parties seated in the dining room, each around a towering flower arrangement of a different color. The guy who bought that bouquet--and all the guests' meals--is a big cheese.

On the streets of downtown Lisbon, I saw groups of teenagers: cheerful, friendly-looking kids. I have no idea what combination of clothes, interests, and idioms allow a teenager to hang out with one of those groups or become its leader, but I am sure the recipe for inclusion is very precise and difficult to master.

If I blew all my savings on a vast banquet, everyone would think I was weird. And I (evidently) don't care about clothes. But I'll labor for weeks or months to write a piece that can appear in one obscure scholarly journal instead of another, and then take great pride in adding it to my CV.

We are a funny bunch of primates, aren't we?

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June 10, 2010

"The Response": a Guantanamo film and model prompt for deliberation

(Washington, DC) At today's Street Law board meeting, we watched "The Response," a movie that Sig Lobowitz wrote, based on the transcripts of real Guantanamo Bay military tribunals. The first part is a tribunal hearing, very skillfully acted using composite text from several real trials. The second part envisions the tribunal privately deliberating the case. That portion is based on interviews and other research, but not transcripts. I won't give away the end, because the plot is compelling, but it is cleverly contrived to make the audience deliberate.

"The Response" was shortlisted for the 2010 Academy Awards. Street Law is the "educational distributor" of the film and provides accompanying curricular materials, appropriate for high school, college, and law school.

I suppose a very strong critic or US policy might complain that the movie legitimates the US system because the military tribunal is depicted as genuinely wrestling with difficult issues. It is not a kangaroo court in the movie. The military lawyers are shown as serious and reflective people. On the other hand, all the major criticisms of the tribunal process--including its dependence on testimony obtained under torture--are fully and fairly aired.

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June 9, 2010

immigrating to the US worsens your diet

I've been talking a lot lately with immigrants and practitioners who work with immigrants who are worried about obesity and are trying to develop programs that address the obesity epidemic. These conversations remind me that several years ago, I helped lead a group of high school kids--almost all new immigrants from Africa and Central America--in community research on that very issue. They made a short video that is quite engaging. Their website is down, but I found their product on the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. You can click the little icon to make it play at full-screen size.

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June 8, 2010

'tis the season for board meetings

(Hartford, CT) I am here for a board meeting of the Paul J. Aicher Foundation, the fiscal agent of Everyday Democracy, which brought Study Circles to the US. On Thursday, I'll be in DC for a board meeting of Street Law, Inc., which provides legal and democratic education to teenagers in the US and other countries. And then on Friday, I'll stay in DC for the board meeting of the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, which studies deliberation and democracy in the US and abroad and originally launched National Issues Forums, among other experiments. It will be a week of listening, learning, and voting on budgets ...

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June 7, 2010

on multitasking and what's really good in life

I am sympathetic to Kord Campbell, the addicted multitasker who is profiled in today's long New York Times article entitled "Your Brain on Computers: Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price." He and I are exactly the same age, we have similar family structures, and I, like Campbell, acknowledge an Internet addiction. A little dose of dopamine quite noticeably surges in my brain whenever I see a positive item of economic news, a favorable poll, or evidence that someone has read something of mine.

The research on multitasking predictably focuses on its consequences: What does the behavior cause? The scientific jury is out, but there are troubling suggestive findings regarding the impact on cognitive abilities and stress. This research is interesting but will never be adequate, because studying consequences begs the one really important question. So what if multitasking raises stress, and stress shortens life? So what if multitasking rewires the brain so that we can no longer concentrate on a novel or our kids' homework? The primary question is: What should we do with our lives? If everything is just a means to something else, there is no basis to say that it matters how long we live or what we do with our time.

Obviously, I have no grounds to tell anyone else what is important in life. For myself, three ways of being loom large: Caring for other people and being cared for in return; becoming absorbed in another person's world through fiction, film, or nonfiction prose; and immersing oneself in some creative activity. The last is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls "flow," and I like this operational definition: when you're in "flow," you are so absorbed you forget to eat lunch.

None of these ways of being is fully compatible with multitasking. You might be checking email 37 times/hour (the national average) in order to care for others, but that isn't likely. Certainly, you are not immersed in another person's world or in a creative activity.

I have no methodology for selecting the three most intrinsically valuable activities. I did not derive them from a deeper or broader principle, although that might be possible. They could easily be mere prejudices or subjective preferences on my part. Still, the fact that I cannot tell you what to admire and value does not mean that there is no right answer to that question. And even if we disagree about which ways of being are most intrinsically valuable, I think we can agree that checking your email 37 times an hour isn't one of them.

(It disturbs me that I literally checked my email several times while I composed this blog post.)

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June 4, 2010

the old order passes

When Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s, civil society was predominantly composed of local, voluntary groups. They held regular face-to-face meetings. Their most important means for distributing information and opinions were newspapers (which were carried by the US Mail). Associations needed newspapers to communicate and they arose in response to the news. Thus, Tocqueville wrote, "There is a necessary connection between public associations and newspapers: newspapers make associations and associations make newspapers."

Tocqueville's civic ecosystem evolved but remained fundamentally similar for more than a century. It is now in steep decline, as shown by these trends:

(GSS is General Social Survey. DDB is DDB Needham Life Style Survey. Analysis by the author.)

The correlation between the trends in newspaper readership and attendance at face-to-face meetings is especially striking. The reason to be concerned by this graph is a core commitment to public deliberation, which has traditionally occurred within associations, at meetings, informed by newspapers.

But we should not mourn the passing of 19th- and 20th-century associations and media. We should organize. We can rebuild the public sphere from new building blocks, as our predecessors have done several times in the American past. The new materials include digital technologies and networks, as well as new forms of face-to-face association.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:49 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 3, 2010

AmericaSpeaks: Our Budget, Our Economy

My post for the day is over at usabudgetdiscussion.org, the blog for the National Town Meeting on Our Budget, Our Economy that AmericaSpeaks is organizing for June 26, 2010. This national deliberation will occur simultaneously in about 20 large venues "across the country, in many Community Conversations, and online."

I conclude my post by saying, "I am confident [that citizens] will address this difficult, divisive, and complex topic just as they handle equally challenging questions at the local level--with maturity, civility, and collective wisdom. They will model a whole new form of politics that we desperately need."

Posted by peterlevine at 1:36 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 2, 2010

the myth of Israeli competence

Even if you think that Israel has the right and a decent reason to blockade Gaza, it's pretty clear that dropping heavily armed commandos at night onto the decks of Turkish [!] ships loaded with peace activists and humanitarian assistance was stupendously dumb--especially since there was evidently no contingency plan in case of resistance.

This is an opportune moment to note that Israel's government is quite capable of self-destructive and foolish policy. That would be self-evident in most countries, but the State of Israel has a pervasive reputation for competence. Anti-Semites and committed Zionists agree on that, if nothing else. Stereotypes of Jews as smart people feed into it, as do all those military victories from the War of Independence to the Raid on Entebbe.

But Israel has a Jewish population of only about 5.6 million, just a bit more than the population of the Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA metropolitan statistical area. With that population, they have to run all the institutions of a modern nation, from a stock market to a nuclear weapons program, from a parliament to a navy. There is no reason to think they have the brainpower to do it all well under pressure.

The myth of Israeli super-competence causes anti-Semites to overestimate Israel's deliberate impact on world politics. If anything important happens, Mossad must have caused it, because those Israelis are diabolically brilliant. Meanwhile, the myth causes some Israelis and would-be friends of Israel to put far too much stock in military or technological strategies. In theory, a country could run a blockade (whether they should or not) and avoid humanitarian disasters, p.r. fiascoes, effective smuggling, and other failures. In reality, success would take an enormous amount of talent in the civilian government and the Defense Forces. I simply don't think Israel has what it takes, and that limitation should strongly influence their strategic thinking.

Posted by peterlevine at 1:32 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 1, 2010

Memorial Day, Belmont

Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."

--Robert Lowell, For the Union Dead

The VFW Commander in his flat Boston voice
intones the names of the dead:
DeStefano, Haratoonian, Donnelly, O'Neil.
Sweating, Buddha-fat babies watch; their
shrunken grandmas sag into low lawn chairs.

The high school band follows the route we have
marked for them. They play like experts, but they can joke,
knowing they have a few years before they sink
into the chairs along the way.

In this town, Lowell checked himself in
to the loony bin
and glimpsed his future in the faces
of the other mental cases.
(Plath too, and Ray Charles.)

Once John Birch HQ, it knows fear.
Cambridge public housing blocks stand in sight: warnings.
The lady selling cones from the ice cream truck
wears a hijab. Belmont's Finest march to the tune
of Valley Forge, Custer's ranks,
San Juan Hill and Patton's tanks.

And the ditch, it comes closer each year.

Blank shots over the town's war graves.
The bones hear nothing, but the shots and smoke
are for the grandmas, the band, the babies,
for the ravaged veterans of the one war
we all fight alone to the last breath.

Posted by peterlevine at 9:17 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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