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October 29, 2010

Jürgen Habermas approves this message

I expected my morning newspaper to bring stories about angry American voters and American politicians behaving ridiculously: data about the state of our democracy. I did not expect to see a wide-ranging essay on German democracy by one of the world's greatest living political thinkers, Jürgen Habermas. Having him pop up in the Times a few days before the election was like suddenly receiving a briefing from Isaiah Berlin or Reinhold Niebuhr.

Habermas describes three phenomena as broadly linked. The first is rising xenophobia, defined nowadays by religion instead of race or language. "With an arrogant appropriation of Judaism—and an incredible disregard for the fate the Jews suffered in Germany—the apologists of the leitkultur [national culture] now appeal to the 'Judeo-Christian tradition,' which distinguishes 'us' from the foreigners." In contrast, Habermas' own position is radically cosmopolitan and liberal: "the state should demand [no] more of its immigrants than learning the language of the country and accepting the principles of the Constitution." Even in our pluralist democracy of immigrants, that is not a settled position; many people, including some on the left, believe that the community has a right to teach some elements of a national culture. In fact, I would count myself in that camp.

The second phenomenon is "the rejection of political parties and party politics," in favor of "charismatic figures who stand above the political infighting." Habermas finds that trend disturbing in the light of German history, but it is certainly evident here as well.

And the third phenomenon is a wave of mass protests against government decisions, especially public protests against a huge public building project in Stuttgart. Habermas blames the government: "the authorities did not, in fact, provide sufficient information ... , and thus citizens did not have an opportunity to develop an informed opinion on which they could have based their votes. To insist that they should have no further say in the development is to rely on a formalistic understanding of democracy." They are taking to the streets because the government ignored the principles of deliberative democracy.

Habermas traces all three trends to a "helpless political system." National governments are weakening, and "politics submits to what appear to be inevitable economic imperatives." As a result, people naturally lose faith in representative/deliberative institutions. He doesn't mention European integration, but that is surely one reason that the state is weakening. (European integration is a direct reason for the Stuttgart train station project, which has E.U. funding.)

Somewhat surprisingly,* Habermas ends with a favorable comparison to our side of the Atlantic. "The United States has a president with a clear-headed political vision, even if he is embattled and now meets with mixed feelings. What is needed in Europe is a revitalized political class that overcomes its own defeatism with a bit more perspective, resoluteness and cooperative spirit. Democracy depends on the belief of the people that there is some scope left for collectively shaping a challenging future."

*I am not surprised that Habermas holds positive views of the United States; that has been true all along. I am surprised to see anyone favorably evaluate our politics at this precise moment.

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October 28, 2010

civic health in the states

The National Conference on Citizenship has partnerships with 17 states or large cities that are releasing glossy, detailed reports on their own communities' "civic health." My organization, CIRCLE (with funding from the federal Corporation for National and Community Service) provided each state's or city's team with a long background memo composed of statistics and trends that we drew, in large part, from the Census annual surveys of civic engagement. Although we helped with data, the local teams decided what to say. Their findings are interesting.

For example, Arizona has strikingly low levels of "civic engagement" as typically defined (voting, volunteering, membership in groups). Nevertheless, young Arizonans hold regular political discussions: 40.9% say they talk about politics at least several times per week, more than older people in their state and youth in other states. Maybe controversial issues such as immigration are stirring up discussion there.

The Missouri team emphasized the traditional blue-collar base of civic engagement in their state and how that is fraying in the current economy.

North Carolina's report states rather boldly, "The state’s civil society--the voluntary and social organizations that make our communities work--is led by a small and homogeneous group of older, college-educated, mostly white residents who are involved in religious organizations."

Civic engagement is important, but every state has a different civic culture. These reports (and many more to come) begin to diagnose the problems, identify opportunities, and propose solutions appropriate to each place.

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October 27, 2010

what the markets think about the election

I was in a foundation board meeting today, in DC. We heard the usual presentation from investment advisers about the state of the endowment and the future of the markets. Their boilerplate document treats as a positive factor the coalition governments in Britain and Australia and the likely divided government in the US starting in January. Apparently, there will be more checks and balances now, hence more stability and predictability. I presume such thinking helps explain, or justify, why many large investors are backing Republicans.

The coalition government in Britain has actually launched a radical experiment in austerity during a recession that, at best, makes the future there quite unpredictable. Meanwhile, in the US, I fear we will see gridlock that preserves the status quo, which means a long, slow, painful climb out of the hole we're in.

One interpretation: the finance guys are right. Divided government means stability, and that's good for "the economy."

A second interpretation: Republican and Tory victories are good for financial markets but not for most people. Investment advisers know that but don't say it, even to their own clients, for fear of alienating people who might have different values.

A third interpretation: Investment advisers believe exactly what they write, although they are too optimistic about the public benefits of conservative policy. Their sincere but wrong beliefs tell us something about the micro-structure of ideology.

I don't know which is correct, but I do know these folks are advising their clients to invest in "emerging markets." In other words, welcome tax cuts here but outsource your capital to countries with actual growth.

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October 26, 2010

trying to look at the Empire State Building

(Washington, DC) Over the weekend, I finished Mark Kingwell's excellent book Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams. By coincidence, I spent today in an office three blocks south of the actual Empire State Building. I saw it first from an airport taxi, got a good direct look at it from the window on 31st Street, walked by its front door, and then watched it vanish over Queens on my way to La Guardia.

Seeing it, however, is problematic--that is one of Kingwell's themes. First of all, it is actually very big. If you are far enough away to see the whole thing, it becomes misleadingly small, unremarkable, dwarfed by routine buildings closer by, sometimes just an extra piece of equipment in the backdrop of a New Jersey auto dealership or a Brooklyn lot. If you come close enough to sense its scale, it veers away so sharply that you can't really see anything. What you do glimpse is just the skin. It's a three-dimensional structure; to experience it fully (if such a thing were possible) would require going inside: time and motion would be needed as well as vision.

The Empire State Building is also hard to "see" because you have seen it so many times before, in real life, in postcards and movies, inside snow globes, on tee-shirts, carved as chocolates or soaps. As a result of all that mechanical reproduction, you carry the wrong shape in your mind. In my memory, it had more stone and less steel, more shoulder and less head, than in my experience today.

And it's a hard object to see because savvy New Yorkers don't stare up at it, whether they're walking down the street or in meetings on 31st Street. They are too busy, too blasé. Tourists were standing around the entrance on Fifth Avenue, and since I was also a tourist but didn't want to seem one, I hurried past.

From the taxi, though, it was OK to stare. The building looked a little solitary, standing down there in the thirties. I recalled Kingwell's idea that the Chrysler Building is its uptown girlfriend; they seemed a little distant. At first sight, on a grey day, the Empire State Building looked pixilated, like a stack of tiny cubes with angular edges all the way to the Deco dirigible dock at the top. A surprising dark stripe crossed its belly.

I wrote the above on the plane from New York to DC, without really reaching a conclusion before we had to put computers away for landing. We came in low over the Potomac, Georgetown lamps shimmering on the river, the Lincoln Memorial's skylights glowing upward, and the obelisk standing in the middle of it all. It may have been a trick of the perspective--or something to do with my twenty years of past wrapped up in Washington--but it looked grander than the city we had left.

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October 25, 2010

a map of the civic renewal field

If there is not yet a civic renewal movement, there are certainly many organizations and individuals devoted to fair, deliberative, transparent, participatory democracy. If we hope to build a movement, it is important to understand these groups, how they fit together, and what types of organizations and coalitions may still be missing.

In 2005, I created two maps (one and two) using the links among civic organizations' websites to create a list of groups and then organize them as a network. That method is dependent on how webmasters handle links--always a bit arbitrary, and increasingly so as groups make heavier use of Facebook and Twitter.

So I have made a new map in a more-labor intensive way. I hand-entered information about all the member organizations of the following networks, which I would argue are important to the field:

I could have included other coalitions, such as the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, Service Nation, or the America's Promise Alliance, but each of these has such long lists of members that the total number of groups would have become enormous and, I think, less meaningful. By the way, I excluded individuals, government agencies, and whole universities, although I included specialized centers within higher education.

The result was a list of 117 organizations. I can think of missing groups, but the point is not to identify the organizations that I happen to know and admire, but rather to generate a network from a set of initial nodes that I don't control.

The resulting network has many links--for instance, my own center has close working ties with at least a dozen others--but to detect all the actual connections would be a major project. Instead, I simply entered memberships in the six coalitions listed above. That yielded 270 links. Click on the thumbnail to see the resulting network displayed as a set of rough clusters:

(The method I used here was to display all the nodes randomly on a blank plane within the free software package called SocNetV, and then apply an algorithm that treats each node as an electron that repels the others, and each link as a tie that pulls its two nodes together. That tends to sort the field into clusters.)

Here is another way to look at the map. Now the network hubs are placed close to the center in proportion to how many nodes they have. This is useful for showing which nodes are most important for keeping large sets of organizations connected. (The size of the node shows the number of members it has.)

And here is a third way. Now all the nodes are displayed around one circle. If every one were directly connected to every other, the picture would like like a tight ball of yarn. The white space in the middle indicates that the network is not very dense.

Maps are only one way to investigate this set of 117 organizations. One could also count what they do, how they are organized, and who runs them. I have not yet done that rigorously, but eyeballing the list reveals some clear patterns. Overall, I would make these observations:

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October 22, 2010

economic stimulus, compared

A New York Times news article asserts that Keynsianism is being ignored in Europe. Instead of stimulating their economies by borrowing and spending or cutting taxes, European governments are tightening their belts. Writing specifically about the looming cuts in Britain, Paul Krugman sees disaster ahead.

On the other hand, European countries have institutionalized Keynsianism (to a degree) by creating social welfare entitlements. When people are entitled to extensive unemployment benefits, as unemployment rises, state spending can soar. In Germany, for example, people who are laid off get between 60 percent and 67 percent of their former income as government benefits, plus health care. Thus I thought that perhaps the current round of budget cutting in Europe was only a course correction after a lot of automatic Keynsian stimulus.

You can measure spending lots of ways, and I ran the numbers for gross government expenditures in nominal dollars and as a percent of GDP. But I decided that the clearest story about governments' decision-making was the trend in their annual expenditures compared to their own pre-recession baselines. Here is that comparison, based originally on IMF data:

It's interesting that the US has had the largest stimulus, despite our relatively weak policies for automatically raising entitlement spending in recessions, and despite our alleged resistance to government. The stimulus began under Bush and actually leveled off under Obama. Likewise, Britain has more modest social welfare policies than those in Germany and France, yet British spending has increased more than theirs. As we look forward, the spending line is likely to flatten out in the US but decline in Britain.

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October 21, 2010

the proper role of experimentation in social reform

I think FDR's words apply today--to the letter--because our problems are as serious, and our understanding of what will fix them is as tentative and preliminary, as it was in 1932. Once again, we especially need a new generation to be social innovators. But I would distinguish between two forms of "experimentation."

1. Looking for "cures," replicable programs and strategies that are proven to work. This is a very popular goal today (consider the Department of Education's What Works database). The major analogy is to bench science, and the hope is to find treatments for social ills that work as reliably as chemicals that kill harmful microbes on contact. A social entrepreneur is someone who invents a new solution, proves that it works, and helps it spread through society, rather like Jonas Salk with the polio vaccine.

2. Tinkering: setting up programs that embody one's profound ethical commitments and theories of society and then experimenting in order to improve their impact or--if they consistently fail, scrapping them and moving on. (As FDR advised, sometimes you have to "admit [failure] frankly and try another" approach.)

One of the flash-points today is the proper role of randomized experiments with control groups. (See, for example, this New York Daily News story headlined, "200 families on brink of homelessness being treated like 'rats in lab experiment'".) Randomized experiments do raise ethical questions about the treatment of the people in the studies. But they can be handled ethically, and they are powerful tools for determining what works. I think they have special promise as part of a "tinkering" strategy.

Experiments are actually rather simple and accessible tools for practitioners to use in program-improvement. Imagine, for example, that you are running a program that depends on regular meetings, and you need good turnout. Who shows up seems to depend on when you schedule the meeting, but you aren't sure whether recent changes in the meeting time have helped because there are many other factors in play (the weather, the subject of the meetings, and so on). You can answer the question with a simple experiment. Randomly divide the next ten meetings into two groups: say, evenings and Saturdays. Count the total number of people who attend the two categories. If one is much better than the other, go for that. No fancy math, survey design, or other research skills are required.

If many organizations routinely applied experimental designs, they could become more effective, and that would help society. Randomization is merely a tool; they would also need a general ethic of experimentation and rigorous self-review.

But often randomized experimentation is motivated by a faith in a shorter path. The hope is to identify big cures that can be quickly "taken to scale" after experiments prove they work. This hope is likely illusory.

A randomized experiment can prove that a social intervention works; its success was not caused by other factors, such as the participants' enthusiasm. But an experiment cannot prove that the same intervention would work in different contexts. To find real "cures," one would have to replicate success in many contexts. But experimental results rarely replicate when human beings and communities are involved.

One reason is that the roots of problems lie in human motivations and choices. Often, the chief culprits are not the people directly in view as one experiments, such as the delinquent adolescents who are enrolled in a program. The real fault may lie with policymakers, business leaders, and other people out of view. But in any case, human intelligence and will are involved. So when one intervenes, all the affected parties adjust and seek their own goals, often frustrating the intervention. Microbes don't respond that way. It is true that bugs can evolve to develop resistance, but human change is deliberate and immediate, not evolutionary.

Besides, many of the most important factors that determine human well-being are not programs or interventions that we can possibly offer to people or assign them to. An example of a program would be a community-service opportunity that students can be required to take or else rewarded for choosing. That is worth assessing with a randomized experiment. But consider a community service activity that kids develop completely on their own. That might be more important and valuable than a program, yet there is no point in assigning individuals to such an experience; it is essential that they created it. Or consider a community, like the city of Somerville, MA, where I am writing this paragraph. There are good things and bad things about Somerville as a context for human development, and we should understand its pros and cons and tinker with its elements as citizens. But Somerville wasn't designed by anyone, nor can people be assigned to live there (without changing it dramatically). Somerville emerged from three centuries of choices and work by countless powerful and relatively powerless people. If you try to replicate its positive aspects elsewhere, you will be creating something entirely different.

In short, I believe in "bold, persistent experimentation." I take "experimentation" literally and believe that techniques developed for scientific experiments, such as randomized control groups, have value. But we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that there are cures waiting to be discovered. Persistent experimentation is the key: constantly refining our programs and projects in the light of the best available evidence.

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October 20, 2010

youth voting in the news

Here I am on CBS News, talking about youth voting:

We've been doing a lot of press work, and reporters' main questions seem to be: "Why are young people disconnected?" and "What will the decline in their enthusiasm mean for the Democrats?" The implied baseline is usually 2008, when more than half of young people voted, two-thirds of them supported Barack Obama, and more than four percent said they had volunteered for a campaign. You don't need polls to demonstrate that youth enthusiasm is lower today than it was then: in fact, we could have predicted that years ago.

Consistently, 25-30 percent of young people vote in midterm elections--half as many as in presidential years. Thus I think the appropriate baseline is 2006. Compared to that year, I am not sure that youth enthusiasm is down now. We'll have to wait for the actual election to know.

In any case, it makes good strategic sense for the president--and the newly energized libertarian right--to try to engage young people. Young adults will not vote at the rates we expect in presidential years, but their turnout could range from, say, 23-33 percent, and that difference would matter for the election's outcome. Rigorous research shows that young people's decision to vote is sensitive to whether they were contacted by campaigns. The Obama moderate left, the libertarian right, or both could build lasting constituencies by enlisting significant numbers of young people.

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October 19, 2010

deliberation on campuses

"Public deliberation" is a positive synonym for "talk"; and definitions of "public deliberation" tend to list positive characteristics like fairness, non-coercion, freedom of speech, seriousness, relevance, use of valid information, and civility. Since these are supposed to be characteristics of academic discourse, as well, it is natural to try to bring public deliberation to college campuses as a form of civic education and as a service to broader communities.

The Journal of Public Deliberation devotes a whole new special issue to the topic, with articles on everything from an overview of the prevailing practices to academic libraries as hubs of deliberation. For full disclosure, eight of the authors are friends and collaborators of mine, but I think the quality is objectively high.

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October 18, 2010

a different transparency agenda

"Transparency" means making the government's decisions public--along with all potential influences on government--so that the results will be better: less corrupt, more fair, wiser. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant," said Louis Brandeis, and his theory has many proponents today.

One thing that has changed since Brandeis's day is the sheer volume of decisions and possible influences. In 2004, federal administrative agencies published 78,851 pages of proposed rules. That does not count determinations by federal administrative law judges, provisions in contracts between federal agencies and grantees, or the policy decisions that those contractors make. The legislative branch, meanwhile, produces reams of policy in the form of appropriations bills and riders, earmarks and other detailed instructions in statutes, and committee reports. And flowing into government are countless campaign contributions, uncoordinated campaign expenditures, bids, lawsuits, and lobbying contacts.

It was not always so. The government during the New Deal and the Great Society made much more momentous decisions, but far fewer of them. For example, the Federal Register (which presents proposed federal rules) was 30 times longer during the supposed anti-regulatory regime of George W. Bush than it had been during the first term of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was rapidly changing society. From the 1930s through the early 1970s, Congress was almost always considering some kind of "landmark" legislation, whether conservative or liberal, that drew the attention of the nation and that plausibly promised to change America. Only a few such bills have even been seriously considered since 1980. Yet routine decisions are made off the the floor of Congress at an enormous rate and with great cumulative effect.

This trend is no accident. It serves the interests of professional politicians, administrators, and lobbyists to avoid big, public decisions in favor of routine administration, negotiation, and deal-making. Also, the public lacks the political will for difficult choices and real changes of course. I strongly supported the health reform of 2010, but in its tentativeness, its delegation of hard choices to agencies and panels, and its internal compromises, it exemplifies modern lawmaking. And yet it seems to have been bold enough to exhaust the whole system.

The standard "transparency" agenda is to disclose all of the routine decisions and possible influences on them. Since the volume is astounding, no individual and no mass movement can possibly pay attention. The two solutions appear to be:

1. Crowdsourcing. Get thousands of eyes on the minutiae of federal decisions and campaign finance data to reveal evidence of corruption (or simple inconsistencies and gaps in policy). These are "bugs," and the programmer's adage is probably right: "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow" (or fixable). But our worst problems aren't bugs. They are not corrupt acts or even patterns of corruption, but official, public policies that are shortsighted, unfair, or wasteful. It doesn't take great masses of data to show what's wrong with them. It does take public pressure to promote solutions, and there is no evidence that transparency drives such pressure.

2. Specialization: Most people cannot pay attention to all the details of policy, but experts on watersheds can watch the EPA, reporters on Capitol Hill can scrutinize congressional office expenditures, and civil libertarians can keep an eye on Guantanamo. The problems are: (1) wealthy special interests can watch regulators at least as effectively as public interest groups do; and (2) knowing that something is wrong doesn't do any good unless lots of other people care.

This has been a pessimistic post so far, but I actually believe there is a solution. We must free government from the morass of routine decision-making so that Congress and the president can make really consequential reforms in the form of landmark statutes. Such acts will be transparent virtually by definition. People will care about them. And they have a chance of addressing our problems. Routine decision-making cannot do that, even if it is fully transparent and thoroughly scrubbed for "bugs."

Making data public is fine, but is not likely to make a big difference. Process reforms should emphasize codification, simplification, and new rules against the delegation of crucial decisions to administrative agencies. No thanks to the Supreme Court, campaign finance reform will now require a constitutional amendment, but at least that means that our proposals in that domain should be radical. Meanwhile, social and environmental policy should be made through large, relatively simple, landmark statutes. Even though Congress may choke on such bills, they belong high on the agenda so that people can judge what passes and what fails to pass.

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October 15, 2010

welcome to Participedia

My friend Archon Fung and others have built "Participedia," an online archive of articles about public participation and democratic innovation around the world. It's wiki-style, so anyone can add cases and edit the ones that are there already. The site says:

The site already contains main important examples. They are looking for failures, too, which is very important because we tend to collect examples of success even if the odds of replication are poor. Smart strategic planning requires learning from mistakes.

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October 14, 2010

Ward Just's Washington

I have been reading or re-reading fine scholarly books about the way citizens relate to their national government.* These books provide persuasive empirical evidence, but I don't think any is as perceptive as Ward Just in his Washington novels, such as Echo House, Jack Gance, and City of Fear.

A common theme is the shift from Washington as the seat of government to the modern city of dealmakers and negotiators. Ward Just (who was the Washington Post's lead reporter in Vietnam) certainly does not regard the old Washington as unproblematically benign. It was a city of power, and the powerful sometimes lacked wisdom and ethics. Yet their job was to govern. Their titles, their powers, and their paychecks were federal. They made big decisions that were public, subject to popular approval or rejection. For instance--and this is my example, not Just's--in a mere two years from 1963-4, Congress passed and the president signed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (launching the War on Poverty and creating Head Start, Job Corps, and many other programs), the Food Stamp Act (institutionalizing food stamps as a permanent federal welfare program), the Federal Transit Act (providing federal aid for mass transportation), the Library Services and Construction Act (offering federal aid for libraries), the Community Mental Health Centers Act (de-institutionalizing many mental health patients), the Clean Air Act (the first federal environmental law allowing citizens to sue polluters), the Wilderness Act (protecting nine million acres of federal land), the Equal Pay Act (addressing wage discrimination by sex), the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (ending de jure racial segregation in the United States), and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (rapidly escalating the Vietnam War).

Some of those bills were good. Some were very bad. But all were landmark statutes, widely publicized, driven by national political leaders and large constituencies, consistent with general philosophies.

That whole style of governance soon ended. In 1997-8, 70 percent of the issues Congress considered went nowhere at all, and The Washington Post decried “the barrenness of the legislative record” at the end of the session.

But that did not mean that the government stopped governing. Washington still faced innumerable choices about which activities and programs to fund, purchase, permit, require, measure, ban, and punish. Those decisions were no longer made in major bills, widely publicized, debated on the floor of Congress, and signed or vetoed by Presidents. Instead, the decisions were negotiated behind the scenes by people in and (mainly) outside the government. "Governance" now meant the regulations issued by administrative agencies, the determinations of administrative law judges, the outcomes of lawsuits against federal agencies, the appropriations bills, riders, and earmarks passed by congressional subcommittees, the policies adopted by federal contractors, and the memoranda of understanding (and even the unwritten agreements) that bound various "stakeholders."

It was a city, then of dealmaking instead of lawmaking, where the least important people might hold elected or appointed positions and the real power belonged to well connected negotiators. Always awash with money, it was now a city in which turning private money into power was legitimate, professional. Meanwhile, expectations faded that anything really important would happen as a result. No more War on Poverty, but plenty of targeted tax breaks and regulatory negotiations.

In Jack Gance, Ward Just's eponymous narrator recalls the end of the sixties:

*Theodore Lowi, The End of Liberalism: The Second Republic of the United States, second edition (New York: Norton, 1979) ; Theda Skocpol, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (University of Oklahoma Press, 2003); Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg, Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined its Citizens and Privatized its Public (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002); and others.

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October 13, 2010

working to improve the national conversation

Political discussion today is poisonous, but some people and organizations are trying to make it more substantive and constructive.

My friend Les Francis highlights several projects. Running to Govern is a group of "young, skilled political organizers and policy wonks who will labor only for candidates--Republican or Democratic--who are pledged to work toward solutions to our nation’s most pressing problems." Les also mentions a bipartisan group of retired Members of Congress, including John Porter (R-IL) and our former colleague David Skaggs (D-CO), who are working together on proposals regarding "budget deficits, entitlement reform, infrastructure, and national security, the threat of terrorism, global competition and education reform."

Finally, here is a highlight tape from "AmericaSpeaks: Our Budget, Our Economy," this past summer's national citizens' deliberation.

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October 12, 2010

if the goal is civility, moderation may be the problem, not the solution

Senator Susan Collins writes, "in modern times, I have not seen the degree of bitter divisiveness and excessive partisanship now found in the Senate." That is probably an accurate description of the Senate and the country as a whole. We have sorted ourselves by party and ideology and are hurling outrageous invective across lines of political division. That is bad, not because politics should be polite and warm-and-fuzzy, but because bitter rhetoric drives people out of public life, whether they are contemplating a run for office or simply trying to follow the news. The field is left to professional advocates and interest groups. Also, when we are sharply and angrily divided, we cannot understand each other or work together even when our interests and values do overlap.*

So I agree that the present state of discourse is bad, but I do not share Senator Collins' view that ideological moderation (her own declared philosophy) is the solution. Congress is tangled in invective because Americans are angry. Americans are in an especially bad mood because the economy is terrible. When the economy is poor, trust and comity fall because people naturally develop a zero-sum, suspicious attitude toward institutions and toward one another. See Eric Uslaner, The Decline of Comity in Congress (1997) for evidence.

At least part of the solution must be to improve the economy. There are at least three leading prescriptions. The federal government could cut spending to balance the budget, cut taxes to stimulate investment, or borrow to subsidize state governments and stimulate demand. I must say that I find the third option much more plausible than the first two, but all have supporters.

What we are actually doing, instead, is the "moderate" thing. The stimulus package was an even mix of tax cuts, direct federal spending, and aid to states. The amount of the stimulus was capped at about 2 percent of annual GDP. Meanwhile, states are cutting their spending by comparable amounts. The net effect is very close to a wash. That doesn't fit any coherent theory of macroeconomics, but it represents a compromise that Susan Collins and a few other Senate "moderates" voted for. If it was poor economics, then moderation contributed to the economic crisis and prolonged an important cause of incivility.

What's more, because the bill was such a compromise, no one can see clearly what theory was tested. Many Americans believe that the administration just tried a radical, leftist strategy, which is certainly not true, but we didn't try supply-side tax cutting either. We muddled through the middle, and the results speak for themselves.

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October 11, 2010

October Villanelle

Is autumn the one true season of life?
(Or must a long cold winter follow fall?)
October paints with fragile colors rife

the early twilights, and with black, the nights of strife,
when a suffering wind repeats the call:
"Is autumn the one true season of life?"

Sweet roots and crisp apples under the knife
yield scented juices that summer sun recall.
October paints with fragile colors rife.

With thoughts of fledgling days the small
birds huddle tight as husband clings to wife.
Is autumn the one true season of life?

It is the soft wind whistling like a fife
that spins the dancing leaves, holds them in thrall.
October paints with fragile colors rife.

The vein to the past was cut with a knife.
The days drop like leaves, and ripeness is all.
October paints with fragile colors rife.
Is autumn the one true season of life?

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October 8, 2010

the youth vote in 2010: what would success look like?

Cathy Cohen, a distinguished political scientist at University of Chicago and the PI of the Black Youth Project, writes:

She concludes: "If these young people don’t come out to vote, the Democratic Party will have only itself to blame. Instead of harnessing the energy of young voters across the board, particularly black ones, and nurturing their political momentum, President Obama and his party ignored them once the election was over."

As we approach the 2010 election, one way to think about youth participation is by looking at the trend in previous midterm elections.

The last midterm vote was in 2006. That year, youth turnout reached 25.5%, up for the second cycle in a row. (Young African Americans, by the way, slightly beat young whites and all other ethnic groups in turnout that year.) So we could set 25% as the baseline for youth turnout and declare success if 2010 sets a higher mark, which remains possible. If we keep seeing upward progress of, say, two points every four years, then we could reach 50% turnout by the year 2060. (Although I will be 93 then if I'm lucky enough to live so long.)

Another way to look at this issue is the way Cathy does. We should have much better turnout. In the 1800s, more than 90% of eligible voters outside the South voted in some years, a rate that remains common in many other democracies. What would it take to move us from our current rate to an acceptable one? I'd advocate for political reform, but some kind of transformational event could also help.

Now imagine that a presidential candidate recognizes the potential of a diverse and energized young population to exercise political power. He develops a powerful bond with them and offers them exciting ways to engage with his campaign. More than half of eligible young voters turn out, and two thirds of those vote for him. He wins, thanks, in significant measure, to their support.

This sounds like the basis of a generational transformation. And yet two years later, we are asking whether youth turnout will rise to 27% or fall to 22% or 23%. It is not too soon to ask Cathy Cohen's critical questions about the responsibility of our political leaders for missing a remarkable opportunity.

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October 7, 2010

notes on a developmental ethic

We are morally obliged to treat our fellow human beings and their communities as subjects in development. In this post, I take a stab at defining "development" and a developmental ethic.

Any theory of development expects constant change, as opposed to a theory that assumes stability, ignores the dimension of time, or overlooks the potential for bad things to improve. Development is not random change, but it also is not fully pre-determined and predictable. When something develops, we can say that changes occur because the object is moving toward some kind of objective or end, whereas ordinary physical objects change only as a consequence of what is done to them.

In the case of a biological organism, we are able to talk about "development" and change toward objectives or ends because the physical structure of the object includes guidelines for its own growth and transformation (mostly encoded in its genome). In contrast, we would not say that a mountain "develops," even though it changes, because there is no design encoded in it that makes it change in a particular direction.

Human beings' development is more complex, because we are able to reflect on our own trajectories and strive to change them. Not every influence is random or encoded in our genes. On the other hand, we are never fully free, because our developmental course up until the present influences our efforts to change. Thus development can involve intentions and self-consciousness, but it is not simply a matter of choice.

Nor do human beings pass through automatic "stages."* Personal decisions and external events and opportunities disrupt the standard progression and can produce wide variation. Nevertheless, some phases or periods of development are encoded genetically, or are deeply embedded in our cultural traditions, or come logically before or after other phases. For example, there are important reasons that individuals typically babble before they talk, learn to read before they become sexually active, attend school before they vote, fill the roles of children before they are parents, and hold jobs before they retire. Some of these sequences are biologically necessary; others are wise conventions; and some might be mistakes. To think developmentally is to pay attention to the typical (and atypical) sequences and the timing of opportunities and experiences. The usual course of human development is open to critique but it cannot simply be ignored.

The same is true for communities, institutions, and other groups of human beings. Like individuals, they have developmental trajectories that are shaped by their initial designs, constrained by logic, affected by random events, and yet susceptible to deliberate alteration by the group itself. Sun Belt boom towns are at a different stage of development from Rust Belt inner cities. The government of the United States has developed rapidly since the ratification of the Constitution and cannot now reverse course. To think developmentally about a community is to take its past seriously and not to imagine that it can simply start over from scratch, but also to recognize the potential for deliberate change.

An ethic of development, then, is a particular way of making judgments and intervening in the world. It does not presume that every person, community, or institution has equal merit and virtue: some are better than others. But if we think developmentally, we are alert to the ways that the past has shaped each one's present, the limits of choice, and the potential for any person or community to change for better or worse.

For example, I know college professors who are offended that their students are relatively superficial and undisciplined thinkers. That perspective fails to view students as individuals in development; their thinking will change rapidly. On the other hand, if you are a college teacher who simply tolerates and expects your students to think immaturely, you are not contributing to their development. If you try to make them think better, you ignore the inevitable responsibility of human beings for their own development. But if you leave them to do and think whatever they want, you forget that healthy development requires guidance and support. If you treat a 12-year-old just like your college students, you are unreasonable. But if you try to shepherd a fellow adult intellectually, as you would your own students, you misunderstand your limited rights and responsibilities for other people's development. In short, thinking developmentally is not easy—it raises a host of empirical, strategic, and ethical questions—but it is indispensable.

*Important stage theories have been presented by Sigmund Freud, Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, Lawrence Kohlberg, and others. These theories offer important insights, but I am persuaded by a general critique. The idea of stages makes the developmental process seem internally regulated and automatic except under exceptional circumstances. That is plausible for language-acquisition but not for civic or moral identity after early childhood. Development is a complex and variable interaction between the organism, its own norms, prevailing external norms, and other aspects of the environment.

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October 6, 2010

young campaign volunteers in 2008: the numbers

In 2008, for the first time in history, more young people than older people said that they had volunteered for a campaign. That tells an important story about how the Obama campaign in particular--and perhaps other political campaigns as well--engaged young people. The 2008 election was also a much more inclusive one than we had seen for some time, based on the proportion of Americans who said they had "done any work for a party or candidate."

On the other hand, the long-term trend is a decline in political volunteering, as campaigns have evolved from broad, grassroots, labor-intensive efforts requiring many willing volunteers to highly professionalized enterprises driven by fundraisers, media consultants, and pollsters. Politicians are now more dependent on donors and less reliant on popular support. A very important question is whether 2004-8 was a blip or the beginning of an upward trend. (Source: American National Election Studies, analyzed by me.)

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October 5, 2010

the rise of an expert class and its implications for democracy

Civil society is increasingly dominated by people who have received relevant professional training or who officially represent firms and other organizations. In local discussions about schools, for example, a significant proportion of the participants may hold degrees in education, law, or a social science discipline or represent the school system, the teacher's union, or specific companies and interest groups.

Such people can contribute valuable sophistication and expertise. But if my arguments here are correct, we should not be satisfied with public discourse that is merely technical or that reflects negotiations among professional representatives of interest groups. We should want broad deliberations, rooted in everyday experience, drawing on personal experience and values as well as facts and interests, and resistant to the generalizations of both professionals and ideologues.

Technically trained professionals already intervened powerfully in public policy and institutions a century ago. The ratio of professionals in the United States doubled between 1870 and 1890, as society became more complex and urbanized and scientific methods proved their value. More than 200 different learned societies were founded in the same two decades, and learned professionals specialized. For example, physicians split into specializations in that period. The historian Robert L. Buroker deftly describes the implications for politics and civic life: “By 1900 a social class based on specialized expertise had become numerous and influential enough to come into its own as a political force. Educated to provide rational answers to specific problems and oriented by training if not by inclination toward public service, they sensed their own stake in the stability of the new society, which increasingly depended upon their skills.” At best, they offered effective solutions to grave social problems. At worst, they arrogantly tried to suppress other views. For instance, the American Political Science Association’s Committee of Seven’s argued in 1914 that citizens “should learn humility in the face of expertise.”

One of the great issues of the day became the proper roles of expertise, specialization, science, and professionalism in a democracy. The great German sociologist Max Weber interpreted modernity as a profound and unstoppable shift toward scientific reasoning, specialization, and division of labor. One of Weber’s most prominent students, Robert Michels, introduced the Iron Law of Oligarchy, according to which every organization--even a democratic workers’ party--would inevitably be taken over by a small group of especially committed, trained, and skillful leaders. In America, the columnist Walter Lippmann argued that ordinary citizens had been eclipsed because of science and mass communications and could, at most, render occasional judgments about a government of experts. Thomas McCarthy, author of the Wisconsin Idea, asserted that the people could still rule through periodical elections, but expert managers should run the government in between. John Dewey and Jane Addams (in different ways) asserted that the lay public must and could regain its voice, but they struggled to explain how.

Thus the contours of the debate were established by 1910. If dominance by experts is a problem, it was already evident then. But even if the conceptual issue (the role of specialized expertise in a democracy) is the same today as it was in 1900, the sheer numbers are totally different. This is a case in which quantitative change makes a qualitative difference.

Just before the Second World War, the Census counted just one percent of Americans as "professional, technical, and kindred workers": people who according to, Steven Brint’s definition, "earn[ed] at least a middling income from the application of a relatively complex body of knowledge." This thin slice of the population was spread fairly evenly. There was usually a maximum of one "professional" per household, and even in a neighborhood association or civic group, there might just be one physician, one lawyer, and one person with scientific training. Often these people (mostly men) had been socialized into an ethic of service. They had valuable specialized insights to offer, but they were obliged to collaborate with non-experts on an almost daily basis to get anything done. Without romanticizing the relationship between professionals and their fellow citizens, I would propose that the dialogue was close and reciprocal.

Today, in contrast, there are so many "professionals" (and they are so geographically concentrated) that particular neighborhoods, and even whole metropolitan areas, can be dominated by people who make a good living by applying specialized intellectual techniques. As holders of professional degrees, these people possess markers of high social status that were much more ambiguous a century ago, when gentlemen were still expected to pursue the liberal arts, and the professions still smacked slightly of trades. When wealthier and more influential communities are numerically dominated by people with strong and confident identities as experts, the nature of political conversation is bound to change.

In 1952, of all Americans who said that they had attended a "political meeting," only about one quarter held managerial or professional jobs. Many more (41 percent) worked in other occupational categories: clerical, sales and service jobs, laborers and farmers. The rest were mostly female homemakers. In short, professionals and managers—people trained to provide specialized, rational answers to problems—were outnumbered three-to-one in the nation’s political meetings. By 2004, however, 44 percent of people who attended political meetings worked in managerial or professional occupations, and 48.5 percent held other jobs. The ratio nationally was now almost even, and professionals were the dominant group in affluent communities.

These are crude categories that do not tell us how people talk in meetings. A clerical worker could argue like a technocrat; a physician could tell rich, personal stories, laden with values. But I think the increasing proportion of professionals and managers in our meetings tells a story about a society dominated by people with specialized training and expertise.

Theda Skocpol notes that traditional fraternal associations like the Lions and the Elks, which once gathered people at the local level who were diverse in terms of class and occupation (although segregated by race and gender), have lost their college-educated members. But non-college-educated or working class people remain just as likely to join these groups. It is not so much that working-class people have left civic groups, but that professionals have left them--moving from economically diverse local associations to specialized organizations for their own professions and industries.

The proportion of all Americans who are professionals or managers has roughly doubled since the 1950s. That is a benign shift in our workforce, reflecting better education and more interesting jobs. It largely explains why highly educated specialists have become more numerous in meetings. They bring sophistication and expertise to community affairs. Still, two thirds of people do not classify themselves as professional or managers, and it important for their values and interests to be represented. The steep decline in traditional civil society leaves them poorly represented, to their cost and to the detriment of public deliberation.

[works cited here: Burton Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism (New York, 1976), pp. 84-6; Robert L. Buroker, “From Voluntary Association to Welfare State: The Illinois Immigrants’ Protective League, 1908-1926,” The Journal of American History, vol. 58, no. 3 (Dec, 1971), p. 652; APSA Committee of Seven (1914, p. 263, quoted in Stephen T. Leonard, “‘Pure Futility and Waste’: Academic Political Science and Civic Education,” PSOnline (December 1999); Steven Brint, In an Age of Experts, The Changing Role of Professionals in Politics and Public Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 3; Theda Skocpol, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003), pp. 186-7. Statistics on political meeting participation are my own results from the American National Election Studies.]

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October 4, 2010

a grand bargain on voting rules

For what other activity would you be required to register and then wait more than a month before actually doing the thing? Today is the last day to register to vote if you live in 17 states and the District of Columbia.* The actual election is in November. In most states, you may only vote within a limited span of hours, at one particular site in your neighborhood.

I mention this because I happened to hear the host and callers on local Boston conservative talk radio expressing astonishment that you don't have to show a photo ID to vote. The tenor of the discussion was a series of rhetorical questions: Would you be able to take money out of a bank without ID? Would you be able to check into a hotel?

Well, maybe: ATMs don't require photo ID, although they do take and store your picture. But certainly there are ATMs all over the place, open 24/7, and ready to use as soon as you put money in the bank. Voting in Massachusetts is possibly easier than other transactions in one respect (no ID is required)--but it is far more difficult in other ways.

I am not personally concerned about voter fraud in the form of people pretending to be other people at the polling place. Doing so would risk a felony conviction, and for what?--to cast a single extra vote for the candidate you prefer hardly seems worth the risk. Lori Minnite found no evidence that it happens.

That said, I'd be willing to enter a grand bargain with the folks I heard on talk radio. Let's make voting really like a secure financial transaction. You'd have to prove who you were, but you could vote at your convenience, 24/7, with no pre-registration or re-registration when you moved.

In fact, this is the roughly deal in some jurisdictions. Twenty-six states offer unrestricted absentee voting. Thirty-one states permit in-person early voting. And nine states offer Election Day registration. Several of these reforms have been found to raise turnout, especially same-day registration. See our fact sheet for a summary.

*Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, DC, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wyoming.

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October 1, 2010

Ben Franklin's tips for nonprofit development and fundraising

From the Autobiography:


1Don't fund-raise for other people.
2Try to get other people's lists.
3Don't share your own list.
4Give advice; it's cheap.
5Make giving seem cool.
6Ask everyone

The result:

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