March 15, 2011

If You Want Citizens to Trust Government, Empower Them to Govern

In lieu of a post today, here is a link to my article on The Democratic Strategist, number six in a symposium on distrust in government, organized by Demos. The previous five contributions have been helpfully diverse, but all have shared the premises that: 1) deep distrust is an obstacle to progressive politics; 2) distrust is not simply a result of anti-government rhetoric and hostile media but also flows from people's authentic experiences of government; and 3) progressives can reduce distrust by governing differently. My prescription is unique in its emphasis on enlisting the people in governance.

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August 31, 2010

what happened to the new Obama voters?

Project Vote is pushing an important line of argument. They say that our policy debate is distorted because the media is fascinated with the Tea Partiers ("Who are they? What do they want? Will they affect elections?") and is ignoring the huge number of new voters who turned out in 2008. Those new voters tended to be younger, less wealthy, more racially diverse, and more politically progressive than the typical US electorate, and they won a national election. If the press today would constantly ask, "Who are they and what do they want?" the whole policy debate might be quite different.

Lorraine C. Minnite writes, "heading into the 2010 congressional midterm elections the views of traditionally under-represented groups who were mobilized in record proportions in 2008 have been drowned in tea." See her "What Happened to Hope and Change? How Fascination with the 'Tea Party' Obscures the Significance of the 2008 Electorate" (PDF) and a soon-to-be released Project Vote survey.

Reporters focus relentlessly on predicting the next national election. (I've quoted the former CNN political director, Tom Hannon, saying, "the most basic question about [an] election ... is who's going to win.") From that perspective, it's somewhat rational to focus on the Tea Partiers and not the recent Obama voters. Current polls that screen for likelihood of voting in 2010 suggest that the electorate will shift rightward again in 2010 because of who turns out. Thus, if you want to predict the next election, it makes sense to focus on the new conservative voters. Two important caveats, however, will probably be missed. First, the Tea Party will not represent the median voter, who will be moderate; and second, the electorate will probably swing back leftward in 2012.

Assuming that the media (and the blogosphere) continue to focus on predicting the 2010 election, the only way to shift the discussion is for progressive constituencies to threaten to vote. They need to tell pollsters that they are excited to vote, and they need to take public steps--like marches and protests--that indicate mobilization. That's how the game is played right now, and they're not playing well.

But the game isn't satisfactory. "The most basic question" about politics is not "who's going to win." The most basic question is: What should we do? Although the press can't answer that for us, they could provide information relevant to our decisions.

From that perspective, "Who will win the next election?" shouldn't matter much. At most, it should have a modest impact on our strategic plans, but it should not cause us to change our own goals. (Thus the relentless focus on the horse race is problematic.) Who voted in the last election is perhaps a bit more relevant, because the winners presumably have some democratic legitimacy as the current governing coalition. Who might vote if we changed our politics is more interesting, because it invites us to consider a wider range of strategies. I'll be looking forward to the Project Vote survey for that final reason--it will suggest ideas about how we might be able to mobilize new progressive voters with new progressive policies.

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December 17, 2009

what hard looks like

Remember on Inauguration Day, when fans of Barack Obama felt admiration for the new president as a person--mixed with a foreboding sense that things would soon become difficult for him? That's the sense I felt on the National Mall last January. But what did people imagine that "difficult" would look like? Did they think that poor Barack would have to stay up late every night working on legislation? Or that he would consistently propose policies that we support and be criticized by people we abhor?

If those were our thoughts, we were naive about politics and American society. Governing under difficult conditions means exactly the kind of compromise and negotiation that we see today--that's what "hard" means. I've been critical of the administration, and I will gradually raise my bar of expectations over the coming years. Criticism is appropriate--helpful, even. But if anything disappoints me, it is not the choices of the administration. It is the sense that we were entitled to be handed "change" by the new president after we had finished our job by electing him last November. He always said quite the opposite--that the burden was going to fall on us.

I keep hearing friends and colleagues shake their heads in disappointment that the president has let us down. I want to shake them and shout, "What have you done lately?" I'm sorry, but I missed the millions of liberals marching though Washington to demand a single-payer health system. I noticed the tea party protesters, the insurance lobbyists, and Fox News. I watched public support for health care reform fall to the low thirties in recent surveys. I have not seen much counter-pressure. True, Organizing for America has been weak so far--but since when did liberals count on an incumbent president to organize a grassroots advocacy effort to put pressure on himself from the left? That's our job.

These are the specific policies that most seem to disappoint the left:

Again, my point is not that the administration is amazingly admirable or that Barack Obama should be our personal hero. My point is that nobody can accomplish "change" for us. There are plenty of ways to engage, and if you don't use at least one of them, you have no business complaining.

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October 26, 2009

an alternative history of 20th century liberalism

From the 1940s to the 1960s, American liberalism had everything that an ideology should: millions of active adherents, heroes and leaders, supportive organizations (from the AFL-CIO to the ACLU), legislative victories and an unfinished legislative agenda, empirical theories and supportive evidence, and moral principles. The principles could be summarized as the famous Four Freedoms, but we could spell them out a bit more, as follows: The individual liberties in the Bill of Rights trump social goods, but it is the responsibility of the national government to promote social goods once private freedoms have been secured. The chief social goods include minimal levels of welfare for all (the "safety net," or Freedom from Want), equality of opportunity (achieved through public education, civil rights legislation, and pro-competitive regulation in the marketplace), and consistent prosperity, promoted by Keynesian economic policies during recessions.

These ideas had empirical support from sociology and economics and could be developed into a whole philosophy, as John Rawls did in The Theory of Justice (1971). Rawls' theses of the "priority of the right to the good" and "the difference principle" really summarize the whole movement.

Rawls hardly mentions modern history or policies, but he cites and argues with major theorists, such as Kant, Mill, and John Harsanyi. So we could tell a story about American liberalism--understood as a set of ideas--that emphasizes its origins in theoretical debates. Franklin Roosevelt constructed a monument to Thomas Jefferson because he wanted to show liberalism's debts to that enlightenment philosopher; the inside of the Jefferson Monument is bedecked with quotes favorable to the New Deal. Other parts of the liberal synthesis can be traced back to Jefferson's less popular contemporary, Hamilton. Keynes, Brandeis, Gifford Pinchot, and Felix Frankfurter were more proximate intellectual sources. We could understand the New Deal as a development of Victorian liberalism that added arguments in favor of federal activism to combat monopoly, environmental catastrophe, and the business cycle. A story of liberalism as a set of principles, theories, and proposals implies that a revival will require new ideas and a new intellectual synthesis.

But I would tell the story an entirely different way--as the "scaling up" of concrete examples and experiments that were undertaken originally in a highly pragmatic vein. Think, for example, of Jane Addams in 1889. She is a rich and well-educated person who has no possibility of a career (because she is a woman) and who is deeply troubled by poverty in industrial cities. She is impressed by the concrete example of Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in London. She and Ellen Gates Starr move into a house in a poor district of Chicago without a very clear plan for what to do. They launch projects and events, many of which have a "deliberative" flavor--residents come together to read challenging books, discuss, and debate. Out of these discussions come a kindergarten, a museum, a public kitchen, a bath house, a library, numerous adult education courses, and reform initiatives related to politics and unions. Some 2000 people come to Hull House every day at its peak, to talk, work, advocate, and receive services.

In the 1920s, when progressive state governments like New York's start building more ambitious social and educational services, they literally fund settlement houses and launch other institutions (schools, state colleges, clinics, public housing projects, welfare agencies) modeled on Hull House and its sister settlements. Then, when Roosevelt takes office and decides to stimulate the economy with federal spending, he creates programs like the WPA that are essentially Hull House writ large.

Here, thanks to Nancy Lorance, is a WPA-funded recreation worker singing with a group of children who live in the Jane Addams public housing project in Chicago during the New Deal:

The combination of culture, education, public investment, and the very name "Jane Addams Housing Project," pretty much sum up this story of American liberalism as discussion, followed by experimentation, followed by public funding. At the heart of the ideology, so understood, is not a theory but a set of impressive examples.

This is not to deny the intellectual achievement of the movement--Jane Addams, for instance, was an extremely learned and insightful writer. But it suggests that intellectual reflection follows practical experimentation, not the reverse. Even John Rawls can be read as a defender of the concrete reforms of 1930-1970, although he never mentions them. If you find The Theory of Justice persuasive, it's not because you have imagined yourself in the "original position" and reasoned your way to a set of principles that would apply anywhere. It's because you think that a government can make a positive difference by guaranteeing the First Amendment, taxing people to a substantial but not overwhelming extent, and spending the proceeds on education, welfare, and health. If you agree with those theses, it's because of what the actual government has done. The basis of The Theory of Justice is thoroughly experimental.

Today, we have different challenges from those that FDR's America faced in 1932. Climate change, terrorism, de-industrialization, crime, the lack of social mobility over generations, the close association between economic security and educational attainment, and rising health-care costs would make my list of our challenges. If it's right to see mid-twentieth-century liberalism as an expansion of pragmatic experimentation, then we should be looking to today's charter schools, innovative clinics and health plans, land trusts and co-ops, and socially minded business for the concrete cases that merit expansion. We are less in need of major theories than of what Roberto Mangabeira Unger calls a "culture of democratic experimentalism."

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September 21, 2009

assessing ACORN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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August 31, 2009

what the public option means about our politics

The best reason to create a public health insurance option is to increase competition in the health insurance market and thereby lower premiums. No one can know how much money a public option would save, but the idea seems worth trying as an efficiency measure.

It is being treated as much more than that--as the central battle of the summer and perhaps of the whole 111th Congress. Some liberals (an explicit example is Paul Krugman) want to show that assertive governments can do good--thereby debunking modern conservatism, which holds that governments are the problem. Passing a public option would demonstrate that a ruling majority in America today supports activist government; the success of the new policy would then increase support for such activism. As Mark Schmitt observes, the origin of the public option was not research into which policy would cut costs, but rather a political strategy to get a victory for expansionist liberalism.

For that very reason, conservatives want to defeat the proposal. Defeat would demonstrate that there is no pro-government ruling majority in America today; it would also allow opponents to argue against the evils of the public plan without the risk that it might work in practice.

This kind of proxy battle is common today. For example, charter schools are promoted by libertarians, who want to demonstrate that choice can improve quality even in an area traditionally run by the state, and by moderate liberals, who want to show that the public sector can innovate and therefore doesn't deserve to be cut. Charter schools are opposed by some traditional liberals who think that market-type competition is overrated and who want to draw the line at the schoolhouse. The decision whether to turn a given school into a charter thus becomes an ideological proxy battle rather than a rather complex, nuanced, fundamentally local question about which governance structure would work best in each situation. (See my analysis here.)

There are advantages to ideological politics. We must simplify by applying broad principles, or else the complexity, variety, and nuance of the world is overwhelming and we cannot act at all. Voter turnout rises when there is more ideological conflict because it is easier to engage when the lines are sharply and simply drawn. Ideological strategists, such as the libertarians of Victorian England and the activist liberals of the New Deal, have sometimes achieved great things.

But the drawbacks of ideological politics are obvious: oversimplification, suppression of worthy alternatives, manipulation of voters who aren't attuned to the ideological game, and a tendency to confuse means with ends. We see these problems in today's health care debate. The true goal for progressives is to provide all Americans with affordable health insurance. There are crucial provisions in the main Congressional bills for that purpose--notably, subsidies for low-income Americans and regulations to protect people who have pre-existing conditions. The details of these provisions are essential. Who is eligible for how much financial support are the most important questions for poor people. They are not, however, the focus of the great national debate--for two reasons. First, poor people are not organized or influential. Second, subsidies are not an ideological proxy issue. We already subsidize health care--it's unexciting (but very important) to propose spending more.

The public option should be a means (a mechanism to cut costs and therefore make it easier to insure everyone), but it is becoming the end because of its symbolic role in ideological politics.

Meanwhile, liberals don't seem interested in the potential of private co-ops, if appropriately designed and funded. That's because co-ops have been portrayed simply as a compromise between liberals and conservatives, and therefore as a disappointing outcome for those--on both sides--who want an ideological "win."

I suspect that the health care debate is less engaging for average Americans than it should be because it has turned into an ideological proxy debate that makes most sense to the "base" on both sides. By the way, the conservative ideological base is usually about twice as big as the liberal ideological base--26% called themselves conservatives versus 15% who identified as liberals in the 2004 American National Election Survey.

I noted above that ideologies can encourage participation by providing comprehensive worldviews that make decisions easier. But only certain kinds of ideologies work for that purpose. A vital ideology needs an impressive story arc, beloved and talented current leaders, moving examples, strong networks and organized backers, opportunities for grassroots engagement, and a coherent theory. New Deal liberalism had all those, at its peak. Paul Krugman's ambition is to resurrect statist liberalism as a movement. Maybe that's possible, but it certainly hasn't happened yet. Thus I am not at all surprised that most people feel left out of the ideological proxy war that is taking place among political elites and strong partisans. I am also not surprised that conservatives are winning the health care debate--it is a proxy battle, and they have more true believers. If it could be about how to provide the best possible health care for all Americans, it would be a different story.

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July 29, 2009

tactics, wonkery, values

Back in 2004, I wrote a long post on this blog, arguing that the problem for the left was not bad tactics, nor a lack of resources, but a lack of positive vision. This was part of the argument:

My post triggered thoughtful rebuttals by Mark Schmitt, Matthew Yglesias, and others.

I remembered this exchange recently when it occurred to me that Yglesias and other skillful left-of-center bloggers have become policy wonks. I spent 15 years in a school of public policy, yet occasionally even my eyes glaze over when I read Yglesias on transportation or Ezra Klein on health care. No one could rightly say that these people lack ideas about what should be done. They are as substantive as can be--as well as talented writers.

So perhaps when the Democrats were "out," bloggers on their side of the aisle were focused on getting them back "in"; and once Democrats won elections, the bloggers turned to policy. That would be a happy story and would make me apologize for my implication that the left blogosphere was superficial in 2004.

Except for one thing: I don't divide politics into tactics and policy. There is a crucial third element, which is the creation of some kind of moving storyline that embodies core values. I think that's much more important than getting one's policy proposals right, and it was a conspicuous failure in '04. An argument about values and a narrative arc are what Barack Obama contributed to the left in '08. The particular positions that he took could be wrong, but in any case, they do not seem to attract much attention or support in the liberal blogosphere. For instance:

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March 4, 2009

the worm turns

Several months before the 2004 election, I wrote a post entitled "what's wrong with the left, and what we can do about it?" I criticized the belief that Democrats lost elections because Republicans had unfair advantages or played the game better. At that time, many liberals were blaming Fox News and Karl Rove for their problems and were developing a presidential election strategy that revolved around better "messaging." I suggested (as a thought-experiment) that we imagine what Democrats would say to the American people if they had two hours of uninterrupted time. Then all the machinations of spinmeisters and biased media would be irrelevant. I claimed that Democrats would have nothing inspiring to say about the future of America. I then proposed several directions that could be more engaging: a theme of stewardship; a commitment to bold, persistent experimentation; a good-government reform platform; and an agenda of helping everyone to be creators and contributors to the commonwealth.

When that year's Democratic Convention was all about John Kerry's macho biography and the stupidity of George W. Bush, my heart sank (although a speech by the new Senator-Elect from Illinois moved me).

But political history has since moved with remarkable speed. The Obama Campaign was inspirational and forward-looking. Themes of stewardship, experimentation, good government, and creativity/service were prominent. An additional issue is now paramount and creates an urgent need for deeper change: the economic collapse. The recovery effort opens great opportunities for better stewardship, transparency, reform, and public work.

Meanwhile, Republicans are debating whether they should be openly saying that they want Obama to fail. (I remember private conversations about Bush in 2002-4 that had a similar flavor.) When your critical "message" about your opponent is your focus, you are in deep trouble. The lack of intellectual vision on the right now matches or surpasses what we saw on the left just four years ago.

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November 23, 2008

work, not service

Candidate Barack Obama, July 2:

President Elect Barack Obama, Nov. 22:

These two statements seemed to be about different topics. The first was an argument for increasing the number of federally-funded civilian "service" slots to as many as 250,000; the second announced a plan to create or save 2.5 million full-time jobs, mostly in the private sector. The first makes us think of unpaid volunteering or short-term, low-paid positions in nonprofits and government agencies. The second conjures images of permanent, salaried employees in labs or on corporate assembly lines. "Service" is about personal values: patriotism, civic virtue, caring, or helping--a "thousand points of light." Job programs are about macroeconomic growth and take-home pay for hard-working Americans.

I think the two ideas should be combined, and "work," not "service," should be the hallmark of "active citizenship" in the Obama Administration. I have never been very enthusiastic about service on its own. It is marginal--a lower priority than one's job or family, something to do after work, on special occasions, or during adolescence or retirement. People involved in service tend to be congratulated and thanked regardless of their impact, whereas workers are expected to get the job done. Service makes the recipients look weak and needy, whereas work is an exchange for mutual benefit.

Service programs, such as Americorps, can certainly be great for the volunteers and the community. But that is because they provide work, albeit with a strong and commendable element of civic education for the workers. Meanwhile, a full-time, paid job in the private sector can also be "active citizenship," if we allow, support, and encourage the employees to work on public problems (such as modernizing schools or building wind farms).

As I wrote here recently, the Obama Administration can restore a New Deal version of liberalism whose central task is to put people to work for the public good. Private sector jobs are part of that, especially if federal subsidies, incentives, or mandates steer these jobs toward public purposes. Public sector careers at every level, military service, and civilian service programs such as Americorps are also important. So is an educational system that prepares people for public work. Students will need a strong dose of civic education so that they can discuss and define the public problems that they choose to address as workers. It is not enough to prepare them for an increasingly competitive job market; they also need to shape that market for public purposes.

I would admire this form of liberalism at any time, because of its ethical conception of the citizen as an active, creative agent. But today seems an especially appropriate moment to bring back the New Deal conception. We need jobs programs for standard economic reasons; and our newly elected president has pledged to make "active citizenship ... a central cause."

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December 31, 2007

the Obama "theory of change"

Mark Schmitt’s essay on Senator Obama has been very widely cited (and should be applied to politicians other than Obama himself). Schmitt argues that, as president, Obama might win legislative victories by treating conservatism as a legitimate philosophy and presuming that his opponents honor the same basic values that he does--e.g., health care for all. This assumption would put Republicans in a difficult position if the evidence favored progressive proposals. Obama’s conciliatory and deliberative style might win over a few Republican senators, Schmitt says, and that is essential if Democrats want to pass legislation.

I actually thought these points were obvious all along, but I’m grateful to Schmitt for using his authority to spell them out for progressive readers. The opposite of Schmitt’s position is being argued by "Kos" in Newsweek and by Paul Krugman in the New York Times. They recommend blaming anti-government conservatism for our major problems, tying all Republican candidates to that ideology, and trying to create a large pro-government majority. Their best argument is that conservative ideas are now fairly unpopular, according to surveys. However, they overlook the following points:

First, Americans do not think ideologically. For instance, few Americans have been interested in the ideological differences between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, even though the two men were diametrical opposites. Often, less than half of respondents to the National Election Studies are willing or able to place the Republicans to the right of the Democrats on an ideological spectrum. In discussions of local issues, according to Nina Eliasoph's research, Americans avoid ideological interpretations. And our own focus groups of college students found deep resistance to all ideologies. Therefore, it would be very hard to blame recent failures on conservatism, rather than George W. Bush personally.

Second, adopting a civil and deliberative style is a good strategy for winning elections. Liberal bloggers have been arguing that only elites, especially The Washington Post editorial board and David Broder, admire bipartisanship and civility, whereas ordinary Americans don’t care about it. These bloggers have been hanging around with angry Democrats and have not been talking to average Americans or reading the scholarly literature on political opinion. Americans are hostile to partisanship and ideological disagreement--excessively hostile, in my opinion. Their aversion to sharp disagreement hampers our politics, in some respects. But they really don't like ideological conflict.

Third, even if Americans are saying that they support somewhat more active government, there is a deep vein of public suspicion about Washington and the federal government. That suspicion is fed by the idea that Washington elites are angry, divided, uncivil, and prone to exaggerate their differences for tactical advantage. Why should you entrust thousands of your dollars to Washington to cover your health insurance if the people who run the place seem to be constantly squabbling, and each half of Congress says that the other half is wicked and foolish? Progressive policy requires public trust in government, and we won't have trust in government until leaders adopt a civil and dignified tone.

Fourth, I do not accept the diagnosis that all our major problems arise from anti-government conservatism. Kos, for example, blames the Katrina disaster on FEMA director Mike Brown, and explains Bush's choice of Brown as a symptom of the administration's "government-busting ideology." There is some truth to this, but I think the Katrina tragedy exemplifies other truths as well. The Army Corps of Engineers did damage over many decades, not because of anti-government ideology but because of managerial and technical arrogance (and old-fashioned earmarking and logrolling)--which are the dark side of the New Deal. Meanwhile, local public institutions, such as the New Orleans schools, were in calamitous condition, partly because of low budgets but partly because of extremely poor management. Yet the leaders of New Orleans were Democrats. If not all our problems are due to "government-busting ideology," then it will be hard to convince people that they are.

Fifth, a close look at the Republican Party reveals a loose coalition, not a tightly organized national machine. It's easier than Kos thinks to pick up Republican votes, and harder than he thinks to tie the whole party to a single ex-president. The best way to make Republicans feel solidarity is to try to lump them together as enemies of decent government.

I pass over a sixth reason--our ethical obligation to presume that our fellow citizens have decent motives until shown otherwise--for fear that that will make me look naive.

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November 5, 2007

social accountability in the USA

In Paris last week, I met a senior minister from Uganda who said that not many years ago, 83 percent of Uganda's education budget was wasted or stolen--not spent on education. I also met a Filipino activist who said that in his country, textbooks were often stolen or lost before they reached classrooms. Both countries have achieved enormous improvements by involving citizens in monitoring and assessing school budgets and administration. According to independent evaluations, 80 percent of education funds now reach schools in Uganda, partly because the money is tracked by citizens.

It occurred to me that in the District of Columbia, about 71 percent of the education budget is not spent on schools. Some of it may be properly used for such purposes as special education. But most of the 71 percent is lost in the downtown bureaucracy. The Washington Post has printed photos of stacks of textbooks that were never distributed to schools; electronic equipment is routinely delivered without software or support. These statistics and stories are very reminiscent of Uganda and the Philippines, and indeed of most of the world.

The obvious question is whether we could use public participation in the US as a tool to reduce serious corruption and waste. This would be a great achievement because ...

1. One of the worst sources of disadvantage in our society is the dramatically unequal quality of education. An obvious way to improve education for Washington's least advantaged students would be to seize some of the $7,200 per student that is currently being used/wasted in the downtown bureaucracy so that it could be spent instead on smaller classes and better facilities.

2. Getting the public involved in accountability might shift the attention away from test scores and toward administration. Today's high-stakes tests are supposed to motivate teachers and students to work harder and more effectively--that is the main strategy for improving education. When students fail the tests, we start to wonder whether public schools can possibly achieve success (or whether our kids can possibly succeed). If citizens could audit or review the performance of their schools, they might shift the pressure away from teachers and students, who, after all, receive less than 30 percent of the budget in DC. Citizens might conclude that the marginal impact of reforming central school systems would be much greater.

3. Public participation would be an alternative to the main accountability measures that are currently used or contemplated in our schools today. We test kids and punish them for failing; and we allow parents to take their kids out of schools. In Washington, roughly half of the student body has already left, either for the suburbs or for charter schools; but we don't see better performance in the public system--nor are the charters very successful. Maybe it would work better to get citizens directly involved in school reform.

4. Students could help to monitor their own schools, which would be a powerful form of civic education.

5. I believe that the Achilles heel of the American left is the poor performance of public institutions, such as the DC Public Schools. At some level, all of us--including left-liberals--know that such systems are deeply flawed. We lose political struggles, not because Americans love corporations, nor because voters are blind to social needs, but because they don't believe that public institutions are effective and trustworthy tools. It would be politically powerful to acknowledge this problem and to propose innovative solutions that tap the energy of citizens, like those used in Uganda in the Philippines.

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August 15, 2007

opportunity economics and civic participation

The Hope Street Group is an organization founded by young business people who believe in growth, innovation, and opportunity, but do not believe that the current economic system provides opportunities either adequately or fairly. They favor more investment in human capital, reform of taxation and financial markets, and programs to give people second chances at entrepreneurship. Hope Street Group has laid the groundwork for effective political action and will soon be better known thanks to a $1 million Omidyar grant.

I am a member of HSG. I know there are debates about whether GDP growth is an adequate measure of progress, and about whether we can achieve social justice through investments in human capital (rather than changing the bargaining power of labor versus capital). I have nothing original to contribute to those debates, and I'm agnostic about some of the key questions.

But I believe that democracy and civic participation work better when people have a sense that the pie is expanding, and specifically, when people believe that there can be more for all if we cooperate voluntarily. There is a powerful, optimistic kind of populism that says: We can make wealth, and everyone can be better off, but we need to make sure that everyone is included in productive work. This is much better than the kind of populism that presumes there is a fixed quantity of goods, of which the powerful have taken more than their fair share. Optimistic populism promotes public investments in education and infrastructure, whereas resentful populism assumes so much distrust that it ultimately undermines public programs. Resentful populism also generates bad politics: division, hyper-partisanship, retreat into interest groups, and ultimately demobilization; whereas a populism of abundance encourages dialogue, participation, innovation, and creativity.

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August 13, 2007

"vertical farms" and the new political economy

Since the Industrial Revolution, fossil fuels have reduced human--and animal--drudgery. This has generally been a blessing, although we are now in danger because all that burned carbon is messing up the global climate. (And wars have been fought over oil.)

The blessing of carbon is certainly a mixed one nowadays for older industrial cities like Baltimore, Detroit, or my hometown of Syracuse, NY. You can think of a city as an economy, with imports and exports. Energy is a major import; and we should count not only the electricity, oil, and gasoline that is literally moved into the city, but also the energy components of food, clothing, waste processing, and other necessities.

Fossil fuels have replaced work, but there is not enough rewarding work left in our older cities. The cities have to pay, somehow, for the fuel they import. The best way would be to produce exports, but manufacturing is cheaper in the developing world, and the knowledge economy belongs to people with excellent educations. The old plants lie empty--like Sparrows Point, near Baltimore, which once employed 30,000 people in steel and shipbuilding. The biggest employers in Baltimore City today are the government and private health and education facilities: together, they provide 165,000 out of 350,000 total jobs. Those positions are subsidized by state and federal taxes, but at insufficient rates. You could almost say that Baltimore purchases its fossil fuels and other necessities using Medicare, Medicaid, Title One Education funds, and state aid to schools--all funded by taxpayers who have little love for the inner cities. (I mention Baltimore because it's nearby, but the same is certainly true of Syracuse, New Haven, and other cities in which I have lived.)

The most appealing alternative I can think of is to replace fossil fuels with rewarding human labor that must be done on-site and cannot be outsourced. That is a tall order, especially if we expect the labor to be both rewarding and accessible to people without college degrees. But there are glimmers of hope. I love the idea of vertical farms that would produce hydroponic fruits and vegetables right in the city, using solar power, waste water, and skilled human labor instead of fossil fuels. Think of the nutritional, environmental, educational, social, and even aesthetic advantages if we could pull this off. (The picture is a design by Chris Jacob.)

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August 1, 2007

Feingold and La Follette

On Monday evening, I went to a party to celebrate my friend Sandy Horwitt's recently released book, Feingold: A New Democratic Party. I haven't read the whole book yet, but it's very engaging. I share Sandy's view that Senator Russ Feingold is a fitting successor to Senator Robert M. La Follette, Sr., who held the same seat a century ago. La Follette is the hero of my New Progressive Era, and I wrote quite a lot about him that didn't make the final cut. I spent some time with his papers and read most of the major studies of him. La Follette was a true hero, but he was a tragic hero, most of whose causes failed. The reason, I think, is that he never resolved some fundamental dilemmas of modern democratic politics: how to make government effective without making it technocratic; how to mobilize people for popular reform without reducing their capacity to deliberate and form their own views; how to appeal to common interests without losing sight of the particular interests that make us human; how to separate the public sector from private money without shielding government from innovation; how to retain the spirit of the neighborly community in a mass society.

On the basis of Sandy Horwitt's book, it appears that Senator Feingold is a serious student--and emulator--of La Follette. The modern Senator has the same moral compass as Fighting Bob. He is reacting to the current war much as La Follette responded to World War One, and he abhors G.W. Bush much as La Follette denounced Wilson. (Those two presidents are similar, I've argued.) Feingold is as independent as the founder of the Progressive Party was. But I don't think that Feingold, or anyone in our time, has resolved the problems of mass democracy that arose at the beginning of the 20th century. His agenda of political reform lacks a large and passionate constituency, and that's because of the atomization and technical rationality of modern society. Sandy evokes the small-town Wisconsin values that shaped both La Follette and Feingold (many decades apart), but he doesn't say--because nobody knows--how to make those values salient in a nation of 300 million.

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June 13, 2007

a new progressive era?

Tomorrow, I'm presenting at the Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA) National Policy Forum. I've been invited to speak on a panel entitled, "A New Progressive Era? The Influence of State and Local Initiatives on National Policy." Presumably, I was invited because I wrote a book entitled The New Progressive Era. I don't have much to say about the real topic of the panel, which is whether "recent local and state initiatives on employment and labor relations" will lead to "national level policies." If I'm going to be any help at all, I need to reflect on general parallels between the Progressive Era (1900-1924) and today. This will also be a chance to present a different view of the original progressive movement than the one I held in the 1990s.

Huge changes occurred during the Progressive Era, and the word "progressive" had such positive connotations at the time that proponents of every important development liked to call it "progressive." (Walter Lippmann observed in 1921 that "an American will endure almost any insult except the charge that he is not progressive.")

Among the important changes that could be called "progressive" were: administrative centralization in industry and government; specialization, professionalization, and the cult of science and expertise throughout society; the increased use of formal rules and regulations in both government and business, often to protect consumers; reform legislation designed to reduce the impact of money in politics; the "efficiency movement"; the growth of organized labor (which mimicked forms of administration seen in business and the state); and a new ideal of citizenship. Whereas the 19th century citizen was supposed to be a loyal and enthusiastic member of an identity group, the progressive citizen was supposed to be an independent, informed judge of public policies. That ideal led to concrete reforms such as the secret ballot and attacks on political parties. Overall, politics became less "popular," more a matter of expert administration; and turnout dropped accordingly.

In my book, my heroes were Robert M. La Follette, Sr., Jane Addams, John Dewey, and their associates. Although these three surely deserve the label "progressive" (for instance, La Follette won the Progressive Party nomination), they were ambivalent about the main trends I mentioned above. In the Library of Congress, I read a book manuscript that La Follette wrote--but for some reason never published--criticizing the state government of Wisconsin for becoming overly professionalized, expert-driven, bureaucratic, and distant from ordinary people. Jane Addams battled the Chicago Democratic machine but wrote appreciatively of the emotional connection between a machine Alderman and his constituents. Compared to the "village kindness" of the ward boss, she wrote, "the notions of the civic reformer are negative and impotent .... The reformers give themselves over largely to criticisms of the present state of affairs, to writing and talking of what the future must be; but their goodness is not dramatic; it is not even concrete and human."

I thought that my favorite progressives were characterized by three main principles:

  • They were democrats, willing to do what the public wanted rather than push policies that they favored for theoretical reasons. That was the heart of Dewey's pragmatism: a rejection of general rules and a commitment to democratic processes. It is what separated all of my heroes from the Socialist Party of the time, which used democratic procedures but which was wedded to Marxist principles. La Follette embodied Deweyan pragmatism even before Dewey wrote any influential books. As a candidate, La Follette typically avoided strong policy proposals but argued for a more democratic process and pledged to do what the people wanted. Most of his policies were procedural--campaign finance, lobby disclosure, and the like.

  • They were egalitarians, critics of political processes that gave some people more power than others because of money, secrecy, or administrative structures.

  • They loved deliberation. La Follette printed the following words by Margaret Woodrow Wilson on the front cover of his popular Weekly in 1914: "No wonder that [politicians] do not always know what the people want. Let us get together so that we may tell them. All of our representatives are organized into deliberative bodies. We, whom they represent, ought also to be organized for deliberation. When this happens, and then only, shall we vote intelligently." For these reformers, democratic participation did not mean developing preferences and expressing them in the ballot box or the marketplace. It rather meant discussion, listening and persuading--collective education.
  • I would now add a fourth principle:

  • They understood that deliberation and democracy could not be achieved through changes in rules and processes alone. Citizens needed new skills and identities in order to participate. Culture-change was essential. This explains why they built model institutions with strong democratic cultures, such as Hull-House, the Chicago Lab School, and the University of Wisconsin's Department of Debating and Public Discussion, which sent 80,000 background papers per year to citizen groups.
  • The people I'm calling Progressives faced several serious dilemmas that we still haven't solved. It was hard to sustain public support for "democracy" without promising concrete social and economic changes. Yet to promise a particular policy, such as a child-labor law, meant circumventing public discussion and dialogue. Progressives appealed to the general or public interest, but people understandably identified with narrower group interests. The Progressives built impressive small institutions that were genuinely deliberative and democratic; but they never figured out how to increase the scale of these efforts. For example, Deweyan educational practices, when implemented on a large scale, became grotesque parodies of his ideas. Finally, despite their ambivalence about expertise and centralization, the Progressives never designed large and strong institutions that remained participatory and egalitarian. The Wisconsin state government that La Follette criticized as bureaucractic and arrogant was the very same government that he had built during his own gubernatorial administration. Although he wasn't directly responsible for how it developed, he did not know how to stop it from becoming a Weberian bureaucracy.

    Despite these dilemmas, I believe the Progressives whom I admire contributed an enormous amount to mid-20th-century liberalism. Most progressives (including Dewey) were ambivalent about the New Deal. But the New Deal benefited from the open deliberations of the Progressive Era (which generated a host of creative policy ideas) and from ordinary people's trust in public institutions. People trusted the government and were willing to spend tax money on it because--among other reasons--many teachers, social workers, conservationists, and other public employees had Deweyan traditions of working collaboratively with laypeople. For instance, neighbors of Hull House and its employees had real mutual accountability and respect. So when Hull-House was "taken to scale" in the New Deal, people could feel a place in the new government agencies.

    In short, Progressive-Era pragmatism contributed to something that it wasn't--to the ideology of mid-century liberalism that dominated government from the FDR to LBJ. Liberalism was a robust ideology because it had: a comprehensive diagnosis of social problems, a store of moving rhetoric and famous leaders, an impressive array of policies and institutions, and a set of active constituencies, many of which benefited from liberal policies. Thus the ideology replicated itself from generation to generation.

    But, in my opinion, mid-century liberalism has been dead for 25 years. The Great Society diagnosis doesn't fit our contemporary problems, many of which have strong cultural dimensions. The leftover institutions, such as public schools and environmental agencies, are insufficiently participatory and accountable. The liberal constituency has shattered, in part because people don't have good reasons to trust the government.

    The time is ripe for a revival of La Follette-style pragmatic progressivism. An open-ended, deliberative approach to politics is timely now because we don't have any impressive ideologies. (Conservatism is as dead as liberalism is). An enthusiasm for deliberation is appropriate for an era in which we have exciting new techniques and technologies for public discussion and collaboration. It's time for a new look at government agencies now that businesses and nonprofits are becoming less hierarchical and "flatter." And small-scale experimentation is appropriate given the frailties of our large public institutions. Today's charter schools, watershed restoration projects, community development corporations, and land trusts may well be our equivalents of settlement houses and lab schools.

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    May 9, 2007

    lessons from the health care defeat

    At the Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina, the candidates were asked: "What is the most significant political or professional mistake you have made in the past four years? And what, if anything, did you learn from this mistake which makes you a better candidate?" Senator Clinton replied: "Certainly, the mistakes I made around health care were deeply troubling to me and interfered with our ability to get our message out."

    I would love to know what mistakes she thinks she made and what she learned from them. I would be sincerely interested in her full response--if she could give it candidly--because she is highly intelligent and experienced and she has a unique perspective as organizer of the 1993 health care reform effort. We cannot know for sure, but I suspect she would disagree with my interpretation, which is the following. ...

    The 1993 health reform proposal represented a particular kind of liberalism which is dead. The proposed system would have required an enormous degree of public trust. The details were extremely complicated, so that people (certainly including me) could not understand them. The structure that Clinton proposed would have evolved and shifted as public-sector organizations negotiated with private insurers. Thus the details of the health plan were not only complex; they were unpredictable. Why then should citizens entrust thousands of their dollars per capita to the government? The implicit reasons were: 1) We (in the government) are more trustworthy than those greedy people in HMOs and insurance companies. 2) We will represent you because we are elected. We will act like an interest group in the marketplace, bargaining for advantage; but you will own us. And 3) We are extremely smart. Ira Magaziner is a Rhodes Scholar; we've known him since college days--he has a high IQ.

    Those three arguments could work in 1935, when Roosevelt brought lots of talented Ivy Leaguers to Washington to create elaborate programs. It could work in those days because there was more deference to expertise, more hostility to business, and a deeper national emergency--but also because people belonged to institutions with which they had real contracts. They were members of local party organizations and unions that had to pay attention to them in return for their participation. In turn, the New Deal administration was accountable to the unions and the party organizations.

    By 1993, that infrastructure was gone. Less than 15 percent of the private sector workforce belonged to unions, which seemed unaccountable even to their shrinking membership. The parties were not organizations at all, but collections of political entrepreneurs. Although we have very pressing reasons to distrust private health insurers, we also have reasons to distrust the government, which gives us urban police departments, the Iraq war, etc.

    In the South Carolina debate, Senator Clinton mentioned "getting the message out." I don't think a better message for government-funded health care could work, under these conditions. I'd argue that we cannot have a national health care reform plan unless we use one of these strategies to earn public trust:

    1) We could design a government-run system: for example, a single-payer insurance fund that actually set prices for health care. This would give the state enormous power, but also achieve huge savings. In order for people to trust it, they (or a large representative group of them) would have to be actively engaged in writing the law and then revising it. We would need an ambitious series of public deliberations involving a representative sample of citizens. As a charter member of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and a board member of AmericaSpeaks (which organizes such processes), I'm hopeful that this approach could work. However, I must concede that we have no idea whether public deliberations could build trust for an enormously expensive program, especially if well-funded special interests bitterly attacked it.

    2) We could rebuild participatory local institutions as the base for stronger government. That's an attractive idea, but one that would take decades to achieve, if we could figure out how to do it at all.

    3) We could have some simple and transparent system that was trustable because it was understandable. I don't think that the government could set prices, because that is inevitably complex. Instead, the government would probably have to issue vouchers that people would use to buy insurance. Unfortunately, we would then be stuck with insurance-company profits and marketing costs.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    February 23, 2007

    managing risk

    In an age of weak family structures and communities--and unstable employment--individuals and nuclear families are on their own; they need to be able to manage risk so that they can bounce back from adversity. To help people to hedge risk is different from guaranteeing their welfare or reducing social inequality. It probably isn't adequate, but it is important in the current era of high volatility.

    What are the big economic risks for Americans, especially for the working class? Being laid off or seeing one's salary drop dramatically, perhaps because of a reduction in paid hours. Sickness or injury, including injury caused by crime. Divorce and widowhood. Kids who are sick or in trouble. Business failure, including the failure of very small enterprises such as trading pages on e-Bay. Loss of property (such as homes and vehicles) due to robbery, fire, or accidents. Steep declines in the value of one's home or land, such as we see in Rust Belt cities and the Farm Belt.

    There are financial instruments designed for some of these risks--for example, home insurance. But sometimes such instruments are too expensive for people whose property is particularly modest. Other risks do not seem to be covered at all by available insurance (divorce, for instance; or the delinquency of one's child). The government covers some people's medical care, but many are not eligible for Medicare or Medicaid and cannot afford private packages. The state is supposed to prevent crime in the first place and can sometimes order restitution. But crime can devastate its victims.

    It's interesting to envision a comprehensive set of mechanisms for managing these risks. Some mechanisms could be provided by the state or state-subsidized. Others might be developed by private organizations.

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    November 29, 2006

    the state of play

    Until recently, I would have summarized the partisan debate in the United States as follows.

    On domestic policy, the Democratic coalition encompassed many factions, but the dominant one was led by Bill Clinton and Robert Rubin. Their priorities were: balancing the budget (as a means of supporting aggregate economic growth), followed by spending on education, welfare, and health, followed by tax cuts for lower-income families. The public recognized these priorities: Democrats were trusted on fiscal policy, overall economic policy, and health and welfare. Whether or not "Rubinomics" was adequate or desirable, it coincided with prosperity and it matched majority preferences. Once the Democrats settled on it as their dominant position after 1994, they made at least incremental progress in most elections that emphasized economic issues.

    In contrast, the Republicans officially stood for tax cuts, followed by spending cuts to balance budgets. But they had decreasing credibility on these issues. In any case, the public did not put tax cuts first.

    On social issues, the country had moved far in the direction of libertarianism, so that the live issues of the day (such as gay marriage) would have seemed very radical a generation before. However, on those live issues, the Republican position was more popular than the Democratic one. Hence, in elections that emphasized "values," Republicans usually prevailed.

    On foreign policy, the Republicans stood for putting America first. They appeared more willing to use military force, but only in America's economic or security interests. This was a clear position--not one that I favor, but one that had pretty strong popular support. In contrast, the Democrats seemed highly conflicted, unable to resolve debates left over from the Vietnam era that pitted elements of isolationism, nationalism, human-rights idealism, pacifism, and Realpolitik. The public did not know where the Party stood, and that hurt Democrats when foreign affairs rose on the national agenda after 9/11. Kerrys statement that he had voted for the war before voting against it epitomized the Democrats reputation on foreign policy. To be fair, many individual Democrats held consistent positions, but the Party had not worked out its debates, which is partly why Kerry emerged as the nominee.

    The last two years have changed much of this. Republicans are now associated with foolish unilateral adventurism and a careless disregard for American national interests. Internal debates have erupted on their side. That is clearly one reason that the Democrats won the 2006 election. But they still lack a coherent philosophy in foreign affairs.

    We could now enter a creative period in which new alternatives are developed, some enjoying bipartisan or "strange-bedfellow" support. Serious alternatives would combine broad philosophical positions with specific policy proposals.

    However, we could also enter a period in which Democrats expect to coast while Republicans continue to suffer (deservedly) from the Iraq debacle. That period would last two years at the most, by which time the Republicans would find new leadership and the Democrats would be expected to hold persuasive positions on foreign affairs. Thus the Party should begin a robust and divisive internal debate right now, so that a winning faction may prevail before 2008.

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    November 13, 2006

    an analogy

    The Sixties The 2000s
    1960 election: Reflects unusually high degree of ideological consensus. The main issue is the personality of the incumbent VP versus "change." 2000 election: Reflects unusually high degree of ideological consensus. The main issue is the personality of the incumbent VP versus "change."
    Series of national traumas: Assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK, race riots, Kent State Series of national traumas: 9/11, anthrax, Katrina
    Escalating war in Southeast Asia Escalating war in Southwest Asia
    Left mounts strong challenge to the ideological status quo (with a basis in cultural/personal issues) Right mounts strong challenge to the ideological status quo (with a basis in cultural/personal issues)
    Ideological backlash: Nixon elected Ideological backlash: Democrats take Congress
    Residue: cultural change in a libertarian direction, lingering resentment on the right, generally more conservative economic policies Residue: ???

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    November 6, 2006

    what to do with a majority

    There is a raging debate about how the Democrats should use a House majority, if they win one on Tuesday. On the left, some are framing the question as whether the Democrats will have the "courage" to tackle the Bush administration by conducting high-profile, aggressive investigations. (See comments here, or Paul Krugman.) In my view, it would take no "courage" at all to yield the House agenda to Henry Waxman and his investigations of procurement scandals and the like. "Courage" would mean passing a just budget or a bill to reduce Americans' consumption of coal and oil. But that would require focus, discipline, time in committees and on the floor of Congress, public attention and support, and partnerships with key congressional Republicans. If Democrats try to drive all the public attention to scandals, they will have no chance of pushing really significant legislation through the House.

    Regardless of what happens on Tuesday, conservatives can be basically satisfied with the fundamentals of American politics. Politicians of both parties are embarrassed to mention raising taxes, even if the alternative is to borrow money from the next generation. None of them seriously wants to cut the incarceration rate or end the war on drugs. They are almost all afraid to criticize the military brass for anything it might do.

    If I were a conservative, I would be hoping that a Democratic Congress would concentrate on the malfeasance of the Bush administration. In the worst case (from my imaginary conservative perspective), the Dems would uncover some really bad behavior that Americans dont already know about. Fine--in that case I would join the Democrats in outrage against Bush and back a new set of Republican leaders in 08. All the fundamentals would still be in place.

    In the best case (again from a conservative perspective), the Democrats would find nothing startlingly new, would waste two years, and would reinforce a reputation for lacking vision and competence.

    My biggest fear, if I were a conservative, would be that the Democrats would largely ignore Bush and pass a series of smart, aggressive, progressive bills to help working families, ameliorate the sitation in the Middle East, strengthen education, and tackle oil dependence. Then my guys would have to filibuster or veto good bills, or else allow them to pass and thereby move the country somewhat leftward. By 08, Democrats would have a reputation for vision and competence and my side would be in real trouble.

    I'll bet that the Democrats will not allow investigations to dominate their agenda or the news coverage, because they understand the need to look competent and forward-looking. They know that Bush is already history. However, I'll also bet (sadly) that they will fail to pass courageous, progressive legislation, precisely because public opinion is still basically conservative on fiscal questions, and liberals haven't figured out how to change that.

    (See Rich Harwood's "Election Day hubris" for a related point.)

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: revitalizing the left

    August 29, 2006

    new thoughts on canvassing

    Dana Fisher's book, Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America, is about to appear with a blurb from me on the back cover:

    For idealistic young progressives today, there is basically only one paid entry-level job left in politics: canvassing. Dana R. Fisher is the first to study this crucial formative experience. Essentially, she finds that the canvass is an alienating and undemocratic experience. As a result, we are squandering the energy and ideas of a whole generation. What's more, a progressive movement that relies on regimented canvassing is doomed to defeat because it lacks an authentic connection with citizens. Unless we take seriously the rigorous evidence and acute arguments of Activism, Inc., the future looks grim.

    My conscience is bothering me for two reasons. First, my summary of Fisher's book is a pretty strong statement, perhaps exaggerating what she says. Second, she does tell a highly critical story (as her subtitle indicates). My blurb lends my authority to her criticism, suggesting that her "rigorous" and "acute" scholarship must be true. In fact, given what little I know directly about canvassing, plus the evidence that Fisher presents in her book, I cannot say whether her account is accurate or not.

    Fisher makes three main points:

    1) Canvassing is bad for canvassers: many are burnt out, stuck in dead-end positions, or alienated because they have to raise money by reciting �scripts� that they do not fully understand.

    2) Canvassing for progressive causes is being centralized into a few big, multi-purpose operations. This consolidation reduces the connection between the canvassers and the various lobbies for which they raise money.

    3) Canvassing is bad for democracy, because professional activists set the progressive political agenda and lobby using money from people whom they have mobilized through one-way conversations. Democracy needs organizations in which citizens frame their own agendas through conversations, develop working relationships with peers and neighbors, and then hold professional lobbyists and leaders accountable. (This third point is mentioned but not developed in the book; it's partly my own extrapolation.)

    The first point--that canvassing is bad for canvassers--is based on Fisher�s 115 interviews. She provides many quotes, which actually tell a mixed story. Some of the interviewees have positive things to say; some are critical of the canvass. She does not code the interviews so that she can provide statistical summaries (such as "55% were negative"), but she does use words like "most."

    I don't think the lack of statistics matters. Selecting and coding interviews is a fairly subjective process, so any hard numbers would look more precise than they would actually be. In essence, we must rely on Fisher to generalize fairly and accurately from her own observations. The fact that she quotes people who have a positive view of canvassing could be taken as evidence that she is scrupulous and balanced. Or the fact that she draws very negative conclusions, despite having talked to people whose views were positive, could be taken as a sign that she exaggerates.

    Overall, she could be right. Others have made similar claims.* However, she could also be wrong, and I know former canvassers who loved their jobs. I am uncomfortable about having endorsed her portrayal with a confidence that cannot be sustained from reading the book alone.

    Incidentally, this is qualitative research, which I strongly support. I have a doctorate in philosophy, which is about as qualitative as you can get. But it's unusual for a qualitative study to focus on one real organization and to be highly negative. (Fisher uses a pseudonym, but the real identity of the canvass is not hard to discern.) If you criticize a sector or a profession, you must try to be accurate. But if you criticize an identifiable organization, the stakes are higher.

    In this respect, Fisher's book is more like a work of investigative journalism than typical qualitative social science. Aggressive journalism is extremely valuable--no less worthy than scholarly research; but it has different norms. We realize that the reliability of a reporter depends on his or her judgment, experience, and ideological bias: reporters lack a fancy "methodology" that they can use to defend their conclusions. Furthermore, journalists feel free to tell unusual stories and to seek out atypical cases "man bites dog." In contrast, most qualitative research is an attempt to generalize on the basis of a representative sample. Much attention goes into methods for constructing representative samples of quotations taken from representative informants. These methods of selection are the basis of the researcher�s legitimacy.

    By endorsing the "rigor" of Fisher's book, I implied that her summaries were based on representative comments by representative canvassers. In fact, I don't have any way of knowing whether that is the case.

    Despite my blurb, I really cannot say much about the second major claim of the book: that consolidating the canvassing "business" into one or a few big operations has worsened the impact on canvassers. As a theoretical point, we would expect monopolies to be bad in this field, as in any other. However, there is not much evidence in the book about the degree to which canvassing has consolidated, nor about the the impact of outsourcing on the groups that have chosen to pay for canvassing.

    Fisher's third point is that canvassing is bad for democracy. Here she relies on a critique of modern American politics that comes from authors like Harry Boyte, Theda Skocpol, Carmen Sirianni, Lewis Friedland, Robert Putnam, Marshall Ganz, Mark R. Warren, Gregory Markus, and Kevin Mattson, among others. Allowing for major and interesting differences among these authors, they all decry "mailing-list" organizations that simply ask citizens to pay for professional advocacy work. They see these organizations as a new elite that lacks an authentic base.

    Several also lament a tendency to mobilize citizens by demonizing opponents. They argue that this approach makes it more difficult actually to solve problems. Boyte, for example, has written: "The canvass embodies a view of politics as a zero-sum struggle over scarce resources pitting the forces of innocence against the forces of evil. In citizen action groups like ACORN or Clean Water Action or the PIRGs, narrowly scripted issue campaigns and a rigid ideological stance dominate. Public leadership development that teaches students to understand the narratives and interests of those with whom they disagree is slighted. The open, diverse political atmosphere of places in the Hull House tradition disappears."

    We know that Americans' average rate of group membership has stayed constant since the 1970s, yet people's tendency to work with others on community problems and their frequency of attending meetings (as measured in surveys) have dropped precipitously. It could be that centralized, national organizations displace forms of politics in which people set their own agendas and act cooperatively. Boyte, Sirianni, Skocpol, Warren, and Markus, in particular, argue that we need the kind of "relational organizing" exemplified by the Industrial Areas Foundation, Pico, and Gamaliel. Those groups depend on long-lasting, face-to-face relationships, horizontal communication among members, local cultural norms, and open-ended deliberation.

    Relatively little in this literature is explicitly about canvassing--let alone about the specific canvass that Fisher studied. Thus the question is whether canvassing exemplifies the problem of professionalized, "mailing-list" organizations. Fisher sees canvassers as tools for delivering one-way messages to potential donors. However, if canvassers engage in two-way conversations on people's doorsteps and pass the word back to their bosses, then canvassing is better for democracy than mass mailings are. Again, everything depends on the accuracy of Fisher's first claim about the canvassing experience.

    Fisher's book raises questions that I am not qualified to settle about the performance of a particular group. That's unpleasant because it pits her character against theirs. I'm inevitably implicated because I know and have professional connections to both sides. However, there are also more constructive and tractable issues to consider. For example:

  • There has been a decline of chapter-based, strongly participatory, locally-rooted organizations that were once accountable to their members. (I am referring to the old political parties, unions, fraternal and sororal organizations, VFW, PTA, and the like.) Did the rise of mailing-list organizations contribute to that problem, or do they represent a separate phenomenon altogether?

  • Is canvassing typically the same as "mailing-list" politics? Or is it considerably more interactive?
  • Is there an essential conflict between the kind of canvassing operations associated with Ralph Nader, on the one hand, and the "relational organizing" of IAF, Pico, and Gamaliel, on the other? Or can they be synergistic?
  • Would it be possible to increase the degree of interactivity, accountability to members, and horizontal communication within a canvass operation without undermining its effectiveness at raising money and lining up supporters? Could canvassing actually be made more effective if it became more democratic?
  • *See, e.g., Kevin Mattson (opens a PDF--look at p. 21), Greg Bloom, and Nathan Wyeth

    permanent link | comments (4) | category: revitalizing the left

    April 27, 2006

    the "common good"

    (Wisconsin) Thanks to regular reader Joe Sinatra, I recently read an article in which Michael Tomasky argued that the Democrats should use the language of "the common good" instead of emphasizing rights for various groups. David Brooks then did Tomasky no favor by endorsing his view in the New York Times and making him sound like a scathing critic of a caricatured version of "identity politics" (which he isn't).

    I've mainly considered the rhetoric of the "common good" in connection with the Progressive Movement. In 1900-1924, the original Progressives assumed that "the moral and the general were synonymous, and that which was unworthy [was] the private, the partial, interest."* It was on this basis that they fought various forms of corruption and expanded the powers of the central state over the market. Appeals to the "common good" and "public interest" have been made at other times and from other points on the ideological spectrum. However, the Progressives contrasted the common good against special or private interests with striking consistency and fervor.

    Mainstream liberalism since the 1960s has been quite different. I don't endorse simplistic accounts of identity politics, but surely modern American liberals have been suspicious of the common good and more concerned about rights for distinct groups. Why?

    1. In practice, the "common good" can mean the interests of the median voter, who (depending on how one describes the electorate) may turn out to be a white, working-class guy from the Midwest. That's precisely the constituency that Brooks thinks the Democrats have lost by courting minorities, gays, immigrants, women, and so on. However, white, working-class guys from the Midwest are just one group with interests of its own. Liberals don't want to identify those interests with the common good, even if doing so would help win elections. It wouldn't be fair.

    2. The phrase "common good" can be vacuous--available to anyone, and equivalent to saying that one's positions are right or good. For instance, people claim the mantle of the "common good" in arguing that wealth should be redistributed, or that individual economic freedom should prevail. Some equate the common good with private liberty; others claim that it means improving public morality. Maybe it means nothing at all.

    Nevertheless, I'm not sure that Tomasky is wrong. Talking about the common good has several advantages.

    First, it's explicitly moral language, and that's good for liberals. It forces the speaker to justify his or her proposals in terms of universal principles: to show why, for example, a tax break or a federal program is fair for all. It provokes deliberation.

    If people think of government as a device for helping them individually, many will prefer market mechanisms and private choice. That's especially true when the median income is pretty high, as it is in the USA; then many voters don't believe that the government (seen as a service-provider) offers a particularly good deal. Citizens are more likely to favor government if they believe that it has idealistic purposes and offers them a chance to deliberate and participate in high-minded ways. The language of duty to a common good can be motivating--and for morally legitimate reasons. Tomasky: "This is the only justification leaders can make to citizens for liberal governance, really: That all are being asked to contribute to a project larger than themselves."

    Second, talk of "the common good" makes us think of genuinely common assets and the need to preserve them. Thus we will focus on un-owned goods, such as the ozone layer, the oceans, our cultural heritage, scientific knowledge, and the Internet.

    Third, this language draws attention to problems with our political procedures and our political culture. I think Rousseau was the first to note that people tend to disagree about concrete issues but can often reach consensus about procedures and norms. Thus political leaders who invoke the "common good" naturally think of procedural reforms, such as anti-curruption measures, tax-simplification, transparency, and rule-of-law: causes that can attract broad popular consensus. Progressive leaders (such as Wilson, TR, and La Follette) were often vague about how to address specific economic and cultural disputes, but passionate about matters like campaign-finance reform, lobby regulation, direct election of senators, and women's suffrage.

    Why would it be good to emphasize procedural reforms today? Because there are serious problems with our current political procedures and political culture that have to be fixed before we can get better policies.

    *"Otis L. Graham, Jr., An Encore for Reform: The Old Progressives and the New Deal (New York, 1967), p. 70O.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: revitalizing the left

    April 10, 2006

    the world of DailyKos

    In the New York Review of Books, Bill McKibben reviews a new book by the bloggers Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zniga, Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics. He uses the opportunity to describe the network of Zniga's DailyKos, Talking Points Memo, Atrios, and related blogs as "the most ambitious, interesting, and hopeful venture in progressive politics in decades." I found the review a perceptive description of this network (which draws at least half a million people a day); but I have mixed feelings about its impact and potential.

    Armstrong and Zniga describe Howard Dean's appeal in '04 as "ideologically agnostic, purely partisan." That's also a reasonable summary of their style of web-based politics. [See an explicit statement here.] They want to see Democrats play hard. They admire politicians, like Gov. Dean, who attack the Republicans; and they despise Democrats, like Senator Lieberman, who cloud the issue by praising Republicans. Their fury at Lieberman is not ideological, for they will support Democrats who defend the Iraq war--it's rather the anger of a sports fan who thinks that an athlete is not playing to win.

    To give Zniga and his allies their due: They have pioneered techniques that allow many thousands of people to participate in Party politics. People without much money can make small financial contributions that are aggregated strategically on the Web. Participants can also volunteer time and contribute ideas. Devoted fans of the Democrats are becoming players.

    Another benefit of this new style of politics is to increase participation and competition in every community, even the "reddest," most gerrymandered of GOP congressional districts. Unlike the official parties (which save their ammunition for "swing" seats), Kos and his allies believe that every election should be contested. That is good because it gives more people opportunities to participate.

    I should also note that 2006 is the perfect year for the Kos approach. The main issue really will be incompetence and corruption in one-party Washington, and people (some people) really will vote Democratic simply in order to check and oversee the Republicans. This is one year when it may work simply to attack the incumbent party and promote an alternative set of players.

    But that approach didn't succeed in '04, and it won't work in '08. The reason, in my opinion, is a basic imbalance between liberals and conservatives. For a long time, there have been more of the latter than the former.

    To be sure, what "conservatives" believe has changed over time. Today, most self-described conservative voters favor Social Security, Medicare, the right to interracial marriage, and free-speech rights for gays--all positions that conservatives opposed forty years ago. Liberals have won many struggles.

    But there is not a majority in favor of ambitious change in a liberal direction, whereas there is a majority in favor of the kinds of policies that Republicans favor (which include Social Security and Medicare, along with tax cuts, school prayer, and government surveillance of communications). Real social change requires either new policies or new arguments, not just more aggressive competition.

    I am not one of those who claim that Democrats lack "new ideas." The GOP is mostly singing from Barry Goldwater's 1964 hymnal, whereas various Democrats have innovative proposals. The problem is rather that Democrats need consensus about coherent and compelling new ideas much more than Republicans do, and they must make their ideas more central to their campaigns. If neither side has a mandate for change, people will usually vote for the party that best reflects their attitudes on moral issues--currently, the GOP.

    I like Kos' wiki space, which allows people to collaborate in designing new policy ideas--that could be revolutionary. However, I don't think that's where the participants are putting their energy; the results, so far, aren't terribly compelling. While McKibben praises the Kos energy policy (and it seems impressive), the health care page, which is more typical, is just a short critique of the status quo with some talking points about several alternatives--nothing novel or particularly persuasive. I can't find any discussion of the new Massachussetts health care plan: a bipartisan effort that deserves consideration and scrutiny. It would be churlish to complain about an ordinary progressive blog that failed to address health care in a substantive way--but DailyKos receives an average of 500,000 daily visits and offers myriad opportunities for those visitors to contribute ideas. If all those people overlook the Massachussets health care plan, then I infer a lack of interest in health policy. In contrast, there is enormous interest in Scooter Libby, Condi's admission that thousands of tactical mistakes were made, Tom DeLay's resignation, etc., etc. Again, a critical style may work in '06; but '08 is not far away.

    permanent link | comments (3) | category: Internet and public issues , revitalizing the left

    March 16, 2006

    Fukuyama and BHL on intellectuals

    Thanks to reader Joe Sinatra, here's an interesting dialogue between Francis Fukuyama and Bernard-Henri Lvy (two political theorists who write best-sellers). It ends with an exchange about the role of intellectuals. BHL criticizes neoconservatives--who supported the Iraq intervention for reasons of principle--for lining up with Bush on all other issues (e.g., the death penalty, gay marriage, stem-cell research). Since they are educated and worldly people, surely they can't be against gay rights. BHL suspects they have compromised their principles to gain access to power.

    Fukuyama suggests that neoconservatives sincerely agree with Bush on these questions of social policy, much as this might shock a European. And then he makes a more general comment about intellectuals who work in institutions:

    The idea that an intellectual must always speak truth to power and never compromise means for ends seems to me a rather naive view of how intellectuals actually behave, and reflects in many ways the powerlessness of European intellectuals and their distance from the real world of policy and politics. Of course, the academy must try to remain an institutional bastion of intellectual freedom that is not subject to vagaries of political opinion. But in the United States, to a much greater degree than in Europe, scholars, academics and intellectuals have moved much more easily between government and private life than in Europe, and are much more involved in formulating, promoting and implementing policies than their European counterparts. This necessarily limits certain kinds of intellectual freedom, but I'm not sure that, in the end, this is such a bad thing.

    Fukuyama describes his own time at RAND, where there was no intellectual freedom but many opportunities to influence policy and learn. To which BHL replies:

    That's it. I think we have come to heart of what divides us. ... The problem lies with the definition of what you and I call an intellectual, and beyond its definition, its function. Unlike you, I don't think an intellectual's purpose is to run the RAND Corporation or any institution like it. Not because I despise RAND, or because I believe in Kubrick's burlesque portrayal of it. No, I just think that while some people are running RAND, others no more or no less worthy or deserving should be dealing with, shall we say, the unfiltered truth. ... America needs intellectuals with a selfless concern for sense, complexity and truth.

    Four observations:

    1. One does not have to choose between working in powerful institutions or being fully independent and providing the "unfiltered truth." One can also work within organizations that represent ordinary people or marginalized groups or that grow at the grassroots level. Dewey spent a lot of time in schools and settlement houses. Jane Addams' thought was grounded in even deeper experience. Or consider Dorothy Day or various Marxist intellectuals who have worked inside independent socialist and labor organizations.

    2. The independence that BHL prizes is quite hard to find. If you teach in a university, then you work for a powerful institution whose social function is subject to criticism. If you write a best-seller, then you are paid by a big media corporation. Working at RAND is not necessarily more problematic.

    3. I believe in truth, but it requires method. Truth doesn't just pop into one's mind, even if one has graduated from the Ecole Normale Suprieure. Many methodologies are helpful--among them, what Fukuyama calls the "discipline" of operating in "the real world of power and politics." I haven't read BHL's new book, American Vertigo, but presumably his method there is to travel and observe for short periods. I find that method quite problematic. (See Marc Cooper's first-person description of BHL in the field.) If BHL developed a complex and novel social theory or collected data (qualitative or quantitative), I would be more impressed by his claim to "truth."

    4. Tony Judt is very insightful about "the demise of the continental [European] intellectual.* On May 31, 2003, Jacques Derrida and Jrgen Habermas (together), Umberto Eco, Richard Rorty, and several other leading intellectuals published coordinated essays about Iraq in distinguished European newspapers. The result "passed virtually unnoticed. It was not reported as news, nor was it quoted by sympathizers. No-one implored the authors to take up their pens and lead the way forward. ... The whole project sputtered out. One hundred years after the Dreyfus Affair, fifty years after the apotheosis of Jean-Paul Sartre, Europe's leading intellectuals had thrown a petition--and no one came."

    Judt suggests several explanations. Intellectuals can no longer get fired up about social-liberal causes, because their position prevails across Europe. Capitalism remains a target of criticism, but no one knows what to do about it. I would add that most European intellectuals lack the discipline of working inside institutions. Such work would give them more access to truth as well as more credibility.

    *Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York, 2005), pp. 785-7

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: revitalizing the left

    February 1, 2006

    a postscript to yesterday

    In the schematic that I presented yesterday, one axis was defined by attitudes toward "the state." That's actually too simple. The state can be unitary, hierarchical, and centralized; or it can be decentralized and participatory. Attitudes toward each kind of state can vary from favorable to hostile. Unfortunately, I can't draw a four-dimensional box, but it would be better to show a range of attitudes toward a range of types of government.

    My own sympathies lie with governmental bodies--neighborhood commissions, public corporations, advisory boards, public/private ventures, police beat councils, charter schools, problem solving courts, and the like--that address local realities and that allow volunteers to participate. These bodies are better suited to influence culture, which was yesterday's topic. On the other hand, they may also reinforce harmful cultural norms. Federal mandates certainly helped to make local schools and town governments less racist.

    I'm just making things as complicated as possible here ....

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: revitalizing the left

    January 31, 2006

    on culture and poverty

    "The central conservative truth," Senator Moynihan famously wrote, "is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."

    This is the great issue of the present, or so it seems to me. But there are more positions than Mohnihans liberalism and conservatism. In fact, we can classify responses along three axes. First, materialists believe that to succeed and to be happy, you need money--or things that money can buy. Their opponents are cultural determinists who believe that what matters is the "fit" between a person's norms, habits, and beliefs (on one hand) and the dominant culture of modern capitalism (on the other). A second axis runs from love for this dominant corporate culture to hatred of it. The third axis runs from those who think that government is helpful to those who consider it incompetent or corrupt.

    When there are three axes, there are eight pure positions available, along with various moderate views. I think the following combinations are particularly serious and influential today:

    Materialist left-liberalism: This is the view that poor people mainly need money (or its equivalent) to get ahead. They should get financial help from the state. However, no one should try to manipulate their values or beliefs.

    Materialist libertarianism:: Everyone would prosper (to the maximum extent possible) if it werent for state institutions and regulations that distort choices, block exchanges, and forcibly educate people in bad habits and beliefs.

    Left cultural criticism: What determines success is the fit between a persons culture and the dominant, white collar, market system, with its demands for discipline and rationality. However, that system is wickedly imperialistic and dehumanizing. Capitalism, not working class and traditional cultures, must be changed.

    Moynihan-style neoliberalism: What keeps some poor people poor is a set of habits and values that don't prepare them well for a competitive market economy. However, the state can and should make them more competitive. For instance, if some parents don't read to their preschoolers, then four year-olds should be in Head Start. If some households and neighborhoods impart anti-intellectual lessons, then we should lengthen the school day and year and toughen academic curricula.

    Cultural conservatism: What keeps some people poor are their habits and values, but the state is bad at changing cultures. In fact, it tends to reinforce the worst cultural traits among the poor. It would be better to reduce state influence on values. For example, more students should attend religious schools.

    I have no answers, but I suspect that: (1) Some degree of materialism is still important. For instance, people would be better off if they had affordable or free health insurance. (2) Nevertheless, there is a conflict between many subcultures and the dominant, corporate-capitalist world. That conflict means that no amount of redistribution will end poverty. While the redistributive programs of the twentieth century (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) are valuable, they leave cultural problems unresolved. (3) The record of the state in changing values and habits is neither excellent nor awful, but mixed. There have been successful initiatives, e.g., Quontum Opportunities Program, which cut dropout rates in half. There have also been numerous failures.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: revitalizing the left

    October 13, 2005

    could manufacturing back the Democrats?

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that a party without possession of Congress or the White House must be in need of some rich donors. I wish this weren't true; for two years, I worked for Common Cause, advocating campaign finance reform. But private money still runs campaigns, and so the question is, on whom will the Democrats depend for funding in 2008?

    Hollywood and trial lawyers, among the Democrats' most important sources in recent cycles, are problematic sources. Many Americans believe that we live in an overly litigious society with a coarse popular culture. It is a liability to be bankrolled by lawyers and movie moguls, even if one believes that lawsuits sometimes promote justice and that movies are covered by the First Amendment. As for unions, they can't give much hard money, and their independent funds should be used to pursue their own agendas, not the Democrats'. Above all, labor should use its money for organizing in the private sector.

    Would it be possible for Democrats to enlist the financial help of some major manufacturing firms? This idea may seem naive, but donors have realigned before, and right now industry has extraordinary reasons to rethink its support for the profligate GOP. First, Democrats could boldly propose to cut the costs of manufacturing by providing universal health care. If General Motors spends $1,500 per car on health insurance, then health care reform would cause an enormous redistribution of wealth from taxpayers to manufacturing companies and their customers. That reform should also benefit most Americans, because we would pay less in health-related taxes than we do today for insurance premiums and deductibles.

    Second, Democrats could pledge to cut the annual deficit (in part by raising taxes), which would help to keep interest rates relatively low and reduce the percentage of corporate taxes that are wasted on debt service. Third, I suspect that manufacturers want better educational outcomes and would support paying for them (although I'm not sure whether their leaders find Democrats or Republicans more credible on education).

    But aren't progressive Democrats and big manufacturing companies natural enemies? All else being equal, a firm has a fiduciary responsibility to minimize the costs of labor, whereas Democrats have traditionally wanted to maximize labor's return. Therefore, Democrats and corporations are traditional opponents on matters like the minimal wage, unionization, and outsourcing. However, labor and capital are not in a zero-sum relationship. If the whole manufacturing sector is in decline, unions and firms both suffer. Companies can try to avoid the US job market by outsourcing, but that has its own costs and headaches. (Note that firms in the Nordic countries, which are highly competitive, don't have to outsource, because their workers are well educated and healthy.) If average American wages go up, that's good for manufacturing, as long as profits rise as well. Especially under the present circumstances, when manufacturing is taking a beating and issues like health care seem to be a big part of the problem, it should be possible to achieve win-win solutions for labor and capital. Both benefit if workers have good educations and health insurance provided by the state.

    Environmental protection is another traditional area of conflict. Business people (even if they happen to like nature) must try to externalize the environmental costs of manufacturing--for example, by letting smoke into the atmosphere and trying not to pay for it. Although they may suffer if they degrade the ozone layer, so does everyone else; and they capture all the profit. A cost-benefit calculation--which they have a fiduciary duty to conduct--will tell them to pollute and to oppose regulations. Democrats (along with some Republicans) have tried for many decades to force business to internalize the costs of pollution and other environmental damage.

    So the environment is a point of conflict, and it would very bad if Democrats got so cozy with manufacturing that they abandoned their greenish heritage. But environmental protection is subject to negotiation; it is not a matter of clashing absolute principles. The costs of preventing x amount of pollution can be divided between taxpayers and businesses in various proportions. And there is some money to be made in cleaning up the environment.

    Congressional Democrats could start quietly courting manufacturing industries right now. I suspect that they would have to shelve vague and meaningless party platforms like the one on Nancy Pelosi's website (via the Decembrist) and start developing a contract with real costs and real benefits. It would have to encompass tax increases and spending cuts if it were also to include universal health insurance and investments in education.

    There are clear dangers to this strategy, above all that industry could acquire too much leverage over the Democratic Party. However, let me suggest that relying on Hollywood, trial lawyers, and (yes) unions isn't a pure strategy either, nor has it been a very effective one.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    August 26, 2005

    three possible goals for the left

    In Norway last week, it occurred to me that the left in modern times has taken three distinct paths, each with a different goal:

    1. Reduce alienation. Marx's essential idea was that people should be able to conceive creative concepts and then implement them in the real world. Since individuals cannot realize impressive ideas by themselves, such creativity must be cooperative. In a capitalist system, some people conceive ideas and different people carry them out, and both kinds of people (i.e., capitalists and workers) are constrained by market competition. Therefore, everyone is alienated.

    I think there is some truth to this diagnosis; but the main socialist and communist solution--workers' collective ownership of factories and farms--has been largely disastrous. Workers are much less alienated in a Tayota plant than in a Soviet one. If there is a strategy for reducing alienation, it probably involves some combination of the small, voluntary co-ops and land trusts described at community-wealth.org; plus policies to support parenthood (which is relatively unalienated labor), and a dynamic entrepreneurial sector.

    2. Increase equality. There are strong theoretical arguments in favor of more economic equality than we have in the USA. My favorite argument goes like this. We are capable of producing enormously more value per hour of work than our ancestors did, not because anything that you and I have achieved ourselves, but thanks to an accumulation of knowledge, technology, and social organization. If you are born to parents with education, capital, savvy, ambition; and if they care about you; and if you live in a nice neighborhood in a developed country; and if you have reasonable genes and luck, then you can benefit hugely from the accumulation of progress. If, however, you lack most or all of these advantages, then you will capture little more value from your work than people did 3,000 years ago. This is unfair.

    Therefore, if some beneficent being with superhuman power and intelligence (and an inclination to meddle in our affairs) showed up on earth, it would redistribute goods in a much more equitable way. However, in our actual circumstances, there are some big barriers to redistribution. First, in a country like the United States, the median citizen has enough wealth that he or she is not too enthusiastic about redistribution, which might only benefit those further down the ladder. Citizens of poor countries have even less political leverage over us than our own poor have. Second, redistribution probably reduces economic productivity; and we Americans are deeply committed to prosperity and progress. Third, any political power (e.g., a party or a state) that is capable of greater redistribution is also capable of self-dealing and corruption. As I've noted before, textile workers in Taiwan and Hong Kong earn 10-20 times as much per hour as textile workers in China and Vietnam--two countries where a Communist party monopolized power in the name of equality. Those parties now make their own elites rich by blocking independent unions, a classic example of corruption.

    These skeptical arguments don't prove that we have the balance just right in the US in 2005. The standard measure of inequality has increased very substantially since 1980, which suggests that we could do somewhat better.

    3. Improve Externalities. That's not a phrase that belongs on a bumper sticker or in a political speech. Nevetheless, the left has made the most progress since 1960--throughout the industrialized world--by mitigating certain negative externalities. An externality occurs when some people have a voluntary exchange that affects other parties who didn't consent to their agreement. The externality is the effect on the third parties. It can be positive: for example, a new downtown store can benefit me even if I never shop or work there, by lowering crime, beautifying my city, providing jobs for my neighbors, contributing taxes, attracting visitors, and so on. An externality can also be negative, and the usual examples are environmental. For instance, smoke can blow from a factory into the lungs of people who never consented to receive it.

    The mainstream environmental movement accepts a system of private ownership and free exchange (notwithstanding problems of alienation and inequality), but objects to negative externalities and favors regulation--along with public education and tax breaks--to reduce these problems. This strategy has the great political advantage that it accepts the basic status quo of a market system. It has at least two big disadvantages: it cannot deal with all problems, and it sounds relentlessly negative. The cumulative effect of the environmental movement, for example, has been to suggest that the natural world is deteriorating because of the side-effects of human behavior. The world is getting worse, in short, and all we can do is to mitigate the decline.

    But a strategy of improving market externalities can be made positive (as I argued once in a narrower post on environmentalism). In fact, most of the good things in life are positive externalities that arise as side effects of market transactions or as the public effects of people's work in voluntary associations. Much of ethics consists of acting so that one's externalities are positive. We could even define the "commonwealth" or the "commons" as the sum total of our externalities, the negative ones subtracted from the positive ones. Then the question becomes: What combination of regulations, opportunities for collaborative work, and moral education can best enhance the commonwealth?

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: populism , revitalizing the left

    August 11, 2005

    living wages

    The other day, I mentioned that Jim Wallis is promoting the "living wage" as major plank in the Democrats' platform. A living wage law sets a minimum legal salary that's high enough to allow one full-time wage-earner to support a family of three or four at or above the poverty line.

    Unions, religious groups, and others on the left have invested a lot of energy in living wage campaigns--giving this policy more attention than other anti-poverty initiatives, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit or expanded coverage for Medicaid. Yet economic theory says that businesses will respond to an increase in the minimum wage by cutting workers. Empirical evidence from a "natural experiment" (when New Jersey raised its minimum wage but Pennsylvania did not) generated ambiguous or controversial results. Indeed, the effects of increasing the minumum wage are likely to be fairly complex--and different for various subgroups of poor people. Whether the net effect is good or not is an empirical question, not to be settled by economic theory alone.

    Scott Adams and David Neumark of the Public Policy Institute of California have published a very well written and persuasive paper entitled "A Decade of Living Wages: What Have We Learned?" (Full disclosure: Neumark was part of the controversy about the Pennsylvania/New Jersey natural experiment--arguing that the minimum wage increase was not beneficial.) Their paper finds that local living wage laws tend to increase wages among the lowest-paid workers but also cause employment to fall among the least skilled. Both effects are bigger when the living wage applies in several neighboring jurisdictions. The two effects work at cross-purposes, but the net result is a small reduction in the poverty rate. Evidence suggests that a few of the lowest skilled people lose their jobs, but others in the same family units see pay increases; and the whole poor population gains income, on balance. But not very much income. Futhermore, the families that benefit are those that start close to the poverty line. Those deep in poverty do not gain income--presumably because they are likely to be unemployed.

    The evidence about local living wage campaigns cannot tell us what would happen if the national minimum wage were raised. However, the implications of the existing studies are not very impressive. Therefore, I wonder why living wage campaigns have absorbed so much energy. It could be because ...

    1. We can envision a living wage at the local level, as a law passed by a city government. Some cities are very liberal, so they are likely to pass these laws. In contrast, the federal government will not do anything very progressive about poverty. And no one is advocating, for example, an earned income tax credit at the local level. But could such a policy work? [See the comment by Nick Beaudrot for a correction; many states do have their own EITC.]

    2. Like rent control and environmental protection, the minimum wage is a mandate that government passes for businesses. There is no need to appropriate public funds explicitly for a minimum wage, although the cost of government may rise if the state has to pay more for labor. It's politically easier to pass a mandate than an appropriation. Proponents predict large benefits and minimize the costs. In any case, they say, "corporations" will pay the price (and who likes corporations?). However, most economists reply that the potential benefits of a minimum wage are small, at best, and the price will be paid by consumers and some low-skilled workers.

    3. Proponents of the living wage don't like economic theory. Indeed, the dismal science rests on some fundamental assumptions that should be questioned. However, I think the limits of economic theory call for more empirical evidence, especially data drawn from experiments or quasi-experiments. My reading of the available evidence suggests that living wage laws may be mildly beneficial, but they are nowhere close to sufficient.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: revitalizing the left

    August 8, 2005

    Jim Wallis' "message"

    Since November, many Democrats have asked Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners magazine, to help them develop a moral message--one that might reduce the Republican advantage among religious voters. Wallis says that he has been telling them to change their policy proposals, not just their rhetoric. He writes:

    the minority party has been searching, some would say desperately, for the right 'narrative': the best story line, metaphors, even magic words to bring back electoral success. The operative term among Democratic politicians and strategists has become 'framing.' How to tell the story has become more important than the story itself. And that could be a bigger mistake for the Democrats than the ones they made during the election.

    ... What are your best ideas, and what are you for--as opposed to what you're against in the other party's message? Only when you answer those questions can you figure out how to present your message to the American people.

    This is 100% right, in my opinion. Wallis provides an additional service by sketching out the main points of a liberal agenda that is explicitly moral. He has prompted the right discussion, but his proposals raise questions for me.

    For example, Wallis recommends that the Democrats set a target of cutting the number of abortions in half. This would move them past the Clinton-era slogan that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare." It could potentially give them very broad support on the abortion issue, because they would safeguard the right to terminate a pregnancy while also telling "pro-life" voters that they (and they alone) had a plan to cut the actual number of abortions.

    But would the policy work? Wallis recommends "adoption reform, health care, and child care; combating teenage pregnancy and sexual abuse; improving poor and working women's incomes; and supporting reasonable restrictions on abortion, like parental notification for minors (with necessary legal protections against parental abuse)." Democrats (including me) like it when the number of abortions falls because women have better welfare and more real choices. We do not like the number to fall because of legal restrictions, even "reasonable" ones. I could imagine embracing a policy that included both sides of the coin, as long as most of the reduction in the abortion rate came from the additional social support, not from the new legal limits. What do we know about the relative impact of those two kinds of proposals? For instance, would "adoption reform" really help?

    Wallis also recommends that the Democrats take on poverty. Indeed, it is remarkable how little John Kerry said about the poor and near-poor, given that he was the candidate of the center-left. Even though the median family income of American voters is well above $50,000, I believe that some voters would respond to moral language about poverty, which would pay off politically.

    Again, the issue is not what people want--they want less abortion and less poverty--but how to achieve that goal. Wallis is angry about "wartime tax cuts for the wealthy, rising deficits, and the slashing of programs for low-income families and children." So am I. However, changing the distribution of wealth through the tax code only helps if the government spending is beneficial. Some programs help poor people, but others are wasteful or even counterproductive.

    Wallis recommends a national "fair wage": in other words, an increase in the federal minimum wage. There's controversy about this proposal, but it appears that "moderate minimum wage increases do not reduce poverty rates," partly because most of the lowest-paid workers are teenagers who are not poor, and partly because employers cut benefits when the minimum wage goes up. Bigger than "moderate" increases might reduce poverty; then again, they might increase unemployment.

    The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that existing spending programs--mainly, Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Food Stamps, and Supplemental Security Income--prevent 27 million Americans from being poor. Nevertheless, about 31 million remain poor, and many more are near-poor. It is quite likely that we could help more people if we expanded the existing programs, although that requires separate evidence. Furthermore, I doubt that many Americans would be inspired by a call to increase spending for Medicaid or the EITC. Who has more innovative and persuasive proposals?

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    July 4, 2005

    "how to define progressives in ways that would excite young adults"

    This is a topic that Greg Anrig Jr. and then Matthew Yglesias have been discussing over at TPM Cafe. Most of the discussion has concerned issues--whether young people could be motivated by a particular approach to college loans, Social Security, or healthcare. Some participants believe that it is a mistake to develop special proposals for the young; it's more important just to propose good policies. Yglesias also notes a dilemma for the left. Young people are strongly libertarian on gay rights and other questions connected to sex and/or religion--the very questions that motivated many older Americans to vote for Bush. "The issues that tend to drive young people into the Democrats' arms are, unfortunately, precisely the sort of cultural issues that conventional wisdom says the party needs to de-emphasize."

    I'd like to suggest a few openings that are quite unlike the issue-appeals discussed over at TPM:

    1. The Democratic Party should give young people more substantive roles in campaigns. According to a study that CIRCLE commissioned from the political scientist Dan Shea (pdf), two thirds of the 403 local Democratic leaders who were polled said that a lack of youth involvement was a "serious problem." Democratic leaders were much more likely than their GOP counterparts to see the lack of youth participation as a serious issue, perhaps because young people are more engaged in the GOP, which has invested heavily in conservative campus newspapers and clubs and Washington internship programs. Nevertheless, most local leaders in both parties reported doing relatively little to groom the next generation by giving youth significant jobs. Most of their ideas for reaching youth were superficial--they thought they should become more "hip" or throw more parties. They often blamed the media for alienating young people, but seemed unwilling to invest their own resources. Local leaders (both GOP and Democratic) were asked to name the "most important demographic group for the long-term success of their party." Only 8 percent volunteered "young people." If they chose another group (most commonly, "seniors") they were asked to name a second group. Even after three opportunities, a total of only 38% named youth as an important group for the future of their party.

    2. The Democratic Party should give the impression that it is open-minded and committed to solving problems by any means that work. Today's young people appear to be even more pragmatic than their elders: unattached to existing ideologies but concerned about social problems. Marc Porter Magee has been arguing that idealistic young people shun bureaucratic organizations and the civil service, looking instead for opportunities to experiment and be creative in the non-profit sector. They also like such temporary (but paid) volunteer opportunities as Americorps. The country could invest much more heavily in service and what Magee calls "civic enterprise."

    3. We should start thinking about "sleeper" issues. These are issues that arise out of everyday experience and that take a long time to be named--even longer to be addressed. A political party or leader can score points by simply identifying such an issue early. For example, thanks to my colleague Lew Friedland, I'm convinced that high school students face excessive stress today because they feel that their long-term economic security is dependent on their performance in school and extracurricular activities. If anything, they overestimate the economic significance of their choice of courses and the grades they win; and they often perform community service in the belief that it's necessary for college admission. I think it's unjust to force young people to shoulder so much risk with so little support; and there may be ways to mitigate the problem. Smaller high schools, with more sense of community and less individual choice, might help. Making college admissions and financing more transparent and simpler would also be good.

    (Thanks to Nick Beaudrot for telling me about the exchange on TPM--I haven't been reading blogs much lately.)

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    June 15, 2005

    wealth-building strategies for communities

    Yesterday, my colleagues at the University of Maryland's Democracy Collaborative unveiled a new website called Community Wealth.org. It contains a mass of practical information about alternatives to the standard business corporation, including "community development corporations (CDCs), community development financial institutions (CDFIs), employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), community land trusts (CLTs), cooperatives, and social enterprise." Gar Alperovitz, Jessica Gordon Nembhard, and other Maryland colleagues have shown that these wealth-generating organizations are rapidly growing and are often highly efficient and sustainable. Alperovitz also has a new book on the subject, which has been excerpted in Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly (a journal produced by my shop).

    These are my two favorite arguments for expanding alternatives to standard corporations:

    1) The traditional approach to equity--taxing and spending after the fact--has encountered strong popular opposition in all Western democracies. Besides, it makes the recipients of government aid dependent on the state. Wealth-generation is a preferable strategy for both political and substantive reasons.

    2) Alternative economic institutions like CDCs and co-ops are more rooted in communities, less able to move their investments. One of the biggest weaknesses of democracy today is the mobility of capital. As Alperovitz notes in the excerpt, a corporation can influence political decisions in multiple ways, including the "implicit or explicit threat of withdrawing its plants, equipment, and jobs from specific locations." Besides, "in the absence of an alternative, the economy as a whole depends on the viability and success of its most important economic actor--a reality that commonly forces citizen and politican alike to respond to corporate demands."

    If there is no alternative to the standard corporation, then democracies really must do what firms want. Trying to restrict capital flows simply violates the laws of the market and will impose steep costs. In the market we have, it is not corrupt when democracies favor corporations; it's just realistic. However, Alperovitz and his colleagues are showing that there is an alternative to the corporation. It's possible to increase the wealth of people in poor communities by creating economically efficient organizations that are tied to places.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: revitalizing the left

    June 13, 2005

    on spending for schools and the idea of "root causes"

    I mentioned last week that Rethinking Schools is a fine publication. The current issue on small schools is full of information and insights. For example, Wayne Au makes the point that small institutions are at a disadvantage under No Child Left Behind, because they have so few students that they will see big random swings in their annual test scores--and failure to improve their mean scores every year leads to sanctions. In general, the magazine is useful as a distillation of progressive thinking about education. I endorse most of its content, but I want to register some dissents, because I think the way forward for the left is to criticize our traditional ideas and develop new ones.

    Reflecting traditional left-of-center ideology, several contributors to Rethinking Schools stress that creating smaller high schools--even if it's a good idea--can't solve the "root causes" of society's problems, which include poverty and racism. Now, I agree completely with Craig Gordon that it is unjust for a single corporate CEO in his city to be paid as much as 600 new teachers. But I'm not at all sure that it's wise to treat economic inequality as the "root" issue, while viewing such matters as the size and structure of schools as superficial.

    There is presumably a vicious cycle in which poverty and racism contribute to poor educational outcomes (and also to crime and morbidity); low-income communities receive substandard government services; and problems like under-education, disease, and crime generate and preserve poverty. If this vicious cycle exists, then we ought to intervene wherever we think we'll have the most impact. For example, it appears that cities can reduce crime by changing their policing strategies, even when the poverty rate remains constant. In turn, lower crime rates should encourage economic investment and growth in urban neighborhoods. So the liberal nostrum that poverty is the "root cause of crime" was at least partly a tactical mistake.

    The traditional mechanism for increasing equality is after-the-fact. Once people have obtained their incomes in the marketplace, we tax them progressively and spend the proceeds on social programs. I think our tax system should be more progressive, because everyone agrees we have growing needs (including the federal entitlement programs and interest payments on the national debt); we are not meeting those needs; and the only fair way to increase federal income is to raise taxes on wealthy people. But there is no clear political strategy for increasing equity through redistribution. Nor will poorer Americans automatically benefit from more spending in sectors like education.

    The U.S. Department of Education recently reported that per-pupil spending on public school students increased by 24 percent, adjusting for inflation, between 1990 and 2002. That is a big increase that enables us to test the proposition that more education spending would be better for the least advantaged America. I see four possibilities ...

    1) The new money has purchased substantial improvements in educational outcomes for all Americans. That would counter the angry and sad rhetoric of Rethinking Schools. However, it would support the case for even more spending.
    2) The money has not obtained improvements because it has not been well spent; that would underline the importance of institutional reform.
    3) The money has been spent on kids who were better off to start with; hence the outcomes of poor kids did not improve. I find this story unlikely, given the recent pressure for equity. But it is possible.
    4) The Department of Education is wrong to claim a 24% real increase. That would be a scandal, and it seems implausible.

    I don't know which of these four hypotheses is correct, but much depends on the answer. I intend to keep an open mind about education spending until I know more. Meanwhile, I have the feeling that Senator Obama was right when he said at a commencement address last week: "We'll have to reform institutions, like our public schools, that were designed for an earlier time. Republicans will have to recognize our collective responsibilities, even as Democrats recognize that we have to do more than just defend old programs."

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Barack Obama , revitalizing the left

    June 2, 2005

    why the commons is not for communists

    "The commons" is composed of our shared assets: the earth's atmosphere, oceans, and water-cycle; basic scientific knowledge (which cannot be patented); the heritage of human creativity, including folklore and the whole works of Plato, Shakespeare and every other long-dead author; the Internet, viewed a single structure (although its components are privately owned); public law; physical public spaces such as parks and plazas; the broadcast spectrum; and even cultural norms and habits. Some of us believe that protecting and enhancing the commons is a central political task of the 21st century. For different flavors of that argument, see, for example, OnTheCommons, The Tomales Bay Institute, and Lin Ostrom's workshop at Indiana.

    I have suggested that enhancing the commons might be a strategy for increasing equality. If that strategy belonged to the radical left, I would not hesitate to embrace it. However, I don't think that it has much to do with traditional leftist thought. It is worthwhile to distinguish the theory of the commons from Marxism, just for the sake of clarity. I see several fundamental points of difference.

    The commons is not state-centered. Some common assets are completely un-owned (e.g., the ozone layer), and some are jointly owned and managed by associations. Some belong legally to states and are controlled by them: think of Yellowstone. However, it is by no means clear that states are ideal--or even adequate--owners of commons. I realize that some Marxists have also been skeptical of the state--including perhaps old Karl himself, who wished that it would wither away. Nevertheless, a major current in Marxism has been statist, and the commons isn't.

    The commons is only a part of a good society, not the whole. Some anarchists want everything to be treated as a common asset, but most of us simply value the common assets we already have and want to protect them against corporate "enclosure," over-use, and other threats. We have no interest in abolishing either the state or the market; on the contrary, we think that both work better if they can draw appropriately on a range of un-owned assets, from clean air to scientific knowledge.

    The commons supports "negative liberty." Isaiah Berlin famously contrasted the absence of constraints ("negative liberty") from the capacity to do something ("positive liberty"). For example, the First Amendment gives us negative liberty by removing the constraint of censorship, but we don't have positive freedom unless we own a newspaper--or a website. Marx's own ideas about liberty were complex and perhaps ambiguous. But most Marxists have believed that positive liberty is more important than negative liberty--or have even dismissed the latter as a snare and a delusion. Although a commons may enhance positive liberty, what it most obviously provides is negative liberty. If something is un-owned, then there is no legal constraint on our using it. This is both the beauty of a commons and its weakness. The commons, if anything, is a utopian libertarian idea rather than a Marxist one (although some libertarians have forgotten that they are inspired by freedom, not by markets).

    The commons is not (literally) a revolutionary idea. Preserving the commons may take radical action at a time when the oceans are being depleted, big companies are privatizing the software that underlies the Internet, and scientific research is being diverted to produce patented products. However, I don't think we need fundamentally different national institutions from the ones we have today, and therefore I see no need to upset our polity. On the contrary, we ought to revive old and powerful traditions that support the commons. At the global level, I suspect that treaties and trans-national popular movements will be sufficient to protect the commons; there is no need for anything like a global state. It is good that we don't need revolutionary political change, because revolutions almost always go wrong and destroy what they set out to promote.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues , philosophy , revitalizing the left

    May 26, 2005

    a scheme for policy research

    [On a plane from Washington to Dayton OH:] I have been fantasizing lately about a plan that I won't actually accomplish--although it would be very fun. Imagine starting with an intensive community-research project. Members of a community (for example, all the students at one urban high school) would document their lives, their aspirations, and their frustrations, with lots of assistance from students and faculty at a nearby university. This process of documentation could continue for four or five years. It would be the basis of serious, analytical discussions about justice. What do members of the community want? Are their wants valid, or have they been somehow misled, perhaps by advertising and pop culture? What does the larger community of the United States owe them? They would discuss these questions and others side-by-side with faculty and undergraduates.

    Meanwhile, students at the university could conduct research to put the high school students' situations in a broader context. How typical are their problems? How have conditions changed over time? What do related groups of people think about the students' opinions and demands? Teachers, parents, employers, and others should be interviewed. The college-student researchers would constantly feed their results back to the high school students for further discussion.

    On another track, advanced college students and professional researchers at the university would explore ideas for addressing the high school students' needs. There could be an ongoing research seminar in which faculty and outsiders with diverse views would be invited to present policy proposals--after having digested the high school students' documentation of their own lives and their demands for a better future.

    The seminar would not only consider policies, but also politics. What constituency might line up in favor of the recommended policies? Why would people have an interest in supporting these reforms? What would it take to organize them? And what kind of political culture or political institutions would sustain this constituency? At all times, the seminar papers and discussions would be made public and fed back to the high school students.

    The goal of this idea is to ground policy proposals not in an existing ideology, but rather in citizens' informed, reflective sense of their own condition. An ideology might emerge from the process, but it would not frame or limit it.

    An obvious disadvantage of focusing so intently on one place is that the situation there might be atypical. However, the whole project could be organized in an "open-source" way, so that other groups in other places could feed their self-analysis into the same discussion.

    I suppose this idea is like what used to happen at Hull-House during the Progressive Era, and later at Highlander in Tennessee. (See Nick Longo's great CIRCLE working paper entitled "Recognizing the Role of Community in Civic Education: Lessons from Hull House, Highlander Folk School, and the Neighborhood Learning Community": pdf). But this scheme would be based at a university and intended to develop broad new political theories or ideologies.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    May 13, 2005

    why the Democrats must tackle entitlements

    I understand the tactical argument for allowing Republicans to impale themselves on the President's Social Security proposal. Republicans have put themselves in a position where they must either claim that they can create private accounts at no net cost to the Treasury (a claim the exposes them to powerful criticism), or else admit the real costs of the proposal, in which case they must defend unpopular tax increases or benefit cuts. If the Democrats were to introduce a real plan of their own, it would also necessarily contain new taxes and/or benefit cuts, and then the situation would be muddy. They have a rationale for not proposing a plan (Social Security is not in a crisis), and it's convenient for them to leave the Republican proposal as the only option that attracts public attention.

    However, imagine that the Democrats' best-case scenario comes to pass. Not only do they defeat the President's plan in Congress (probably in the Senate), but they make Republicans so unpopular that the GOP loses a national election--either in 2006 or in 2008. Is this scenario a victory? Not at all. As long as the Democrats lack a mandate for some alternative radical change in social policy, their tactical maneuvering will merely protect the status quo. But the status quo means slow national decline, as middle-class retirement entitlements plus debt service eat up a growing majority of the whole federal budget, the economy is constrained as we face a new wave of competition with China and India, and there are no funds available to address poverty, education, environmental protection, crime-prevention, or urban renewal. This decline would not be like the one that occurred in Western Europe after World War II, when major powers lost their global privileges but protected their own least advantaged increasingly well. This would be a decline that hit the poor hardest.

    In any case, I'm not confident that what I called the "best-case scenario" will come to pass. I don't believe that Democrats and liberals have a reputation for problem-solving right now. In fact, the Democratic base itself seems discouraged about the potential of government. If the relatively liberal or progressive party lacks a reputation for problem-solving, then people will always vote for the more conservative alternative, no matter how much they dislike its record. Given the choice between no solutions and no solutions, voters will choose the party that is likely to hold down taxes--as we learned last November.

    Perhaps it would make sense for Democrats to embrace a two-stage plan. In Stage One, they would let the Republicans run rapidly off a cliff. In Stage Two, they would propose a unified alternative. During Stage Two (by the way), the Democrats' headline needn't be "social security reform"; social security should be considered in the context of overall federal domestic spending. But the Democrats would need to explain how they propose to balance federal budgets as the Baby Boom retires.

    While Stage Two can be postponed for a little while, a long delay will be fatal. It takes years to develop, vet, and build support for an ambitious, unified agenda. The Bush plan may not be going anywhere, but it could occupy attention for a year or more. By that time, the Democrats' would have run out of time to develop a vision for 2006, and 2008 would be alarmingly close.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: revitalizing the left

    May 5, 2005

    Social Security reform: statecraft as soulcraft

    According to an article by Jonathan Rauch:

    Earlier this month, a White House aide named Peter Wehner (director of strategic initiatives) sent selected conservatives a memo making the case for Social Security reform. ... The memo had little to say about long-term growth and other economic effects of reform. It stressed moving 'away from dependency on government and toward giving greater power and responsibility to individuals.' At the libertarian Cato Institute, Michael Tanner, the director of the project on Social Security choice, makes the same case. 'We're changing fundamentally the relationship of people to their government,' he says. It would be 'the biggest shift since the New Deal.'

    Bingo. Once you cancel the zeros on both sides of the equation, neither creating private Social Security accounts nor ratcheting down the growth of future benefits would be an economic milestone. Conservatives need to frame Social Security reform as a dollars-and-cents issue, but that is not really why they are excited. What they really hope to change is not the American economy but the American psyche.

    Many critics see this as a clever and duplicitous trick, a kind of plot to engineer lasting Republican majorities. They may feel the same way about the small-scale grants to "faith-based" organizations that the Bush Administration is now making. These are peer-reviewed, competitive grants, but they are designed to support a specific constituency (poor, mostly minority religious leaders) that could swing from Democratic to Republican if they received enough financial support from a conservative administration. (See this Times article by Jason DeParle.)

    These efforts at "soulcraft" (i.e., using policies to change values) have Democratic parallels. Many liberals want Social Security to provide universal coverage, not because that makes the most economic sense, but because they want everyone to feel a sense of connection to (critics would say, "dependence on") the federal welfare system. Liberals have long sought to fund constituencies and movements that would support liberal policies, from farmers to big city mayors.

    I oppose the Bush Social Security reform because I think it's bad policy, and because I dissent from the values that conservatives want to inculcate. However, I do not believe that they are playing foul when they try to reform social policy in order to change "the American psyche." In order to achieve social change, you need policies that support constituencies that can demand, sustain, and help implement your ideas. Good political leadership requires strategic thinking about that whole package--not about policy by itself. Assuming that you favor a society of individual opportunity (and risk), then you should not only advocate less government, but also try to undermine those federal programs that create constituencies for federal welfare. By the same token, there is nothing wrong with liberal "social engineering" that attempts to adjust society itself so that more people will support liberal values. Every policy, no matter how moderate or ad hoc, has effects (intended and otherwise) on our political culture. We might as well be intentional about our soulcraft.

    So I endorse my friend Chris Beem's call for legislating morality through social policy, as long as we respect two cautions. First, the debate should not only be about the values we want to inculcate in the long term. Even if, for example, we endorse the idea of enhancing American individualism, that doesn't mean that the dollar cost of Bush's Social Security reform proposal is worth the price. Very wasteful policies cannot be justified because they would change hearts and minds. Second, the whole debate should be as open and public as possible. Citizens should realize that not only their retirement packages, but also the nation's political culture, is at stake.

    [ps: Anyone who really wants to get into the fiscal details of Social Security should check out Steve Johnson's "social security simulator," an amazing tool that let's you forecast results based on various policies and various assumptions about economic growth, demographics, etc. See also the Simcivic homepage for lessons derived from this flexible model.]

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    May 2, 2005

    federalism, for liberals

    There are good tactical reasons for the American left to embrace federalism, just as Republicans in the era of George W. Bush have favored the national government at the expense of the states (witness No Child Left Behind and the Patriot Act). In the nation as a whole, there is a slim majority that's culturally conservative, yet many large states are culturally liberal. Therefore, if states make their own policies, many Americans will live in jurisdictions that provide access to abortion, stem-cell research, education that mentions Darwin, and gun control. But if the federal government dominates, all these policies will be threatened--everywhere.

    Meanwhile, states are in a position to address social problems if they can innovate freely. For instance, it should be possible to cut the cost of health care almost in half while improving outcomes. After all, our government spends as much per capita on health care as European states do, and then American citizens spend thousands of dollars more on private insurance, deductibles, and fees--all the while leaving 40 million people without preventative care. A state could solve this problem, but only if it could withdraw from Medicare and Medicaid and spend the same amount of money on a single-payer system. Likewise, we spend billions on farm subsidies that drive up consumer prices, harm nature, and reduce incomes in the developing world. Many a "blue" state (predominantly urban and suburban) could opt out of the subsidy system, save money, and improve agriculture. States could also experiment with legalizing marijuana or reforming criminal sentences.

    Since the New Deal (but not before that) liberals have been the main defenders of the national government, while conservatives have made principled arguments in favor of states' rights and decentralization. The high-minded arguments on both sides often go like this:

    federalist: First of all, state governments are closer to the people, so they should exercise more power than the federal government does. Indeed, for democratic reasons, we should honor what Europeans call "subsidiarity": the principle that authority should always be concentrated at the lowest practical level. Second, federalism enhances pluralism. We live in a diverse nation; one set of policies cannot benefit everyone equally or reflect local values. Third, states retain rights as the original parties that contracted together to form a constitutional union. Finally, as Brandeis said, states are laboratories of democracy. They can experiment at an appropriate scale (big enough to matter, but small enough to limit the consequences of mistakes.)

    nationalist: The United States is one market with free movement of human beings, goods, and capital. One market requires one set of consistent policies. It is simply inefficient to have 50 sets of regulations that firms and individuals must comply with. Besides, if states set their own policies, they will compete in harmful ways. They will try to externalize their problems by, for example, allowing their industrial plants to pollute downwind states, or cutting welfare benefits so that poor people will move away, or skimping on education and then recruiting workers whom other states have educated. The result will be a race to the bottom. Finally, we are one national community, bound together by a shared mass culture and common history. We have moral obligations to everyone in this community. Residents of Connecticut should provide assistance to the Mississippi Delta; Nebraskans should care about Brooklynites, and vice-versa.

    I have called these "principled" arguments, as if they were general and abstract. In fact, they are almost all contingent. They depend on changeable matters, such as one's social priorities, the nature of the national majority versus the majority in various states at any given time, and the most serious problems of the day. (The one truly principled argument is the claim that states retain rights from before the ratification of the Constitution, but this doesn't move me at all, because I'm only concerned about human beings, not about regimes.)

    Because the high-sounding arguments for and against federalism actually depend on shifting conditions, the left and the right have regularly traded places. At any given time, one can usually hear passionate, and probably sincere, arguments in favor of federalism coming from the side that stands to benefit most from it. During the Progressive Era, many liberals (with the exception of Herbert Croly and his friends) favored decentralization and "home rule," because they believed that they could build experimental, progressive regimes in places like Milwaukee and New York State if the conservative national majority just left them alone. Republicans were nationalists who "waved the bloody flag" and charged Democrats with "rebellion" (as well as "rum" and "Romanism"). From the 1930s through the 1960s, mainstream Northern Democrats often favored a strong national government because they saw local governments as bastions of racism and corruption, both in the rural South and the big-city North. Besides, they had a governing coalition behind them, while conservatives were a national minority. Republicans and Dixiecrats became the guardians of localism.

    I think that the tactical situation today again makes decentralization a good deal for the left and a bad one for conservatives. Furthermore, I'm unimpressed by the principled arguments for or against federalism. Therefore, the left should seize the states' banner--in the pragmatic tradition of Louis Brandeis. Let Massachusetts, Maryland, California, Washington State, and New York be laboratories of democracy for awhile, and let the South and Great Plains go their own way.

    Unfortunately, real federalism would require difficult changes in national policy. States cannot experiment if one third of their budgets are devoted to highly regulated federal health programs, if their schools are governed by federal rules, and if their criminal laws are set by Congress. Perhaps liberals could join with conservative supporters of states rights to form a new coalition for decentralization--call it the "live and let live" movement.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: revitalizing the left

    April 20, 2005

    youth protest and media bias

    Yesterday, I heard Sarah A. Soule, an Arizona sociologist, present a paper on "Student Protest and Youth Collective Action in the United States, 1960-1990." She and her colleagues have coded thousands of stories from The New York Times that mention a wide range of collective political actions, from riots and "melees" to lawsuits and petitions. Their huge dataset allows them to observe the frequency of youth protests over time, the rate of collective action on any particular topic (e.g., civil rights), the percentage of protests that involve violence, and many other matters. I won't "scoop" Soule by describing her results in any detail, but they are deeply interesting. One unsurprising result is a substantial decline in student protest between 1970 and 1990, partly offset by a rise in campus events that favored White supremacy during the 1980s.

    Reliance on The New York Times raises methodological issues. It's certainly possible that The Times has a consistent bias--or worse, has changed its bias over time, thus giving an inaccurate impression of trends in actual political behavior. Soule is something of an expert on media bias, so she is well equipped to handle the methodological problems. Nevertheless, most of the questions from the floor yesterday pressed her hard on the potential for bias. I may be reading too much into these questions, but I thought I detected the following implicit idea: The Times (a representative of what one person called the "corporate media") avoids reporting on leftist protests, especially those led by students and youth. In reality, youth opinion is further to the left than we think, but the press overlooks the evidence, thereby making elites feel that they can move to the right.

    All I can say is, I wish it were so. If anything, I suspect that The Times is biased in favor of reporting certain types of liberal student protest. For example, it gave very intensive coverage to the anti-Apartheid student movement that developed at Yale while I was an undergrad there. (After all, there's a Times stringer on campus.) It gives hardly any attention to campuses of comparable size and location whose students are more likely to be mainstream conservatives. Quinnipiac University, Albertus Magnus College, and Southern Connecticut State are all very near Yale but never make The Times. Meanwhile, The Times has mentioned the Campus Crusade for Christ just 76 times in the last 33 years, according to Nexis; and most of those mentions were incidental. Campus Crusade for Christ claims 110,000 staff and trained volunteers.

    I mention these factoids not because I am conservative or angry at the "liberal media," but only because I believe good strategy begins by facing reality. Soule's data, major opinion surveys, and personal observations all tell us that committed young leftists are relatively rare today, and there is a groundswell of genuine grassroots support for conservative causes. That should be the beginning of the conversation.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: press criticism , revitalizing the left

    April 18, 2005

    the left and liberty

    Bill Galston has an important article in the Washington Monthly entitled, "Taking Liberty: Liberals ignore and conservatives misunderstand America's guiding value: freedom." Although Bill is my boss and friend, we have never discussed this essay or its arguments. I basically endorse it, but I would put the matter in a slightly different way.

    The deepest political change in North America, Europe, and East Asia since World War II has been a great increase in the importance and value of individual choice. We can observe this change in family structures and courtship practices, labor markets and educational institutions, media offerings and cultural identities, and religious denominations and political parties across the industrialized world. It is bad news for traditionalists, communitarians, trade-unionists, and democratic socialists, but good news for libertarians of all stripes.

    Indeed, three major libertarian groups are influential today:

    1. Right-libertarians argue that unregulated markets are the linchpin of all freedom. To be sure, markets require certain virtues that do not arise naturally or automatically. However, right-libertarians are confident that voluntary associations can promote these virtues better than states. Governments are prone to use their financial and police power to restrict choice in insidious ways.
    2. Liberal libertarians argue that people are freer when they receive government financial support; but state funds should come without strings attached. For instance, schools, welfare systems, and arts programs should provide students, poor individuals, and artists (respectively) with economic resources, but should not intervene further in their individual decisions. I think that liberal libertarianism has been the dominant ideology of the national Democratic Party since the 1970s.
    3. Radical libertarians and anarchists criticize both states and markets for restricting liberty. In contrast to liberal libertarians, they are deeply suspicious of governments, so instead of decrying cuts to welfare and education, they try to build private non-market alternatives.

    I am somewhat libertarian myself, but I worry that choice isn't all that it's cracked up to be. Choice trades off against solidarity, equity, and security. It can even be a kind of trap, when we make decisions based on our own past experiences and preferences and are never forced to expand our horizons. It seems to me unfair to give young people lots of choices and then expect them to bear the consequences of their mistakes. As for poor people--I'm not sure that they can gain substantial political power without belonging to disciplined organizations (like unions) that restrict their choices. Finally, there is something to be said for what Benjamin Constant called the "liberty of the ancients", that is, the ability to participate in weighty group decisions. To the extent that individuals make all the important choices for themselves (the "liberty of the moderns"), collective decision-making becomes inconsequential, and then we lose a kind of liberty.

    Notwithstanding all these worries, I agree with my boss Bill that the tide is running with individual freedom. To criticize choice in favor of equity or solidarity is a losing strategy. Galston recommends: (1) emphasizing that classic liberal programs, such as Social Security, actually benefit individual freedom; and (2) revising some progressive programs so that they promote equity in maximally libertarian ways (for instance, via vouchers). I'm afraid that this strategy will never allow us to address some of the real disadvantages of choice. In fact, to paraphase Churchill, I suspect it's the worst strategy--except for all the others that we've tried already.

    permanent link | comments (3) | category: revitalizing the left

    April 6, 2005

    Democrats on government waste

    This is a fascinating chart from the Pew Research Center's "Trends" report.

    Once upon a time, a Democrat was someone who believed that most existing government programs were worthwhile. A Republican was someone who thought that most government programs were a waste of money. There is now no difference between the parties on this question, although Democrats are slightly more likely to view federal programs as wasteful.

    I suspect that Republican voters became more positive about government after the Clinton-era welfare reform, which ended the traditional federal subsidy to poor women with children. Perhaps they became even more positive once their party ran the government, and the most conspicuous federal programs became the "war on terror" and the invasion of Iraq (plus Social Security and Medicare)--all of which they support.

    Conversely, Democratic voters don't like the administration's foreign policy adventures or the people in charge of them, and that may be part of the reason that they see government as wasteful. But here's an additional hypothesis that would help explain the current weakness of the left. Many Democrats have come to see existing government programs--including welfare, education, health, and housing initiatives--as wasteful. This suspicion has a profound effect on politics; it means that a Democratic candidate cannot whole-heartedly or passionately advocate a different position from the Republicans'. Even his or her core constituency doesn't believe that government programs really get good results. The best that Democrats can do is what Kerry did in '04: talk vaguely about the need for health care reform, knowing pretty well than any particular legislation is dead on arrival. All that's left is the ethical commitment to universal health insurance without any confidence that it can be achieved.

    I see two main responses: (1) Democrats and liberals are simply demoralized, led into pessimism and cyncism by years of anti-state propaganda. They need to snap out of it--not just the leadership, but also the voters. Or (2) existing federal programs have a record of wastefulness and damage that has become too hard to ignore. We just can't overlook farm subisidies, huge prisons, urban neighborhoods bulldozed by HUD, and even large school systems like the one my kid is in, with high per-pupil spending but insufficient money trickling down to classrooms. Furthermore, no one has shown us how federal money might solve problems like rust-belt unemployment, high crime and incarceration, or global poverty.

    If (2) is true, the Democrats aren't going anywhere until they develop bold and persuasive plans for reforming government.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: revitalizing the left

    March 30, 2005

    the impact of religion on the 2004 election

    On p. 29 of Trends 2005, a report from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, there is a fascinating chart. (Go directly to the pdf.) Luis Lugo and his colleagues have estimated the importance of various demographic factors in predicting whether an individual voted Democratic or Republican in 2004. They found that church attendance was as important as race; almost twice as important as living in a union household; 2.5 times more important than the urban/rural split; between three and four times more important than income, age, gender, or region (North vs. South); and 5.6 times more important than education. The impact of race was "almost entirely a function" of the Democratic leanings of African American voters; but "the relationship between church attendance and vote choice is seen across the full range of the population." The impact of church attendance was about one fifth greater in 2004 than in 2000. Gender became less important.

    Immediately after the election, many Democrats panicked when they saw "moral values" appear as the top category of issues in the exit polls. Then came a backlash. Commentators correctly noted that "moral values" may have come first, but they only attracted 22% of the whole electorate. Besides, "moral values" is an ambiguous phrase, since it can mean opposition to abortion and gay marriage, or support for those things--or even opposition to Abu Ghraib and Enron.

    Even granting those points, there was a reason for the panic. America is divided into red and blue not by income, education, or beliefs about economic policy-- and not even by state and region--but above all by race and religion. This is bad news for anyone who wants the public to support more progressive economic policies. It is also bad news for libertarian Republicans, who find themselves belonging to a party whose constituency cares about religion, not taxes or welfare programs. It's no wonder that actual federal economic policy is neither progressive nor libertarian, but simply shortsighted and profligate.

    However, politics is fluid, not static. I continue to believe that people ignored their own economic situations in 2004 and voted according to their religious identities because Republicans clearly explained how they would promote socially conservative policies, while Democrats offered no persuasive solutions to deep economic problems, such as the loss of manufacturing jobs and persistent poverty. If we had a competition between "traditional values" and economic solutions, I think the latter might win. If, however, a campaign pits traditional values against nothing new, people will vote according to their religion every time.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    March 29, 2005

    McCain and '08

    If John McCain runs strongly for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and the Democrats also find a genuine reformer, then we could be poised for one of those periodical reform moments that I described in The New Progressive Era. In years like 1912 (and to a lesser extent, 1974-6), Americans have supported reforms in the public interest or for the common good.

    By the way, there is nothing wrong with sticking up for your own interests or those of your group. In fact, we need disadvantaged people to advocate on their own behalf. However, democracy tends to neglect goods that really are in everyone's interests, because such goods are not especially important to any particular group. Public goods don't have PACs. Examples include a balanced budget, competitive elections and high turnout, freedom of information, and the rule of law. Fortunately, when American governments do serious damage to these goods over many years, reform movements sometimes arise that emphasize changes in the political process to promote good government and democracy.

    Although John McCain has some beliefs and commitments with which I personally disagree, he stands for a robust version of procedural reform, including tighter regulation of campaign finance, more fiscal responsibility, tax simplification, federalism, and less "corporate welfare." If he is smart, McCain can tie his version of reform to genuine conservative values while appealing to diverse Americans with arguments about the public interest.

    Ideally, a major Democratic candidate would vie with McCain for the reform mantle, but with a slightly more "progressive" twist. While fiscal responsibility and federalism do serve the common good, a Democratic reformer could put more emphasis on deliberate efforts to empower ordinary people politically. In fact, the full list of needed procedural reforms is quite long, and it would be great if both campaigns scrambled to claim them:

  • campaign finance reform

  • non-partisan redistricting

  • tax simplification

  • deep cuts in wasteful government programs. (Democrats, out of power and able to operate freely, should go after waste in Agriculture, Small Business, HUD, Energy, Commerce, AID, and of course Defense--agencies that are full of corporate welfare. In fact, they might propose terminating at least one domestic federal agency.)

  • radical efforts to simplify (but not weaken) the regulatory apparatus and to increase public engagement in rulemaking

  • civic education, broadly conceived

  • a decentralized, diverse, net-based alternative to PBS

  • restoration of the rule of law and civil rights after the USA Patriot Act
  • McCain is obviously the Republican reform candidate, the Teddy Roosevelt of our time. It's less clear who represents the Democrats' strongest reformer, the Woodrow Wilson of 2008. Senator Feingold has reform credentials and enough personal integrity, but I'm not sure at this point that he has a chance for the presidential nomination. Several other potential candidates (especially governors) could develop a robust reform agenda if they started now.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: revitalizing the left

    March 21, 2005

    environmentalism and human creativity

    (Macon, Georgia) A lot of the environmentalist rhetoric that filters down to a person like me (who's not terribly attentive to the environment) emphasizes the need to preserve gifts of God or nature: unspoiled places, endangered species, and non-renewable resources. These are important goals, and they imply a set of aesthetic, moral, and/or religious principles that I respect. For example, if something is scarce, complex, and impossible to recreate, then we should try to preserve it, whether it is a forest ecosystem or a human language.

    There is also a kind of environmentalism in which concerned people work together to make things: for instance, new parks and forests or restored and restocked rivers and lakes. These are not pure and unsullied gifts of God or nature; they are assets that people have helped to build and shape.

    It would be useful, I think, to develop a rhetoric that celebrates these accomplishments, appreciating the constructive role of human beings in creating habitats and ecosystems. I would support that rhetoric as a matter of principle, since I admire human agency. Besides, there is something pessimistic or even tragic about environmentalism conceived as a rearguard effort to save pieces of unsullied nature. After all, non-renewable resources will sooner or later run out, and unspoiled wilderness (if there is any such thing) will inevitably be altered by human behavior. The best we can do to preserve such things is not to touch them, which is a passive stance. If we could learn, on the other hand, to admire human agency in creating environments that have natural elements, then there would be no limit to what good we could do together. This optimism might be the basis of a powerful political movement.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: revitalizing the left

    December 8, 2004

    academia as a liberal bastion

    A lot of people are talking about the dominance of liberals in academia. (See, for instance, Timothy Burke). Some of this discussion was prompted by campaign finance data suggesting that professors at prestigious universities had preferred Kerry by huge margins and, indeed, represented the Democrats' single strongest financial base. Not only comp-lit professors and ethnographers tend to be leftists. The eminent Harvard biologist (and left-liberal) Richard Lewontin writes:

    Most scientists are, at a minimum, liberals, although it is by no means obvious why this should be so. Despite the fact that all of the molecular biologists of my acquaintance are shareholders in or advisers to biotechnology firms, the chief political controversy in the scientific community seems to be whether it is wise to vote for Ralph Nader this time.

    My own observations of social scientists and humanists support Lewontin's claim about natural scientists. But why should liberals predominate in academia? I'll offer five hypotheses for your consideration and invite you to think of more:

    1. Faculty discriminate (consciously or unconsciously) against conservatives when they hire and promote peers. This is a widespread charge from the right; it usually provokes an ad hominem reply from liberals, namely: "How can you believe that decision-makers in a competitive, decentralized business routinely discriminate on the basis of political ideology (even in fields like molecular biology), yet you deny that employers discriminate on the basis of race and gender? If they do discriminate on these grounds, then don't we need affirmative action for women, minorities, and (possibly) conservatives?" That's a good debating point, but it doesn't rule out the possibility that there is some ideological discrimination in academic hiring. The next question is whether some of that (alleged) discrimination is acceptable. For example, biology departments surely "discriminate" against Creationists, thereby excluding one category of conservatives from their ranks. Is that wrong? To what extent does such defensible bias explain the dominance of liberals across the academy?

    2. Perhaps academics are a class--not a great stratum of society like the bourgeoisie or the peasantry, but a social/economic group akin to the clergy or the landed gentry in olden times. They make a living in a particular context (competitive but non-profit, secular, globalized, specialized, and very dependent on state subsidies); and this context affects their interests and colors their perspectives. If this is true, we must ask whether the academic "class" is merely biased in its own interests or whether it brings an enlightened perspective to American politics. Other American groups are profoundly influenced by industry and commerce and/or religion, usually Christianity. These powerful forces make us more conservative than any other developed nation. Perhaps a class that is insulated from the market and religion offers a valuable corrective, much as monks countered the dominance of feudal lords in medieval Europe.

    3. Perhaps it's the Schlegels versus the Wilcoxes (the two families in Howard's End). In other words, perhaps middle class business-people believe that you should make products and meet a payroll. They think it is always problematic to live on tax money or charity and produce products without market value. They know that some people must work in the public sector, but they doubt the efficiency, motives, and merits of public employees. In contrast, academics (along with some writers, teachers, and social workers) believe that business people merely pursue their own narrow, economic interests and manipulate people into consuming disposable "stuff." Business has no intrinsic merit. The highest calling is education, or scholarship, or creativity. These two perspectives are most consistent with conservatism and liberalism, respectively. (There are other perspectives too, such as the attitude of the military officer class, some of whom believe that their subjection to discipline and physical danger make them more moral than either business people or professors.) In my view, there is truth in the perspectives of both the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes.

    4. Perhaps something other than academic culture underlies the tendency for academics to vote Democratic. Maybe the people who dominate universities are (for complex reasons) more likely than average Americans to be Jewish or Asian, to come from big East-coast cities, and to have graduated from college between 1965 and 1975. Perhaps these factors explain a large portion of the correlation between academic employment and partisan identification. On the other hand, professors seem less likely than other Americans to be Black, Latino, or female.

    5. Or perhaps conservatives who are seriously interested in politics are happier out of academia, because universities are not very influential compared to think-tanks and Congressional staffs. In September 2003, David Brooks told a now-famous story about the conservative professor Harvey Mansfield: "Last week the professors at Harvard's government department reviewed the placement records of last year's doctoral students. Two had not been able to find academic jobs, both of them Mansfield's students. 'Well,' Mansfield quipped, 'I guess they'll have to go to Washington and run the country.'"

    permanent link | comments (4) | category: revitalizing the left

    November 23, 2004

    Boyte on Lakoff

    I haven't read George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant, although it's been urged on me more than once. His book and Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? seem to be the two most influential works on the left right now. Amazon says that people often buy them together. I shouldn't criticize something I haven't read, but Harry Boyte's critique rings exactly true. (This is from the latest Civic Engagement News. I don't think it's on the web yet, but it will go here, with the past issues.)

    Liberal "527" groups on the Democratic side took their cue from George Lakoff, the Berkeley linguist who has become a Democratic guru for what is called "frame theory," or the idea that politics needs to convey simple metaphors. To counter what he calls the Republican view of "government as punitive father," Lakoff argues that the core progressive message is "government as nurturant parent" that expresses its care for the citizenry through social service safety nets and regulation. In Lakoff's view "protection is a form of caring. The world is filled with evils that can harm a child* and protection of innocent and helpless children is a major part of a nurturant parent's job." Government-as-nurturant-parent protects against "crime and drugs, cigarettes, cars without seat belts, dangerous toys, inflammable clothing, pollution, asbestos, lead paint, pesticides in food, diseases, unscrupulous businessmen, and so on." ...
    Government-as-nurturant-parent is a crisp summation of the idea of benevolent institutions taking care of citizens through service. It also reflects the shift of the Democratic Party's center of gravity from working people to professionals. Yet "service" means one thing in the context of close-knit, personal relations in communities. In large bureaucracies with thin transactions between experts and clients or customers, it has an entirely different set of resonances. It sounds to many like disingenuous self-justification. It also calls to mind the displacement of community networks, what scholars such as Robert Putnam term "social capital," by impersonal ties. Ferdinand Tnnies called this the shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft.

    The ideology of service means "the able" taking care of "the needy." But citizens are not children and many resent being conceived as full of deficiencies. The paternalism of service politics goes counter to the ideal of a free, self-reliant citizenry that uses government as its instrument but is not awed by government as its savior - an ideal that has been the wellspring of America's democratic tradition.

    In contrast, Republicans offer a politics of grievance against government run by experts. Thus, Michael Joyce of the Bradley Foundation declared that "Americans are sick and tired of being told they're incompetent to run their own affairs. They're sick and tired of being treated as passive clients by arrogant, paternalistic social scientists, therapists, professionals and bureaucrats." Such sentiments shaped Mr. Bush's 2004 charge that John Kerry was a "big government liberal." I could hear the echoes on conservative radio stations as I drove through rural areas this fall. "The Democrats make us sound like victims," said one woman on a Christian radio talk show. "They act like we can't do anything for ourselves."

    The politics of grievance is full of dangers. It ends up weakening government and threatening all public goods, including schools and public universities, once understood as part of the commonwealth. Yet there are also signs of an explicit alternative both to service politics and to the politics of grievance.

    Harry proceeds to describe the very powerful model of service politics that Colgate University has created. I heard Colgate's Dean, Adam Weinberg, describe the Colgate model last spring, and his written description is here.

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    November 22, 2004

    why the Democrats are slipping into minority status

    It's possible that we're a fifty/fifty nation, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and the last two elections have been so close that they only prove we're tied. But I don't believe it. A powerful current is moving us rightward. It has helped Republicans to gain control of both houses of Congress, to appoint most federal judges, and to control seven more governors' mansions than the Democrats do. (State legislatures are still about evenly split, with 19 completely under the control of each party, and the rest divided.) In the national exit poll, 34% of voters called themselves conservatives compared to 21% who identified as liberals. The ideology score is nothing new, but the balance of power is startlingly different from 20 years ago. It is possible that the rightward trend will stop of its own accord at the current point, but I wouldn't count on it.

    Progressive parties demand more of voters than conservative ones. To start with, they demand more taxes. Under favorable circumstances, progressives can reserve their tax increases for a wealthy minority, but people won't vote to tax anyone unless they believe that the revenue is likely to be well spent. Progressive parties also need low-income people to turn out, something that is relatively hard for them to do because the "costs" of voting (becoming informed and taking time off to go to the polls) are relatively onerous for poor citizens. Besides, poor people have little reason to trust politicians enough to vote for them. Finally, the modern Democratic party is (rightly) committed to a set of unpopular moral values, so it must convince people to overlook those commitments in return for other benefits.

    Historically, American progressive parties (usually Democratic, but occasionally Republican) have won elections when they have identified the really important issues that concern majorities of voters, and have directly addressed those issues. People will vote to raise taxes--their own or other citizens'--if they think the money is needed for critical purposes. For example, the nation faced a deep depression in 1932. One of its causes appared to be malfeasance in the financial markets. And even before the depression began, people risked becoming indigent if they lost their jobs. Roosevelt responded with employment programs to stimulate the economy, market reforms, and Social Security. We can argue about whether he solved the problems that the country faced in 1932, but there was no question that he pursued policies that directly addressed the country's needs.

    In the 1960s, there was less consensus about the need to wage a "war on poverty," given that most families had become relatively affluent. But there was wide agreement that the country had to move past racial segregation. Liberal Democrats and liberal Republicans who tackled discrimination won elections.

    Today, the traditional problems have not disappeared. De facto racial segregation is worse than it was 25 years ago; losing your job can still be very bad news. But for most Americans, there doesn't seem to be a compelling reason to invent new solutions to these old concerns, which are manageable. People support the traditional progressive programs, but they need not vote Democratic to preserve them; Republicans also swear oaths in defense of Social Security and Medicare. In any case, Americans are now more concerned about a new set of problems, including the lack of decent jobs for those with high school diplomas; persistent violent crime that we barely control by jailing millions of our fellow citizens; reliance on foreign oil; and the coarseness of popular culture, especially as it affects kids. While the long-term fiscal condition of the federal government probably doesn't worry people as much as these other issues, the deficit does matter because it makes it hard to propose expensive policies.

    No doubt, some people are also worried about issues that Democrats cannot and should not define as "problems," such as immigration and increased diversity, gay weddings in San Francisco, or the legal right to abortion. But Democrats would have a fighting chance if they addressed a different set of important concerns. Otherwise, people will vote conservative.

    I basically gave up on this year's Democrats when they failed to address any serious problems at their convention. They seemed to think that Americans would vote for a Democrat because Bush had made mistakes and Kerry was personally macho. I think a Kerry administration would have been at best a holding-action; at worst, a last stand. A considerable part of me is relieved that Democrats (and McCain-ite Republicans) now have four years to come up with a plausible program.

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    November 11, 2004

    the "ideas" we need most

    There are now several standard views about how progressives should recover from the 2004 election. One approach is to develop "new ideas." That phrase, however, can mean various things, from innovative policy proposals to grand rhetorical statements that might unify the standard laundry list of progressive policies. James Carville and Bob Shrum are seeking a progressive "narrative" to counter the dominant conservative story about America. That sounds like a good thing to me, but I don't believe it will be credible unless progressive candidates can also explain exactly how they will implement their vision. Policy ideas are indispensable.

    Let me suggest, however, that we dont need proposals as much as models. A proposal is something that a professor, a think-tanker, a Member of Congress or a congressional staffer, or a columnist might invent on the way to work. Its an idea in the basic sense. Examples include auctioning the broadcast spectrum to pay for free online material, giving all high school graduates cash, or (from the other side of the aisle) privatizing Social Security. Such ideas can make a difference, although its relatively hard to think of progressive proposals that have actually come to pass and achieved their intended goals. I think its easier to implement libertarian proposals, because ideas like privatizing or tax-cutting dont require new institutions or cultural changes. Much more than ideas are needed to create institutions and change cultures.

    Indeed, all the great moments of American progressivism have occurred when national leaders have scaled up concrete experiments that had first developed at the local or state level. In other words, they havent relied on proposals as much as real-life models. For instance, its not too much of an exaggeration to interpret the New Deal as the New York State welfare system writ large; and New York State had built its system by expanding settlement house programs that had been pioneered earlier by the likes of Mary Simkhovitch at Greenwich House on the Lower East Side. Simkhovitch and her colleagues had ideas, but they also had concrete experiences.

    Greenwich House (like Hull-House in Chicago, or like a good charter school today) was a problem-solving institution embedded in a cultural and social context. It was much more complex than any idea that could be written on a chalkboard. It couldnt be replicated automatically in other places. Any persuasive analysis of why it was successful would be a long story about many individuals and their overlapping and conflicting goals. But even if Greenwich House couldnt be cloned and distributed to other communities, it did serve as an inspirational model, an opportunity to develop leaders and learn relatively general lessons, and a node in a politically powerful network. Whereas ideas cannot implement themselves, institutions can grow and spread.

    Building experimental institutions is a much slower process than dreaming up new proposals. In the short-term, clever ideas would probably help progressives to win elections. But we dont have ideas that can actually tackle our deepest problems, such as the lack of satisfactory jobs for high school graduates, our awful incarceration rate, global warming, or the "Red State"/"Blue State" cultural divide. If national policies are to address such problems, they must be built on concrete experiences and networks of citizens. Thats why I think that short-term electoral defeatsand victoriesare much less important than most people believe. Long-term, patient, self-critical, participatory experimentation is the road to progressive revival.

    The purpose of politics is to address problems, not to win elections. George W. Bush is likely to make some problems worse. Above all, he is likely to undermine further the fiscal condition of the federal government. But John Kerry had no plan or possible mandate to solve our deepest problems. So let's keep our eyes on the real target and not allow ourselves to be distracted by what happened last Tuesday.

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    November 8, 2004

    the commons and economic equality

    To what extent would a strong defense of the "knowledge commons" or the "public domain" increase economic equality? Some libertarians are enthusiastic proponents of the commons, so there could be an interesting coalition of left-liberals plus libertarians for the public domain, if it turned out that free knowledge helps the poor. This could be a global coalition, since information that is free is free for everybody.

    Today's population has a gigantic advantage over our predecessors. We are able to produce many times more real value per hour of work than ever before. The main reason is a set of discoveries and inventions bequeathed to us by human beings from the past. Since we did not achieve these advances ourselves, we ought to share their fruits. However, even though most of our wealth and income is a result of inherited knowledge, it is held by a small minority of the population. One percent of Americans own 40% of the nation's wealth; and the world's richest 200 individuals own $1 trillion worth of stuff, roughly the same as the poorest 500 million people put together (pdf).

    Why do some people benefit from accumulated knowledge so much more than others? I see three explanations, which are not mutually exclusive:

    1) To make money from knowledge, you must have it in your head. Thus education is crucial for wealth-generation in today's knowledge economy. In order to increase economic equality, we need to improve the education of less advantaged people--paying attention not only to their schools, but to their whole environments. This is very difficult to do. Money is a necessary but not a sufficient condition.
    2) To make money from knowledge, you must own equipment or organizations that embody knowledge: factories, firms, computers. It doesn't even matter what you know, if you are lucky enough to inherit a substantial share of a profitable firm. To the extent that this is true, there is nothing especially new about the "knowledge economy." People still need real property that generates wealth for them--but now the best objects to own are computers and supply chains instead of cattle and acres of land.
    3) To make money from knowledge, you must have effective access to it. You must be able to walk into a library or museum or log onto the Internet, find answers to your questions, and create new inventions or artistic expressions based on what you've found. To the extent that this is true, we need a very robust "public domain" consisting of free information. In order to "incentivize" new creativity, we must allow people to monopolize their own inventions for limited periods, so that they can profit from what they have made. But as quickly as economic efficiency permits, their ideas should become public.

    If (3) is important, then the obstacles to equality include corporate efforts to extend copyright backwards, to patent business methods and software, and to block the use of legitimate public-domain works by shutting down networks for the sharing of files. Government secrecy is another problem, as is the patenting of government-financed research results. Still another problem is the poor condition and funding of libraries and museums. But there are also great opportunities, such as the Internet itself and open-source software.

    The most radical libertarian/egalitarian program would involve: relaxing legal controls on intellectual property; abolishing all ownership and control of the broadcast spectrum and allowing people to share it freely with an Internet-style wireless communications system (Yochai Benkler's proposal); and relaxing or even abolishing professional monopolies. Instead of requiring people to attend medical school and hold licenses to practice medicine, we could create "distributed" systems for evaluating people who provided various forms and aspects of medical care.

    [PS: Those interested in the defense of the commons should check out at least these two sources: Commons Blog, edited by Rick Emrich, and David Bollier's On the Commons.]

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    November 1, 2004

    against "messaging"

    [On the plane returning from the American Library Association meeting in California]. The American Library Association (ALA) is committed to protect and expand the "public domain" or "knowledge commons"that vast and growing heritage of information, ideas, and culture that has traditionally been free, but that is now threatened with excessive control as companies try to copyright old material, patent new software, and develop technology to block the lending and sharing of ideas. The public domain is a classic example of a public goodit benefits everyone to a fairly small and intangible degree, but a few special interests benefit much more from controlling it. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to mobilize a mass constituency to preserve it.

    The same could be said of most causes I work on, especially political/electoral reform, civic renewal, and civic education. Since the 1970s, the progressive national organizations have developed a toolkit for mobilizing people in favor of these public goodsand other ones, such as environmental protection. Their classic tools include: boiling down a complex message into a short slogan or statement, testing that statement in focus groups, advertising it, finding celebrities to endorse it, persuading allied groups to promote it, identifying cases and examples that boldly illustrate it, attacking enemies who oppose it, incorporating it into school curricula, and scaring people into thinking that it's a crucial cause. At a more practical and operational level, their toolkit includes mass mailings to raise funds, grants from foundations, mini-research reports, conferences, websites, bumper-stickers, news alerts, and lobbyists.

    I have ethical objections to this approach; I find it manipulative and often arrogant (because the promoters of a message assume that they know the truth about their issue). But even if my ethical qualms are overly squeamish, there is another problem with the standard progressive toolkit: it no longer works. True, the environmental movement used all the tools I've mentioned and succeeded in changing Americans' thinking and public policy. But we have only so much attention and time, and environmentalists now occupy a big piece of it. There is less room for other public interests.

    An alternative strategy is to encourage and organize ordinary people to experience public good directly and creatively. For example, the base of the environmental movement consists of people who know and love nature from personal experience. The base of the movement for better civic education is social studies teachers. Likewise, we need to get people organized to enjoyand contribute tothe public domain of knowledge and information. If we are successful, people will not have to be mobilized, but will seek out a "message" and a "policy agenda" from groups like the ALA. They will have enough direct experience that they will be able to analyze and criticize this message and agenda; thus the national organizations will be accountable to them. If people at the grassroots accept the message, then they will be motivated, knowledgeable, and organized enough to promote it effectively.

    This strategy depends upon institutions with deep roots in communities. Libraries are perfect examples. That is why I (as a non-librarian) am interested enough in the ALA to have attended several meetings. It is also why I would be disappointed if the ALA put its scarce resources into "messaging" instead of organizing people to create public goods in libraries.

    Update: Brad Rourke made a similar argument in the Christian Science Monitor recently. And be sure to check out Harry Boyte's comment on this post. Frederick Emrich has an interesting and persuasive reply to this post.

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    October 13, 2004

    the wrong kind of liberalism

    I yield to no one in my commitment to the core moral principles of the center-left. In fact, I will support radical ideas if I am convinced that they will work. However, nothing annoys me more than sloppy argumentation and bad faith on the part of people who vote the same way I do.

    A case in point is Joseph Epstein's "Mystery in the Heartland" from the Oct. 7 New York Review of Books. This is a review of Thomas Franks' What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, a book that I have not read. (Thus my criticism is solely directed at Epstein, not at Franks.) The puzzle that Franks poses is why people in America's very poorest county, which happens to be located in rural Kansas, should vote for George Bush by 80%. Epstein's answer is that they hate and demonize "the latte-drinking, school-bussing, fetus-killing, tree-hugging, gun-fearing, morally relativist and secularly humanist so-called liberal elitists, whose elders have been 'soft on communism' while they themselves coddle criminals, women, and same sexers, eat brie, drink chardonnay, support Darwin, and oppose capital punishment in defiance of the 'moral values' of ordinary, God-fearing, flag-waving, assault-gun-carrying Americans."

    Why should people adopt this picture of the world? According to Epstein, deeply cynical conservative elites have fooled them into it, most recently by following Goering's advice at Nuremberg. Goering said:

    people don't want to go to war.... But, after all, it's the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship.... Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to greater danger. It works the same way in any country.

    Epstein invokes Goering's spirit in his critique of conservatism. There is also a huge photograph of the Reverend Fred Phelps to illustrate his review (in the print version). Phelps is an elderly Kansas pastor who holds a "God hates fags" sign.

    But Epstein thinks that the real problem is deeper than cynical elites and hate-mongering reverends. In times of peril, people always turn to fundamentalism, to absolute certainty and stark moral simplicity. In such circumstances, liberalism tends to lose, because, as Learned Hand wrote, the spirit of liberty "is not too sure that it is right. ... [It] is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women." Liberals understand what Keats called "Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason."

    I wonder if it has occurred to Epstein that he is absolutely certain about the advantages of mid-twentieth-century liberalism. He is a perfect fundamentalist who sees his opponents as wicked and ignorant and his own program as self-evidently superior to theirs. On point after point, he fails to understand the minds of his fellow Americans or to concede any possibility that he might be wrong. Viz ...

  • Pace Epstein, George W. Bush is no Herman Goering. To manipulate public opinion into a war against a cruel dictator, if that's what the President did, is wrong; but it is not the same as seizing foreign countries and slaughtering Jews by the millions. Also, the Iraq war, whatever its motivations, has turned into a net political liability for Bush, who could otherwise run as the victor of Afghanistan.

  • The Reverend Fred Phelps is horrible. I refrain from linking to his site because I don't want him to get extra points with Google. But even if he is personally dangerous, he is completely marginal. His Anti-Defamation League profile notes that many of his "congregants are related to Phelps by blood. His wife, several of his children and dozens of his grandchildren frequent the church." This is not a man with a mass movement behind him. On the contrary, his views contradict the explicit principles of evangelical Protestantism. Using his picture to illustrate a critique of conservatism is like appending a photograph of Fidel Castro to a critical article about liberals.

  • Epstein thinks that Kansans have been snookered into privatization of electricity and Social Security and rollbacks of the capital gains tax. I'm against those policies, too. But we ought to ask whether Kansans have good reasons to support what the center-left has offered them as alternatives. Is it possible that they don't want to pay taxes--or even ask rich people and corporations to pay taxes--because they distrust existing public schools, welfare systems, and regulatory agencies? Maybe it's not people with glasses of chardonnay who worry them, but bureaucrats and public employees who patronize them and shut them out of public institutions--and deliver mediocre results.
  • Surely a liberal in the tradition of Learned Hand would start by asking what's wrong with liberalism, before he excoriated his opponents in such a way as to make his side look completely blameless.

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    August 12, 2004

    what the next president will face

    (continuing yesterday's thought .... ) Whoever wins in November will face the following dilemmas, I believe. It can be politically suicidal to discuss such grave challenges during an election. However, a candidate could lose a contest like the current one for failing to address the nation's most serious problems. And if he won, he would have no mandate to govern effectively. Therefore, at least in private, the candidates should be thinking about these dilemmas:

    1. The fiscal crunch. The American people are demandingand Kerry is promisinga balanced budget, major federal action on health care, and no tax increases for middle-income families. We can't have all three. Therefore, Kerry should be thinking about which two promises he'll actually fulfill. He should then decide whether he's going to make that choice now (and how he'll explain it), or whether he'll obscure the choice during the election and try to finesse it next spring. For his part, Bush has essentially chosen: no new health benefits and a lot of borrowing. Kerry's failure to present a truly convincing budget will make it easier for Bush to run on his indefensible platform. Even if Bush gets away with this and wins the election, he should be thinking about how he can govern for the next four years with huge deficits.

    2. the manufacturing crisis. We have been losing manufacturing jobs since 1980 or even earlier. The slope has been smoothly downhill, regardless of tax policy (see this pdf. p. 24, table 619; or cf. the graph on this pdf, p. 3). Neither tax cuts nor tariffs are likely to fix the problem. Education is a solution in theory, but not an easy one to achieve, especially given the fiscal crunch described above. Remember that we'd need to retrain millions of adults, not just educate the next batch of kids better. Community colleges are the closest thing we have to an infrastructure for adult education, and they now handle about 11 million Americans annually. That's just 4 percent of the populationmostly not people who previously worked in heavy industry.

    3. Iraq. I have no business speculating about how Iraq will look in six months or a year. I do believe that the hope of getting substantial assistance from foreign countries or the UN is unrealistic. They have other moral priorities: above all, Sudan. This doesn't mean that they will do anything about Sudan, but it gives them a pretty solid excuse for not helping with Iraq, where we've already committed our own blood and treasure. Besides, the US intervention is so unpopular that foreign leaders will take big chances if they support it. I'm sure that many would like Iraq's condition to stabilize and improve. But there are a lot of things they would like, and Iraq is one problem that they are happy for us to handle on our own.

    (Nick Beaudrot's critical response to yesterday's post is well worth reading.)

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: revitalizing the left

    August 11, 2004

    reflecting on the Democratic Convention

    The more I think about the recent Convention, the more it seems like an emormous missed opportunity. As I'm sure you have noticed, the country faces some pretty difficult challenges: a foreign war, a terrorist threat, a $7 trillion national debt, an annual deficit of almost half a trillion dollars, an aging population, 44 million people without health insurance, global warming, two million people behind bars (with all the crime and wasted lives that that figure represents), and a continuous loss of manufacturing jobs because developing countries have finally made up enough technological ground that their workers can compete directly with ours. I followed the Convention closely through newspapers and blogs, and I didn't learn anything new about how the Democrats would address any of these issues.

    Right now, some liberal bloggers seem eager to show that Kerry gained support as a result of the convention. Conservative bloggers stress the stability of the poll numbers, which is pretty evident if you look at the Rasmussen daily tracking poll. I predict that the discourse will soon change. Unless the Republicans mess up their Convention, they will probably gain a few points of "bounce" in late August, thereby putting Bush/Cheney slightly in the lead for the fall. At that point, all the progressive pundits, bloggers, and grassroots activists will start complaining about the Democratic ticket and its failure to put forward convincing ideas about at least two or three major issues (for instance, Iraq, the deficit, and jobs). I believe it would be better to start that discussion sooner rather than later, and to do it in a constructive way. It's not simply Kerry-Edwards' fault that the Democrats are short of convincing proposals; the whole left-of-center hasn't been adequately focused on policy. They've depended to much on the manifold weaknesses of the Bush Administration.

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    June 22, 2004

    social programs, as seen by the press and by blogs

    I'm still brooding about Sunday's New York Times Magazine article on Harlem Children's Zone (see my previous comment). HCZ is a nonprofit that provides a wide range of services to most of the kids in Central Harlem. City governments often provide similar combinations of services for their residents. But governments always fail, whereas HCZ is successful--right?

    Actually, there is very little outcome data available for HCZ. I cited the test scores of kids leaving its preschool program, because these data are listed on the HCZ website (see this report, p. 5). There are a few other outcome measures in the same document. For instance, the rate of health insurance coverage rose from 95% to 97%. This is not exactly earth-shattering. And most of the other data in the report concern "performance" rather than "outcomes": 1,982 children were screened for asthma, 2,150 books were "made available," etc.

    Any municipal government could assemble much longer lists of this type and also cite compelling "outcome" measures for some of its programs. So why does HCZ rate a cover-story in the Times Magazine? Perhaps ...

  • HCZ's leader, Geoffrey Canada, is a wonderful human being (I don't doubt this), and reporters can grasp personalities better than programs. By the way, there are many wonderful human beings in the public sector, too. I happened to meet several examples a few weeks ago in Southeast Washington, DC--talented officials who are totally committed to the welfare of the kids in their neighborhoods.

  • HCZ has a high-powered, private-sector board, which knows how to get media attention.

  • HCZ has set inspiring targets, but it is not yet at the point where its actual perfomance can be measured.
  • The point of this list is not to criticize Harlem Children's Zone, nor am I interested in arguing that local governments do a better job than is generally recognized. In my own thinking, I have incorporated the assumption that traditional welfare programs and schools are largely broken, at least in the inner cities. My concern, therefore, is not ideological but epistemological. I am worried that we do not have reliable ways to understand the performance of local governments, whether they work well or badly. Even people who specialize in social policy must rely on middle-brow publications like The New York Times for a general picture of what's going on across the whole range of social issues. And such publications generally do a poor job in describing and assessing all social programs, but especially those in the public sector. They mainly cover public agencies when officials are indicted, sued, or otherwise enmeshed in the legal system, because reporters have easy access to police and court records. Insightful stories about day-to-day work in local government are extremely rare. And again--I don't want more good news, just more substance.

    Everyone now recognizes the failures of the mainstream media, and many people hope that the Internet will fill some important gaps. In particular, one would expect that left-of-center bloggers would rush to describe the government programs, nonprofit associations, social movements, and unions that are usually overlooked in major newspapers. They would want to report good news, because they have an interest in countering the dominant assumption that government programs always fail. And they would would want to report failures, because they have an interest in creating better programs. However, there is very little such reporting in the "blogosphere."

    I can sometimes get the attention of the Web's big guns if I opine on political philosophy in relatively general terms. Such editorializing can get me mentioned on Volokh, Crooked Timber, the Decembrist, or Matthew Yglesias. But when I write about day-to-day social work, such as this interesting experiment in municipal government in Washington, no one in the blogosphere seems to notice. Clearly, the reason could be my lack of reportorial skill; I'm no journalist, and I don't know how to make these examples vivid. However, the important question is not about me; it's about the whole range of leftish blogs. Where are the Web-based chroniclers of the public sector? Who's visiting charter schools and telling us how they work? Who's reporting from welfare offices and health clinics? I would trade a hundred pages of rants against George W. Bush for one site that kept me informed about what works and doesn't work "on the ground" in our inner cities.

    [Added on June 25: Anna (in a comment) links to "Respectful of Otters, a blog that reports from the frontlines of social work. I'm sure there are other examples.]

    permanent link | comments (11) | category: revitalizing the left

    June 20, 2004

    Harlem Children's Zone

    Yesterday's New York Times Magazine has a fairly compelling cover story about the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) and its founder, Geoffrey Canada. I don't have a lot of confidence in the Magazine as an evaluator of social programs. Evaluation is a tricky business, and the Magazine is too focused on personal profiles and anecdotes to be a reliable source. However, it is a good guide to what is currently influential. Marian Wright Edelman and William Julius Wilson are quoted in praise of HCZ, which tells us that important people are watching the program.

    Mr. Canada hopes to make a huge difference in the lives of 6,500 Harlem kids for about $4,200 per child per year. If that can be done, then we have no excuse for not doing the same for all poor Americans.

    HCZ asserts that 100% of the students in its pre-K classes test as ready for school at the end of the program, compared to a rate of 84% for all American kids. One might suspect that HCZ students are relatively well off to start with, since their guardians have placed them in a voluntary program. In that case, the 100% readiness rate might be a function of the population rather than the program. However, the Times story emphasizes that HCZ works relentlessly to sign up the most disadvantaged children in Harlem. If that's true (and if the "Bracken Scales of Conceptual Development" are a good measure of readiness for school), then a 100% pass rate is impressive indeed.

    HCZ also organizes classes for mothers, afterschool and tutoring programs in public k-12 schools, employment placement services, nutrition services, neighborhood beautification efforts, an asthma clinic, and family crisis counseling. It has recently launched a charter school. In one way or another, its services reach 88% of the kids in Central Harlem.

    I can't quite figure out what's most significant about the enterprise as a whole: that one institution is providing services to most children in a large urban district; that the institution is a nonprofit with corporate donors, rather than a municipal agency; that its services span health, education, and other fields; that there's a deliberate effort to reach the worst-off within the ghetto; that the nonprofit has a corporate-style business plan and collects a lot of data; or that Geoffrey Canada is a skilled, committed, and effective individual. We can't clone Mr. Canada, nor is there enough corporate philanthropy to fund private non-profits on this scale in every city. I hope, therefore, that HCZ is successful because of factors that could be borrowed by local governments.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: revitalizing the left

    May 24, 2004

    intellectual roots of liberalism (continued)

    Yesterday, I responded to a comment by Jacob T. Levy. He has since posted more (including a response to me)--and that's just the tip of the iceberg. For a month now, influential bloggers have been discussing why liberals don't seem to prize and utilize their own intellectual tradition as much modern conservatives do. The whole conversation was started in a critical vein by Jonah Golberg.

    I think that what we call "liberalism" is not a coherent ideology. It is rather an effort to balance a set of conflicting principles. It combines majority rule, protection for individual rights against the state, a minimum level of welfare to be guaranteed by the government, pluralism and an independent civil society, individual choice, disciplined organizations (such as unions), prosperity (created by allowing the market to allocate investments), some redistribution via taxation, environmental protection, neutrality about the good life, and state sponsorship of scholarship, natural assets, and high culture. Does this combination amount to "intellectually flabby, feeling-based pragmatism"? Or is it defensible?

    I think liberalism is highly defensible--indeed, preferable to any purer alternative. It's the result of more than a century of problem-solving and "experiential learning" by a democratic people. We Americans decided that censorship is a problem, so we invented a solution: the modern First Amendment. We viewed poverty and early death as problems, so we invented Social Security and Medicaid. There's been a constant cycle of identifying problems, proposing solutions, experimenting in the real world, and debating the results.

    Libertarians want to set limits on this debate, perhaps even amend or reinterpret the Constitution to forbid popular state action. Marxists view public debate as badly distorted by inequality. They also see it as unnecessary, because their theory tells them what we need to do. In deliberate contrast to laissez-faire conservatives and Marxists, my heroes in the Progressive Era defined themselves as experimental democrats.

    Pragmatism is not an adequate political theory. We can't just do "what works" without having either (a) criteria for good outcomes, or (b) procedures for deciding what we value. If we opt for procedures, then they must reflect some principles or values other than pragmatism itself. Progressives like Jane Addams, John Dewey, Louis Brandeis, and Robert M. La Follette combined pragmatism with a strong commitment to political equality and freedom of debate.

    Even if pragmatism isn't adequate, it still teaches a very important lesson. As Dewey wrote:

    There is no more an inherent sanctity in a church, trade-union, business corporation, or family institution than there is in the state. Their value is ... to be measured by their consequences. The consequences vary with concrete conditions; hence at one time and place a large measure of state activity may be indicated and at another time a policy of quiescence and laissez-faire. ... There is no antecedent universal proposition which can be laid down because of which the functions of a state should be limited or should be expanded. Their scope is something to be critically and experimentally determined. ... The person who holds the doctrine of `individualism' or `collectivism' has his program determined for him in advance. It is not with him a matter of finding out the particular thing which needs to be done and the best way, under the circumstances, of doing it.

    I think this kind of pragmatism is fundamental to the Progressive Era and the New Deal--what we call "liberalism." If "liberals" are highly pragmatic, then it is no wonder that they rarely cite great theoretical works in making their arguments. Thus I disagree in part with Jacob Levy. He explains that conservatives and libertarians were forced to refine their theories because they were "shut out of power" for a half century, while the center-left could put its energy "into actually doing stuff in government or on the courts." I think that "doing stuff" is the essence of what we Americans called "liberalism" during the 20th century. Progressives and New Dealers were pragmatic experimentalists even in periods (such as the twenties) when they were shut out of power. Meanwhile, the American center-right has been consistently concerned with political theory, because what we call "conservatism" is heavily influenced by classical liberalism, which is a coherent (if unrealistic) political theory.

    (By the way, our terminology is a nightmare. Today's conservatives are actually classical liberals, and modern liberals make Burkean conservative arguments in favor of preserving the welfare state.)

    In a blog posting and an article in The American Prospect, Mark Schmitt ("the Decembrist") lists some thinkers whom liberals should read today: Herbert Croly, John Dewey, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, and Daniel Bell. [Revision, 4/28: I don't think that Mark means this list to be a canon of the greatest liberal thinkers, nor is it a syllabus that liberals ought to work through; Mark simply offers a few examples to demonstrate that there are major historical thinkers on the center-left who continue to provoke constructive thinking. With that in mind, let me discuss his examples briefly ...]

    I've cited Dewey here. He's a frustrating writer--vague just want you want him to be precise--but he epitomizes the spirit of experimentation and learning that is central to Progressive politics. Croly was influential mainly for arguing that America needed a strong federal government and a concomitant sense of national community. I don't see Croly's nationalism as essentially leftist; there have been Progressive proponents of localism as well as conservative centralizers (such as John Ashcroft). Therefore, as important as he was historically, I wouldn't cite Croly as a great Progressive or expect today's left to learn much from him. Schlesinger, Galbraith, and Bell are all concrete thinkers rather than abstract philosophers--a virtue, in my opinion.

    Finally, Rawls has come up a lot in this conversation, starting here. Here's my take. By the time Rawls wrote his Theory of Justice, liberals had engaged in 70 years of debate about the proper role of the state power in a modern economy. They had developed a miscellaneous set of institutions that were sometimes in fruitful conflict, ranging from an activist Supreme Court to an alphabet soup of regulatory agencies to the AFL-CIO. Rawls was like a rapporteur who observed the results of this long conversation and said, "This is what you mean, in essence." His contribution was important, but it could never replace the history of experimentation and adjustment that had created a liberal society in the first place.

    Finally, I'd like to say that my own complaint about modern progressivism is not its weak basis in political theory, but rather its flagging commitment to pragmatic experimentation. Such institutions as public schools and labor unions are starting to have "inherent sanctity" for liberals, which betrays the spirit of 20th century Progressivism.

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    May 22, 2004

    liberalism's great texts

    Although I don't usually blog on weekends, I can't resist responding to Jacob Levy's comments about why liberals don't seem to understand--or care about--the intellectual tradition of their own movement.

    I see modern liberalism as an eclectic mix of institutions and principles: an expansive First Amendment; cultural pluralism; public education; labor unions; welfare entitlements; a strong private sector; environmental protection; campaign finance reform; and more. After the fact, John Rawls managed to make all the ingredients of the modern liberal state appear to flow from a few fundamental principles. His effort was valiant and skillful, but it came too late to influence actual liberal institutions, which were already in decline. (As usual, the Owl of Minerva flew at dusk). Besides, Rawls did not identify the psychological and cultural roots of the institutions that he defended. Liberalism didn't spring from abstract principles, but rather from experimentation, experience, accommodation, and compromise.

    Libertarians constantly return to an impressive canon of major theorists, because libertarianism is the application of a few simple theoretical concepts to reality. Likewise with Marxists. Even Christian conservatives have modern theorists who help them to interpret their biblical sources. Modern liberalism is fundamentally different. It is pragmatic and eclectic rather than theoretical, and I think that is its great strength.

    Moreover, liberals do have classic texts to which they constantly return for guidance and inspiration. These aren't theoretical treatises, but rather chapters in the history of experimentation from Reconstruction through the Progressive Era and the New Deal to the Great Society. The "primary sources" of liberalism are speeches by leaders like FDR, JFK, and MLK Jr.; the biographies and autobiographies of Jane Addams, Robert M. La Follette, Eleanor Roosevelt, Fiorello LaGuardia, Ralph Bunche, Hubert Humphrey, and many more; and major judicial opinions. The "secondary sources" are histories of the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and other efforts to push back Darwinian capitalism, Marxism, and ordinary bigotry. The importance of these "secondary sources," by the way, means that historians, rather than political theorists, are often the most influential liberal authors.

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    April 19, 2004

    the "crisis of the left": responses

    I'd like to respond to several thoughtful comments that refer to my mini-essay on the crisis of the left.

    First, some major points of agreement. I think Mark Schmitt ("The Decembrist") hits the nail on the head when he writes:

    Much as we may understand that we need an alternative liberal philosophy, all the theorizing is for nothing if we don't change the underlying conditions of government. If we don't restore some revenues for the public sector, we will wind up in less than two decades with a deficit equal to 10% of GDP, and at that point, no way to save the economy except to pare the public sphere back to its bare essentials. If we don't stop the progression toward federal courts packed with judges determined to return to pre-New Deal jurisprudence, there will be as little opportunity for new visions as FDR had in his first years. And if we cannot bring an end to American unilateralism, we will soon live in a world so hostile that we have virtually no ability to influence cross-border concerns such as air, water, labor, security. Changing these circumstances are preconditions for any fresh vision of national possibilities, and the first step toward changing these circumstances is to change administrations.

    In my view, we are not ready to advocate major new programs or approaches--comparable to the New Deal or the Great Society--because we don't yet have enough compelling ideas or concrete experiments waiting to be expanded. While we develop such experiments, we need to preserve the capacity of government to become a force for ambitious reform. That means doing just what "the Decembrist" says--controlling deficits, moving the courts toward the center, and restoring friendships with other democracies--plus promoting broad participation in our public life. Every year, young people are less likely to vote and to participate in many important organizations. Those without college degrees are the first to drop out, and if they have no voice, then there is no chance that government will respond to their needs in the decades to come.

    Second, I agree that some blogs are excellent sources of positive ideas for the Left. I rather high-handedly dismissed the whole "blogosphere" in my original essay, and I retract that characterization. "The Decembrist" himself, plus Matthew Yglesias, Crooked Timber, and Brad DeLong are good examples of constructive thinkers.

    I do believe, however, there are limits to "idea-generation"--Mark Schmitt's phrase for what bloggers contribute to political life. We need ideas, but perhaps even more we need concrete experiments (preferably rigorously and independently assessed); and we need nascent organizations that have figured out how to mobilize people in productive ways. Of course, there are many such experiments and associations. The charter school movement is just one place to look. But many of the projects that I have examined closely turn out not to be all that successful. So we need more experimentation, more organization, and more critical attention to such work. I'd instantly bookmark any blog that catalogued examples of successful social reform.

    Third, I agree with Matt Stoller that there is great value in open, collaborative projects. Matt cites Google, open-source software, Expedia, and Slashdot. I would call all these projects "commons," because they generate free public resources by harnessing the power of voluntary work. They disprove the "Tragedy of the Commons" thesis, which holds that a common resource must always be polluted and exploited until it is destroyed.

    I have written enthusiastically and repeatedly about the value of commons as models for progressive politics and new social institutions. But we need to address some tough questions:

    1. Can commons work offline, away from computers? Digital goods have remarkable properties. Above all, a digital text or image can be copied and used countless times without degrading the original. Some people see digital goods and online activities as the center of our lives today, in which case we can organize important social functions as commons. But this overstates the importance of computers. Digital goods have marginal significance even for many people on the right side of the Digital Divide (i.e., those with access to computers and the Internet). Progressive politics must be concerned not only with software development but also with bricks-and-mortar industries, elementary school classrooms, forests and oceans, and urban streets. Each of these things can literally be "wired," but connecting them to computers is not necessarily that important. (I posted recently about the limitations of using computers in school.)

    2. What's our theory of motivation that explains why really large numbers of people will participate in digital, online projects? Matt Stoller says that "commons" (my word, not his) are "intuitive to the new Creative Class, and young disaffected voters and hip hop fans. Just look at the political issues of the young--p2p, rave laws, privacy, drug legalization--and you'll see, it's not the command-and-control impulses behind New Deal that motivates them, but the social contract underlying the networked systems that they rely on." I have to disagree, at least in part. Our surveys show that young people have similar issue-priorities to older people. For instance, 20 percent chose jobs as the single most important issue, 14 percent selected college tuition, 10 percent cited Iraq, and zero percent chose privacy issues connected to the Internet. We have also found that young people who use and like Internet politics (e.g., blogs and political chatrooms) are very well educated, ideologically committed, and politically engaged. There is no evidence that digital media are motivating large numbers of "young disaffected voters and hip hop fans" to participate politically. On the contrary, the president of your local College Democrats and the leader of the Campus Crusade for Christ are the ones you'll find talking about politics online.

    3. Implicit in the previous questions: How do we use digital commons to empower lower-skilled people? For the most part, I fear, the effect of the new electronic media is to increase the power gap between the techno-savvy and everyone else.

    In the 19th and 20th centuries, we developed institutions that overcame the motivation problem and, more important, developed civic and political identities among young people. For example, once a union is recognized, every worker must pay the equivalent of dues, so most of them join the union to get a voice. This solves the motivation problem. In turn, unions deliberately develop pro-union attitudes among young workers. What is the functional equivalent of a union in cyberspace?

    Now let me pose some questions provoked by the discussion of my essay:

    Is the Left hobbled by a lack of resources? Dave Johnson thinks so--and makes some good arguments in support of this conclusion. However, I continue to believe that the lack of money is mainly an excuse that progressives use to avoid taking responsibility for confronting their own intellectual crisis. Johnson mentions the "huge infrastructure of the Right." It is big, and I don't know how to compare it to the Left. But consider that most professors and academic researchers in the humanities, sociology, and political science are left of center, if not radical. (I don't regard this as a scandal, just as the result of a free and competitive market). The American Political Science Association alone has 14,000 members, many of them tenured faculty with substantial salaries, complete freedom of expression, direct access to college students, and a mandate to write about politics. Most are on the Left. They outnumber the Heritage Foundation by 28:1 (a guess). Yet how much influence do they have on public debates? I'd say little, and I'd add that this is their fault. If academic economists have more influence, it's because the intellectual house of neoclassical economics is in better shape than the intellectual house of progressive reform.

    Can a presidential campaign develop a positive vision? Mark Schmitt says no, based on his experience in 2000. He's probably right; the best any campaign can do is to choose, refine, and promote a philosophy that's already available within its party. This means that we shouldn't criticize John Kerry for failing to develop the equivalent of the New Deal while he also rushes around the country answering attacks and raising money.

    As a matter of fact, I'm not interested in criticizing Kerry at all--I think he holds a weak hand because the Left has failed to develop an array of moving and credible themes from which he can choose. Still, this lack of options is an inescapable problem and he ought to focus on it. At a minimum, I believe Kerry should face the reality that we cannot have a balanced budget, tax cuts for the middle class, and expanded health insurance--all of which he has promised. If he made a choice among those three goals and defended it, this might be the basis of a positive vision. If I recall correctly, candidate Bill Clinton essentially fudged the same choice, indicating that he would be able to provide universal health coverage and a balanced budget while also holding down taxes. He deferred the tough choices until after the election. This is a tempting model for Kerry, since Clinton defeated a Bush. But after his inauguration, Clinton did make tough choices for which the country was unprepared, and I believe that his very rocky start helped to elect a Republican congressional majority that may govern the country for a generation. Mark Schmitt notes that "Clinton's governing agenda ... was designed after the election and ultimately turned out to have been adapted from Paul Tsongas's." I think we need to beware of doing that again.

    Can we make a new case for government intervention in the economy? In comments on this blog, Jonathan Goldberg and "Kilroy Was Here" both try to do this. Kilroy argues that we need governments to preserve competition, and Goldberg notes that state spending is often productive. I think both are right, although I'm not sure how much of an agenda this adds up to. We certainly should remind people that tax revenues don't just vaporize; they are spent in the private sector. NIH and NSF make especially efficient investments, but even big entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare put funds right back into private hands.

    Gary Sauer-Thompson connects my argument to the thesis of Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. I can't comment intelligently on that link, since I haven't read Empire yet.

    Finally, only one argument has been made with which I strongly disagree. Rich Puchalsky writes on "the Decembrist" forum: "Our civic culture is a sham, and should be destroyed." You can't find our civic culture on television, but that's the fault of broadcast journalists, not civil society. Although it is threatened, it is thriving and impressive. Just look at the wonderful and powerful examples described in Civic Innovation in America, or consider the civic development of cities like Chatanooga and San Antonio, or visit organizations like Campus Compact or Study Circles (and too many more to name).

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: revitalizing the left

    April 5, 2004

    negative campaigning is a mistake in '04

    Several factors have conspired to make many Democrats believe that the key to the '04 election is attacking the president:

  • Progressives sincerely believe that the mainstream press favors Bush, so denouncing him would improve the "balance."
  • Howard Dean generated enthusiasm in the primary by aggressively criticizing Republicans.
  • Bush is genuinely vulnerable on several important issues.
  • Above all, progressives loathe the president and want their fellow Americans to share their view.

    This approach dismays me because it cannot create a mandate for positive change. I also think it's bad partisan politics. Liberal northeasterners use a set of heuristics ("prejudices" would be another word) that move them from disagreeing with the president to despising him. Since he's a born-again Christian, he must be intolerant. Since he hangs around with oilmen, he must be a predatory polluter. And since he speaks with a Texas drawl, he must be a redneck. Like all arguments from stereotypes, these are fallacies. One has to prove that the administration is intolerant, predatory, and stupid; and it isn't always so. Furthermore, many Americans draw the opposite conclusions from the very same "heuristics" that drive leftists to loathing. Since GWB is devout, his motives must be OK. Since he comes out of a corporate background, he must know how to get business done. And since he's from Texas, he must be unpretentious. In ABC News/Washington Post polls, between 52 percent and 71 percent of those surveyed have always said that Bush is "honest and trustworthy."

    The lowest rating (52 percent) is also the most recent. So perhaps one can chip away at Bush's reputation by showing that he wasn't much of an entrepreneur--he was bailed out by his political friends and relatives. If the administration is ever caught in some literal corruption, this might shake people's faith in the president's good character. Yet liberals consistently overestimate how bad they can make Bush look, because they have detested him from the first time they heard him speak.

    But I'm really worried about something else. Maybe liberals lack a positive message because they don't have anything compelling and positive to say. For anyone who is deeply dissatisfied with the status quo, the lack of alternatives would be the worst news of all. Then it would hardly matter who won in November. So instead of trying the "get the message out" that George W. Bush is a horrible man, why don't we put some energy into developing new solutions for America? John Kerry could sure use our help.

    (See Brad Rourke's latest piece for a similar argument, referring to the new liberal broadcast shows and think tanks.)

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    March 30, 2004

    what's wrong with the left, and what we can do about it

    I've reorganized and expanded my previous comments about how to revitalize the Left and have turned them into a single continuous essay, which begins below. I argue that the left suffers from a lack of positive vision that will probably cost the Democrats the 2004 election--and will certainly deny them a mandate, even if they manage to win. I then propose some alternatives for progressives to consider.

    The system isn't tilted against Democrats and liberals

    I know a lot of people who think that Republicans play the political game more skillfully and roughly than Democrats do. Republicans also seem to enjoy unfair advantages, such as about $100 million more in cash (in the 2002 cycle), gerrymandered districts, and Fox News. Thus, my friends say, Democrats need the progressive equivalents of Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove, and Tom DeLay. They need ideologues with mass audiences, brilliant and ruthless tacticians, and enforcers of party discipline.

    I find this vision disturbing, because it would damage an already fragile civic culture. The last thing we need in the face of complex, persistent social problems is simpler and more divisive "messages" from the Left to combat the incessant barrage from the Right.

    What's more, I don't think that Democrats can win by playing harder, smarter, or meaner. Some aspects of the system are indeed tilted against them: for instance, Republicans took about 54% of the campaign donations in 2002, leaving Democrats with only 46%, and the gap will surely increase in 2004, when George W. Bush is on the ballot. It is also possible (although not clear to me) that conservatives predominate in the mass media.

    However, imagine that liberal leaders were granted two hours of Americans' time, unfiltered and uncensored. Then they couldn't complain that the political process was stacked against them. Instead, they would have to proclaim ideas that Americans might believe and find deeply inspiring. What would those ideas be?

    To be sure, progressive leaders could take some fair shots at the incumbent administration, which has bought economic growth at the price of huge deficits that we will have to pay off with interest. Critiques of Republican fiscal policy--plus complaints about ham-handed diplomacy, bad planning in Iraq, missing weapons of mass destruction, Enron, and No Child Left Behind--may even win the 2004 election for the Democrats. That will depend on the dominant news stories between now and next November. But winning an election by criticizing the Bush administration will not build a mandate for truly progressive change.

    The Left lacks vision

    In my view, Democrats and progressives face much deeper problems than Fox News and Karl Rove--problems that also frustrate the Left in Europe; problems that have produced a long, slow decline over two generations. Their crisis is intellectual, not just tactical. It was painfully evident in the primary campaign, when we heard no serious proposals for such change from anyone on the Democratic side.

    Three months ago, it looked as if Bush was a prohibitive favorite to win, so Democrats had the incentive to develop new visions and new directions. They failed to do so. Now it appears that John Kerry can win the presidency if the economy continues to sputter and if he plays conventional hardball politics better than the incumbent. That kind of campaign may win the White House, but it will not generate new policies or broad new ideas; and if Kerry wins, he will have no mandate other than to preserve what is left of FDR's welfare state and the multinational organizations that were founded in the same era.

    Political candidates are not the only ones who develop new political visions. In 2004, the most exciting new participants in the political debate have been independent bloggers. But the major bloggers on the Left--people like Josh Marshall, Calpundit's Kevin Drum, and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of the Daily Kos--strike me as strictly tactical thinkers. That is, they assume that the goal is to defeat George W. Bush, and they look for ways to score points against him. He is hypocritical one day, misguided the next. I thoroughly agree, yet I don't see any basis for a new direction in American politics. Their strategy is to make the president look bad, elect a replacement, and hope that he comes up with new ideas. If there are more creative leftish thinkers in the "blogosphere," I don't know who they are. This void suggests to me that the Left is weak today because of a lack of tough and creative thinking, not because good "progressive" ideas are being suppressed by the mass media.

    Republican ideology--and its flaws

    Conservatives win elections today, I believe, not because they play mean or exploit unfair advantages, but because they have broad, coherent, and rather radical principles, which boil down to this: "Families use their discretionary income to buy things that make them happy, to exercise their freedom, and to enrich their spiritual lives if they so choose. Therefore, we should maximize the aggregate disposable income of American families. Government does not create income but tends to waste it, so its size should be minimized."

    This position is deeply flawed. Government creates wealth by providing necessary public goods such as universal education, research, and transportation. Moreover, maximizing aggregate wealth doesn't always help most people. The median American family earns only about 20 percent more real income today than in 1970, although our national income, adjusted for inflation, has increased by about nine-fold since then. This is a classic case of growth that doesn't benefit average people.

    The Left can say, furthermore, that we should care about the prosperity of future generations, not about short-term growth, and therefore we should not increase the debt by cutting taxes. Some progressives will add that maximizing aggregate wealth is not sustainable, anyway, because human consumption degrades the environment. Nor is rapid growth always compatible with preserving traditional human cultures and cultural diversity.

    There are also moral objections to conservative economics, which seems to value only disposable income (in other words, consumption), instead of the safety, availability, and dignity of work. Besides, private goods are not the only important things; nature, science, and art also matter, and they require public support. One can even appeal to the conservative value of hard work. Over time, unregulated capitalism tends to create a class of wealthy and lazy heirs.

    Finally, there are political arguments against free-market policies. All wealth circulates through households, but it most of it also passes through corporations. Large firms have great power and are not accountable to citizens unless regulated by the state.

    These are sensible criticisms, but they are somewhat at odds with each other, and each appeals to a different set of Democratic constituencies. What's worse, Democrats and progressives no longer believe in the traditional alternatives to markets. Hence, they find themselves in the position of defending old institutions that they are also the first to criticize.

    For example, liberals favor increased support for public schools, yet they have been saying for generations that schools are alienating and dehumanizing as well as unfair to vulnerable minorities. They do have plans for school reform, but past reforms have always run aground. They support regulation, yet the most powerful and trenchant criticisms of expert-driven, centralized regulation have come from the Left. They defend the welfare state, yet they have been arguing for 50 years that welfare systems dehumanize "clients." They defend unions, yet unions violate modern progressive values by being hierarchical and disciplined (and often corrupt, to boot).

    Democrats are the real conservatives

    Thus, at their most effective, today's "progressives" are actually conservatives, staving off radical change and defending old institutions as preferable to the market alternatives promoted by Republicans. Bill Clinton is a progressive hero not because of what he built, but because of the proposals he vetoed.

    Today's progressives are not only conservative about New Deal institutions. They are eager to conserve natural ecosystems and minority cultures (especially poor, indigenous ones). They are more fiscally conservative than Republicans. They are also more resistant to scientific innovation: witness their response to genetically engineered crops. They have adopted traditional conservative priorities by objecting to federal power in the areas of law enforcement (the USA Patriot Act) and education (No Child Left Behind). And they are the biggest defenders of institutions, such as public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities, that promote the high culture of the past.

    The same dynamic applies in global affairs. As E.J. Dionne has written, "Our foreign policy debate right now pits radicals against conservatives. Republicans are the radicals. Democrats are the conservatives." Republicans want to remake the world to match abstract ideals; Democrats are concerned about traditional alliances and institutions, unintended consequences, and appropriate limits on national power.

    There are certainly some issues on which self-described "conservatives" are more conservative than liberals are. (The public role of religion would be one.) However, I think we should recognize the deep conservatism of the modern Left--in Europe as well as America--for this partly explains the present political situation.

    In defense of the Democrats' conservatism

    Actually, there are good arguments for conservatism as preached by today's Left. The great English philosopher and parliamentarian, Edmund Burke, taught that we should hesitate to overturn interrelated social systems that have evolved over generations; they embody the experience of the people who have learned to live with them. It is easy to prove that their design is inefficient or inequitable, compared to some chalkboard alternative. But radical changes often go awry.

    On these grounds, Burke rightly preferred the Old Regime in France, for all its arbitrary, wasteful, unjust features, to the revolutionary system that fell apart after it had cost millions of lives. Similarly, there are reasons to think that flawed public schools, unions, and welfare programs are better than the radical market alternatives suggested by economic theory. The most consistent and influential Burkean in modern America was a Democrat, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

    Why this left-conservatism loses elections

    The problem with this kind of conservative "progressivism" is not that it is wrong. Rather, it is politically and rhetorically weak, because it lacks a broad, coherent, forward-looking agenda. School systems, unions, and welfare programs are unworthy of more than half-hearted endorsement, yet no political movement can win by half-heartedly defending the recent past.

    As long as Democrats held a national majority and controlled the House, their leaders didn't have to develop a coherent, positive philosophy. Instead, they could fight over the spoils of their regular victories. The House (with its 435 independently elected members) rewarded horse-trading and the aggregation of interest groups. But now, with Congress out of the Democrats' control, a comprehensive positive vision is essential for the Left. In the primary, all the Democratic primary candidates invoked a better past (either the sixties or the nineties), criticized the Bush administration for changing America too fast, and struggled to develop compelling visions for the future. Their most radical idea--universal health insurance, has itself been an unfulfilled promise since 1948 (not exactly a novel concept).

    What the Left needs are new models, new institutional arrangements. The best of these, alas, are still in a nascent, experimental, R&D stage. If that is our problem, then we will get nowhere by playing politics Texas-style.

    At best, we are now at the beginning of a long, slow process of developing a workable alternative to laissez-faire economics. In the meantime, I believe that progressives could choose among four options for relatively broad platforms. If they managed to win an election with any of these platforms (which I think is possible), then they would have a mandate for significant change.

    More important, these platforms would create some breathing space. While a left-of-center president acts as I describe below, other Americans of both parties can develop truly progressive new ideas. With a progressive in office, the national debt will not rise, nor will voter turnout and trust in government decline so far as to destroy the constituency for social justice.

    Idea # 1: Develop the Stewardship Theme

    I have argued that Democrats cannot win merely by protecting and defending a hodgepodge of inherited programs. But perhaps they could develop the idea of "stewardship" enough to build a compelling program. Their rhetoric would go like this:

    "In the last century, we finally developed a set of humane policies. We said that people didn't have to survive on their own meagre savings or their children's earnings when they could no longer work; we'd give everyone a pension and call it Social Security. We said that you could get some medical care even if you were poor; and we called that Medicaid. We said that not every acre of America could be paved or strip-mined; we'd have national parks.

    "At the same time, we also created a set of wasteful and burdensome programs. We now realize that big, centralized, government programs have major drawbacks. However, no one has figured out better approaches than Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Unemployment Insurance. Unfortunately, each of these crucial programs is threatened today by changes in demographics and economics, and by mistakes and misplaced priorities since 2000. We Democrats do not intend to expand government programs, but we do promise to protect and preserve the major elements of the system that we created in the last century by being fiscally prudent. Let's not mince words: we're going to have to raise taxes, because we can't balance the budget sufficiently by cutting expenditures. The major entitlement programs absorb most federal domestic spending. We will raise taxes, but only for people in the top 20 percent.

    "The same philosophy of conservation and stewardship also compels us to fight for the environment. In addition to strong environmental regulations, we need visionary policies to decrease our reliance on fossil fuels. Finally, we want to conserve the best of our traditional communities by controlling sprawl, by promoting sensitive development of older cities, and by supporting the fine arts."

    I admit that this is the weakest idea, but it would be the easiest to articulate and would be fully consistent with any of the next three proposals.

    Idea # 2 "Bold, Persistent Experimentation"

    This was a phrase that Franklin Roosevelt often used. Out of his New Deal experiments came many durable and highly beneficial institutions, from Social Security to the FDIC. Again in our time there are numerous progressive ideas that deserve to be tried on relatively small scales and rigorously assessed.

    In the spirit of experimentation, we shouldn't believe it when proponents merely claim that a new approach works. Instead, we should rigorously compare people enrolled in a new program with statistically similar groups who are not. Whenever possible, we should randomly assign people to "treatment" and "control" groups, in order to see the real effects of programs. We should then weed out all the weak projects or ones that are not cost-effective, and spend our limited public money on the few really effective ones.

    Many progressives are skeptical of such rigorous evaluation, seeing it as an effort to kill public programs by holding them to impossible standards. Indeed, we are very inconsistent about what we test. Every school in America now has to demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" or else risk losing its paltry federal funding. Meanwhile, Congress increased corporate tax subsidies by $178 billion in fiscal 2002-2004, according to Citizens for Tax Justice--without asking any of the beneficiaries to prove that these subsidies had any public value. In short, the only programs that are tested today are low priorities. However, progressives who are committed to experimentation should demand that corporate tax breaks and other conservative priorities pass the same tough tests that liberal programs face.

    Meanwhile, they would rigorously test the most promising progressive ideas to find the ones that are worth expanding. In education, they would evaluate small schools that embody powerful community norms. They would also look carefully at service-learning programs: combinations of community service with structured academic learning. For "at-risk" youth, they could test programs that treat them as economic assets and provide them with meaningful work (Youth Build is an example).

    In economics, they could try much easier methods of organizing labor, such as recognizing a union as soon as more than fifty percent of a workforce files cards in support of an organizing drive. In poor communities, they could try giving micro-loans to start very small businesses. They could assess a system of universal, publicly funded daycare in some jurisdictions to see how it worked.

    They could also try substantial increases in the minimum wage within particular localities, paired with comparable jurisdictions where there is no such increase. This experiment would build on the famous research by David Card and Alan B. Krueger, who found that an increase in the minimum wage did not increase unemployment. Their finding remains controversial and needs to be tested in other contexts.

    In the environmental field, there are highly promising approaches to "smart growth" that use combinations of zoning, transportation, and tax policy to concentrate new development near mass transit lines.

    Experimenting with these ideas would be consistent with a generally Clintonite fiscal policy of fighting deficits and making the tax code moderately more progressive. Fiscal conservatism is important because government debt is tremendously wasteful and prevents the state from expanding public expenditures if (but only if) we can find programs that really work.

    Idea # 3 A strong "good government" program.

    There is a substantial bloc of Americans whose primary concern is not with any economic or social issue, but with the process of government. They want our political system to be more democratic, transparent, accountable, civil, and dignified. These are the people who voted for Ross Perot, John McCain, and Bill Bradley, but they did not turn out for Al Gore in 2000. Exit polls showed that George W. Bush attracted 64% of past Perot voters and 59% of McCain supporters, even though Bush's positions on campaign finance reform and balanced budgets were weaker than Al Gore's.

    Now that they are in opposition and have no corrupt advantages to protect, Democrats could address these people, saying (in effect):

    "We don't know what the best policies are in many areas. We admit that a lot of traditional progressive institutions no longer work well. However, we clearly see that our political system is broken: not just unfair to us, but unfair and unseemly for all citizens. We trust that a fairer and more deliberative process would generate better results.

    "Therefore, we favor public financing (or at least free broadcast time) for political candidates and parties. Politicians always circumvent limits on campaign spending, but direct subsidies can make politics accessible to newcomers and increase competition. Public financing is already available in several states and major cities. We want to provide it for federal candidates.

    "We also demand fair districting procedures. One of the worst scandals of modern politics is the way parties have drawn electoral districts. There truly is no point to voting if you live in one of the 385 congressional districts where one party is overwhelmingly dominant. What's more, there is never a high-profile debate about federal policy in these districts, and as a result citizens are often woefully uninformed. On the other hand, Iowa's nonpartisan districting commission shows that it is possible to draw fair lines that promote competition.

    "Going beyond the campaign system itself, we seek radical tax simplification. A tax system of baroque complexity is inevitably unfair, because it rewards well-placed special interests. Also, it is dangerous to spend money through tax cuts, because then citizens cannot see how much each program is costing their government. Thus we ought to oppose targeted tax breaks in principle. On a revenue-neutral basis, taxes could be dramatically simplified so that the tax form became a single page for everyone. The fairness of the system would improve dramatically if this were done right.

    "We also seek alternatives to standard methods of federal regulation. Administrative agencies generate malleable, complex, and inconsistent bodies of law that are always full of loopholes and inefficiencies and impossible to understand. Agencies always get 'captured' by special interests. Fortunately, there are alternatives to rule-making by administrative agencies. Sometimes, Congress can replace an elaborate system of rules with vouchers or other simple payments to consumers. Sometimes, Congress can codify the important parts of a body of existing regulations into a sweeping new statute. And sometimes, administrative agencies can use new methods of rule-making, such as citizen juries or Deliberative Polls. [The overall theme would be a criticism of both regulation and unregulated corporate behavior.]

    "In the media area, we could favor aggressive efforts to promote diversity, competition, and localism, including support for low-powered radio; aggressive antitrust enforcement in the media industry; higher subsides for public television and radio; and laws requiring providers of Internet connections to offer neutral services so that their customers may freely explore the World Wide Web and easily post their own material.

    "Finally, we could support civic education and voluntary service, to increase the capacity of the next generation to play an active role in politics and community life."

    Idea # 4 "Everyone a Creator"

    Most classic progressive policies are redistributive; they transfer wealth from the rich to the poor. Redistribution can increase aggregate happiness and opportunity, since an extra dollar makes much more of a difference to a poor person than to a rich one. Also, there is some evidence that equality increases health and longevity (regardless of the total amount of wealth in the society).

    Nevertheless, I think that aiming for more redistribution is now politically foolish. While the median household income has only barely outpaced inflation since 1970, it has reached $50,000 for an average household of three people. That is an extraordinary level of affluence by historical and global standards, and it means that more than half of Americans feel capable of managing most aspects of their lives without government assistance. They do need help with retirement and education, but they suspect that other programs will benefit the poor at their expense.

    Even some of those who might benefit from redistribution consider it undesirable. It's coercive, it's divisive, it may be economically inefficient, and it makes the recipient feel beholden and dependent.

    Unfortunately, not everyone can manage without state assistance, for there are still about 50 million Americans living close to or below the poverty line. Yet they can be helped without resort to more redistribution. Instead, government can strive to increase everyone's opportunities to become creators of wealth.

    There could be two parts to this agenda. First, we could strive to lower barriers to entrepreneurship. This is a Republican goal, identified especially with Jack Kemp (who has done good work). The problem is the standard Republican solution, which boils down to tax cuts. Cutting taxes does nothing to increase opportunities for people who don�t have much money to start with.

    The Hope Street Group, an organization of business executives, is working on much more serious ideas for expanding real economic opportunity. Equality of opportunity in a high-growth economy" is their slogan; it draws nicely from the right ("high-growth") and the left ("equality"), while subtly disparaging the Green idea that growth itself is bad. "Opportunity" here means a chance to create wealth, to build a business, to develop an idea. There has been a lot of such opportunity in the United States, but we've always left a large segment of our population with little chance to be creative and entrepreneurial, because they've lacked access to capital and education. The Hope Street Group recommends, among other policies, subsidies for low-income home-buyers, much greater transparency in capital markets, and transferability of pensions from one job to another.

    While helping more everyone to contribute to the market economy, we could also increase citizens' opportunities to make public goods. To do this, we would encourage public service by expanding (rather than brutally cutting) Americorps; by opening new routes into professions such as teaching and nursing; and by making such professions more desirable and satisfying. Meanwhile, we could increase public contributions to the government itself, for instance by asking citizens to collect GIS data on environmental issues, or by assigning important regulatory issues to citizen juries.

    Not all public goods are created in the state sector. For example, the "digital commons" is composed of the protocols, the open-source software, and the free webpages of the Internet--collectively worth billions of dollars. The Internet was built by volunteers, including teenagers and poor immigrants; by nonprofit associations; by the government; by profit-seeking entrepreneurs; and by major corporations. All these players were doing what the University of Minnesota's Harry Boyte calls "public work": they were working together to build an accessible public good. The Internet commons is now in grave danger from several directions (spammers and virus-makers, corporate monopolists, government censors). However, we could use federal law to expand and protect the Internet and other public assets.

    Putting all these policies together, we would have a movement whose goal would be to make everyone a creator of wealth.

    permanent link | comments (3) | category: revitalizing the left

    March 23, 2004

    new ideas on the left?

    (written in Syracuse, NY:) I think that the left desperately needs new policy ideas and new philosophical foundations--and so far both are notably absent in the 2004 campaign. For a long time, I have been worried that the Democratic nominee (whoever he might be) would run an essentially "conservative" campaign, promising to be a better steward of old Democratic institutions: Social Security, Medicare, labor unions, "progressive" public schools, and the United Nations. Unfortunately, these institutions don't just need increased funding; they also need to be fundamentally rethought. So far, we have heard no serious proposals for such change from anyone on the Democratic side. Three months ago, it looked as if Bush was a prohibitive favorite to win, so Democrats had the incentive to develop new visions and new directions. They failed to do so. Now it appears that John Kerry can win the presidency if the economy continues to sputter and if he plays conventional hardball politics better than the incumbent. That kind of campaign may win the White House, but it will not generate new policies or broad new ideas; and if Kerry wins, he will have no mandate other than to preserve what is left of FDR's welfare state and the multinational organizations that were founded in the same era.

    Political candidates are not the only ones who develop new political visions. In 2004, the most exciting new participants in the political debate have been independent bloggers. But the major bloggers on the left--people like Josh Marshall, Calpundit's Kevin Drum, and Markos Moulitsas Zniga of the Daily Kos--strike me as strictly tactical thinkers. That is, they assume that the goal is to defeat George W. Bush, and they look for ways to score points against him. He is hypocritical one day, misguided the next. I thoroughly agree, yet I don't see any basis for a new direction in American politics. Their strategy is to make the president look bad, elect a replacement, and hope that he comes up with new ideas. If there are more creative leftish thinkers in the "blogosphere," I don't know who they are. This void suggests to me that the left is weak today because of a lack of tough and creative thinking, not because good "progressive" ideas are being suppressed by the mass media.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    February 24, 2004

    Ralph Nader, 1934-2000

    Ralph Nader was a major figure. Along with John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause, he was one of the leaders in a reform movement that reached its apogee around 1974. It was in many ways a revival of the Progressive movement exemplified by Louis Brandeis and Robert M. La Follette a half century earlier. All of the many groups that Nader founded and inspired had the following features:

  • They fought for general or public interests. It is absolutely fine for groups of Americans to advocate in their own interests. In fact, we will never achieve justice unless the poor and marginal defend themselves effectively. However, there is also an important category of issues that affect everyone, although they are not at the top of anyone's list of priorities. Consequently, people don't mobilize on these issues, and small special interests often have their way. Around 1912 and again around 1974, there was a groundswell of concern about those general-interest questions. Nader is associated with three issue areas above all: the environment, consumer protection, and good government. Everyone lives in the natural environment, everyone buys consumer goods, and everyone benefits from a responsive, efficient, transparent government. These were perfect topics for public-interest politics.

  • They were independent of parties, governments, and funders. Although they were not deeply hostile to the political system, they were relentlessly non-partisan and kept all official institutions at an equal distance.

  • They believed in the power of information. Brandeis had said that there is no better disenfectant than sunlight, but it was Nader's generation that won the Freedom of Information Act, open meeting laws, campaign finance disclosure, and public hearings for congressional committees. Nader and his allies collected previously private information and put it before the public, hoping and expecting that citizens would demand changes.

  • Their core constituents were highly educated, older, White Americans, most often from mainline Protestant and Jewish denominations. However, Nader and his allies brought these constituents into coalitions with poor people, immigrants, and people of color.
  • The progressive revival spurred by Nixon's malfeasance faltered by the later Carter years. It turned out that information was not enough; politics also requires motivation and organization. Far from motivating masses of people, the reforms of the 70s tended to undermine institutions (such as parties) that have the capacity to mobilize large numbers of people. Public Citizen and Common Cause pioneered a type of organization that provided relatively little for ordinary members to do beyond writing checks. Their heavy use of scientific studies and lawsuits helped to professionalize citizenship and reduce the role of ordinary people.

    The reformers' incessant attacks on regulators for being "captured" by special interests may have fed the anti-regulatory movement of Ronald Reagan. Finally, business lobbies learned to use the new political methods pioneered by Nader and Gardner in their own interests. They too could issue expert studies, organize petition drives, raise money via direct mail, and ask candidates to complete questionnaires. The public-interest style of politics increasingly served Nader's enemies better than his friends.

    Ralph Nader himself had entered the history books by 2000, but by then he had changed American politics more than many presidents. Some of his reforms were counter-productive or soon outlived their usefulness; but all were well-intentioned and many strengthened our democracy.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    November 11, 2003

    American radicals in Iraq

    In his Washington Post column today, E.J. Dionne writes, "Our foreign policy debate right now pits radicals against conservatives. Republicans are the radicals. Democrats are the conservatives." Republicans want to remake the world to match abstract ideals; Democrats are concerned about traditional alliances and institutions, unintended consequences, and appropriate limits on national power. In recent blog entries, I've been claiming that Democrats and "progressives" represent the more conservative voice in many areas of domestic policy. Dionne is making the same argument about foreign policy (writ large).

    Dionne's big point can be applied to the narrower issue of reconstruction in Iraq. Apparently, most Iraqis are members of groups (religious, occupational, ethnic, regional, and tribal) that have traditional rights and privileges. The system is unfair, because privileges are not equally distributed, nor can one freely move from the group into which one is born. This is also an inefficient and irrational way to organize a society. The Bush people understandably want to rationalize and liberalize the system. But since they are eager to impose grand and simple theories directly on reality, they tend to choose the most radical approaches, for example, the "flat tax" that they are considering for Iraq.


    They remind me somewhat of the French revolutionaries, who captured a regime that had conferred arbitrary privileges on most of its subjects. Even French peasants had often inherited special rights by virtue of the villages in which they were born. In contrast, the revolutionaries believed in equality for all, careers open to talents, property rights, and a system in which everything of value was exchangeable for money. Thus they revoked all special privileges (for egalitarian reasons). But this assault on the social order set them against most Frenchmen qua members of hereditary groups. The result, as Donald Sutherland shows, was a popular counterrevolution that developed almost immediately and that drew from the lower classes as well as the clergy and aristocrats (France 1789-1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution [1986]). The revolutionaries assumed that lower-class opposition must be the fruit of some conspiracy, so they turned quickly to Terror, with tragic results.

    In Iraq today, the counterrevolution appears still to have very narrow support. The American occupation has not yet repeated the mistakes of the French revolution. Still, this is a good time to remember that revolutions usually backfire and traditional arrangements deserve some respect.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Iraq and democratic theory , revitalizing the left

    November 6, 2003

    Dean and the working class

    In JFK Airport, en route to Salt Lake City: Two decisions regarding the Dean presidential campaign appear imminent. Gov. Dean is likely to refuse federal funding (thus gaining the freedom to spend unlimited private money); and he is expected to receive the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU, pronounced "see you"). These events are symptomatic of the collapse of a set of institutions that, 20 years ago, amplified the political voice of ordinary people. In those days, federal funding for presidential campaigns was adequate to replace private money, so there were no big donors in presidential politics. Everyone counted the same under the presidential campaign finance system. As for major unions, they had a powerful influence on the institutional Democratic party and supported candidates with whom they had lasting relationships—politicians who had risen through the political ranks mainly because of organized labor. Today, SEIU evidently thinks that it cannot afford to support the man who best fits that description, Dick Gephardt, because his chances of winning the presidency are too low. Instead, they are backing someone who owes them nothing, who has never had much to do with them, but who has harnessed mostly white-collar support through clever use of the Internet and a strong anti-War stance. Evidently, they think Gov. Dean has the best chance of winning and they want to have some leverage over him.

    Two immediate results are likely: the demise of the whole public financing system (since neither party will use it), and the defeat of Rep. Gephardt, who is now blocked from receiving the AFL-CIO's collective endorsement.


    Many people believe that the Dean campaign represents a new form of citizen influence. But we have to ask whom this new system benefits. Dean supporters have a political ideology and an identity as active citizens. Polls show that most Americans lack both of these characteristics. Dean supporters also have the means to contribute to his campaign, and they are early adapters of the latest technologies (blogs and Meetup.com this year; something else in 2008). In contrast, unions like SEIU traditionally gave people political ideologies and identities, collected modest dues to produce substantial political donations, and used tools (such as phone banks) that were familiar to blue-collar workers. I don't hold Gov. Dean's success against him, but I think it spells deep trouble for working-class politics in America.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    November 4, 2003

    "progressives" are conservative

    My Oct. 30 entry argues that today's "progressives" are best understood as conservatives, seeking to maintain a set of institutions that they do not believe are well designed, but which they prefer to the speculative market alternatives promoted by the Right. I did not mean this as a criticism, since such conservatism is valuable. Edmund Burke taught that we should hesitate to overturn interrelated social systems that have evolved over generations; they embody the experience of the people who have learned to live with them. It is easy to prove that their design is inefficient or inequitable, compared to some chalkboard alternative. But radical changes often go awry. On these grounds, Burke rightly preferred the Old Regime in France, for all its aribitrary, wasteful, unjust features, to the revolutionary system that fell apart after it had cost millions of lives. Similarly, I respect people who believe that public schools, unions, and welfare programs are better than the radical alternatives suggested by economic theory. The problem with progressivism is not that it is wrong. Rather, it is politically and rhetorically weak, for it's always difficult to win elections with a grudging defense of the status quo.

    I would add that today's progressives are not only conservative about New Deal institutions. They are eager to conserve both natural ecosystems and minority cultures (especially poor, indigenous ones). They are more fiscally conservative than Republicans. They are also more resistant to scientific progress: witness their response to genetically engineered crops. They object to the expanding federal power over law enforcement (the USA Patriot Act) and education (No Child Left Behind). And they are the biggest defenders of institutions, such as public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities, that promote the high culture of the past.


    This is a selective list. One could mention issues on which self-described "conservatives" are more conservative than liberals are. (The public role of religion would be one.) However, I think we should recognize the deep conservatism of the modern Left—in Europe as well as America—for this partly expains the present political situation. Conservatism is a virtue of so-called "progressivism" today; it is also a profound political weakness.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    October 30, 2003

    Democrats' problem is not how they play the game

    En route from Colorado to DC: I frequently talk to progressives who claim that Republicans and conservatives play the political game more skillfully (and roughly) than Democrats and liberals, which explains the success of the Right. Democrats would win if they could come up with simpler and more effective messages; choose issues that embarrass Republicans or split their constituencies; and tie individual conservative leaders to scandals.

    I find this vision deeply disturbing, because it would damage an already fragile civic culture. What's more, I don't think that Democrats can win by playing the political game with less sportsmanship than they exhibit today. It may be true that some aspects of the system are tilted against them: for instance, they get less than their fair share of campaign money and access to the mass media. But imagine that liberal leaders were granted two hours of Americans' time, unfiltered and uncensored. What would they say?

    Democrats are in the position today of defending old institutions that they are also the first to criticize. Thus they favor increased support for public schools, yet they have been saying for generations that schools are alienating and dehumanizing as well as unfair to vulnerable minorities. They do have plans for school reform, but past reforms have always run aground. They support regulation, yet the most powerful and trenchant criticisms of expert-driven, centralized regulation have come from the Left. They defend the welfare state, yet they have been arguing for 50 years that welfare systems dehumanize "clients." They defend unions, yet unions violate modern progressive values by being hierarchical and disciplined (and often corrupt, to boot). Thus, at their most effective, today's "progressives" are actually conservatives, staving off radical change and defending old institutions as preferable to the market alternatives promoted by Republicans. Bill Clinton is a progressive hero not because of what he built, but because of the proposals he vetoed.

    I actually think that the old institutions are preferable to markets; but no political movement can win by half-heartedly defending the recent past. Nor are public school, unions, and welfare programs worthy of more than half-hearted support. Thus what we need are new models, new institutional arrangements. The best of these, however, are still in a nascent, experimental, R&D stage. If that is our problem, then we will get nowhere by playing politics Texas-style.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: revitalizing the left

    September 3, 2003

    does the Left care about Alabama?

    Alabama Governor Bob Riley is a very conservative Republican who is now fighting tooth-and-nail to rise taxes, increase school spending, and make the tax system more progressive. Currently, the effective tax rate on Alabama's poorest citizens is about 10 percent of income; on the richest, it is less than 4 percent. Gov. Riley has decided that this is not What Jesus Would Do.

    I think there are three crucial reasons why people on the left of center (the Civil Rights organizations, liberal Democrats, MoveOn, and others) should be rushing to Alabama and making a hero out of Gov. Riley:

    So why aren't the liberal national organizations running ads in Alabama? My hunch is: they don't want a Republican to get a "win," and they're not paying attention to a Southern state because they live on the East and West Coasts and wrote off Dixie long ago. If I'm right, shame on them.

    [Discussing this topic with colleagues today, I learned that Peter Beinart makes a very similar argument in an article entitled "Eyes on the Prize" in the New Republic (08/29/03). His article is very good, although it only chastises the civil rights organizations. I would think that other liberal groups are equally remiss.]

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    September 2, 2003

    creation, not redistribution

    I'm increasingly dissatisfied with programs to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. To be sure, redistribution can increase aggregate happiness and opportunity, since an extra dollar makes much more of a difference to a poor person than to a rich one. Also, there is some evidence that inequality reduces health and longevity (regardless of the total amount of wealth in the society). Nevertheless, I think that aiming for more redistribution is politically foolish, since a majority of American households are now wealthy enough that they do not imagine themselves as the beneficiaries. Even some of those who might benefit from redistribution consider it undesirable. It's coercive; it's divisive; it may be economically inefficient (at best, it's zero-sum); and it makes the recipient feel beholden and dependent.

    The alternative would be to increase people's opportunities to become creators of wealth. There could be two parts to this agenda. First, we could strive to lower barriers to entrepreneurship. This is a Republican goal, identified especially with Jack Kemp (who has done good work). The problem is the standard Republican solution, which boils down to tax cuts. Cutting taxes does nothing to increase opportunities for people who don't have much money to start with.

    The Hope Street Group, an organization of business executives, is working on much more serious ideas for expanding real economic opportunity. They say:

    "Equality of opportunity" is the notion that all Americans should get a genuine chance to make the most of their talents and efforts to benefit themselves, their families, and their communities. It requires that children have the educational opportunities that allow them to realize their own potential. It requires fair access to job markets, capital markets, and the home market. It requires that government lighten the burden of those who are just beginning to build up their earning power and their savings. It requires a system in which people can bounce back from failure, so that they're not afraid to take risks and to invest in themselves in the first place.

    While helping more everyone to contribute to the market economy, we could also increase citizens' opportunities to make public goods. To do this, we would encourage public service by expanding (rather than brutally cutting) Americorps; by opening new routes into professions such as teaching and nursing; and by making such professions more desirable and satisfying. Indeed, we would encourage all the learned professions to recover their civic and public purposes. And we would increase public contributions to the government itself, for instance by asking citizens to collect GIS data on environmental issues, or by assigning important regulatory issues to citizen juries.

    Not all public goods are created in the state sector. For example, as I've argued in several articles (for instance, this one), there is a "digital commons" composed of the protocols, the open-source software, and the free webpages of the Internet. The Internet was built by volunteers, including teenagers and poor immigrants; by nonprofit associations; by the government; by profit-seeking entrepreneurs; and my major corporations. All these players were doing what Harry Boyte calls "public work," that is, working together to build an accessible public good. The Internet commons is now in grave danger from several directions (spammers and virus-makers, corporate monopolists, government censors). However, groups such as the New America Foundation have lots of concrete ideas about how to expand and protect the Internet and other public assets.

    Putting all these policies together, we could have a movement whose goal would be to make everyone a creator of wealth.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    August 28, 2003

    who are the anti-globalizers?

    (posted on Friday morning) I am curious about the "transnational activists": those young people who organize movements and stage protests about global issues. In particular, I wonder about their knowledge levels. In the 1999 IEA Civic Education Study, American 14-year-olds ranked dead last (out of 28 countries) in their knowledge of international issues and institutions. I presume that the transnational activists are more knowledgeable than their peers are, although that should be investigated. I wonder whether knowledge is a predictor of activism, and/or whether people gain knowledge through participation.

    It is possible that interest in transnational issues has risen because knowledge of local and national issues and institutions has fallen. A lot of young people are fairly perplexed about how and why they might participate in local or national issues. Before they can participate, they must form opinions about private actors (such as corporations) and also about elaborate sets of public institutions. For example, if they want to get involved in US environmental issues, they may find that they have to understand the role of the EPA and the courts, the differences between Democrats and Republicans, their own state's regulations, and many other matters that polls show they do not grasp. They also have to understand and consider a wide range of potential actions, such as voting for particular candidates, joining parties, and criticizing specific public officials. At the international level, however, the public institutions are very weak and can more easily be ignored. I realize that activists often choose to protest outside the existing international public institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF. But my sense is that these bodies are viewed mainly as symbols of multinational capitalism. They don't exercise as much power as national governments do, and they give average people no opportunities for influence. Paradoxically, their weakness and undemocratic nature may make them easier to understand.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: advocating civic education , revitalizing the left

    August 21, 2003

    state taxes and personal wealth

    I was wondering whether the states that tax their residents at high rates tend to have higher or lower income levels. I suppose a crude form of free-market economics would predict that states with lower taxes would tend to generate more personal income. This is not the case. Although the relationship between tax rates and per capita income is not significant, generally the states that take the biggest portion of income in state and local taxes also have the most per capita wealth. States like Alabama have been low-tax zones for at least a hundred years, yet they remain among the poorest of all states.

    This isn't "social science." It's just playing with a computer to get a quick answer to a simplistic question. Still, the graph poses a real question for supporters of laissez-faire economics: if low taxes create wealth, what explains Alabama? (Sources for the tax rates and the per capita income stats.)

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: revitalizing the left

    August 17, 2003

    Dean vs. Gephardt

    I was interviewed on New Hampshire Public Radio last Friday about the different styles of the Gephardt, Edwards, and Dean presidential campaigns (see an imperfect and incomplete text transcript or listen to the audio here.) Actually, the reporter, David Darman, asked a very interesting set of questions (which didn't come across clearly in the broadcast radio segment) about what conception of the role of citizens is implicit in each campaign.

    My quotes suggest that I'm biased in favor of Rep. Gephardt, which is not really true. I do believe that if he fails, it will be symptomatic of the collapse of mass mobilizing institutions, such as unions and political parties, that used to multiply the power of ordinary people and connect them to Washington. I do not believe that the Gov. Dean style of campaigning, which is very "21st century," offers an entree to people near the bottom of the socio-economic heap. They won't be mobilized by listservs, blogs, and Meetup.com. This is not only because they lack Internet access and interest in politics. It's also because of the basic logic of collective action, which tell us that people won't take costly action in the public interest unless they are assured that others will also contribute. Voting is always partly an altruistic act, because even if one votes in one's own self-interest, it's more "rational" (meaning self-interest-maximizing) not to expend the energy. Disciplined organizations such as unions overcome this problem by guaranteeing that not only you will vote; so will many like-minded people. Meanwhile, they lower the "cost" of voting by providing free information. Wealthy and well-educated citizens find that the cost of voting is relatively low, because they already have much of the necessary information. Thus they don't need unions and parties; and they are adept at using voluntary resources such as listservs or blogs. Poor and poorly education people are at a disadvantage in this environment, and their disadvantage is worse than it was fifty years ago.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    August 13, 2003

    the budget

    A lot of people’s eyes glaze over when they hear about a “budget”—whether it’s for a business, a club, or the government of the United States. Yet the government has enormous influence on our lives because of the way it collects our money and spends it for various purposes. Its spending priorities are reflected in its budget.

    Unless you understand roughly what the budget includes, your opinions may be completely irrelevant. For example, according to an excellent survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), a majority of Americans believe that the US spends too much money on foreign aid. They estimate that 20 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid; they would reduce this amount to 5 percent. In fact, the federal government devotes less than 1 percent of its budget to foreign, nonmilitary aid. Anyone who calls for aid to be cut to 5 percent has an irrelevant opinion, because he or she doesn’t understand what the government does.

    Here, then, is how the federal government spent an average tax dollar during the years 1998-2004 (2003-4 are estimated). The data come from this OMB document, but I have made decisions about what programs to put in each category. The federal government is responsible for about two-thirds of all taxation, although it gives some of its funds to states. States and local governments together raise about one third of all taxes. (Source: OMB.)

    The "all other" slice in the chart above is distributed as follows:

    Here is how an average state tax dollar is spent. Data from National Association of State Budget Officers, State Expenditure Report, 2001 (Summer, 2002).

    And this is an average county budget from 1996-7, based on the US Census Bureau’s survey of county officials

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    August 8, 2003

    productivity is not always good

    Productivity rose in the second quarter at an annual rate of 5.7%, yet unemployment remained stubbornly high. Businesses did not increase spending on equipment, so their productivity gains didn't come from upgraded technology. Instead, I suspect, they squeezed more profits out of the workforce the old-fashioned way. Middle-managers, afraid of losing their own jobs, denied bathroom breaks to sales clerks. Benefits packages were subtly watered down. More socks were reshelved by fewer people at your neighborhood WalMart.

    If the second quarter was a prelude to widespread economic growth that will soon benefit everyone, fine. But if it represents the new version of "growth," "productivity" and "recovery," who needs those things?

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    July 9, 2003

    working with power

    I'm reading all the back issues of the Higher Education Exchange, in order to write a mini-report for the editors about their future strategy for the journal. One generally excellent article is Edward Royce's "The Practice of the Public Intellectual" (1999). In passing, Royce makes a point that I consider very important. He writes: "public intellectuals can work with those subject to power as well as against those who exercise power." Working with ordinary people (or with especially oppressed people) is an entirely different form of engagement from "speaking truth to power." It requires more listening, more quiet work within institutions and communities, more development of personal relationships and trust, more building on local assets—and less dramatic rhetoric. Working against the powerful is an important role for intellectuals to play. But working "with those subject to power" seems equally valuable (and interesting).

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    June 27, 2003

    asset-based development

    Terms like "Asset Based Community Development" and the "developmental assets" approach to working with adolescents are extremely popular today in foundations, schools, and social service agencies. One could dismiss such language as a mere effort to sound positive and uplifting, unconnected to any substantial change in philosophy or methodology. But I think that would be a mistake. The "asset-based" approach (for lack of a better term) is being used by people who come out of the Left, and it represents a real change in their views and methods.

    My favorite example of the old ways is now somewhat out of date, but I can't resist using it. In March 2002, ACORN organized protests against federal welfare policy. The angry crowd that they had assembled shouted down the sole member of Congress who chose to address them, Rep. Charles B. Rangel of Harlem, demanding that he answer their questions and meet with them in New York City. One of the rally's organizers (a Harvard graduate) explained: "Most of the crowd are people living with the reality of fairly extreme poverty in their own lives, and they are rightly angry." A colleague added that the Administration's welfare policies "are an attack on poor families in America."

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

    An assets-based approach would look quite different. It would treat the welfare recipients as potentially powerful and skillful political actors, capable of working as peers with selected allies in Congress. It would also recognize their capacity to build things of value in their own communities, regardless of federal welfare policy. Poor people do need outside resources, both capital and government assistance. However, they are unlikely to get such help unless they have first organized themselves as a powerful political force. The best way to organize is to identify, advertise, and build up local assets, even before powerful outsiders offer aid. If residents are used to working together, have identified their own assets, are confident and experienced, and have created their own new institutions, then they can win outside support. They can also handle the influx of aid without being overwhelmed by corruption or manipulative outsiders.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    June 13, 2003

    against "starving the beast"

    A letter in yesterday's New York Times says:

    "Yes to no new services, and let's get rid of some of the old ones while we're at it. We have had way more than enough "services" for decades! It's about time that somebody finally understands!

    "I hope to see those bumper stickers in 2004. Of course, I hope that people would realize what the slogan means: a cut in services means a cut in expenses means a cut in government intrusion into our daily lives!

    "Isn't it about time that we rewarded ourselves with freebdom again?

    "Disclaimer: the government has likely refined its methods of intrusion, so it could feasibly cut back and still intrude more. So let's cut the budget even more and not let that happen."

    I think the writer is making a mistake, even granting his own basic values. His argument is: Quite apart from the pain of paying taxes, government spending is bad because it buys "intrusion." The parts of the government that he presumably finds "intrusive" are the offices involved in regulation and law-enforcement: the FBI, OSHA, EPA, etc. He wants to starve these agencies as a way to increase personal freedom. But they are not expensive. All of the discretionary programs outside the Department of Defense, put together, consumed just 19% of the Federal Budget in 2002, and that included entirely non-"intrusive" programs like the Weather Service and medical research. Therefore, deep cuts in federal spending will have to come out of Social Security (23% of the budget), Medicare (12%), Medicaid (7%), and other means-tested entitlements (6%). (I assume that Defense, at 16%, is untouchable; and the remaining 17% is interest payments and other madatory spending.) If anything, a cash-starved government might resort to more regulation, because it would need/want to respond to social problems and it would find regulatory mandates cheaper than spending programs.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    June 5, 2003

    a strong good government program

    It appears that John Podesta will lead a new American Majority Institute designed to develop and popularize "progressive" ideas. (The New York Times story is here.) I think this is great news, even from a non-partisan and non-ideological perspective, because the intellectual collapse of the American Left is reducing competition and debate in US politics.

    There are some good idea for broad political movements that could be adopted by the Left. Here's one (more will follow in future postings):

    Idea # 1: A strong "good government" program. To attract the Perot-McCain-Bradley vote in addition to its usual base, either party could propose the following policies:

    • Public financing (or at least free broadcast time) for political candidates and parties. Politicians always circumvent limits on campaign spending, but direct subsidies can make politics accessible to newcomers and increase competition. Public financing is available now in several states and major cities.
    • Radical tax simplification. On a revenue-neutral basis, taxes could be dramatically simplified so that the tax form became a single page for everyone. The fairness of the system would improve dramatically if this were done right.
    • Alternatives to standard methods of federal regulation. Administrative agencies generate malleable, complex, and inconsistent bodies of law that are always full of loopholes and inefficiencies and impossible to understand. Agencies always get "captured" by special interests. In each field, there are alternatives to rule-making by administrative agencies. Sometimes, Congress can replace an elaborate system of rules with vouchers or other simple payments to consumers. Sometimes, Congress can codify the important parts of a body of existing regulations into a sweeping new statute. And sometimes, administrative agencies can use new methods of rule-making, such as citizen juries or Deliberative Polls. The overall theme would be a criticism of both regulation and unregulated corporate behavior.
    • Aggressive efforts to promote diversity, competition, and localism in the news media, including support for low-powered radio; aggressive antitrust enforcement in the media industry; higher subsides for public television and radio; and laws requiring providers of Internet connections to offer neutral services so that their customers may freely explore the World Wide Web and easily post their own material.
    • More federal support for civic education and voluntary service, to increase the capacity of the next generation to play an active role in politics and community life.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    May 26, 2003

    the intellectual crisis of the Left

    Adam Clymer has an article in today's New York Times about the Democrats' search for a broad and coherent message. The party is a coalition of disparate, often antagonistic interest groups, according to this article—not a movement inspired by coherent principles. The Republican pollster Ed Goeas made the same charge at a public event I attended recently.

    Democrats have had this problem for over a century: they used to be a completely incoherent coalition composed of liberals, Northern white ethnics, and Southern segregationists. The New Deal was much criticized for lacking principle and merely representing the aggregation of these groups' demands. From that period until the 1990s, the Democrats consistently held a national majority and controlled the House. This situation prolonged their reliance on coalition politics—for two reasons. First, since they had a majority, their leaders didn't have to develop a broad, coherent agenda to win. Instead, they tended to fight over the spoils of their regular victories. Second, the House (with its 435 independently elected members) teaches and rewards coalition politics, whereas the presidency is usually the source of broad ideas.

    In my view, the historic character of Democrats as a coalition party was not a serious impediment until a separate phenomenon developed: the intellectual collapse of the left. Conservatives win elections, I believe, not because they cheat (that is, spend more money, or get more support in the media), nor because they are better than liberals at communicating their message. They win because they have broad, coherent principles, which boil down to this: "Families use their discretionary income to buy things that make them happy, to exercise their freedom, and to enrich their spiritual lives if they so choose. Therefore, we should maximize the aggregate disposable income of American families. Government does not create income and tends to waste it, so its size should be minimized."

    The left has a set of cogent criticisms of this position. Contrary to what conservatives say: (a) Government does create wealth by providing necessary public goods such as universal education, research, and transportation. (b) Maximizing aggregate wealth is not an adequate goal, because we can achieve that end by making the rich much richer while leaving the poor where they are—and this does not increase happiness or freedom. (c) We should care about the prosperity of future generations, not about short-term growth, and therefore we should not cut taxes if this will increase the deficit. (d) All wealth circulates through households, but it most of it also passes through corporations. Large firms have great power and are not accountable to citizens unless regulated by the state. (e) Maximizing aggregate wealth is not sustainable, because human consumption degrades the environment. (f) Maximizing aggregate wealth is incompatible with preserving traditional human cultures and cultural diversity. (g) Maximizing disposable income should not be our only goal; we should also be concerned about how safe, available, and rewarding work is. (h) Private goods are not the only important things; nature, science, and art also matter, and they require public support. (i) Unregulated capitalism is not meritocratic: over time, it creates a class of wealthy and lazy heirs.

    These are sensible criticisms, but they are somewhat at odds with each other, and each appeals to a different set of Democratic constituencies. Moreover, Democrats cannot conceal their differences by uniting in support of a concrete national policy. Despite their criticisms of conservatism, they do not believe in the traditional mechanisms for generating equity, sustainability, safety, and the other progressive goods. Above all, they do not believe in centralized state bureaucracies. Thus they fight fairly half-heartedly in defense of traditional institutions, from public schools to unions to the EPA, while failing to articulate a coherent, principled message. And this is why they lose. In short, the problem is intellectual-ideological, not merely tactical, and thus it will not disappear soon.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    May 7, 2003

    public work in the private sector

    When I spoke a few weeks ago at Berkeley, Philip Selznick made an interesting point about the value of commercial firms that are not profit-maximizers. As he noted, the genteel old publishing houses needed to cover their costs, and probably wanted to make a comfortable profit, but they were at least as committed to producing public goods in the form of high-quality literature. By contrast, a publicly traded firm must maximize profits, so if it generates public goods, they come as unintentional collateral benefits (at best). My friend Harry Boyte has promoted a whole philosophy of "public work," which prizes the ability of every citizen to generate public goods, often in collaboration with others. One hallmark of public work, it seems to me, is an intentional focus on public benefits. That is what is missing in profit-maximizing firms, but it's very evident in certain less economically efficient private enterprises. Boyte's schema is useful, in part, because it allows us to reshuffle the traditional categories of state/market/civil society. Public work can take place in any of these sectors, or it can be absent or suppressed in any of them. For example, if a state apparatus becomes heavily bureaucratic and rigid, then civil servants will stop performing public work. Likewise, if traditional publishing houses are bought by international conglomerates that relentlessly aim at efficiency, then their editors must cease to do public work. (Obviously, I owe an argument here about why public work is valuable. In brief, I think there are objective benefits to the community and subjective or psychological benefits to public workers.)

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    April 11, 2003

    civil liberties after 9/11

    I attended a meeting of a committee of the American Bar Association today. There was a panel on civil liberties after September 11. Civil liberties are not a core interest of mine, although listening to professional advocates and litigators always scares me, since their job is to tell us about the egregious cases that do arise. The experts on the panel today pointed out four worrying trends that I hadn't fully understood before:

    1. The material witness statute was designed to allow the government to hold witnesses who might be expected to disappear, until such a time as they could be deposed. Since 9/11, it is being used to hold people indefinitely without any claim that they witnessed any specific crime, and without notice that they will be deposed or otherwise interviewed.
    2. Search warrants are traditionally executed in the presence of the person being searched. This is a safeguard, since the person can complain if his rights are violated, if the police are in the wrong house, etc. But under the Patriot Act, federal agents can execute "sneak and peek" warrants that are clandestine searches never disclosed to the person whose property is searched. This power applies to all cases, not just those connected to terrorism.
    3. The proposal for TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) would have enlisted huge numbers of volunteers, including cable-TV installers and others who routinely enter our homes, as a source of tips on possible terrorists. This program would have promoted volunteerism; but it would also have undermined the fourth amendment.
    4. Just yesterday (or so I was told), legislation passed Congress that will require judges to notify the Attorney General whenever they use discretion to impose sentences lower than the minimum recommended in federal sentencing guidelines. The three federal judges who were in attendance today are certain that this will have the proverbial "chilling effect," since judges will be afraid of public exposure and censure by John Ashcroft. I would hope that federal judges would have backbones. We give them life tenure as well as nice salaries and high social status, so they should be willing to stand up to criticism from the political branches of government. However, hope is not a good basis for legislation. The judges in attendance predicted that their colleagues will fear criticism. They are probably right, which means that the legislation is a blow to judicial independence.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    April 4, 2003

    unions and business ethics

    My article on "The Legitimacy of Labor Unions," which originally appeared in The Hofstra Labor and Employment Law Journal, is going to be translated into Chinese for the Global Law Review, a quarterly law journal published by the Institute of Law of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. I'm excited because an argument in favor of unions is especially important in a country where the right to unionize is barely recognized.

    Here's a quote to make you angry. According to an article in the New York Times, after a White House meeting on the Bush economic plan, "Lizann Sonders, the chief investment strategist at Charles Schwab & Company, said the tax cut is 'the answer to the economy, is the answer to the stock market and maybe most importantly it's the answer to bringing back trust and fairness and faith in the system.'" So a representative of a profession that has squandered public trust has the gall to say that "trust and fairness and faith" can be restored by granting her industry a massive tax break that would necessitate deep cuts in programs benefitting the poor and disadvantaged.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    February 28, 2003

    community-based discussion

    I spent almost all of today at a good Democracy Collaborative conference on "engaged," or "collaborative," or "community-based" research (i.e., research in which academics and members of a community work together, at least to frame a common research agenda and sometimes to conduct the whole project.) There was a lot of talk about potential research involving University of Maryland faculty in our own community, Prince George's County, although many of the speakers came from elsewhere. (One of the best was Gary Cunningham, who runs the Hennepin County African American Men Project in and around Minneapolis, MN.) I was generally impressed and inspired, although a couple of worries stick with me.

    First, this was the kind of conference in which everyone quickly feels comfortable with one another and starts to talk as "we." For example: "We need to convince young people to work in the World Bank, so that they can bring our perspective inside that place." But no one ever exactly says what defines "us." I suspect this is partly because everyone in the room is on the left, and that's their most fundamental identity. That's why they all feel confortable with one another. But the agenda and purpose of the meeting are officially non-partisan and non-ideological: we're supposed to be talking about research in partnership with communities. The fact that everyone is on the left is an unacknowledged but crucial fact.

    Second, one graduate student gave a presentation on an extremely disadvantaged group that she had studied. No one asked the kind of questions that would routinely arise after a presentation at a regular academic event. For example, individuals had volunteered to participate in her focus groups, and no one asked whether these volunteers were representative of the whole population being studied. Also, many of the individuals claimed to have given up drugs, but no one asked whether this claim was tested or credible. I wondered why these questions didn't come up. (I didn't ask them, either). Here are three guesses:

    • She made a good presentation about a terribly oppressed group, and everyone was moved and sympathetic and didn't want to appear skeptical in any respect. or
    • People who do action-research are not primed to think about such matters as the representativeness of their samples. or
    • This was a middle-aged, female, African American graduate student and no one wanted to ask the tough questions that they would naturally pose of a young, white student who was starting on the standard academic career path.

    If the last hypothesis is true, than I worry about what one of my least favorite presidents calls "the soft bigotry of low expectations." In other words, I hope we are not afraid to ask tough questions of middle-aged, black, female graduate students because we think that they will be unable to answer effectively.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

    January 30, 2003

    the public interest media groups

    I agreed today to serve on the dissertation committee of a graduate student who wants to study the political strategy of the "progressive" public-interest groups that lobby for changes in federal communications policy. These groups (the so-called "geektivists") are concerned about the way the Internet is regulated, legal treatment of software monopolies, excessive intellectual property rights, and erosion of privacy. I know them well; I have often been the sole academic at Washington strategy meetings involving their issues. I encouraged the student's dissertation, because I am dissastisfied with the general approach of the progressive national groups—an approach that derives from Ralph Nader and the other consumer advocates of the early 1970s. They analyze complex issues to determine what is in the "public interest"; identify enemies; "expose" their crimes and misdemeanors; develop a simple, marketable "message" through public opinion research, and then "mobilize" popular support by making people angry. I find this approach ethically dubious, because it isn't sufficiently democratic (respectful of ordinary people's opinions and capacities) or deliberative (willing to recognize alternative points of view). By making people angry, it often discourages them or turns them away from politics. Above all, approach tends to fail when pitted against professional corporate lobbying campaigns. Thus I think that the proposed dissertation could be useful for activists well beyond the telecommunications field.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues , revitalizing the left

    January 28, 2003

    the State of the Union

    I'm less reflexively anti-Bush than many of my friends and family members, and I didn't hate the State of the Union. But the "compassionate" parts are disturbing—as a reflection of our political culture, if not of George W. personally. The two new domestic programs (addiction treatment and mentoring) combined will cost about one third of $1 billion a year. That's one six hundredth of the average annual cost of the proposed tax cuts (if one assumes that the alternative minimum tax will be reduced, as everyone expects). Since we are running huge deficits, this $1 billion of new compassion is not actually spending; it's borrowing against future generations. I don't necessarily think that these particular programs should be larger than Bush has suggested; it's just that a president should not be able to distract attention from major issues by proposing such tiny initiatives. (Clinton, of course, mastered this art under the tutelage of Dick Morris). As for the AIDS funding for Africa—it's welcome. But we have a clear and unavoidable moral obligation to spend modest amounts of money to lengthen millions of human lives, so the self-congratulation that accompanied this announcement is annoying. Apparently, there was no prior consultation with African governments, so this was effectively manna from heaven. And there was no hint that maybe the high cost of drug cocktails results from patent laws in rich countries.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: revitalizing the left

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