you have a right and a responsibility to attend to your own happiness

Two theses for today: 1) You have a right (and even an obligation) to be concerned about your own inner wellbeing–call it happiness, peace, lack of suffering, equanimity, satisfaction, or mental health. And 2) Inner wellbeing is a complex issue, not just a matter of maximizing a simple mental state, such as pleasure. Continue reading

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the library of Edward R. Murrow

MurrowLast week I reported from the AFT building in Washington, where I’d attended a meeting in a room lined with the personal library of Albert Shanker, the late and very controversial leader of the teachers’ union. Earlier this week, I got to hear my excellent Tufts colleague Kelly Greenhill present on “The Security-Related Effects of Rumors” in a Tufts room that is furnished with the books of the late broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow (1908–1965).

The arrangement of the two rooms is similar: the books fully surround a long wooden table, leaving just enough space for chairs.

Murrow was best known for his courageous WWII broadcasting and then his postwar opposition to Sen. McCarthy. He was perhaps a more consistently admirable person than Shanker, although opinions on that would vary. His books, however, were much more middle-brow. Shanker owned ponderous tomes of 20th century Continental philosophy. Murrow had more volumes like The Lady and the Vote (1956) by Marion K. Sanders. Then again, Sanders turns out to have been a crusading feminist journalist, a psychological warfare operative in WWII, an interviewer of Saul Alinksy, and a one-time congressional candidate. I’d guess that Murrow knew her professionally, which is reason enough to display her book and many like it.

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Sanders got about as many youth votes in Iowa as everyone else combined

My colleagues at CIRCLE are producing a stream of detailed and almost instantaneous analysis of the caucuses and primaries. Keep checking the CIRCLE homepage for the latest.

Here I use CIRCLE’s evidence to illustrate how Sen. Sanders’ dominated the youth vote in the Iowa caucuses. Consider the Democratic and Republican caucuses as one event: the voter first chooses which party to caucus with, and then selects a candidate. By that reasoning, about 50,000 young Iowans (ages 17-29) caucused, and about 58% of them chose the Democratic side. Sanders drew 84% of the Democratic youth, while the Republican youth split their support. As a result, Sanders drew about 49% of all the young caucus-goers put together. Cruz came in second with about 11% of all the youth, followed very closely by Rubio, then Clinton, and then Trump.

Iowa 2016

Sanders got about eight times as many votes as his main opponent on the Democratic side, and about eight times as many as Trump, with whom he is sometimes paired as a supposed enemy of “the establishment.”

That raises such questions as: Can Sen. Sanders do better among older people in other states? Can he perform as well among youth in states where young Democratic voters are far more diverse than they are in Iowa? Can Sec. Clinton narrow the generation gap, and can she get out the youth vote if she wins the nomination? (She only drew about 4,000-5,000 young Iowans on Monday and came in fourth in that age bracket, which ought to ring some alarms.) Finally, where will young Republicans land as their field narrows?

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Sanders dominates the Iowa youth vote

Below is CIRCLE’s press release from this morning. Additional data can be found on the website.

Young Democrats Propel Sanders to Virtual Tie in Iowa; Record-breaking Participation Among Young Republicans, who Choose Cruz, Rubio Over Trump

Medford/Somerville, MA – Youth turnout in last night’s Iowa caucuses is estimated to be 11 percent, according to youth vote experts from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) – the preeminent, non-partisan research center on youth engagement at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.

Highlights of the youth vote in Iowa include:

  • An estimated 11.2% of eligible Iowan youth aged 17 to 29 participated in last night’s Republican and Democratic caucuses.
  • On the Democratic side, the youth choice was decisive. Of the estimated 31,000 young people who participated in the Democratic caucus, 84% supported Senator Bernie Sanders, contributing to a virtual tie between Secretary Hillary Clinton and Senator Sanders.
  • Young Republicans selected Senator Ted Cruz as their top candidate (with 26%), closely followed by Senator Marco Rubio (23%). Youth support for Donald Trump, which came in at approximately 20%, trailed the support he received among older Republicans.
  • Since 1996, youth turnout in Iowa has exceeded 4% only twice: in 2008 (14%) and yesterday (11.2%).
  • A record-breaking 22,000 young people voted in the Republican caucus.
  • About 31,000 young people participated in the Democratic caucus, the second highest level since 1996 (behind 2008).

“Last night’s Iowa caucuses demonstrated the potential power of young people to shape elections,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Director of CIRCLE. “In the Democratic caucus, young voters helped to propel Senator Sanders to a virtual tie, and Republican youth broke their own record of caucus participation. One message is clear: when candidates and campaigns ask young people to participate and inspire them to get involved, they respond.”

For CIRCLE’s full Iowa caucus analysis, please see here. Throughout this election season, CIRCLE’s 2016 Election Center will offer new data products and analyses – such as a preview of youth participation in the NH primary – providing a comprehensive picture of the youth vote, both nationally and in targeted states and congressional districts across the country. You can view trend data on youth turnout via CIRCLE’s interactive maps.

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we are for social justice, but what is it?

Schools and colleges, daily newspapers and broadcast television channels, and certain civic associations are prone to present themselves as neutral about politics. They say that they provide information, spaces for discussion, and opportunities to learn skills. Their students, readers, or citizen-members are free to form their own opinions.

Activists in social movements observe that these organizations are not truly neutral (but rather full of implicit values) and argue that grave current injustices require all organizations to take explicit stands.

In response, at least some of the ostensibly neutral organizations declare that they are actually against specific injustices and committed to a better society. Nowadays, they often name their positive objective as “social justice” (a phrase whose deepest historical roots are in Catholic thought). In past decades, they might have talked instead about democracy or freedom.

But although some things are obviously unjust, reasonable people disagree profoundly about what constitutes a positive vision of social justice, and why. Thus–I contend–virtually all of the valuable debate that occurred under the aegis of self-described neutral organizations recurs within organizations that declare themselves for “social justice” without providing a detailed definition of that phrase.

The return of debate is not in itself a bad thing; politics is about persistent disagreement, which responsible citizens can embrace and even enjoy. But it is somewhat naive to expect that a commitment to a vague ideal of social justice will bring consensus. And it is a shame if that expectation leads to disillusionment.

In our current time, this is the main pattern I observe: educational, journalistic, and civic associations strongly proclaim neutrality in response to what appears an uncivil and polarized political debate, and then activists demand that they take a stand in response (mainly) to climate change or domestic US racism. Those are matters of grave concern and they have generated social movements that are particularly effective at influencing schools and colleges, the media, and local associations (much more so than governments or corporations). In decades past, opposition to US foreign policy and war played similar roles in challenges to neutrality.

But if there is any doubt that people can be committed to something called “social justice,” abhor the same specific injustices, and yet disagree about the very definition of “justice,” consider the current debates between #BlackLivesMatter and Sen. Sanders, #BlackLivesMatter and Secretary Clinton, or Clinton and Sanders.

Those three people/movements place themselves on the left, but the debate about social justice is certainly broader than that, even if the phrase currently has leftish resonances. In an interview with Eric Liu for a project that Eric and I conducted together, Mark Meckler, who had founded Tea Party Patriots, called the police presence in Ferguson “outrageous.” He acknowledged the salience of racism but mainly viewed police violence as an example of a government depriving individuals of liberty. “The state has a lot of power and only recently it is outwardly manifesting that power in costumes and equipment that demonstrate military might. … That is not of society, by and for society; that is against society.” A democratic socialist might agree with much of that and yet read Ferguson more as a story of disinvestment in industrial cities and the failure of our economy to value workers. I’ve quoted Julius Jones of #BlackLivesMatter as a proponent of a third view: that anti-Black racism is a fundamental chord in American history. Note that all of these positions could simultaneously be true, yet the proponents must disagree about solutions. More government? Less government? Remedies targeted at race? At class? Any of those could constitute “social justice.”

To have a theory of justice, you need principles and a way of ranking or adjudicating among them. Maybe equality is one of your principles, but equality of what? (Opportunity, status, power, welfare?) Equality for whom? (All the students who are already in your classroom or at your college? All major demographic groups within America? All American individuals? All human beings?)

And even if equality–defined in a particular way–is a very high principle for you, what about freedom (which comes in at least six different and incompatible forms), sustainability, security, creativity, innovation, community, rule of law, tradition, diversity, prosperity, and efficiency? A reasonable view of social justice is surely an amalgam of many of these principles, reflecting tradeoffs and rankings. We develop such views in part by reflecting on what is bad about the status quo and what we have learned about practical solutions that work. (For instance, we wouldn’t advocate equality of education if we thought that schools were a waste of time.) Thus a theory of justice typically rests on a narrative about the failures and the successes of our society so far. All of that–the narrative, the assessment of actual institutions, the abstract principles, and their ranking–is contestable.

An organization can claim that it is thoroughly neutral, just a platform for its members to debate what is right. Or it can assert that it is for social justice, and then its members will debate what is right. The difference matters–a bit. A claim of perfect neutrality is inevitably false and distracting. A commitment to social justice can usefully raise the question, “What is justice?”

The choice remains how specifically to define the content of social justice. Organizations face choices between ideological diversity and unity and between scale (attracting lots of people) and depth (intensively relating to their members). The more precisely an organization defines its objective, the less hospitable it is to diversity but the more it can achieve unity and advance an agenda. The smaller it is, the better it can work through disagreements, but the bigger it is, the more influence it can have.

I think that organizations that strive to be ideologically diverse and also relatively big are relatively weak and scarce today. Universities and schools and large civic associations can fill that quadrant. It won’t hurt for them to declare themselves for “social justice,” but they would be wise to invite a genuinely diverse debate about what social justice is.

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the library of Albert Shanker

IMG_0193This is part of the library of Albert Shanker (1928-77), which lines the walls of the conference room of the Albert Shanker Institute, which is inside the American Federation of Teachers’ Building in Washington. I was there earlier today. It seems fitting that such a library should rest in the heart of the AFT, exemplifying the long, rich, and living tradition of intellectual life within the labor movement (and—importantly—outside of universities).

The collection itself reflects a mid-20th century canon. There are books on Freud and idealist philosophers like Collingwood and Croce, as well as pragmatists like John Dewey, who was a founder of the AFT. There are many books about schooling and education, from a variety of perspectives. Several thousand volumes line the shelves.

Shanker was a highly controversial figure. In “Sleeper” (1977), Woody Allen’s character awakens 200 years after being cryogenically frozen and asks what happened to civilization. He’s told that a man called Al Shanker got hold of nuclear weapons. On issues of unionism, race, school choice, and foreign policy, Shanker made many enemies as well as friends, and probably deserved some of both. I don’t really know the whole story well enough to praise or bury him. I take the library more as a monument to the intellectual life of our unions, which is something to prize when they are under such threat.

Cf. Harry Boyte’s recent blog post on agrarian intellectuals during the New Deal and the powerful popular education movement they led.

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the Journal of Universal Rejection

(Washington, DC) On a week when I got an article rejected almost instantly and then participated in an editorial committee for a different journal that celebrated our rising rejection rate, I just have to plug the Journal of Universal Rejection. Arguably the best journal in the entire universe, it rejects all submissions as not up to snuff.

From the instructions for authors:

The JofUR solicits any and all types of manuscript: poetry, prose, visual art, and research articles. You name it, we take it, and reject it. Your manuscript may be formatted however you wish. Frankly, we don’t care.

After submitting your work, the decision process varies. Often the Editor-in-Chief will reject your work out-of-hand, without even reading it! However, he might read it. Probably he’ll skim. At other times your manuscript may be sent to anonymous referees. Unless they are the Editor-in-Chief’s wife or graduate school buddies, it is unlikely that the referees will even understand what is going on. Rejection will follow as swiftly as a bird dropping from a great height after being struck by a stone. At other times, rejection may languish like your email buried in the Editor-in-Chief’s inbox. But it will come, swift or slow, as surely as death.

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spring Tisch talks on animals, prisons, and material culture

All welcome …

Tisch talks

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on voting by mail

Washington Monthly has a cover story by Phil Kiesling arguing that voting by mail would raise turnout substantially and also produce a more representative electorate, especially in primaries, thus reducing partisan polarization. Kiesling makes many good points, and his argument is definitely worth reading. Among other things, he is right to be frustrated by the research on voting-by-mail, although I wouldn’t characterize the problem as he does–as “the tyranny of dated, superficial, and/or irrelevant, academic research.” In fact, my colleagues and I are responsible for some of that research, and there are reasons that we analyze the data as we do. It is genuinely hard to measure the effects of a policy that has been adopted in only one or a few states. But that methodological challenge can limit our imaginations as reformers. Even though I don’t think he characterizes the research fairly, Kiesling helpfully challenges our imaginations.

Before getting into the methodological weeds, let me explain why I am not yet convinced that vote-by-mail would increase turnout. Below is Oregon’s turnout trend compared to the national trend. I show the presidential years and off-years as separate lines, because otherwise you get a confusing zigzag pattern. Oregon abolished polling places in 2000 and has run its elections entirely by mail since then. Turnout in the 2004 presidential election was strong, but not so great in 2008 and 2012. Turnout in the off-year elections since 2000 has been lower than it was in the 1980s and 1990s. I don’t see evidence of positive impact here.


Kiesling calls it a “problematic assumption” to measure turnout as I do above: as the percentage of all eligible citizens who voted. (My data come from Michael McDonald.) Kiesling would rather define turnout as the percentage of registered citizens who vote. But if votes-per-registered rises, and yet votes-per-eligible-citizens does not, then there is only one mathematical possibility: the percentage of the population that registered must have fallen. That’s not a good thing. So the only way to assess the net impact of a reform on our democracy is by measuring turnout as votes per eligible population. We always do this, not in a “selective manner … to overlook (or even disparage)” vote-by-mail.

My graph simply allows you to see whether turnout has risen or fallen in Oregon before and after the vote-by-mail reform. That is not really a satisfactory method because many other factors are obviously at work. Nor can we conduct randomized experiments with new voting laws. Thus the way almost all academics study state policy reforms is by building large datasets that include statistics from all 50 states over many years. Then we try to isolate the apparent impact of a given change, controlling for everything else that we have measured, including the baseline turnout rates for states prior to the reform.* That method has yielded a rough consensus in favor of Election Day Registration–mentioned by Kiesling and exemplified in our own research.

This method cannot, however, assess the impact of a reform that has only been implemented in one or a handful of states. The math just doesn’t allow estimates of impact when there are very few cases in the category of interest. Thus, frustratingly, we omit Oregon’s vote-by-mail system from most of our models. Kiesling is right to complain about that gap, but I know of no satisfactory solution. One potential option would be to lump universal vote-by-mail together with other reforms, to increase the number of cases, but that would hide any special advantages of universal vote-by-mail.

Kiesling says that the research “lazily tries to extrapolate absentee ballot-based data, inappropriately uses VEP-based yardsticks, and/or focuses on presidential contests only—ignoring midterm and primary elections, where the approach is best suited to show dramatic results.” Those are not fair complaints about our models.

I’d still vote for and recommend universal vote-by-mail, as an experiment. The graph shown above makes me a little pessimistic about its impact (particularly in midterm elections). And I do lament the loss of a secret ballot when elections move to mail. The secret ballot was a hard-won reform designed to prevent voters from being coerced by employers and relatives or from selling their votes. (If you promise to pay me for voting for A, but my ballot is secret, I can take your money and vote for B, which ruins the market. In an election-by-mail, however, your boss, your spouse, or a bribe-giver can check your ballot.) Kiesling says the Oregon Secretary of State is aware of “just a dozen documented cases,” and I guess we could live with that–although each case of coercion is a human rights violation.

More broadly, I resonate with Kiesling’s frustration. If a state does something bold and different, the standard methods of social science really struggle to assess its impact. When a bunch of states implement the same rather modest change, we can measure impact, but often it’s disappointing. For instance, we have found that the variation in states’ education laws does not seem to matter for students’ media literacy or electoral participation. I don’t conclude that reforming education is a waste of time, but rather that the prevailing reform strategies are too weak. A few states have done more interesting things with civic education policy, but we can’t assess their impact using multivariate models.

As citizens, we must keep our imaginations vivid and hopeful. Statistics are always about the past, and the future can be different. I welcome the Washington Monthly’s cover article as a spur to creativity. A 21st-century election system should look very different from the clunky mechanisms we have in place today. Universal vote-by-mail could be the answer. I just don’t read the existing research evidence as Kiesling does.

*Kiesling writes: “But point out that in 2014, the nation’s three UVBM [universal vote-by-mail] states’ voter turnout—based on the identical VEP denominator—was 16 percent higher than non-UVBM states, and the response is often something along the lines of, ‘Yes, but that’s irrelevant because Oregon (and presumably now Washington and Colorado) have always been high-turnout states.’ As if Minnesota, Maine, and Wisconsin are any different?” This is overlooking the power of a multivariate model, which takes into account the historical turnout rate as well as many other variables. We favor Same Day Registration not because turnout is simply higher in states that have it, but because it is higher controlling for other factors.

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Krugman evolves

In today’s column, Paul Krugman defends president Obama as “an extremely consequential president, doing more to advance the progressive agenda than anyone since L.B.J.” Krugman challenges “the persistent delusion that a hidden majority of American voters either supports or can be persuaded to support radical policies, if only the right person were to make the case with sufficient fervor.” He rejects the premise that a “sufficiently high-minded leader can conjure up the better angels of America’s nature and persuade the broad public to support a radical overhaul of our institutions.” Obama’s achievements, Krugman says, “have depended at every stage on accepting half loaves as being better than none: health reform that leaves the system largely private, financial reform that seriously restricts Wall Street’s abuses without fully breaking its power, higher taxes on the rich but no full-scale assault on inequality.” And that, Krugman argues, is the only way change happens in our system.

Between 2008 and 2010, I wrote a dozen posts and a Huffington Post piece defending President Obama against Krugman’s persistent critiques from the left. Then Krugman argued that we were in serious trouble because we had been “governed by people with the wrong ideas.” Obama should have challenged Republicans’ ideas with much stronger and more effective rhetoric in order to change public opinion. Instead, the president compromised on his progressive stance, and therefore Americans did not understand their options. Communication was everything for Krugman in those days. One column alone included these phrases: “What Mr. Obama should have said… Mr. Obama could and should be hammering Republicans… There were no catchy slogans, no clear statements of principle.” The president “has the bully pulpit,” but it will be worthless unless he “can find it within himself … to actually take a stand.”

Now Krugman says that it has never worked to try to shift public opinion dramatically to achieve radical policy. “Even F.D.R., who rode the depths of the Great Depression to a huge majority, had to be politically pragmatic, working not just with special interest groups but also with Southern racists.”

I absolutely do not blame Krugman for changing his mind. I am not calling him on an inconsistency here. He is doing what any intelligent person should do: intently studying the unfolding of history and forming and revising his opinions. My views have also changed since 2008, and if they hadn’t, I would be ashamed of my pig-headedness. I call attention to Krugman’s evolved views because they provide a kind of evidence in favor of one view of American politics. A Nobel-laureate economist with a very sharp eye for politics has tried out a couple of hypotheses, and the accumulated evidence as of 2016 leads him to endorse the strategies of Barack Obama ca. 2008-10.

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