on a quasi-vacation

(I’m taking a break from the blog and the office until August 21.)

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a real chance to improve civics in California

I am pasting excerpts of a press release below, because I am excited about what it announces and I have been involved as a consultant on the project. It is an example of the kind of strategy we recommended in the report of the Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge, entitled “All Together Now: Collaboration and Innovation for Youth Engagement” (2013):

Sacramento, Calif., August 5, 2014 – California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torklakson today received the Final Report of the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning. The report is the culmination of a year-long process of assessing the state of civic learning in California schools, receiving input at regional meetings, and crafting research-based recommendations to ensure that all California K-12 students gain the knowledge, skills and values they need to succeed in college, career and civic life.  Both the executive summary and the full report are available online.

Members of the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning, co-chaired by Justice Judith McConnell and Sacramento County Superintendent of Schools David Gordon, presented the recommendations aimed at providing all students in California with the instruction, support and experiences they need to actively participate in society and succeed in the 21st century workplace.

These recommendations include:

  • revision of the California History/Social Science content standards;
  • integration of civic learning into state assessment and accountability systems;
  • improved professional learning for teachers connected to Common Core State Standards;
  • sharing of curriculum resources and best practices;
  • engaging stakeholders from local government, business, the courts, nonprofits, community organizations and parents; and
  • promoting funding in Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAP) through Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).
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what should an individual citizen do about money in politics?

(New York City): I am on a Washington-New York-Boston trip in which many of my meetings coincidentally touch on the same topic: what should we do about money in politics? Per my usual rant, the question is not what should be done. That is relatively easy. The question is: What should you and I do, granting that courts and legislatures are not going to do what should be done?

This is a question not only for you and for me, but also for the national organizations that work on this topic, such as my beloved first employer, Common Cause (now under the dynamic and visionary leadership of Miles Rapoport). Such organizations can communicate with the public and can enroll members, but ultimately they must ask citizens to do stuff. What should they ask?

They can’t just ask people to change their minds. Public opinion is at the heart of some problems. For example, climate change is worse because many voters do not believe it is happening, do not consider it a serious threat, or doubt that we can realistically do anything about it. Motivation is also a factor, because individuals, communities, and nations benefit by generating the problem (in this case, carbon emissions), and anyone who takes individual or collective action to limit pollution bears the price of that action. Climate change is thus the Mother of All Collective Action Problems, made worse by false opinions (which, in turn, result from targeted investments in misinformation). It is worth changing people’s minds to believe the facts and to vote and act differently.

Campaign finance is a different kind of problem. The public already thinks it’s terrible. Most people do not contribute to the problem, since only 0.18% of the population gives $200 or more. But it is against the interest of the majority of elected officials to do anything about money in politics, since they were elected under the current system. Democratic politicians tend to be more hypocritical than Republicans on this topic; neither party does anything about it, but some Republicans would defend the status quo on philosophical grounds.

Hobson, who offered one particular horse or none at all, and called that a choice.

Voters are typically offered a Hobson’s Choice: Vote for Candidate A–who shares your views on important issues like climate change but won’t do anything about campaign finance–or vote for Candidate B, who opposes your views of those other essential issues and won’t do anything about campaign finance.

I think that to some extent, politicians also face a Hobson’s Choice because of the recalcitrance of all the other politicians, a classic collective action problem. They can A) burn their capital trying to pass campaign finance reform, or B) actually pass health insurance reform, Wall Street reform, and environmental laws. Basically, my reading of President Obama is that he chose option B.

We would like everyone (voters and politicians) to change their priorities and put campaign finance reform higher–but in order to do what?

Well, there are things you can do. Join Common Cause, because it’s a robust membership organization that fights indefatigably for reform. Give money to Mayday PAC, which will intervene in “five districts during this election cycle, in a way that makes it clear that the most important issue was the role that money plays in politics.” Donate to Fund for the Republic, too. Tell your elected officials, even if they stand with you on other issues, that they risk losing your support unless they sign onto something like H.R. 20, the Government by the People Act.

I think these are worthy steps, but I am not overly optimistic they will work even if quite a few people do them. That is why I am obsessed with the problem of leverage, or how to turn ethical civic action into large-scale change in a given system of incentives and constraints, against dedicated opponents. After all, Margaret Mead was wrong: we should doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. They usually fail–or grow into a large group, maybe achieve something, and cease to be thoughtful and committed along the way. We must turn from a bunch of citizens who are angry about the status quo (and who perhaps take some modest actions) into an effective mass movement. That is a problem of organization and structure that I do not think we have cracked.

The Mayday PAC widget:

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community review boards for research?

(Washington, DC) If you work at a federally funded institution like mine and you want to collect data from human beings or animals, you need permission from an Institutional Review Board. Its purview is ethics, and specifically the ethical treatment of the individuals from whom data is collected. Although the idea of a IRB intimidates some new researchers, you can learn to navigate the process routinely. I believe I am the PI on more than a dozen IRB-approved projects right now.

I have often heard the argument that the review should be broader; it should consider impacts on whole communities and issues like cultural sensitivity and whether results are shared in useful forms. Likewise, the reviewers should be more diverse, including laypeople from the community as well as experts.

I now read that there are in fact several community review boards in operation that consider such issues, apart from or in addition to research ethics.* They gain their approval power from agreements with local institutions that agree to participate. For instance, in Hawaii, five nonprofits and three universities or university-based centers have agreed to put all research proposals involving the Native population through a community committee’s screening.

I must admit that I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, research is usually supported by the government (directly or otherwise) and has social impact, whether positive or negative. Thus researchers should be accountable to the public for their questions, methods, and presentations. Community members have a right to express their views and valuable perspectives to offer.

On the other hand, research is already quite bureaucratic, and every extra layer of review means another set of forms and meetings. Also, there are potential costs to academic freedom. We might start with an assumption that citizens may talk to and observe other citizens and say what they want as a result. That is a First Amendment right, meant partly to protect individuals so that they can say things that are critical and uncomfortable. Although we may want to oversee a scholar when government money is supporting organized research, liberty remains a consideration. For instance, if a community panel blocked a study because it was critical of the community’s norms, that would be a violation of free speech. Finally, I would wonder whether any committee could truly represent a community.

Despite the caveats in the last paragraph, this is an innovation to watch and to consider.

*Shore N, Park A, Castro P, Wat E, Sablan-Santos L, Isaacs ML, Freeman E, Cooks JM, Drew E, Seifer SD. Redefining Research Ethics Review: Case Studies of Five Community-Led Models. Seattle, WA: Community-Campus Partnerships for Health, 2014.

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when society becomes fully transparent to the state

I am posting some longer analytical pieces because I am working on a chapter about “democracy in the age of digital media.” Today’s topic is how digital media makes society more legible to the state, and whether that is good or bad for democracy.

According to many ancient stories, one of a ruler’s first tasks is to count his people and objects. For instance, the biblical Book of Numbers relates the journey of the newly formed people of Israel to take possession of the land that they believe is theirs. In the very first verse, the Lord tells Moses: “Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls” (Numbers 1:2). Likewise, near the beginning of Luke, we are told, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” The emperor needed information, and the people complied: “All went to be taxed, every one into his own city” (Luke 2:1-3). And not long after William the Conqueror seized England, he “sent his men over all England, into every shire, and caused them to ascertain how many hundred hides of land it contained, and what lands the king possessed therein, what cattle there were in the several counties, and how much revenue he ought to receive yearly from each” (A1085).

Since these are stories about monarchs, we might have mixed feelings about their ability to count and read their societies. But in a democracy, the state is supposed to do the people’s will, and it cannot do that unless it can see the society clearly. For example, unless it knows how much money each individual earns, it cannot implement an income tax and use the revenues for popular purposes. In turn, the people must be able to see what the democratic state does in order to hold it accountable. Some degree of transparency and legibility (in both directions) is necessary for a democracy to function.

However, even a democratic state should not be able to see everywhere all the time. Jeremy Bentham was a proponent of democracy (defined as majority-rule) who pushed the ideal of transparency to a horrifying conclusion. His famous model of the ideal prison was the “Panopticon,” which he sketched thus:

The building circular—the cells occupying the circumference.… One station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of two stories of cells, and a considerable view of another … By blinds and other contrivances, the keeper concealed from the observation of the prisoners, unless where he thinks fit to show himself: hence, on their part, the sentiment of an invisible omnipresence.—The whole circuit reviewable with little, or, if necessary, without any, change of place” (order changed).

Bentham fought what he called a “War” to have his Panopticons built, and he wanted to extend the same principles to programs that served “persons of the unoffending class.” For paupers, much like criminals, the “principle of universal and constant inspectability” would ensure that they would learn habits of good behavior that would persist even after they were officially released from oversight. As a democrat, Bentham also advocated “inspectability of the inspectors by the eye of the public opinion tribunal.” He saw the consequent changes in the behavior of both the rulers and the ruled as fully consistent with the public good.

For most readers, however, the Panopticon is a nightmare. What is wrong with it? First, it makes power pervasive and reduces human agency to a minimum. Michel Foucault observed:

The major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.

In a society that is completely legible to the state, we cannot have private spaces in which to develop beliefs and interests so that we can participate in the public realm as distinct individuals. The result is a far poorer public sphere. Hannah Arendt was a great defender of public life, but she wrote that the “four walls, within which people’s private life is lived, constitute a shield against the public aspect of the world. They enclose a secure place, without which no living thing can thrive” (p. 186). The Panopticon’s cells have three walls, so that the prisoners cannot communicate with each other; the fourth is deliberately missing to allow the keeper to see in.

In the digital age, the problem of legibility has become much more severe. We now use computers, mobile phones, and other electronic devices in almost all aspects of our lives, for work, exchange, health, recreation, and intimacy. Each call placed, character typed, and site visited leaves a digital trace. Those traces can be collected and analyzed by firms and governments—or first by firms and then by the governments that seize or penetrate their data. We do not know whether our behavior is being analyzed at any time, but it could be. That is the principle of the Panopticon. I think Foucault was too quick to see power as determinative and was not optimistic enough about people’s capacity to resist surveillance, our creativity and sheer recalcitrance. But the threat is real.

One aspect of the threat is pervasiveness. Hannah Arendt’s four walls cannot shield you against surveillance if inside your house you are typing emails that Google analyzes and the NSA reads. As long as you are using a digital device, there is no secure refuge from surveillance. The chilling effect may take many forms. Just for example, journalists now say that government sources are more reluctant to come forward than they used to be because they believe their communications are being monitored. “Many journalists reported a strong preference for meeting sources in person in large part for reasons of security. ‘I don’t think there’s anything ironclad you can do except [meet] face to face,’ remarked Jonathan Landay. ‘Maybe we need to get back to going to sources’ houses,’ added Peter Finn. Indeed, several journalists expressed a marked reluctance to contact certain sources by email or phone” (p. 35).

A second aspect of the problem is precision. Today, analysts no longer rely on samples of information taken from random surveys, observations, or audits, which they would analyze using statistical techniques that depend on probability. Now they can get all the data. For example, social scientists working in academia, business, or the government can collect and analyze all the votes in cast in an election, all the job openings advertised in newspapers, or all the social media postings that include a given phrase. They can also merge these data, so that we can know, for instance, detailed consumer and employment information about each voter. The result is a wealth of information about small groups and their behavior that yields remarkably accurate predictions. Those predictions would have been unthinkable when we relied on samples and on statistics based on probability.

Pervasiveness and precision relate to a third threat: manipulability. Behavioral economics, prospect theory, and the latest marketing science combine to tell us that: (1) people’s behavior is predictable, but it does not depend on rational calculations of benefits versus costs; (2) we can get people to do what we want by understanding their individual behavior thus far and then subtly shifting messages or the way we frame choices; and (3) this is all good because we can attain desirable social outcomes without paying people or threatening people to do the right thing. Governments needn’t ban or tax harmful products; they can “nudge” citizens into avoiding them. According to Katrin Bennhold,

In 2010, [the British Prime Minister] Mr. Cameron set up the Behavioral Insights Team — or nudge unit, as it’s often called. Three years later, the team has doubled in size and is about to announce a joint venture with an external partner to expand the program. The unit has been nudging people to pay taxes on time, insulate their attics, sign up for organ donation, stop smoking during pregnancy and give to charity — and has saved taxpayers tens of millions of pounds in the process, said David Halpern, its director. Every civil servant in Britain is now being trained in behavioral science.

From Bentham’s perspective, it is excellent news that a democratically elected government can make people act better without threats or bribery, just by observing them more accurately and tweaking choices or messages to nudge them in the right direction. Democracy benefits because the people can decide what counts as “better” and can monitor the state, and the government will be more efficient and effective thanks to its use of data. But from Foucault’s perspective, the new data-driven behavioral economics is the epitome of a Panopticon. Precisely because the power is soft, imperceptible, cheap, and ubiquitous, we don’t resist it.

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youth participatory budgeting in Boston

In lieu of a substantive post here today, I’d like to link to my article in Transformations entitled “You can add us to equations but they never make us equal: participatory budgeting in Boston.” It’s a reported piece; I didn’t conduct formal research, but I attended a key meeting, talked to the kids, and noted my impressions. I believe that asking kids to allocate $1 million of city funds is an excellent idea. It not only involves them in deliberation but also requires them to do collaborative work (analyzing and vetting proposals) and builds relationships. I argue that those are the three essential aspects of hands-on, citizen-centered engagement.

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the principle of affected interests and the decline of the nation state

The dominant theory of democracy used to be a sovereignty theory. A “people” would consist of a bounded group, all of whose members would have equal rights to discuss and decide the issues that came before them. Such groups might be nation-states bounded by international borders, but they might also be organizations or associations; they were sovereign to the extent that they could make decisions about categories of issues. They would thus exercise what the French Revolutionary theorist Benjamin Constant called the “liberty of the ancients,” meaning the right “to deliberate, in a public space, about war and peace, to ratify treaties of alliance with foreigners, to vote laws, pronounce decisions, examine the accounts, actions, and management of officials, to compel them to appear before the whole people, to accuse them, to condemn or acquit them.”

Two problems arise for all such sovereign groups: 1) they may not have a legitimate moral basis to exclude outsiders from their decisions, and 2) they may not have actual control over the situations that they confront. For example, the US may not have a legitimate moral justification to exclude Germans from influencing our government’s surveillance policy, which also affects Germany; and the US government cannot control capital markets or pollution flows that cross its borders.

These problems have become more severe and more evident in a highly interconnected world. A traditional justification for the sovereignty theory presumed that nation states could safeguard the interests of their own members without impinging often on others. But, as my friend Archon Fung writes, “If there once was a time when the laws of a nation-state could adequately protect the fundamental interests of its citizens, many argue that such time is past.” He and others argue that we should shift from a sovereignty theory to a “theory of affected interests,” or at least add the latter to our understanding of democracy.

Continue reading

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We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For in 10 minutes

This video from Frontiers of Democracy 2014 is my best effort to summarize my book We Are the Ones … in 9 minutes and 39 seconds. It presents the book as an effort to answer the problem that was most on my mind during the conference–how to achieve leverage over large systems while retaining the human relationships and sense of personal agency that are most evident when we work together in small voluntary groups.

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mapping the youth vote in 2014

CIRCLE’s new interactive maps of states and congressional districts are getting a lot of attention. Our congressional district map lets you view any district by various measures of demographics, turnout, socioeconomic variables, the number of local colleges and universities, and two political factors (whether any state ballot measures might mobilize youth in 2014, and whether the district is competitive).

You can compare rates by district, look over time, and see all the districts ranked from highest to lowest. Using some of those tools, we have identified four districts–IA-3, AZ-1, AZ-9, and NY-23–as especially interesting to watch in 2014 if you care about the youth vote.

Previously, we had released a state map (pertinent to Senate races, among other purposes) that shows historical youth turnout rates and other data going back to the 1970s.

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avoiding the labels of East and West

(Hartford, CT) Between the 320s and the 130s BCE, there were kingdoms in what is now Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan that had monarchs with Greek names who communicated in both Greek and Pali, who honored both Olympian gods and Buddha, and who had diplomatic relationships, marriages, and wars with both Mediterranean and South Asian neighbors. Here, for example, is a coin of king Strato I and his consort Agathokleia. They are named on one side in Greek. On the other side, in the Kharosthi script, it says, “King Strato, Savior and of the Dharma.” The figure is Athena, but other coins from the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms show the Buddhist wheel.

These kingdoms are fascinating because they may have influenced the ideas and art of Mahayana Buddhism, on one side, and Hellenistic philosophy and Judeo-Christian monasticism, on the other. Discussing them, however, can be politically sensitive. Ever since they were rediscovered, scholars–both Indian and European–have identified the Greek aspects of these communities with Europe, with colonialism, and with whiteness, and the Indian aspects of these communities with Asia, with independence, and with darker skin. Thus proponents of the British empire have accentuated the Greeks’ contribution to “Hellenistic India,” whereas anti-colonial scholars have either dismissed it or viewed it critically. This is a helpful overview of the historiography by Rachel Mairs.

I’m no expert, but I have a strong instinct that these categories are false and misleading. I happen to be white (of European extraction) and I studied some Greek. But the Greek cultural aspect of the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms is deeply alien to me. In their militarism, monarchism, paganism, misogyny, and peculiar metaphysics, the ancient Hellenes are far more remote than modern Indians are. If I had to choose between the ethics of a Greek circa 200 BC and a Buddhist of the same time, I would select the latter as both more persuasive and more familiar. The British imperialists who came to dominate South Asia in the late 1700s were not much more similar to ancient Greeks than I am, although they thought they belonged to the “classical tradition.”

The Greeks themselves distinguished between Europe and Asia and named “India” as that part of Asia that lay beyond the Indus River. But those are arbitrary distinctions, as my family and I recalled when we stood on either side of the Europe/Asia border in Turkey several times this summer. Ancient Indians tended to call the Greeks “Yona,” which refers to the Ionian Sea. It lies between Italy and Greece, but if Indians had called the Greeks “Aegeans” instead, that name would have encompassed both Asia and Europe (per the Greeks’ own distinction.)

Race is a hugely influential category today, but ancients did not divide people up that way. When the Greek emperor Seleukos and the Indian emperor Chandragupta sealed a peace treaty by arranging a marriage between their children, no one thought that a white person was marrying a person of color. Some Greeks may have thought that the marriage involved a barbarian, but that meant someone who couldn’t speak Greek. Barbarians were people who said “bar bar bar”: unintelligible foreign words. The important divisions involved language, not skin color.

If you can drop the association of Greeks with Europe and Mauryans with India, what really jumps out is the continuity of culture and history from North India to southern Italy in that era. The philosophical milieu of Siddhartha Gautama resembled that of Socrates. Both men lived in city-states that would be overrun in the late 4th century BCE by monarchical empires. In both cases, a polytheistic background culture allowed reflection on abstract fundamentals that yielded agnostic and atheist ideas. In both circumstances, the essential question was how to achieve equanimity despite the intrinsic cruelty of life. And both regions traded intensively with each other. Once we drop the division between East and West, we can learn to read Sextus Empiricus and Marcus Aurelius as guides to meditation and Nagarjuna as a systematic metaphysician much like Aristotle.

[See also when east and west were one; Jesus was a person of color, and strange lives (last paragraph)].

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