an overview of civic education in the USA and Germany

In this video, I offer a very broad introduction to civic education in the USA–framing my remarks historically. Essentially, I trace a tradition of experiential, community-based civic learning that runs from de Tocqueville through Jane Addams to Dorothy Cotton and onward; and a tradition of studying civics in school that really takes off with Horace Mann. These two traditions intertwine, and John Dewey is an important bridge between them. I argue that neither is in very good condition today.

Then Bettina Heinrich, from the Protestant University of Applied Sciences Ludwigsburg, gives an overview of “politische Bildung” (political education or development) in the Federal Republic of Germany, focusing on the post-War period. We both note significant mutual influence between these two countries.

Another event will follow this one:

“Growing Up Across the Pond” (May 3, noon US Eastern Time) will be more about the general context for youth in Germany and the USA today. (You can register here.)

These are both open events, meant for anyone who is interested. They are also introductory events for people who might want to join The Transatlantic Exchange of Civic Educators (TECE), which “will bring together German and U.S.-American extracurricular civic learning professionals to unlock opportunities for mutual learning and reintroduce a transatlantic dimension to the field.”

a business/GOP rift?

Here is a sample of articles published within the past week alone: “The Right’s Anti-Business Turn“; “The GOP-Big Business Divorce Goes Deeper Than You Think“; “Republicans Will Regret Their Breakup With Big Business“; “Existential Threat-Or Politics as Usual,” and “Is the Business Community At Last Falling Out of Love With the Republican Party?

The situation is fluid and hard to interpret. Our predictions are inevitably influenced by our assumptions about how business generally relates to politics in the USA. In that spirit, I’ll disclose my own premises.

First, businesses influence government. There is no consensus among political scientists that campaign contributions and paid lobbying matter very much. It’s certainly not evident that companies can decide who wins elections. The main source of influence is what Charles E. Lindblom called the “privileged position of business.” The basic idea is that businesses create jobs in a capitalist economy; politicians want jobs to be created; therefore, politicians cater to business. Direct communications from corporations to politicians are effective mainly because they convey information that politicians are eager to hear. Although companies may exaggerate the costs of taxing and spending, politicians take their predictions seriously because they think their own interests are at stake. Compared to other politicians, liberal Democrats are more skeptical of business and more likely to want to hear from labor, but even most liberals listen hard when a company is deciding whether to move in or out of their own district. This dynamic is built into a mixed economy (or what Lindblom called, following Dahl, a “polyarchy”).

However, people see the world through ideological frames. We do not just behold the truth and maximize our self-interest (profits for firms; reelection for politicians). Instead, we use conceptual frameworks to interpret the world. A politician who believes in “free markets” is primed to assume that a tax increase will cost jobs even if it won’t. At the same time, a business that sees itself as a fair and inclusive workplace is primed to see xenophobic rhetoric as bad for the bottom line (even if it isn’t).

The dominant framework in corporate boardrooms is pro-market, pro-technology, meritocratic/elitist, cosmopolitan, and self-congratulatory about the business’s own fairness and inclusivity. This is partly because of the demographics of the corporate ranks: heavily “coastal” and international and highly educated. The most coveted employees and consumers–the ones with the most buying power–share those characteristics. Businesses observe politics through this lens.

At the same time, businesses do not particularly want to engage with politics. Government can be helpful, particularly if you want big government contracts. But it also presents risks. Politics is controversial, so involvement can hurt your reputation. The last thing you want is to be targeted by boycotts from several directions. Politicians can also extract rents. Businesses contribute to candidates not only to get benefits but also to stave off harms. A stable policy that is fairly expensive to business (such as a higher corporate tax rate) may actually be preferable to a rapidly changing and highly contested policy environment.

Finally, it is much easier to advocate a narrow policy, particularly one that has low public salience, than to try to steer the whole ship of state.

As a result, most businesses probably prefer outcomes in this order:

  1. A particular politician of any party and persuasion who champions their highly specific interests–a given tax break, an import permit, etc.
  2. Traditional Republicans who instinctively favor business interests, focus on economics, and don’t court controversy.
  3. Moderate Democrats, who are practically tied with #2.
  4. Quite liberal Democrats, as long as they are forced to compromise. If Sen. Sanders could write the tax code, that would be expensive for corporate America. If he has a seat at the table, it’s OK.
  5. Trump. He’s a loose cannon. He’s protectionist. Business doesn’t like his explicit stances on race and immigration; and he may hurt traditional Republicans against Democrats. For instance, with a different Republican president on the ballot in 2020, the GOP would probably control the White House and at least one house of Congress. right now Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez would be in the minority party now, rather than the majority. This means that Trump presents, overall, a bigger problem for business than Bernie does.

If this ranking is correct, then the relationship between business and the GOP is fraught; however, corporations’ calculations are complicated, and they will surely hedge their bets.

wicked problems, and excuses

Is the following true for social problems?

Will + resources + planning = a solution

A corollary would hold:

If there isn’t a solution, there must be a lack of will or resources or a bad plan.

I think this logic sometimes holds, and it’s the basis for holding responsible parties accountable. They may not have cared enough, or spent enough, or thought well enough about a problem. If not, they should be called on it.

On the other hand, the formula overlooks the power of sheer chance. Sometimes decision-makers are just lucky or unlucky. And it ignores the possibility that some problems may be really hard: “wicked problems,” in the best-remembered phrase from the famous article by Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4.2 (1973), 155-169. (We discussed this article recently in my introduction to public policy course.)

Rittel and Webber write, “Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad” (p. 162). Yet people disagree about what is good.

“With wicked problems… any solution, after being implemented, will generate waves of consequences over an extended–virtually an unbounded–period of time” (p. 163). Since change keeps happening, there is no point when you can definitively assess the impact of a policy (p. 163). Also, there is no agreed-upon criterion for a successful policy (p. 162), and therefore, no way to know whether your solution succeeded.

“Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem” (p. 165). Thus we can endlessly disagree about the center or “locus” of the problem. This is one reason that “There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem” (p. 161).

You can’t learn by trial-and-error, because every time you implement a policy, you change the world permanently (p. 163). You can’t start a social experiment over from scratch and try something different. And because your policy affects real people, you have “no right to be wrong” (p. 165).

There is no way to develop an exhaustive list of all the possible solutions (p. 164). And “Every wicked problem is essentially unique” (164)

One upshot of Rittel and Webber’s argument could be humility: do not overestimate one’s own ability to solve social problems. Another would be decentralization, whether to small governing units or to firms in a market. Decentralization is a way of mitigating damage and allowing local solutions to fit local circumstances. A third upshot would be participation: if problems are deeply contestable, maybe everyone should be involved in addressing them.

Yet another takeaway might be defeatism and tolerance for injustice, but that seems the wrong lesson to draw.

See also: Complexities of Civic Life; qualms about Effective Altruism; The truth in Hayek; trying to keep myself honest.

the international variation in COVID-19 mortality

The New York Times published a chart showing the number of reported COVID-19 deaths per capita and deaths above normal this year for selected countries. My graph demonstrates that the two variables correlate quite well–except in Russia. That is circumstantial evidence that Russia (and only Russia, among these countries) is failing to report COVID-19 deaths, as Anton Troianovski suggests in the reported article.

I wanted to check this correlation because I am interested in what explains the very large differences in national death rates. An explanation is not at all obvious. Consider these statistics:

countrydeaths Above NormalCOVID-19 DEAThs per 100kSocial Welfare Spending (%GDP)Health Care Spending Per Capita (PPP $US)Pop Density / Square KMUrban Pop. %Median AgeIndex of Stringency of COVID-19 regulations
Russia28%3914% $   1,488.00975%40.336.57
Spain23%10625% $   3,576.009281%43.969.44
Italy19%9228% $   3,624.0020071%46.580.56
U.K.17%12421% $   4,619.0028184%40.675.93
U.S.17%9619% $ 10,623.003682%38.558.8
Poland16%4521% $   2,015.0012160%41.975
Czech Rep.15%7819% $   3,040.0013674%43.381.48
Switzerland13%8417% $   8,113.0021174%42.760.19
Sweden12%8325% $   5,828.002388%41.169.44
France12%8331% $   5,250.0011981%41.778.8
Netherlands12%6116% $   5,634.0041092%42.875
Portugal12%5423% $   3,242.0011066%44.665.74
Austria12%5027% $   5,879.0010859%44.581.48
Hungary7%4818% $   2,115.0010472%43.679.63
Finland4%929% $   4,457.001688%42.852.31
Germany3%2726% $   6,098.0023577$47.875
SourcesNew York TimesNew York TimesOECDWHOWorld Population ReviewWorld BankCIA World Fact BookThis Oxford tracker.

The first point you may notice is a very high variation in many of these indicators. The excess death rate is 20 percentage-points worse in Spain than Germany. The UK has lost almost 14 times more people per capita to COVID-19 than Finland. France spends almost twice as much of its GDP on social welfare as the nearby Netherlands. Germany is 26 times more dense than Russia. Sweden is far more urban than Austria. Americans spend an average of five times more on healthcare than Hungarians. The only column with a small range is age expectancy.

The second point is that none of these variables correlates impressively with COVID-19 deaths. In a simple OLS regression, nothing comes anywhere near statistical significance.

It far from obvious why some countries have fared so much better or worse than the others. This is a smallish sample of countries (the only ones for which the NYT presented excess deaths) and maybe patterns would emerge in a larger sample. However, the situation seems noisy because so many variables may matter, and they can push in different directions in the same country.

For instance, Anne Applebaum recently wrote, “if the United States is very, very bad at social trust and public-health systems, it is very, very good at large-scale logistics.” I would gloss her second point this way: once the US government pays big companies a lot of money to do something, we often see impressive results. In this case, firms like Pfizer, FedEx, and CVS are administering millions of doses of vaccine per day with federal support. Yet we do a relatively bad job at changing behavior en masse because we tend to be distrustful and hyper-individualistic. The shifting performance of the US compared to other countries probably reflects these cross-pressures–and every other country has its own mix.

a German/US civic education discussion

At a free online event on April 20th 2021, 5-6pm (Central European Time) / 11–noon (US Eastern Time), Bettina Heinrich, Professor of Social Work and Culture Work at the Protestant University of Applied Sciences Ludwigsburg, and I will talk about concepts, infrastructures and approaches for civics/political education in our respective countries, with time for questions from the audience.

For Americans who have not especially thought about civic education in the Federal Republic of Germany, here are some reasons you might be interested: Germany has a very impressive system of adult education that serves a wide range of people and includes elements of democratic education. The USA had a positive influence on Germany democratic education after WWII, just as German models had influenced American higher education in the 1800s and early 1900s. In other words, the two countries are more closely linked that you might think. Nevertheless, there are intriguing differences between “civics” in the US and politische Bildung in Germany. Finally, Germany tends to do an impressive job of addressing the evils of the past. Without equating or even comparing historical evils, we can learn from their experience as we reckon with our own history.

Registration information here: