game theory and the shutdown

In game theory, you model a real-world situation by simplifying it to depict a finite group of “players” who are defined by preferences and choices. You predict outcomes based on how these players will choose. The structure of the choice matters, e.g., Will they decide simultaneously or in turn? Once, or several times? (Here’s my argument that game theory is useful.)

In the case of the current shutdown, it seems that at least the following six players are relevant:

  • Donald Trump: He can choose at any time between the status quo (threatening to veto a continuing resolution, or CR, unless it includes money for a wall) or folding (saying that he would sign such a resolution). His decision-making process is simple: he does what he wants to do. He could, however, renege on a promise to sign a “clean” CR. He presumably wants: 1) the wall, 2) the ability to claim a victory, 3) higher instead of lower popularity, 4) strong support among Republican voters, to head off a primary, 5) economic growth, and 6) an outcome that will satisfy the actual opponents of immigration (who know that a wall won’t really help their cause). NB: these are not in order, because I am not sure how to rank them.
  • Chuck and Nancy: They can choose at any time between the status quo (supporting only a “clean” CR) or else folding (agreeing to fund the wall). Their decision-making process is complex since they are elected by caucuses full of diverse interests and values. They presumably want: 1) no wall, 2) a victory over Trump that is popular on the center-left, 3) Trump’s popularity to fall, 4) the Republican congressional caucuses to fracture, 5) federal workers to be paid, and 6) other policies, such as DACA, to pass. Again, these are not in order–maybe they want 6) most of all.
  • Mitch McConnell: He can choose at any time to propose a “clean” CR or some kind of win/win agreement, such as the wall plus DACA. He presumably wants: 1) this whole thing to go away, 2) conservatives in Kentucky to like him, 3) Republican Senators in diverse circumstances all to be reelected in 2020, and 4) his caucus to hang together.
  • Federal workers: They can choose at any time between the status quo (showing up to work without being paid) or some kind of civil resistance: massive absenteeism, a wildcat strike. Their decision-making is very complex. For instance, the National Border Patrol Council (a union) is right behind Trump, but perhaps its members aren’t. In general, federal workers presumably want: 1) to get paid. Their other interests–such as harming or else supporting Trump–vary.
  • Right-wing personalities and organizations: They can choose to put pressure on Trump or back off. They like the wall but differ in how much they like it. Many know that it wouldn’t actually reduce immigration and are dead-set against giving up a punitive immigration law in return for a wall that doesn’t work. But their opinions on that matter vary. They need not speak in unison, and perhaps it’s necessary to model them as several players. They presumably want: 1) less immigration, 2) symbolic manifestations of white nationalism, 3) Democrats and liberals to look bad, 4) their own audiences to stay loyal.
  • The people who are sampled in opinion polls: They can each say whether they blame Trump or the Democrats. Their decision-making process is individual choice followed by a pollster’s statistical aggregation. They want lots of things, but current polls suggest that the largest group wants: 1) no wall, 2) the government to reopen, and 3) the politicians to move onto other things. This is what they say, but the partisan heuristics with which they’d assess any specific outcome cannot be discounted.

I tend to think that Tyler Cowan is right that the federal workers will end this. Of course, their ability to act is much constrained by labor law, but they still have a range of tactics available to them. Mitch McConnell is the other player with a lot of clout–but bad options, which is why he isn’t playing so far.

The time dimension is crucial, since the status quo could be interrupted unpredictably by a disaster that needs a federal response, an economic crisis, a serious decline in Trump’s popularity, an erosion of public support for the Democrats, or a major distraction, such as a certain Special Council’s final report. Smart players must decide how to choose based on deep uncertainty about what happens next.

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syllabus of Introduction to Civic Studies, spring 2019

I am about to start teaching Intro to Civic Studies with my colleague Erin Kelly. Here is our syllabus, minus the grading rules, office hours, etc.

January 17: Introduction: A case from the Pluralism project to spur discussion and raise questions about organizational types and purposes, disagreements about values, and how identities are involved.

January 22: A “feeling of personal responsibility for the world”

January 24: The citizen in a modern democracy

  • John Dewey, The Public and its Problems, Chapter 5, “Search for the Great Community.”

Problems of Collective Action

January 29: Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School

January 31: Ostrom Continued

  • Thomas Dietz, Nives Dolsak, Elinor Ostrom, and Paul C. Stern, “The Drama of the Commons” in Elinor Ostrom, ed., Drama of the Commons, pp. 3-26.
  • Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons, Ch. 1.

February 5: Ostrom Continued

February 7 and Feb 12 Social Capital

  • Robert D. Putnam, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Journal of Democracy 6:1, Jan 1995, 65-78
  • Robert D. Putnam, “Community-Based Social Capital and Educational Performance,” in Ravitch and Viteritti, eds., Making Good Citizens, pp. 58-95
  • Pierre Bourdieu, Forms of Capital, 1986 (excerpt)

Identifying Good Ends and Means

February 14: A Deliberation

  • Pre-read the Harvard Pluralism Project’s case entitled A Call to Prayer and be ready to discuss what the people of Hamtramck, MI should do.

First group assignment (a simulation) is due

 February 19: Habermas and Deliberative Democracy

  • Jürgen Habermas, “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article,” New German Critique, 3 (1974), pp. 49-55
  • Lasse Thomassen, Habermas: A guide for the perplexed. A&C Black, 2010, pp. 63-96, 111-130.

February 26: Habermas Continued

  • Jürgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action (selection) 
  • Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, pp. 17-23, 38-41

February 28:  The Conditions for Deliberation

  • Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, pp. 359-379
  • Danielle E. Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown, v. Board of Education, pp. TBA

Final draft of first paper due

March 12: John Rawls

  • John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, pp. 3-19, 52-57

March 14: Testimony and Empathy

  • Lynn Sanders, “Against Deliberation”
  • Emily McRae, “Empathy, Compassion, and ‘Exchanging Self and Other’ in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Ethics” for Handbook of Philosophy of Empathy (Routledge), edited by Heidi Maibom, 2017.

March 14: Midterm in class

March 15-25: Spring Break

Social Movements 

March 26: Social Movements 

  • Charles Tilly, “Social Movements, 1768-2004”
  • Marshall Ganz, “Why David Sometimes Wins: Strategic Capacity in Social Movements,” in Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper, Rethinking Social Movements: Structure, Meaning, and Emotion (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004) pp.177-98.

March 28: Exclusion and Identity

  • The Book of Nehemiah
  • Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”
  • Steve Biko, “Black Consciousness and the Quest for True Humanity” 

Second group assignment due

April 2:

Identity and the Common Good

  • Lilla, Mark Lilla, “The End of Identity Politics,” The New York Times, Nov. 18, 2016
  • Todd Gitlin, “The Left Lost in Identity Politics,” Harpers, Sept. 1993 
  • Transcript of an encounter: Hillary Clinton and Julius Jones

April 4: Community Organizing

  • Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, 1946 (1969 edition), pp. 76-81; 85-88; 92-100, 132-5, 155-158.
  • Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, We Make the Road by Walking, pp. 115-138

April 9: Nonviolent Campaigns

  • Martin Luther King, Stride Toward Freedom, chapters 3, 4, and 5.
  • Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, chapters 1 and 2 

April 11: Impure Dissent

  • Tommie Shelby, Dark Ghettos, 38-48, 252-73

April 16, 18: Nonviolence (PL)

  • Bikhu Parekh, Gandhi, Chapter 4 (“Satyagraha”), pp. 51-62;
  • Gandhi, Satyagraha (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing Co., 1951), excerpts.

April 18: Gandhi continued (PL)

  • Gandhi, Notes, May 22, 1924 – August 15, 1924, in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Electronic Book), New Delhi, Publications Division Government of India, 1999, 98 volumes, vol. 28, pp. 307-310
  • Timothy Garton Ash, “Velvet Revolution: The Prospects,” New York Review of Books, December 3, 2009 

The Person in Community

April 23: Civic Education: What all this means for what students should learn (EK)

  • Joel Westheimer and Joseph E. Kahne, “Educating the ‘Good Citizen’: Political Choices and Pedagogical Goals,” PS Online

Third group assignment due

April 25: Civic Studies at Tufts and Beyond

Draft of second paper due

May 7: Final paper due.

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unveiling a systems map for k-12 civic education

This is a systems map for k-12 civic education, developed for the CivXNow coalition and intended to guide the coalition and its members and allies. You can explore it here and also drill down to a more complex underlying map here.

[Suggested citation: Peter Levine, Louise Dubé, and Sarah Shugars, “Civic Education Systems Map,” Medford, MA: Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life/CivXNow Coalition, 2018]

Why use systems-mapping to analyze an issue and guide a coalition?

Any coalition needs a strategy, and it must be …

  1. Sufficiently complex for the issue: There is rarely one root cause or one leverage point. Many factors matter, and some outcomes are also inputs or causes.
  2. Supported by the grassroots, not just organizational leaders: Members of the coalition’s organizations must support the plan and believe that people like them had a voice. It can’t just be designed by the apex leaders.
  3. Broadly engaging: There must be roles for many different kinds of organizations and people to play. It can’t be limited to levers that only a few groups can pull.
  4. Widely supported: It must win a degree of consensus. Majority support isn’t good enough. If substantial portions of the coalition disagree with the plan, they will peel away. They may not quit or complain, but they will refrain from actively supporting the coalition.

… but also …

  1. Coherent and concise: The plan can’t just be a list of what everyone already favors.

Traditional methods for accomplishing these goals included electing a steering committee who would draft a document and ask for a vote of organizations or their representatives. These methods never worked all that well and they seem obsolete now.

Building on network science, 100Kin10’s approach to mapping the Grand Challenges of the STEM teacher shortage, and other experiments (like those of the Democracy Fund), we invited more than 7,500 people to co-produce this system map for k-12 civic education. I believe the result meets the five criteria listed above.

Importantly, people were not asked to rank issues by importance or to vote on priorities. Instead, they were asked very specific analytical questions based on their experience of the world around them. From their answers, we derived a systems map that suggests high leverage points.

Although we originally asked about civic education in an open-ended way, it’s clear that most respondents were focused on the k-12 age range and on schools as venues. This means that the map is not about youth civic engagement in communities and social movements; the formal political system (voting rights, gerrymandering, campaigns); news and social media; higher education; or education beyond civics (e.g., who attends what kinds of schools).

I regard this focus as a strength. K-12 civics is a system that relates to other systems. Mapping everything is impossible and a distracting ideal. If your own focus is a neighbor of k-12 civics–say, youth organizing, or engagement in higher education–then this map may help you see how to connect to k-12 civics.

How to read the map

The circles or nodes represent circumstances that we should work to accomplish. You could think of them as goals. An arrow connects two circles if improving the first would help improve the second. Larger nodes have more connections. Larger arrows suggest that the causal connections are stronger or clearer. Click on any node to read more about it. Hover over any node or arrow to see its immediate neighbors.

Each node combines more specific components, and those are displayed on the more complex map.

The whole point of a systems map is to avoid a simple distinction between inputs and outputs, causes and effects. Effects tend to influence causes. However, it would be reasonable to read the main map as basically flowing downward from the key leverage points, via intermediaries, to the widely-shared goals of youth civic knowledge and youth civic engagement.

Findings and how to use the map

The components that are furthest upstream and may have the most influence–without themselves being influenced by many factors shown on the map–include the public’s commitment to civics and schools’ embrace of their civic missions, the degree to which civics is relevant and engaging, and policies at the state and federal level that require and/or assess civics.

Factors that are midstream–being affected by other factors and directly boosting youth outcomes–include professional development, engaging pedagogy, inclusion of current and contentious issues, and funding specifically for civics.

Some factors are shown as not highly connected to the rest of the network–notably, “Civics is taught well in a context of political polarization and bias” and “Civic life is healthy.” This does not mean that these factors are unimportant. You could reasonably think that they are essential. The map suggests that they don’t have a lot of leverage over other factors. For instance, navigating bias may be essential, but the map suggests that it doesn’t lead to more funding, or assessments, or better materials.

A use case: A colleague noted that his state has chosen civically engaged youth as its goal. The portion of the map shown below presents a subsystem of relevance to him and his colleagues. It suggests that it’s essential for schools to make civic education more of a priority. One (but only one) reason is that schools and systems that care more about civics will allocate more funding specifically for it. There are relationships among youth knowledge of civics, youth civic engagement, and civics that addresses current controversies. In other words, kids learn content and are energized if they address current issues in school. It’s also important that schools be effective and fair institutions, although that may feel beyond the control of the civics field.

If our colleague wants to know how to encourage schools in his state to embrace their civic mission, he could click on that node (at the top of this illustration) to see its causes in turn.

More generally, the map can be used for:

  • Insight: Perhaps it was not already evident that these factors relate in this way. The map may offer insight.
  • Diagnosis: The map poses diagnostic questions. How strongly do the schools in your community embrace their civic missions? To what extent do students discuss contested current issues? Do these factors improve as a result of your efforts?
  • Support: No self-appointed committee decided that these factors are related in the ways shown above. The diagram emerged from more than 7,500 people’s careful assessments of specific empirical questions. That is a basis for advising relevant decision-makers on how to act.

What if you disagree?

I find myself broadly in sync with this diagram. But what if you don’t see the ideas or connections that matter most to you on the map?

  1. It’s worth zooming to the more complex map to see if they are there. On that detailed map, you can click buttons to identify all the factors that may be especially relevant if you have a particular take on civic education, such as Action Civics, a social justice orientation, a concern for civil discourse in and out of schools, or a focus on original texts and US history. (Note that these emphases are not mutually exclusive–I happen to endorse them all.) The ideas on the simpler main map are relatively content-neutral, and debates about content appear when you zoom in closer. I think that is appropriate. For instance, if we provide professional development (PD) for civics, then we can discuss what teachers should learn. There will be some healthy debates about that question, as well as some consensus and some room for pluralism and individual choice. But if very little PD is available for civics, then the debate about content is a bit empty. Thus PD goes on the main map, and what teachers should learn is explored on the more detailed map.
  2. Your focus might be on a different “system,” such as electoral politics or higher ed. Then the disclaimer about our focus on k-12 schools applies.
  3. You may be right, and the bulk of the 7,500 respondents may be wrong. In that case, the data suggest that you have some persuasion to do, and maybe you should build or publicize a pilot or demonstration program that supports your point. One definition of social entrepreneurship is filling perceived gaps in existing systems. Social entrepreneurship begins by analyzing mainstream views of an existing system (as our map does), identifying gaps, and addressing them.

The method

We first fielded a survey to identify possible causal factors. We recruited 6,495 respondents through a variety of networks. Twenty-one percent of the respondents were k-12 civics teachers; nine percent worked for organizations that address civics; five percent were current k-12 students; two percent were adult civic educators who don’t work in K-12 classrooms; and the sample also included people with many other relationships to civics, including parents who are not teachers, academic experts, funders, and policymakers.

The sample was not demographically representative of youth. Even compared to adult Americans, it tilted whiter (79%) and older (mean age 47)–as do classroom teachers. I acknowledge this as a limitation, but I would add that we never counted the number of votes for any particular idea. We used this survey to brainstorm issues, and it didn’t matter how many people named any given issue. Therefore, the most important question is whether there were significant numbers of young people and people of color to get their issues on the agenda. In fact, 289 people were under age 18, 230 were African American, 262 were Latinx, 122 were Asian, and 78 were Native American.

We used a modified version of the 5 Whys method, first developed by Toyota’s engineers. A core question on our survey was, “Do you think that we provide good enough civic education in the USA today?”

Thirteen percent believed that civics is satisfactory as it is, and they were asked to elaborate. The rest thought that we do not provide adequate civics. They were asked why not: “Now we ask you to think about an underlying cause of that problem. What is an important reason that civics needs improvement?” They gave open-ended responses to that question. Then each respondent was shown his or her own answer and asked to explain that problem. “Now we’d like you to go even deeper. Why is this? Why do you think this happens?” We continued this process until we had more than 12,600 open-ended ideas about the causes of inadequate civics, including 2,800 responses that were five layers “deep.”

As people went deeper, they often began to cite very broad, possibly intractable problems, such as public apathy or an unresponsive political system. Some mentioned political polarization, but more named the left or the right as a harmful influence. The 5 Whys focuses on problems, and pushing respondents four or five levels deep tended to uncover a fair amount of frustration and polarization.

Our next task was to turn these 12,600 responses (including very few precise duplicates) into a much smaller set of factors that would capture the diversity of respondents’ views. Furthermore, we wanted to turn problem statements into levers for positive change. Instead of a list of problems, we wanted a list of specific goals that a coalition could work on.

For example, these are actual statements from the first survey (and there were many more like them):

  • “STEM is seen as more important”
  • “There is such an emphasis on testing, science and math, that civics is not emphasized enough.”
  • “Emphasis on science & math leads to cuts in time for other subjects.”
  • “In overemphasizing STEM, we have neglected all the arts (including history and civics).”

We translated all of these ideas into one phrase that summarizes a possible goal: “the number of people who view social studies as just as important as STEM increases.” We also wrote a second goal statement that captured related ideas: “the proportion of adults who believe that stem and civics can go together increases.”

To reduce the full list of 12,600 problem statements to 75 such goal statements, we used a combination of Natural Language Processing (which automatically puts text into clusters) and human coding and judgment. We omitted no original response because we disagreed with it or deemed it beyond the scope of our coalition. For example, someone wrote, “Civic education in most colleges and universities have socialist and marxist educators that use their time to indoctrinate and they do not educate.” Someone else wrote, “Since No Child Left Behind (created by George W. Bush to help his brother Neil’s testing industry biz) our politicians have seen education funding as an opportunity to make money.” We collapsed these comments, and many more like them, into two goals for consideration: “right-wing influence on civics decreases” and “left-wing influence on civics decreases.”

Then we fielded a second survey, drawing mostly on the same respondents. In this survey, respondents were shown 15 pairs of randomly selected possible goals, one pair at time. For each pair, they were asked (in effect) whether A causes B to increase, whether A causes B to decrease, and whether causing B to increase would be a good thing or not. Here is an example of an actual item:

I chose A, but that is a matter of judgment. I could see an argument for C, or even a tenuous case for B or D. If such questions had obvious answers, we wouldn’t need a collaborative process. Our method is to ask multiple people to share their best judgment about pairings like this one, based on their own experience.

If 75 factors can be linked to one another in either direction (A causes B and/or B causes A), there are 10,100 possible links. We recruited 1,825 people to take this survey (of whom 1,057 had also taken the first one). Each pair of nodes was reviewed at least three times and sometimes more than ten times. Once a link had been reviewed many times, we deleted it from the survey to channel responses to the pairs that had been randomly overlooked so far.

We treated a possible link as actual if 90% of the raters or at least 9 raters considered it a positive causal link. About 80% of the possible edges had some support as real causal connections; and 18% reached the 90% threshold. This produced a map that is too complex to guide action, although it’s perhaps an accurate reflection of the actual topic. It is the map shown here.

To simplify it, we clustered the 75 nodes conceptually. Two raters compared schemata and resolved differences to produce 14 nodes for the main map. We also asked 12 representatives of state education agencies gathered at a meeting to make their own clusterings and used their ideas to inform us. The best measure of inter-rater reliability when you have many raters and open-ended codes is Krippendorff’s alpha, which was fairly low, but that appears to be because many of the state representatives did not get around to categorizing most of the 75 ideas at all. There is certainly some subjectivity involved in our clustering, but we are transparent about the components of each cluster.

The maps also indicate which ideas were controversial, in the sense that some people thought these outcomes would be bad. The rate of controversy was never high–usually under 5%. However, this may be an underestimate, because if raters saw no causal link at all between two nodes, they couldn’t indicate that either of the nodes was bad.

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an expert class and the grassroots

(Menlo Park, CA) Here I am at Facebook, posting on Facebook. I’m with about 160 other people, and we’re having a valuable conversation about how to measure and assess civic education. (The space is leant to us by Facebook, but the organizers, CivXNow, are fully independent from Facebook.)

The participants bring highly diverse expertise, professional backgrounds, and opinions of relevant topics–from the nature of a good citizen to the appropriate role of testing. They are somewhat diverse racially and culturally, but much less so than the nation or our nation’s students. They are the kinds of people who can get their flights to California reimbursed from an organization’s budget, who can put titles on their name tags, and who can be asked to address specific issues as experts. Even if they perfectly represented America’s students and parents in terms of race and ethnicity, they would be sociologically different. This is a slice of the professional class.

Speakers have named that problem, as they should. Any group concerned with enhancing democracy should ask whether it is operating democratically. Democratic values include representation, voice, and accountability. If a bunch of adults with titles on their name tags talk about kids, they do not represent youth, give youth voice, or make themselves accountable to youth.

But I think it’s important to be realistic about the challenge. A defining feature of modernity–possibly the defining feature–is specialization. In socialist and capitalist societies alike, roles are differentiated and assigned to people who demonstrate and build specialized experience and training over years. Per Wikipedia, Max Weber’s definition of a “bureaucracy” is:

  • hierarchical organization
  • formal lines of authority
  • a fixed area of activity
  • rigid division of labor
  • regular and continuous execution of assigned tasks
  • all decisions and powers specified and restricted by regulations
  • officials with expert training in their fields
  • career advancement dependent on technical qualifications
  • qualifications evaluated by organizational rules, not individuals

Some successful organizations avoid the narrowest versions of these characteristics. For instance, they don’t divide tasks too “rigidly.” But they all do some of the above, and for an important reason: it works. Specialization, formal lines of authority, expertise and training all improve efficiency.

Because bureaucracy (within appropriate limits) boosts efficiency, it also confers power. People in organizations are more powerful than amorphous masses of people. A conference of representatives of organizations has more influence than a gathering of representative citizens would have. Apart from anything else, it can interlock with other bureaucratic systems, from state agencies to Facebook. But it must be demographically unrepresentative of the people it intends to help, at least in terms of age, employment, and educational attainment. Maybe Robert Michels exaggerated when he observed an Iron Law of Oligarchy, but if it’s not a law, it’s a strong tendency.

There is also power in grassroots politics, social movements, mass meetings, viral media campaigns, and the like. In fact, the people can swamp a Weberian bureaucracy. But popular politics is very different from organizational networking.

At our best, I think we can blur some of these boundaries. (For instance, there are a few eloquent and impressive k-12 students at this meeting.) We can cross boundaries in our own lives and careers, spending some time in settings where we are not experts or leaders, even if we wear name tags with impressive titles in other settings. We can morph from organizations to movements and back. And we can develop new methods for engaging grassroots publics in our organizations’ work. (This survey is an example.) But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that social change occurs without organizations or that organizational leaders can be truly representative of the public.

See also: who must be included in which meetings, committees, and movements?; Nicole Doerr, Political Translation: How Social Movement Democracies Survive; the rise of an expert class and its implications for democracy; and what gives some research methods legitimacy?

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was Aristotle right about what we must know to be good citizens?

Let’s posit that a good citizen should be able to a) form ideas about what would improve her community or society, b) understand how decisions about such matters are actually made and who has power to make each decision, c) persuade those people to think and act differently, and d) do all of the above ethically, which means reflecting on right and wrong.

A name for b) is “politics”; for c), “rhetoric”; and for d0, “ethics.” Aristotle wrote a book on each of those topics, and, although he didn’t give titles to any of his books, these are the names that we give them.

The Politics is about how city-states worked, about the pros and cons of various forms of government, and about the role of citizens in these states. The Rhetoric is about persuasion, but especially about “how to generate trust in ways that preserve an audience’s autonomy and accord with the norms of friendship” (Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers, p. 141). In other words, it’s about persuading responsibly, to the benefit of the listener. And the Nicomachean Ethics is about how to live a good life.

As the founder of a school (the original “Lyceum”), Aristotle meant his works to frame a curriculum. The good citizen should study politics, rhetoric, and ethics.

Was he right? I think largely so, with two caveats.

First, Aristotle had little to say about the actual decisions that confront a community. Ancient Athenians had to decide whether to build a wall or more ships, to invade Sicily or pursue peace with Sparta, to rebuild the Parthenon or use the money for something else. In our day, we must decide what to do about climate change, policing, economic growth and equality, and myriad other issues. Aristotle didn’t address most of the policy questions of his day, let alone those of our time. And he didn’t make “policy analysis” a part of his civic curriculum.

I think one reason was that he didn’t believe that general, theoretical reasoning was helpful for policymaking. Wise collective action was a matter of phronesis, judgment, and it was highly concrete. Citizens should deliberate about whether to build more triremes and should learn from the results. No abstract theory would help them to decide.

The other reason may have been a kind of elitism. Expertise existed about military, architectural, economic, medical, and agricultural matters, but it belonged to tradesmen (broadly defined). Gentlemen-citizens were generalists who lacked such knowledge. Their role was to consult experts when necessary and then to make all-things-considered judgments. A curriculum for gentlemen-citizens was about politics, rhetoric, and ethics, not about policy.

In contrast, we have disciplines such as economics, medicine, law, education, social work, international relations (and many more) that confer the highest social status and that promise knowledge relevant to making decisions. They sometimes even promise to be able to determine the best policies. For instance, if economics works, it should generate answers about questions involving taxes and interest rates. Advanced education for leaders has turned into the study of public policy, largely to the exclusion of rhetoric, ethics, and even politics, in Aristotle’s sense.

We might think that the pendulum has swung too far, because we really do need phronesis to make decisions. There are few algorithms that can determine a better policy. And to exercise judgment, we need ethics, rhetoric, and politics. But we wouldn’t want the pendulum to swing all the way back to Aristotle’s view, which is too disparaging of the study of policy. We should add the social sciences to Aristotle’s curriculum.

The second caveat concerns how we interpret Aristotle’s project and continue it. One type of interpretation emphasizes the consistency of Aristotle’s whole philosophy. He perceives ethics as connected not only to rhetoric and politics but also to logic, metaphysics, and natural science. It’s all part of one coherent universe organized by a small number of principles. A major test of whether a view is right is whether it coheres with this whole system.

If you think of Aristotle’s system as an inspiration, but you want to update it for a new era, you may try to build a new system. You won’t derive your specific views from any social science but from the elaboration of an overall view of the world: a systematic philosophy.

Thomas Aquinas exemplifies this approach. He believes that Aristotle must be updated by adding Christianity, and he writes a new systematic philosophy to that end. He begins with the question of God’s existence and works from there toward all other questions. When Aquinas gets to politics in the second part of the second part, question 58, his topics are: (1) What is justice? (2) Whether justice is always towards another? (3) Whether it is a virtue? (4) Whether it is in the will as its subject? (5) Whether it is a general virtue?; (6) Whether, as a general virtue, it is essentially the same as every virtue? — and so on.

The ornate cathedral of Aquinas’ thought might seem like a mere curiosity, except that the urge to systematize has been common, and Aristotle has often served as a model.

The alternative is to emphasize the Aristotelian idea of phronesis, practical wisdom. What Aristotle offers are some very general guidelines about how to organize political communities in which individuals who strive for personal virtue can argue productively about what to do together. No theory settles how to structure political organizations, how to live, or what policy arguments are right, but Aristotle inaugurates a process of thinking about those three topics together. And they are still more or less the right topics for citizens.

See also against a cerebral view of citizenship; Bent Flyvbjerg’s radical alternative to applied social science; Bent Flyvbjerg and social science as phronesis; on philosophy as a way of life.

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this blog turns 16

I posted a first blog on January 8, 2003. For more than a decade, I was an obsessive blogger, posting once every single work day. Sometimes, while traveling, I would go to serious lengths to get online in order to post just before midnight to avoid breaking my streak.

Lately, I have slacked off. I posted 163 times this year, or a little more than three times per week.

I blame Donald J. Trump. In 2018, I spent too much time following the latest outrages, about which I had nothing unusual or useful to add. Nowadays, I’m not reading as much serious stuff as I used to, unless it’s directly relevant to research or teaching. For several decades, I read almost every article in every issue of The New York Review of Books, but now I watch a growing stack of unopened issues. Instead, I’m pouring my time into checking whether the Post says something different from CNN about Trump’s latest tweet or what happened to the S&P and the presidential approval polling average as a result of the day’s news.

Then again, maybe this is not Trump’s fault. We’re each responsible for how we deploy our attention, and there is still plenty of excellent new work to read and reflect on. A New Year’s resolution, then, is not necessarily to blog more but to squander less time on ephemeral outrages in order to understand their deeper causes, or else to appreciate more of the things that are wonderful about our world.

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architecture of the 2010s

These are brand-new or planned buildings within walking distance of our home in Cambridge, MA.

I see this kind of design all over Boston and have also noticed it as far away as Kyiv. The typical urban architecture of our decade seems as distinctive as that of the 1890s or the 1930s.

The facades are divided into rectilinear panels of various sizes, avoiding regular patterns and symmetry. To differentiate the panels, a range of materials is used–notably, exposed wood, painted wood, brushed steel, some concrete, and tinted or clear glass. Often the panels are set in different planes. The architectural elements use a modernist vocabulary (e.g., windows without moldings, flat roofs, no cornices), but the overall impression is anti-modernist because the patterns have decorative–not functional–purposes.

I don’t know what search terms to use to test this uninformed observation. If you search “architecture 2010s,” the results are all about marquee buildings by world-famous architects, and the trend is radical experimentation with materials and forms–usually organic rather than rectilinear. I’m not sure whether there is a name or a recognized handbook for the kinds of relatively routine (no offense) buildings shown above, but I think they all would have looked odd in 2000 and have become ubiquitous since 2010.

See also love what you see: Kogonada’s Columbus (2017); Boston, recovering city; a complaint about ceilings in modern architecture; and anxieties of influence (a poem about Cambridge MA).

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a template for analyzing an institution

If you want to analyze an institution–whether it’s the local police department, marriage, or Facebook–an excellent guide is the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) Framework developed by Elinor Ostrom and colleagues, which is an encapsulation of the lifetime of work for which Ostrom won the Nobel Prize. It is shown below in a graphical form, and a very helpful, concise guide is McGinnis 2011.

The Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) Framework (Schoon, 2015 after Ostrom et al., 1994, p. 37)

I would divide the analysis into the following 23 questions. These questions basically cover the same issues as in the diagram above, working from left to right, but they don’t match up precisely because I draw on my own idiosyncratic influences.

  1. What is the institution? What is its name? How would you define it uniquely, and which people, resources, locations, etc. does it involve?
  2. What problem or set of problems interests you about it? This problem may be a failure (the institution doesn’t yield the intended results) or an injustice (it has bad results), or it could be the intellectual problem posed by its success: why does this institution work and can we replicate it?
  3. What other institutions are closely related to it, and how?
  4. Which institutional form(s) does it reflect, e.g., a government, a firm, a market, a network, an association, a community?
  5. What are important relevant biophysical conditions? What natural resources does it use, and which natural processes come into play? What characteristics of these resources and processes are relevant to the institution: e.g., scarcity, fragility, adaptability, ability to reproduce and grow, interdependence, tendency to move?
  6. What are important technological conditions, where “technology” means the relevant affordances and limitations that have been created–or will predictably be created–by human beings?
  7. What cultural meanings (in the sense of Geertz 1973) are involved? Are these meanings shared or disputed?
  8. To what extent can we detect wholes, rhythms, hierarchies, and networks in the institution (C. Levine 2015)? How do these forms interrelate?
  9. What official, formal, usually written rules govern the institution? What are its rules-in-use? (These may diverge from the official rules.)
  10. Are the rules grounded in phenomena beyond the institution? For instance, an institution might use a currency whose value is determined by other institutions. Tufts runs on an academic calendar related to the solar calendar, which is grounded in the motion of the earth. (Grounding is different from causation.)
  11. What goods are relevant? Who has which kinds of ownership over which goods? Are the goods subtractable? Are they excludable?
  12. Who are the relevant actors?
  13. What choices confront each actor? What does each actor know about the available choices?
  14. What does each actor value, and why?
  15. Under what conditions do the actors choose (e.g., with or without discussion, once or repeatedly, simultaneously or in turn, with or without knowledge of what the others are choosing)?
  16. What are the consequences of the most important or most likely combinations of choices made by all the actors?
  17. Are these consequences desired by the actors?
  18. Are these outcomes desired by people who are not among the actors?
  19. Are the outcomes fair or just by various normative criteria?
  20. Are they sustainable–meaning a) literally repeatable many times, and/or b) good for nature?
  21. How do the outcomes affect the issues raised in questions 1-15? In other words, do the outcomes of the institution change the institution itself, in a feedback loop?
  22. What deliberate changes in institutional forms (4), technologies (6), meanings (7), rules (9-10), or values (13) would produce preferable outcomes according to the criteria raised in questions 17-19? (I focus on 4, 6, 9-10, and 13 on the ground that these are the factors we can most readily change. Factors like the biophysical conditions and the relevance of other institutions are harder to influence.)
  23. How can we go about altering the institution in the light of 21?

Geertz, Clifford (1973) Thick description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture. The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays (pp. 3-30). New York, NY: Basic

Levine, C. (2015). Forms: Whole, rhythm, hierarchy, network. Princeton University Press.

Mcginnis, Michael. (2011). An Introduction to IAD and the Language of the Ostrom Workshop: A Simple Guide to a Complex Framework. Policy Studies Journal. 39. 169 – 183. 10.1111/j.1541-0072.2010.00401.x.

See also: insights on police reform from Elinor Ostrom and social choice theory; Elinor Ostrom, 1933-2012; why I still believe in institutions; should all institutions be democratic?; what defines an organization?; and against methodological individualism.

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when political movements resemble religions

In The Atlantic, John McWhorter suggests analogies between current movements against racism and religious revivals:

Third-wave antiracism is a profoundly religious movement in everything but terminology. The idea that whites are permanently stained by their white privilege, gaining moral absolution only by eternally attesting to it, is the third wave’s version of original sin. The idea of a someday when America will “come to terms with race” is as vaguely specified a guidepost as Judgment Day. Explorations as to whether an opinion is “problematic” are equivalent to explorations of that which may be blasphemous. The social mauling of the person with “problematic” thoughts parallels the excommunication of the heretic. What is called “virtue signaling,” then, channels the impulse that might lead a Christian to an aggressive display of her faith in Jesus.

… The new religion, as a matter of faith, entails that one suspends disbelief at certain points out of respect to the larger narrative. ….

When someone attests to his white privilege with his hand up in the air, palm outward—which I have observed more than once—the resemblance to testifying in church need not surprise. Here, the agnostic or atheist American who sees fundamentalists and Mormons as quaint reveals himself as, of all things, a parishioner.

McWhorter presents this analogy as a critique. He advises: “Social concern and activism must not cease, but proceed minus the religious aspect they have taken on.”

One obvious question is whether McWhorter is right that the anti-racist left is losing because of its rhetorical style. Jeffrey Sachs, for example, thinks it is winning.

But I am interested in a different question: why does political ideology often resemble religion? After all, anti-racist politics is not unusual in this respect.

  • Environmentalism offers an account of original sin (human exploitation of nature), an eschatology (the planet will be wrecked by greed and waste), authorities (climate scientists) whose conclusions must be trusted even though we can’t see or replicate what they see, heretics (climate skeptics), a moral critique of everyday behavior, and a path to salvation through sacrifice.
  • Libertarians define original sin as the influence of the state, which relies on violent force. Its tentacles reach into everyday life through taxation and regulation, corrupting the free condition of voluntary exchange. The state has a satanic tendency to expand, preying on human weakness. Until freedom is restored, libertarians should gather to read scripture (Hayek, von Mises) and convert wavering souls.
  • Marxism offers the whole package: scripture, prophets, martyrs, hymns, icons, metaphysics, eschatology, multiple denominations and sectarian schisms, heretics and excommunications, revival movements, fundamentalist and revisionist strands …

This list could probably be extended to include New Deal liberalism, various forms of nationalism, third-wave feminism, Bonapartist populism, etc.

A resemblance to religion does not invalidate a political movement. I am an environmentalist and I am not shaken by the fact that environmentalism bears a point-by-point similarity to Protestant Christianity. Faith in climate science is a necessary step to saving the planet. Maybe confessing white privilege is a necessary step to racial justice.

But we might ask: do these political movements so closely resemble religions because we have mental habits that we lazily or uncritically apply to new domains? Could we be more effective if we were more original?

Alternatively, are these excellent ways for human beings to organize our thoughts, and that is why they have reappeared in secular contexts after first flourishing in religions?

Also, are these forms of thought characteristic of religion, or only of Abrahamic religions? Some aspects of environmentalism and libertarianism (original sin, individual responsibility as part of voluntary groups) remind me specifically of Lutheran Christianity. They don’t sound at all like Buddhism, for example. Does that mean that these movements are problematically “Western”? Or did the Reformation give us tools for understanding and improving the world that we should be glad to use for other purposes?

See also: is everyone religious?; are religions comprehensive doctrines?; the political advantages of organized religion; the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology; and avoiding the labels of East and West.

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what the humanities contribute to interdisciplinary research projects

Cases for Culture is an initiative that explores “a Hybrid Genre of Scholarship between STEM and the Humanities.” One of the cases on its website is an interdisciplinary study that I am part of. We are investigating the impact of a new arts center on Boston’s Chinatown, with a focus on whether it combats the negative consequences of gentrification. Our team encompasses humanists from Drama & Dance and social scientists from Public Health and Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, with me (a philosopher morphed into some kind of social scientist) as the PI.

The question for this post is: What do the humanities contribute? What can they offer that is not available from the social and behavioral sciences? I’d suggest:

  1. Answers to the question: What is this thing? What should we call this human-made practice, artifact, or phenomenon? What adjectives may we apply to it?
  2. Is it good? “Good” here is a shorthand for other value-laden concepts, such as “authentic,” “equitable,” “beautiful,” “liberatory,” and many more.

In our study of the Pao Arts Center in Chinatown, I take these to be social science questions: Who attends arts events? Why? What happens to them as a result? What are the broader consequences? How and why is the Center supported?

But I take these to be humanities questions: What are the performances that people see at Pao? For instance, is a given performance rightly named a “classical Chinese opera”? If so, what does that mean? What are its origins and boundaries and how has it varied? Or: what is the building in which Pao is situated? Is it a “modern” high-rise? A work of “Western” architecture? And can we call a specific classical Chinese opera performed in a specific way in a particular 21st-century high-rise in Boston’s Chinatown “authentic,” “traditional,” “innovative,” “appropriated,” “self-conscious,” “popular,” “elitist,” or “subversive”?

To address those questions, one must interpret the cultural product itself. Putting the interpretation together with social scientific findings about causation creates a powerful hybrid. Only through this combination can one say whether it is desirableto introduce a certain genre or style of culture into this social context.

Some caveats:

First, the disciplines are not as sharply distinguishable as I have implied. Any person can contribute to inquiries within any discipline (if given appropriate support and a willingness to learn). And each discipline is continuous with everyday human cognition. Even astrophysics is a distant extension of our ordinary interactions with physical objects and our naked-eye stargazing. Still, disciplines extend our everyday cognition in impressive ways. Like other forms of specialization, they enable greater sophistication. The humanities dramatically extend our everyday capacity for interpreting the deliberate creations of other human beings.

Second, in claiming that the humanities address the question “What is this?” I do not imply that a given artifact has an essence. The Pao Arts Center, for example, is an assemblage of very diverse performances, each performed by many people who have diverse intentions, for notably heterogeneous audiences in a complex space that evolves over time. So any responsible answer to the question, “What is the Pao Arts Center?” must be long and complicated. It’s an essay question, not multiple-choice. But that simply reinforces the importance of the question. A cultural product is not like a chemical compound that has predictable effects in a body. Complex as chemistry may be, culture is much more so.

Third, I don’t mean that humanists monopolize normative (moral, ethical, political, and aesthetic) judgment. All human beings have rights to make their own judgments; claiming expertise about the right and the good is problematic. Still, the humanities tend to pose relatively subtle questions that have normative implications–not “Was that a good show?” but rather “Was that a traditional rendition of the opera?” “In what ways was it innovative?” Expertise is useful for these questions. Also, the humanities demand reasons for normative claims. In a peer-reviewed article, you don’t just assert that a work of art was (for example) “appropriated.” You argue for that thesis. Thus the humanities represent the everyday practice of deliberation–giving reasons for value-laden interpretations–made more sophisticated by specialization.

See also what are the humanities? (basic points for non-humanists)an empirical study of the humanitiescan the arts mitigate the harms of gentrification? A project in Boston’s Chinatown; the Tisch Program in Public Humanities; and how to tell if you’re doing good

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