Monthly Archives: October 2015

Tufts wins the New York Life Civic Engagement Award

The Washington Center for Internships selects the annual New York Life Higher Education Civic Engagement Award, and the 2015 award went to us at Tufts University along with Dominican University, John Carroll University (Ohio), Rutgers University-Camden (N.J.), and Weber State University (Utah).

These institutions are all wonderfully different, and the award emphasizes the many ways that colleges and universities can educate their own students for citizenship and strengthen public life in America.

At Tufts, we have two distinctive advantages.

First, we have elevated civic engagement to a high institutional priority. Unlike a typical school of public policy or public affairs, the Tisch College of Citizenship & Public Service at Tufts is charged with reaching all the students and faculty of the whole university, regardless of their majors, degree programs, and disciplines. And unlike a center for public engagement or service, the college has a dean who serves as a peer with the deans of Arts & Sciences, Medicine, and the other Tufts colleges and thereby influences the direction of the whole university. Tisch College is the epicenter of civic engagement at Tufts, collaborating closely with all the other schools.

Second, since we are a research university, we contribute to civic life by studying it and by conducting high-end research in collaboration with civil society. The award application asked for one example of a civic engagement program at each applicant’s campus, and we cited the Community Assessment of Freeway Exposure and Health (CAFEH) project. I’ve written about CAFEH before, but the essential points are that the idea came from community groups; they worked with Tufts on sophisticated, federally-funded science; and the results include not only more than 20 peer-reviewed articles but also local policies meant to address a really serious health problem (fine particulate pollution from highways). This is just an example, but it well illustrates how a research-intensive university can support civic life.

The blurbs on the other four winners are also inspiring and informative.

why calling Israel democratic increases criticism of Israel

If you tell Dutch people that Israel is a democracy like the Netherlands, Israel’s favorability rises among the conservative respondents but falls among those on the left. That’s according to an experiment by Lelkes, Malka, and Sheets (2015). They asked everyone the same questions about Israel but randomized which news stories the respondents read before they answered. The control group read about Israel’s agricultural and industrial sectors and how they resemble those of the Netherlands. The “cultural” group read about some cultural similarities between the two countries. And the “political” group read about how both nations are democracies. The x-axis shows respondents’ political ideology, from left to right. Note the steeper slope in the “Political” graph.


I visited Israel (and briefly the Occupied Territories) on a trip that was designed to increase our appreciation of Israel by exposing us to the freewheeling democracy of Israel. That meant that visits were arranged for us with Arab legislators and a jurist, the Palestinian Authority, and very liberal journalists, as well as right-wing settlers and others across the spectrum.

I am permanently grateful for this learning opportunity. My views became somewhat more complex, but I think that my overall appraisal of Israel’s policies declined during the trip–compared to a fairly low baseline. So I am like the Dutch left-of-center respondents: less favorable to Israel than my conservative compatriots to start with and prone to become even more critical when someone tried to show me that Israel is a democracy. Why?

First, because using the word “democracy” highlights the gap between rhetoric and reality. The 4.17 million people under Israeli occupation don’t have Israeli political rights. One could reply that all democracies fail to deliver on their principles–the United States, badly so. Indeed, I am angry about a lot of US policies, but that doesn’t make me feel better about Israel. Also, I doubt that we are currently doing anything as undemocratic as Israel is.

Second, democracies should be expected to achieve more justice than other systems do. A dictator will prevent the people from obtaining relevant information and diverse perspectives on issues, let alone acting to improve the world. He (or possibly she) will have very strong incentives and temptations to act unjustly, both towards subjects and outsiders. If benign despots are possible, they are rare. (H.G. Wells: “Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Ashoka shines, and shines almost alone, a star.”) In democracies, on the other hand, information and deliberative opportunities are available, and the people have mechanisms to make wise and just decisions of they so choose. Israel denies those mechanisms to the people under occupation, but Israelis who are fully enfranchised should be able to act reasonably well. That is both a moral expectation and an actual prediction: it is more likely that a country that is as democratic as Israel is will act justly. So then being told that it is a democracy lowers one’s appreciation of its actual performance.

the changing nature of risk and its relevance to political economy

(Washington, DC) Inspired by the work of the late Ulrich Beck, let’s say that capital and risk are two different issues. Whether you face low or high risk, you may have anywhere from zero to vast amounts of capital.

The more capital you have, the more power you can wield over other people. But the more risk you face, the more vulnerable you are to other people and to nature and fate. Governments and citizen groups can try to make the distributions of capital and of risk more consistent with justice, although the nature of justice is perennially controversial.

I think that companies and big investors have gotten better at handling risk, most individuals are more exposed to risk, and governments are worse at mitigating it.

In (say) 1932, capital was unequally distributed: Daddy Warbucks had a lot more cash than Little Orphan Annie. Risks were also unequally distributed: you were a lot more likely to get black lung disease if you were a miner than a stockbroker. But governments had a toolkit for analyzing, predicting, and remedying both sorts of inequalities. They could use tax and health statistics to see how capital and risk were distributed and could intervene by taxing and spending, by regulating big accumulations of capital (mainly banks and large corporations), and by implementing health and safety regulations. Labor unions also helped to socialize or mitigate risk. Meanwhile, corporations had limited tools to predict the risks that they faced individually, from strikes to earthquakes. And they had lots of sunk capital, such as the vast factories of Detroit. So they shared in the risks faced by their workers and were probably better off when governments mitigated risks for all.

Fast forward to 2012. Risks remain very unequal. With smaller unions and other strong membership associations and with generally less effective regulations, risks tend to be individualized. We also have a strong cultural presumption that risk belongs to the individual. A teenager who gets in trouble is supposed to pay the full price for his mistake.

Entities that have a lot of capital can navigate this environment. A company like Google in 2015 has much less sunk capital than a company like GM in 1932. Google can move investments anywhere in the world. It can fire an employer employee who is not performing or whose skills have become obsolete. The private sector also has sophisticated tools to forecast at least short-term risks and exotic financial instruments to hedge against risk. Overall, a company or an investor with lots of capital and sophistication is better off in a high-risk/high-opportunity economy than in a more predictable environment. To an increasing extent, money can simply purchase protection against risk.

But risk has shifted from capital to labor. Whereas the private sector can use a whole panoply of tools to predict adverse events and to externalize or limit their risks, individual workers have little recourse, and governments do not seem to be able to plan for even the most obvious risks, such as climate change. They choose systematically foolish responses to risks, such as dramatically overreacting to terrorism while ignoring the threat of financial meltdowns. Their unwillingness and incompetence are not inevitable laws of nature. They have been made weaker on purpose. Nevertheless, even a well-intentioned government would now have a long way to go before it possessed an adequate toolkit for understanding and mitigating risk.

more young people voted in ’72 than ’12

(Washington, DC) This graph shows two trends: the number of US citizens between the ages of 18 and 29, and the number of 18-29s who voted.
voting trend

The number of young voters fell from 122 million 1972 to 114 million in 2012, despite an increase of about four million in the number of eligible citizens under 30. That means that young voters had considerably less clout in 2012 than in 1972. They cast 24% of all votes in 1972 but 19% in 2012.

On the other hand, the comparison would look better if one set 1976 against 2008, because the latter was a stronger year for youth turnout. In 2008, the size of the youth population also surpassed the previous highs of the 1970s, producing record numbers of youth and of young voters. But the youth share was still smaller in 2008 (at 16%) then in had been in the 1970s, because of rapid growth in older generations. And then 2012 saw a fall in turnout.

does the falling homicide clearance rate in big cities promotes violence?

At Tufts on Wednesday, Danielle Allen made the following argument: the war on drugs lowers the chance that the police will solve any given murder by flooding a city with drug-related homicides. Once the homicide closure rate falls, there is a low chance that anyone who commits a murder will be caught. Under those circumstances, if you think someone might shoot you, you “shoot first,” as Allen said.

Right on cue, the New York Times reports from Baltimore: “as more people are being killed here, fewer killers are being caught. The homicide ‘clearance rate,’ the percentage of killings solved by the police, was 45.5 percent last year; today it is 32.8 percent, the police said. Nationally, the rate was 64 percent in 2013, the most recent year for which the Justice Department has statistics.”

I also found this trend line for Chicago:


These are big declines. In 1992, if you committed homicide in Chicago, the odds were you were going to be prosecuted. In 2012-14, the odds were you would get away with it. That could plausibly change violence rates. If the police can’t protect you against murder, you may feel you have to do it yourself.

Two caveats, however. First, clearance rates are imperfect statistics, subject to being gamed by police departments. Second, even while homicide clearance rates were falling in Chicago, so were homicide rates. So that is not really evidence of a vicious cycle of declining clearance rate leading to growth in violence.

But despite those two caveats, there certainly seems to be a vicious cycle in the last few years in Baltimore and perhaps other big cities, and that is a really serious concern.