Justice O’Connor and civics

I’m sorry to read that Justice O’Connor has dementia. She has devoted her retirement years to improving civics, and she has taken that objective fully seriously.

Her greatest contribution is the nonprofit organization she founded to teach civics through video games—a remarkable idea for someone her age to invent. iCivics is now the biggest provider of civic education and contributes immeasurably to the field.

Justice O’Connor has also been a tireless advocate of policies for civics. The landmark civic education legislation in Florida is named after her, for a reason. She co-chaired the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, which colleagues and I launched in 2003. She can be found on panels and ceremonies related to civics from coast to coast. That’s her, for example, to the right of David Skaggs in the picture above. (I’m doing my best to listen to the question from the audience.)

We have crossed paths in those contexts several times. She has often taken me by the hand, bored her steely blue eyes into me, and ordered me to do something—such as evaluate the impact of a national program.  I didn’t always comply but always took the obligation very seriously.

I won’t comment on her jurisprudence, if for no other reason than I haven’t studied it carefully. I have a working theory that she was especially deferential to autonomous institutions, such as universities. Whether that was wise or not is a matter of debate. Today, I’d rather celebrate her as one of the great retirees and citizens of our time.

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who must be included in which meetings, committees, and movements?

At a recent meeting, we discussed people who should be encouraged to join the effort we were working on. We quickly listed demographic categories that we should pay attention to: race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, age, class, ideology, partisanship, and religion.

I think these categories are important for outreach and recruitment–but importantly different.

Race, gender, and sexual orientation

Race, gender, and sexual orientation matter because we live in a society that is deeply unequal on those dimensions. Unless you seriously strive for equal representation, you are likely to end up with a panel or committee full of straight white men–and the more influential and prestigious the group is, the more that will be the outcome. Failing to address it preserves inequality.

A demographically homogeneous group may also lose the wisdom that comes from a wider range of perspectives and experiences, but to me, that is not an essential argument. Sometimes, adding racial or sexual/gender diversity won’t actually add relevantly different perspectives on the issue under discussion, but inclusion is still important for addressing inequality in the society as a whole. There is often also a pragmatic imperative for improving racial and gender representation. Without such diversity, a group looks illegitimate and can’t win the support it needs to move forward.

I would equate religion with race/ethnicity insofar as it’s an identity that provokes discrimination by others. As a set of beliefs about the world, a religion is more like an ideology, which I will address below.

Social class

Our society is also unequal by class, but this is different. Class is a name for social inequality. It doesn’t make sense to imagine a society with different classes that are equal to each other. If you have equality, you don’t have classes at all. However, it is not clear that a classless society can be accomplished. State communist societies produced the nomenklatura, a powerful new class or (as Trotsky thought) a caste composed of party officials and their families. According to Robert Michels, social democratic parties and unions quickly created “oligarchies” of professional organizers, notwithstanding their sincere commitments to equality. By virtue of being a union official instead of a unionized line worker, you are now part of a different class.

If you organize a meeting of people who hold a certain range of positions in society–a meeting of union leaders, or teachers, or leaders of nonprofit organizations, or college students, or miners–it will have a class “bias.” Yet surely there is value in such meetings. It wouldn’t be reasonable to argue, for example, that teachers should never organize except along with students, parents, and others. But if teachers organize, that is a middle class movement.

Therefore, it is a bit disingenuous to imagine that you can be “inclusive and diverse” with respect to class. But you can strive (1) to be inclusive of people who have various class origins and cultural markers of class, such as accents; and (2) to organize meetings and movements that engage grassroots participants, not merely leaders and experts. But (2) is hard. After, who will organize, pay for, and advertise the big meeting that is open to the public as a whole? Surely some kind of specialized subgroup will be responsible. Michels thought oligarchy was an “iron law,” and even if it’s less rigid than that, there is still a powerful tendency for people who hold certain social positions to run things. That’s what it means to have those positions.

Age

Age is different, too. We should be concerned about including younger people because we should be worried about future leadership and must create opportunities to learn and to develop power. But age equality is not like racial or gender equality. There are actual differences among people of different ages. For instance, senior managerial positions cannot be equally distributed between the young and old. It takes time to develop the experience, expertise, and connections that institutions need.

The House Democrats who will lead important committees if the party wins in November  will include Elijah Cummings, age 67, Bennie Thompson, 70, Maxine Waters, 80, Nita Lowey, 81, and Eddie Bernice Johnson, 82. These are women or men of color who have waited a long time for gavels. To be sure, the party caucus could replace them with younger leaders who were also diverse, but these people’s claims to leadership rest on seniority, and that deserves consideration. I wouldn’t oppose replacing them with younger chairs, but I would insist that age is different from, say, race. It can be legitimate to consider seniority or experience.

Ideology, partisanship, and theology

It’s worth bearing in mind that our goal is to develop the right views so that we can do what is right. The right views are not equally consistent with all ideologies, party platforms, or applications of theology.

In pursuing the right views, we must be humble. It is very likely that each of us is wrong and that others are more right. So we must be open and interested in alternative views.

I am typically a mainstream liberal, center-left. I especially benefit from being an outlier in meetings that are dominated by libertarians/neoliberals or by radical proponents of identity politics. I don’t fully align with either position but always learn from them–usually more than I learn from hanging around other people with whom I easily agree.

Learning provides a rationale for philosophical diversity–but with important caveats. First, some alternative views are more worthy than others. I seek out libertarians but not Trump-supporters to learn from. That is a judgment, and it could be wrong, but it’s my best judgment at this moment. I don’t believe that I have anything whatsoever to learn from Donald Trump himself, yet more than 60 million Americans really like him. Demographic representativeness would argue for including Trump-supporters, but my judgment about how to learn does not.

Furthermore, the value of ideological diversity depends on the purpose of a meeting or event. If I am trying to advance an agenda, I want a majority of participants to share my considered views of the topic. I may value some minority views to keep us sharp, but I’d like the majority to agree with me. I can achieve that goal either by recruiting like-minded participants or by persuading other attendees to agree. I would never treat racial or gender/sexual diversity in a similar way, trying to stack the room with people who were like me. On the other hand, if my goal is to learn, I may prefer to be one of a few participants in a meeting dominated by people who oppose my views, so that I can get a full dose of their perspective.

Conclusion

In sum, race/ethnicity and gender/sexuality make powerful claims for equal representation. Class and age are more complicated; it can be disingenuous to imagine that a meeting can be egalitarian on those dimensions. And ideological diversity is not a good in itself, but intellectual humility and striving to learn are genuine goods that sometimes provide reasons to be ideologically inclusive.

The complication is that race and ethnicity, gender, age, religion, ideology and partisanship correlate in the population. Say you want a meeting of influential people who are in a position to allocate resources, but you also demand racial diversity in your meetings. The most influential people are likely to be predominantly white. Or say you’re a libertarian who is genuinely committed to racial equality (as some are). You’re entitled to form a committee of libertarians, but it’s your problem if they all turn out to be white men.

I think these points of conflict among different kinds of diversity generate some of the hardest issues, both ethically and pragmatically.

See also: what is privilege?the rise of an expert class and its implications for democracyto what extent can colleges promote upward mobility?defining equity and equalitytwo approaches to social capital: Bourdieu vs. the American literature; and a college class on equalitywhen social advantage persists for millennia.

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closing remarks at the Bridge Alliance summit

(Posted by request: my remarks at the close of the 2018 Bridge Alliance Members Summit, a convening of “more than 90 respected established organizations committed to revitalizing democratic practice in America,” Washington, DC, Oct 17.)

I’ve been asked to offer some reflections on the day’s discussion.

My first reflection is gratitude to the Bridge Alliance, its whole staff, and to all the Alliance members for all the work you do every day.

My second reflection is anxiety. I admit that in meetings like this, I am filled with anxious questions:

  • Are we big enough? Are enough people and resources here? Do we have enough people with us?
  • Are we diverse enough? The answer to that is clearly no. That is a problem that belongs to the whole network, not to the Bridge Alliance alone.
  • Are we experienced, knowledgeable, talented, and smart enough?
  • Are we unified enough? Today, I was privileged to participate in one small-group discussion in which the axis of disagreement was institutionalist versus insurrectionist: should we try to defend beleaguered institutions such as journalism, science, and the US Constitution, or seek to replace them because they were never good enough? I also participated in a good discussion about ideology: should we aim to be maximally inclusive or neutral, or rather develop a distinctively pro-democratic stance that some may support more than others do? These kinds of disagreements seem to threaten our unity.

What we know about social movements may be helpful. I have in mind two kinds of movements. One is the coalition or network that works for “healthy self-government”–in other words, the organizations that are in this room. As a group of groups, we could gain more of the “fizz” of a movement. Meanwhile, we see actual movements around us: #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #NeverTrump, and the Tea Party. They could operate in ways that have more collateral benefits–and do less collateral harm–to democracy.

My reading of the social movement literature suggests that social movements succeed when they have four qualities:

Size: Movements need many members, organizations, and resources. Erica Chenoweth says that no nonviolent resistance campaigns in her large database have failed if they have “achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5% of the population—and lots of them [have] succeeded with far less than that. … In the U.S. today, this means almost 11 million people.” If 11 million people came together for a reform, it would probably happen.

Depth: Participation must develop the members’ commitments, skills, knowledge, and tactics. No group begins smart enough to win; they must learn. In Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King writes, “Human beings with all their faults and strengths constitute the mechanism of a social movement. They must make mistakes and learn from them, make more mistakes and learn anew. They must taste defeat as well as success, and discover how to live with each. Time and action are the teachers.”

Unity: Social movements always present themselves as unified, because that is a source of strength. Hence the hashtags, armbands of a single color, protest songs, and mass demonstrations.

Plurality: Social movements need diverse perspectives, skills, and assets. They need both insiders and outsiders, both romantics and pragmatists. They should be demographically diverse, too, although that doesn’t always mean reflecting the demographics of the whole country. The Big Six leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement were all Black men. It wasn’t great that they were all men, but it was good they were all Black. The movement needed African American leadership and was rooted in the Black community. Still, their diversity of backgrounds, stances, and skills was essential. Randolph was a union leader, King a pastor and theologian, Lewis a youth leader, and so on.

Unfortunately, size conflicts with depth, and unity conflicts with plurality. It is very hard to have a large movement that also affects most of its members deeply, or a diverse movement that also achieves unity.

These four qualities spell SPUD, and we need more of it (even if it sounds like a lot of carbohydrates).

In interviews that Eric Liu and I conducted for “America’s Civic Renewal Movement: The View from Organizational Leaders,” Scott Reed of the faith-based PICO network said that his organization “invests lots and lots of time to connect with people and develop relations.” But “scale is what we are trying to figure out … because we are nowhere near where we want.” In short, PICO has U and D and some P, but no S. Meanwhile, Anna Galland of MoveOn acknowledged that her online organization has “tremendous scale and little depth.” MoveOn’s goal, she says, is to “move from a list of 8 million to horizontal connectivity.” MoveOn has S and U but no P or D.

SPUD is in short supply in the US as a whole. But I would suggest two reasons for hope.

First, the Bridge Alliance is not just the people in this room: organizational leaders. It encompasses all the grassroots participants in your many organizations. It is appropriate to gather organizational leaders periodically. But that strategy also has limitations–for instance, it is much harder to achieve true diversity of age and socioeconomic status when you convene the leaders of 501(c)3 organization. If we can convene our many members, we can come much closer to achieving SPUD.

Second, SPUD increases the chance of victory. It pays off. Movements that draw a diverse 3.5% of the population and build their talent and unity almost always win. Therefore, it is in the interest of the powerful movements that we see around us to cultivate SPUD. The more SPUD-ly they are, the more they are likely to win–and the more they will create diverse, empowered, deliberative groups of Americans. That should have deep collateral benefits for our republic. Because many of us are experts on group dynamics, civic education, discussion, etc., we have a lot to offer to our fellow Americans who are invested in social movements with specific agendas.

I hope this makes you less anxious than I am. We have good reasons to be optimistic.

See also: we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth)Why Civil Resistance Worksthe power of the NRA in an age of civic desertsso, you want to strengthen democracy?; and a sketch of a theory of social movements.

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youth on the brink of a watershed election

My CIRCLE colleagues are on a roll. Since October 9, they have released three reports based on their original national survey of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24:

In addition, based on an entirely separate survey conducted with Opportunity Youth United (OYU) of 1,200 youth from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, they have released:

Some highlights, for me:

It doesn’t make sense to vote as a complete individual. If 100 million others will also vote–your voice is too small. But it does make sense to vote if you see yourself as part of a group that has a voice. CIRCLE asked whether “you are part of a group or movement that will vote to express its views.”  Just 37.2% of White men said yes, versus 59.5% of young Latinas, 54% of Black men, and 46% of White women. White men were also the one group of youth who plan to vote Republican.

Women and youth of color held views that could be described as more cynical about politics and politicians. But cynicism predicted higher turnout.

We find that young people who reported feeling more cynical are actually more likely to say they are voting than those who are not: 40% vs. 26%. Importantly, being cynical about politics is not preventing young people from recognizing its importance. More than half of youth in our poll (54.8%) agree that the outcome of the 2018 elections will have a direct impact on their everyday lives, only slightly lower than 60.0% in 2016, which is remarkable given that presidential elections are generally seen as much more consequential.

These findings would suggest that young women and people of color are more energized and motivated to vote than young white men are–and that may be true overall. But the barriers to voting fall most heavily on poor youth and youth of color:

Young people, especially those from low-income backgrounds, face logistical barriers to voting, each of which may seem small, but together can make voting difficult. These barriers include having to find out where their polling place is located, not having transportation to the polling place, and having to work around their job schedule—an obstacle compounded by the fact that many have more  than one job.

… For instance, a quarter of our participants had moved within the last 12 months, but of those, only 40% had changed their voter registration address. At the same time, laws and tools designed to facilitate voter participation, such as online registration and text reminders for voting, are not widely used by low-income youth.

… Many of our participants assumed (mostly incorrectly) that a variety of minor criminal offenses and past convictions would bar them from voting. For instance, when asked if someone who has a suspended driver’s license would be able to vote, 24% wrongly believed they could not, and another 42% did not know.

Some young people are apprehensive about going to the polling place because they rarely see people there that they can identify with 74% said they don’t see poll workers that “look like them,” and 87% said they do not see young people working at the polls. Relatively few actually experienced harassment at the polls, but 59% do not believe that election officials make an effort to ensure that people like them can vote.

Overall, it looks as if youth turnout will be a contest between motivated, angry, energized young people and our sometimes inaccessible and alienating electoral systems. I predict some improvement in youth turnout compared to recent midterm elections–with lots of room to improve in future years.

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two approaches to social capital: Bourdieu vs. the American literature

The phrase “social capital” is used in (at least) two very different senses and discussions.

One is an Anglophone discussion among social scientists who seem generally comfortable with a liberal market order. Important participants include James Coleman, Robert Putnam, Elinor Ostrom and (using the related phrase “collective efficacy”) Robert Sampson and Felton Earls. These social scientists understand social capital as the value that derives from collaborating and solving collective-action problems together. It’s measured by rates of joining, socializing, participating in the institutions of civil society, and trusting one’s peers. It can exist in any group, regardless of wealth and prestige. For instance, Sampson, Earls and their colleagues found that levels of collective efficacy varied greatly among Chicago neighborhoods, independent of race and class.

The central hypothesis in this literature is that higher social capital predicts better outcomes (safety, education, health, employment). This hypothesis is often proven in empirical studies. The deepest explanation is that these desirable outcomes are public goods, subject to problems of collective action, and social capital is the capacity—inherent in a group—to address problems of collective action successfully. For instance, safe streets represent a public good, and when people voluntarily maintain order, the streets are safer.

The other discourse is loosely Marxian and of Continental European origin; the most influential theorist is Pierre Bourdieu. For Bourdieu, social capital can only be understood in relation to economic capital and cultural capital. All three forms are the result of past labor, which accumulates or materializes in forms that can then be owned and by–and used to the advantage of–specific individuals or closed groups, such as firms.

Economic capital means ownership, or the ability to own, the means of production (factories, offices, farms, mines). Cultural capital means personal characteristics that you can learn in order to set yourself apart as a member of an advantaged group. For example, if you know how to dress for and behave at a corporate job interview, you have acquired cultural capital. And social capital means membership in any group that has value for those who belong.

Thus a paradigm case of social capital for Bourdieu is being connected to specific aristocrats in a way that puts you within the group known as “the nobility.” You might be a poor and boorish noble: then you would have social capital without much economic or cultural capital. Still, each of the three pays off in ways that are fundamentally economic.

For Coleman et al., the effort required to build social capital is at least partly altruistic. When you try to help others around you, it turns out that you benefit as well from the public resource of social capital. Social capital is non-rivalrous or win/win. If poor people in Chicago build more social capital, that does no harm to Lake Shore millionaires. It might even reduce their tax burdens by boosting graduation rates and cutting crime in the city as a whole.

The Bourdieuian form of social capital is competitive and maybe even zero-sum. If you form a connection to an aristocrat that gives you a leg up in society, I am less advantaged. According to Bourdieu, people build social capital to advance their own interests, strategically targeting others who have various forms of capital to add to their networks:

The existence of a network of connections is not a natural given …  It is the product of an endless effort at institution. … In other words, the network of relationships is the product of investment strategies, individual or collective, consciously or unconsciously aimed at establishing or reproducing social relationships that are directly usable in the short or long term. …

The reproduction of social capital presupposes an unceasing effort of sociability, a continuous series of exchanges in which recognition is endlessly affirmed and reaffirmed. … This is one of the factors which explain why the profitability of this labor of accumulating and maintaining social capital rises in proportion to the size of the capital. Because the social capital accruing from a relationship is that much greater to the extent that the person who is the object of it is richly endowed with capital (mainly social, but also cultural and even economic capital), the possessors of an inherited social capital, symbolized by a great name, are able to transform all circumstantial relationships into lasting connections. They are sought after for their social capital and, because they are well known, are worthy of being known (‘I know him well’); they do not need to ‘make the acquaintance’ of all their ‘acquaintances’; they are known to more people than they know, and their work of sociability, when it is exerted, is highly productive.

Although these theories are different, they could both apply in a society as a whole. After a discussion with students last week, I am inclined to the following hypotheses:

  1. Access to the highest rungs of socioeconomic advantage requires (or at least benefits from) Bourdieu-style social capital. If you want to get a seat on the Supreme Court, it seems almost necessary to attend Harvard’s or Yale’s law school, partly because of who you know as a result. Social capital may also get you into those law schools in the first place. For instance, I can think of someone who attended Law School on his way to federal judicial appointments; his mother had also been a judge, and his grandfather had attended Yale.
  2. Well-being in the middle and lower rungs depends on social capital in the Coleman/Putnam sense. If you are trying to get through high school and obtain some post-secondary education, get a job, stay out of jail, and live to the median age, it’s very helpful to be embedded in networks of cooperation and mutual support. Those networks have value even if the other members are not rich and powerful.

See also: David Brooks/Pierre BourdieuBourdieu in the college admissions officeChua and Rubenfeld, The Triple Packagesocial capital and economic mobility“social capital”: political and apolitical and when social advantage persists for millennia.

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curiosities from Wikipedia (an occasional series)

From the entry on Norfolk Island, pop. 1,748, which lies 877 miles from mainland Australia:

This common heritage has led to a limited number of surnames among the islanders – a limit constraining enough that the island’s telephone directory also includes nicknames for many subscribers, such as Cane Toad, Dar Bizziebee, Lettuce Leaf, Goof, Paw Paw, Diddles, Rubber Duck, Carrots, and Tarzan.

From the entry on the Scots Language:

The results from a 1996 trial before the Census, by the General Register Office for Scotland, suggested that there were around 1.5 million speakers of Scots, with 30% of Scots responding “Yes” to the question “Can you speak the Scots language?”, but only 17% responding “Aye” to the question “Can you speak Scots?”.

From the entry on Isaac Newton:

As Warden, and afterwards Master, of the Royal Mint, [Sir Isaac] Newton estimated that 20 percent of the coins taken in during the Great Recoinage of 1696 were counterfeit. … Convicting even the most flagrant criminals could be extremely difficult. However, Newton proved equal to the task. Disguised as a habitué of bars and taverns, he gathered much of that evidence himself. … Newton had himself made a justice of the peace in all the home counties. … Then he conducted more than 100 cross-examinations of witnesses, informers, and suspects between June 1698 and Christmas 1699. Newton successfully prosecuted 28 coiners.

See also: strange livesthe European country that spoke Esperanto; and Anson Burlingame and the duel that never happened.

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new CIRCLE youth survey: high youth engagement in the 2018 election

From today’s CIRCLE release:

The 2018 midterms have the potential to be historic for youth political participation, with young people receiving campaign outreach, paying attention, and intending to vote at unusually high levels (34% “extremely likely” to vote) that come close to the levels of engagement seen in the 2016 presidential election. Young people who report being actively engaged with the post-Parkland movement for gun violence prevention are even more likely (50%) to say that they’re extremely likely to vote. Our poll reveals strong support overall for Democratic candidates in Congressional elections (45% plan to vote for Democrats, versus 26% for Republicans), but large disparities among different demographic groups of young people, with Black and Latino youth much more likely to support Democratic candidates, young white men actually favoring Republicans, and unaffiliated white youth spreading their support across various parties and ideologies. We also find that, for all the focus on young people’s engagement with political content online, family remains the most important way for youth to learn about the election and the most influential in their engagement and participation.

Much more is here, and this is just the first in a series of analytical posts drawn from a new survey of 2,087 people aged 18 to 24 in the United States, with representative over-samples of Black and Latino youth, and of 18 to 21-year-olds.

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reforms for a broken Supreme Court

In the Republic of A, the highest appeals court may overturn legislation based on the text of an idealistic but short and vague constitution (without further appeal to the legislature), that court consists of just nine justices appointed for life, appointment requires an agreement between the president and the Senate, and those two bodies are separately elected and can belong to different parties. This sounds like … a royal mess.

You’d predict that Supreme Court appointments in this republic would be another form of regular legislative politics, but with higher stakes and less accountability. When one party controlled both the executive branch and the Senate, they would appoint a justice to promote their agenda for the rest of her or his life. When the branches were split, they would be unable to make appointments at all, unless as part of elaborate horse-trades. If the public did not accept these realities, then politicians would attempt to conceal the underlying situation by endorsing justices with appropriate judicial “temperaments” and sterling resumes, trying to avoid discussing the nominees’ positions on issues.

The actual record in the Republic of the USA is a bit more complicated. There have been long periods of rocky confirmations–especially 1800-1870–as well as lulls in that strife.

Note also the waning public confidence in the Supreme Court. Here I show the trend for younger adults separately, because early-adult experiences are formative, and youth have lost a lot of confidence since ca. 2000.

One explanation for the lulls could be a degree of consensus about the issues coming before the court, but that can’t explain why Taft could appoint five conservative justices, and FDR, eight liberals. Throughout that period, there was a bitter debate about the role of government, yet presidents were successful at appointing justices who shared their views.

A different explanation is that our two parties were divided internally on ideological lines from about 1890-1980. Thus any president could almost always assemble a majority by combining his whole party with the faction of the opposition that was aligned with him ideologically. That situation only ended ca. 1990, when the parties polarized in Congress. Note the resulting turbulence since then.

The Supreme Court is not simply a machine for implementing partisan policy preferences. Justices are also guided by legal principles, considerations that arise in the specific cases or controversies that come before them, constitutional texts and interpretations, precedents, deliberations among the Nine, and concern for the institution of the court. They may reach unexpected conclusions.

Yet we see generally different results from justices appointed by Democrats versus Republicans. That means that the Supreme Court represents at least a big dose of legislative politics by other means. The small number of justices, their life terms, and the randomness of who can appoint and confirm new members all raise the stakes and lower our confidence in the fairness of the process.

From this perspective, the familiar list of grievances (Bork, Thomas, Garland, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh) is predictable and only likely to worsen. If we are open to alternatives, we might begin to consider:

  1. Weakening judicial review so that the Court is less likely to be the final arbiter of deeply contested issues. That would be a democratic reform but not a liberal one, and it could be dangerous for minorities of all kinds.
  2. Strengthening advice and consent by developing a norm that the president should choose from a short list acceptable to members of both parties. That reform has a centrist bias that may not be desirable.
  3. Constitutional reform. For instance, imagine that justices hold rotating nine-year terms. Then every year at least one vacancy would arise (more if someone resigned or died). Debates over confirmation would be constant, but the stakes would fall. Each new president could count on four chances at appointments, followed by the referendum of a national reelection campaign. A two-term president with a Senate majority could entirely reshape the court, but her successor could change it back.

[Confirmation data from the Senate. See also: is our constitutional order doomed?are we seeing the fatal flaw of a presidential constitution?,  two perspectives on our political paralysis,  and the changing norms for Supreme Court nominations.]

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the regime that may be crumbling

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan would be pleased that Trump has signed a massive tax cut, presided over deregulation, and saved NAFTA by essentially reenacting it after running for president against it. Nevertheless, his worldview and his coalition are inconsistent with their legacy.

The regime that they founded has had the following characteristics:

  1. Political elites widely agree that government programs, especially redistributive welfare programs, are inefficient and counterproductive. It was Bill Clinton who announced “the era of big government is over” and ended the federal welfare guarantee. It was the Socialist President François Mitterand who led France into austerity (“la rigeur“) in 1983. What characterizes this period is not the electoral victory of pro-market parties, but the fact that the opposition also criticizes the welfare state.
  2. Progressive movements channel most of their energy into opening capitalist institutions to women, people of color, and sexual minorities, rather than overturning capitalist institutions. Progress means being able to be who you are at work or in school. That is a broadly libertarian impulse.
  3. Many huge countries liberalize and deregulate their economies, fully entering the competitive global economy. Whether as a result or by coincidence, they see rapid and sustained improvements in human development (education, health, longevity). Of the 135 countries with data, 132 have seen improvements in the Human Development Index since 1970, many to a startling degree.
  4. International flows of capital rapidly increase. So do rates of economic migration, albeit at a slower rate than capital. Developed nations become more diverse as a result of immigration.
  5. Developed nations deindustrialize, with the losses of manufacturing jobs concentrated in certain cities. For example, Detroit’s population falls by more than 50%.
  6. Unions practically vanish. Union density falls from more than 30% of US workers in 1955 to 10% now (6.7% in the private sector).
  7. Many countries get “tough on crime,” expanding the use of prisons.
  8. Some nations that are capitalist and authoritarian become magnets for capital. Of the world’s nine Alpha+ and Alpha++ Global Cities, five are located in authoritarian states: Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing, Dubai, and Shanghai.
  9. The US and NATO countries spend heavily on the military (with most of the money flowing to defense industries). They are especially prone to intervene in the Persian Gulf, where the oil comes from. We should also acknowledge that the chance of dying in a war during this period is the lowest in human history. One interpretation is that the US and its allies have locked things down in ways that really do reduce violence, albeit also to the advantage of multinational corporations. Terrorism is a feature of this period, but it kills an infinitesimal number of people compared to war.

I believe that most of the trends enumerated above were popular. I am familiar with the Martin Gilens/Benjamin Page argument that the US is an oligarchy–responsive to lobbies, not to ordinary voters. I think that explains why specific bills are blocked even though they are popular. It does not explain a much deeper and broader trend toward a certain kind of global corporate political-economy.

Reagan was elected in a country with a large White majority that was affluent by historical and global standards. A voting majority was suburban, Christian, and bourgeois. To a rough approximation, they got what they voted for. Every indication is that Chinese citizens appreciate the progress generated by their version of a neoliberal regime.

The questions now are: 1) Are people revolting against the current order? How many people? How effectively? 2) What is most likely to replace it? New versions of egalitarianism? Ethnonationalism and authoritarianism? Davos Man strikes back? And 3) How to move forward? It is generally a lot harder to build things up than tear them down, and we don’t just need new governmental policies; we also need new institutions in civil society.

(I see that I’ve addressed the same topic once before, offering a different list: what is the political economy that people are revolting against?)

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defining equity and equality

You can find authoritative explanations of the differences between “equity” and “equality,” but I think the definitions of these words vary, and there is no objectively correct distinction.

However, we can generalize a bit. To say that something is “equal” does not imply a positive value-judgment. Some people are taller than me. That means that our heights are unequal, but it is not an injustice. Nor does making things more equal always improve justice. Procrustes stretched his prisoners who were too short and lopped the feet off those who were too tall to make all their bodies an equal length. That was not an example of justice. “Equal” has a meaning in mathematics (already attested in Chaucer), and when it’s transported to social and ethical contexts, it retains its mathematical flavor of value-neutrality.

It’s true that the word has long been used as a synonym for fairness. Milton:

… till one shall rise
Of proud ambitious heart; who, not content
With fair equality, fraternal state,
Will arrogate dominion undeserved
Over his brethren, and quite dispossess
Concord and law of nature from the earth …

But Milton has to say “fair equality.” Out of context, without such a modifier, inequality may not imply injustice.

In contrast, the word “equity” has a positive valence, whether in the law (a “court of equity”), in ethics, or in social analysis. If something is equitable, to that extent it is fair. The question becomes: What constitutes fairness? Answers vary depending on people’s philosophical beliefs, social roles, and cultures.

Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire.

In this well-known picture, several things are equal (the heights of the boards that make up the fence, the altitude of the ground at all points, the sizes of the three boxes, the height of all the heads in the second picture). Some things are unequal, especially each person’s body height.

Despite its label, the first situation is not equal in every respect. But it is inequitable according to three reasonable standards of fairness: everyone should get what he or she needs, everyone should have equal opportunities, and everyone should be a full participant in the activity. These standards can diverge–or they may not even apply in some circumstances–but here they converge to rule the first situation unfair.

The second situation, meanwhile, illustrates equality in some respects. All the heads are the same distance above the fence; the fence is level. But that picture also illustrates equity because it meets several reasonable standards of fairness.

In this case, giving everyone an equal upward boost is inequitable, because their needs are different. But that is only one way in which equality can diverge from equity. If one person really deserves or merits more than another, then giving both people the same amount would be equal yet would violate equity. If Procrustes came along and violently made these three people the same height, that would be equal but not at all equitable. And if we hacked a portion of the fence away to let the short kid see, that would be equitable among the viewers but perhaps unfair to the owner of the fence. In fact, we only celebrate the solution in the second picture if we think it is fair to be able to watch a game for free from over a fence.

The main point is that “equity” always requires an account of fairness: what fairness demands in the circumstances. Equality, on the other hand, always requires measurement. Sometimes when a given measure is equal, that demonstrates equity, but sometimes it doesn’t.

See also: we are for social justice, but what is it?trends in egalitarianism and sorting out human welfare, equity and mobility.

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