youth participatory budgeting in Boston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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mapping the youth vote in 2014

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

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

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

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avoiding the labels of East and West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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leverage as a moral issue

Newly out from Springer is Leveraging: A Political, Economic and Societal Framework, edited by my friend David M. Anderson. Anderson identifies bargaining leverage, resource leverage, and investment leverage as three distinct but related issues and then develops the idea of a “leverage mean,” which is the “mean between the extremes of too much leverage and too little leverage.” He and the other contributors examine cases from Wall Street meltdowns to parenting. Significant portions of the book are available online for free.

I’ve been thinking about leverage lately as well. We begin the Summer Institute of Civic Studies by examining forms of human interaction that are direct and human. In community organizing, deliberative democracy, and the management of common pool resources, the participants can explain what they believe and value to one another and can tangibly affect the outcomes with their own words and work.

But we don’t believe that we can stop at that scale, because the national and global economy and environment are crucial. Therefore, by the second week of the course, we are reading authors like James Madison and Bruce Ackerman who are interested in the design of nations and other large-scale systems. But then the deliberate, intentional, active citizen tends to recede from view. After all, most of us are not in the position to write a new constitution that will be ratified. As one of our participants acutely noted, “I had to miss a day, and when I returned, we were talking about Madison. Where is the civic in that?”

The problem is one of leverage. If we only do what is right, we leave most of the world unchanged. If we seek to change the world at large scale, we must get others to do what is right as well. That is leverage. For the most part, our leverage in the social world comes from creating, using, and changing institutions.

As the Archimedean metaphor suggests, to use leverage is to manipulate–to treat something as a means. In the social world, that something will have to be human: a person or a group. Leverage is necessary if you care for the world at any significant scale. But leverage is also risky and is ethically problematic because it can’t be fully reciprocal and relational. I think this is a fundamental problem, and Anderson and colleagues have opened an important line of inquiry.

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job openings in civic renewal (6)

My lists of open positions seem popular, and I am able to post them with increasing frequency, because the market appears to be improving. That’s excellent news; it is really hard to create a movement without viable career paths.

The Democracy Fund “seeks to hire two Program Associates, each of whom will be focused on supporting one of our three initiatives and providing assistance to the other two. The three initiatives aim to create a more responsive political system, foster more informed participation, and improve the capacity of our political system to solve problems.”

The Mikva Challenge, an excellent civic education organization traditionally based in Chicago, is looking for “a great educator with an entrepreneurial spirit who can help Mikva replicate its Democracy in Action program to S. California cities and classroom (LA is the hub).”

The Department of Management at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business invites applications for the Rocereto Professorship in Leadership with appointment beginning in the academic year 2014-15.

Public Conversations Project seeks a Program Coordinator who will be “responsible for providing day-to-day coordination and support for Public Conversations Project’s Open Enrollment Training Program and Fieldwork (Customized Training, Facilitated Dialogue, Consulting/Coaching).  The Coordinator is also responsible for new business development.  The Coordinator will also assist with PCP training and facilitation.”

“Social Capital Inc. is looking for a part-time “Community Connector” to work on a new community web portal for the Healthy Chelsea Coalition. Please spread the word if you know of candidates in the #Boston area! Looking for someone fluent in Spanish as well as English.”

“Nonprofit VOTE, an independent, nonpartisan 501(c)(3)nonprofit organization currently located in Boston, MA, is seeking an inspired Executive Director to oversee, manage, and grow the organization. Nonprofit VOTE works nationally and in the states to harness the reach of nonprofits to increase voter participation and to close participation gaps, especially among populations underrepresented in the political process.”

The University of Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School is recruiting a new Academic Program Officer with responsibility for initiatives in public scholarship.  “The new Academic Program Officer will continue to be responsible for day-to-day oversight for Arts of Citizenship programs–the Institute for Social Change, the Summer Fellows program, and the Graduate Students Grants program–and will work with Mathew Countryman, Mark Kamimura-Jimenez, the Director of Graduate Student Success, and the incoming Associate Dean of Arts and Humanities to develop a number of new initiatives in public scholarship, including the Engaged Pedagogy Initiative that Arts of Citizenship has undertaken in conjunction with the Center for Engaged Academic Learning and the Residential College.”

The Coady International Institute rightly calls itself “a world-class leader in community-based, citizen-driven development education.” It is based in Halifax, Nova Scotia and has both a global reach and deep local roots. It is led by the distinguished scholar/activist John Gaventa. “The Institute is committed to reducing poverty and transforming societies by strengthening local economies, building resilient communities, and promoting accountable democracies.” The Institute seeks a Specialist in Citizen Engagement, Advocacy and Accountability (a program teaching staff position). They explain: “The Institute is in the process of strengthening its work on promoting accountable democracies. How citizens make their voices heard through innovative advocacy, accountability and peacebuilding strategies that influence governments and other institutions is a critical issue around the world. Citizen engagement, grounded in power analysis, is important in all of our programs.”

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opening Frontiers of Democracy 2014

Here is the very first session of Frontiers of Democracy 2014. I open the conference with a statement about the civic renewal movement and then the Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship & Public Service, Alan Solomont, lays out his vision for the College.

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is a network a good representation of a person’s moral worldview?

Here is a method that I and some colleagues have been using to model the moral worldview of individuals and of groups. First, pose questions about individuals’ principles, beliefs, and methods and ask them to respond with ideas that they endorse. Then show them their own ideas in a table and ask them to identify pairs that they consider closely related. That will allow you to generate a network diagram of their ideas. Give the diagram back to them and ask them to explain their ideas and connections to their peers. As they do so, ask them to modify their own networks.

This method will generate network graphs for each individual at each time-point during the discussion. All of their networks can be placed on the same plane to produce a map of the group; and to the extent that they have chosen the same ideas, the group will have a connected network. See, for example, these maps of the Summer Institute of Civic Studies and two of its members:


Of course, you will get networks because you have asked for networks. You could instead ask people to give you lists of moral ideas, in which case you would receive lists back. People’s lists could be shown as sets that would overlap when two or more individuals chose the same ideas. Respondents could also be asked for ranked or weighted lists or for lists of ideas that trump other ideas, just as all the diamonds may trump all the clubs in a card game. In the “5 Whys?” technique, individuals propose a basic idea, answer the question “Why?” about it, then ask “Why?” about the reason they have given, and so on. That method will produce a chain or ladder of ideas, instead of a network.

On what grounds is the network model preferable?

We could treat it as a method for modeling the moral psychology of research subjects. In that case, it would be an empirical psychological model and we would want to know whether it was reliable and valid. Reliability would be assessed as follows. Do individuals and groups give substantially similar responses when studied at different times and when the questions and instructions have been changed in superficial ways that should not alter the results? Validity would be assessed by asking whether the results for individuals and groups correlate with other reliable measures of moral thinking, such as how people respond to dilemmas or how they express moral views in narrative form. Both reliability and validity would have to be tested with samples of people who varied by culture, age, religion, language, etc. Regardless of the results that came back from initial studies, the method could be tightened. For instance, this summer I gave extremely vague instructions about what should count as a link between two ideas. Clarifying those instructions should improve reliability.

This suggests a whole empirical research agenda, which I consider valuable and have just begun to pursue. I’ve also argued that the model is consistent with and explains empirical results by Ann Swidler and Stephen Valsey, who do not use a network model. That is a modest claim of validity. Using the network concept to reinterpret previous empirical work in moral psychology would be another part of the research agenda.

However, there are two other ways to use the model that I find more significant. The first is normative. I want to argue that certain network forms are morally preferable–quite apart from how many people hold those forms. For example, networks should be relatively flat and dense. Making distinctions among network forms only becomes possible if we think of moral ideas as networks. If we model moral psychology using lists, then we will be restricted to asking how many items are on people’s lists, whether they are consistent, how they are ranked, and whether the right ideas are listed. Network models open up additional questions about how ideas are structured. To pursue this line of inquiry, we would not hypothesize that people think with networks of ideas. We would posit that their ideas can be so modeled and inquire into the differences among network forms.

The other (related) use is conceptual. A network is a picture, and I want us to shift our picture of morality. At the beginning of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein quotes St. Augustine and asserts that the quoted “words give a particular picture [Bild] of the essence of human language” (PI, 1). Wittgenstein suggests other pictures, starting with the metaphor of a game and going on to families and woven fibers. He wants to shake our confidence in the standard picture and argue that certain questions that it provokes are pointless. “What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle” (PI, 308).

In a similar spirit, I would like to shake our confidence in a set of standard pictures of morality that generate false questions. For example, Rawls thought that we live in a world of many “reasonable but incompatible comprehensive doctrines.” That “fact” about the world posed difficult problems. How could we construct a political system that was fair to all the comprehensive doctrines? Would that system not also require its own comprehensive doctrine? His picture was not an idiosyncratic one. It arose from a widespread assumption that people hold rival but internally coherent moral worldviews. In my Nietszche and the Modern Crisis of the Humanities (1995) and Reforming the Humanities (2009), I assemble evidence that this assumption was fundamental for a whole range of modernist authors, from Hegel and Nietzsche to Leo Strauss and Jacques Derrida. For instance, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says: “A table of values hangs over every people. Behold, it is the table of their overcomings; behold, it is the voice of their will to power.” Note: one table for each people, and every table different. “Never did one neighbor understand another: his soul always wandered at his neighbor’s madness and evil.” 

We do not need this picture. If you map many people’s worldviews as networks, you will not ask the question: “How many comprehensive doctrines do we see here, and on what grounds do they conflict?” You will see diversity and disagreement, but not plural systems of thought. And so some of the dilemmas of modernism and of liberalism will vanish.

The debate about foundationalism in ethics should also end. Traditionally, we call moral views “foundationalist” if all their ideas derive from a few that are large and indubitable. Basically, no one wants to be called a foundationalist these days, because a dependence on indubitable ideas is problematic. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord redefines the issue by calling any ideas, no matter how modest and fallible, “foundationalist” if they have some kind of epistemic advantage over one’s other ideas.* But then why talk about “foundations” at all? This is a metaphor, alluding to a building with a large, strong base on which the rest of the edifice is constructed. The metaphor produces an infinite regress: on what does the “foundation” of morality rest? If we switch to a network model, the paradox disappears. Moral ideas are linked, and some have stronger reasons than others. Some have non-moral reasons. A persuasive position includes lots of ideas that are reasonably well founded and well connected to each other. 

*Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, “Coherentist Epistemology and Moral Theory,” in Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Mark Timmons, eds., Moral Knowledge? New Readings in Moral Epistemology (New York: Oxford, 1996), pp. 137-189.

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propaganda in Russia and in the USA

(Washington, DC) Russian media serves a steady diet of stories about how the crashed Malaysian airplane was filled with already-dead bodies; definitive proof that Ukraine shot it down to frame the Russian separatists; and even evidence that it’s the same Malaysian jet that vanished in March in the southern hemisphere, stored secretly and deployed now in a plot to hurt Russia. (For a sample of this coverage—I don’t know how representative—see the English version of Pravda today.) Maria Snegovaya reports that the Russian media generates very strong domestic popular support for Putin’s policies.

Western writers like criticize Russian propaganda. Russians write back in the comment fields to denounce such criticism. Many make tu quoque arguments: America does all of this, too (i.e., the propaganda, the killing, or both). They are correct that the following problems are not limited to Russia but are also prevalent in countries like the USA:

  1. Deliberate manipulation of public opinion by governments and media companies;
  2. Macho, militaristic nationalism and its reliable appeal to mass publics;
  3. Confirmation bias, or the preference for information that reinforces one’s existing views and interests; and
  4. Valuing the lives of one’s own countrymen far above the lives of foreigners.

Without these phenomena, it would be hard to explain why the US invaded Iraq after 9/11, how most Americans can forget US involvement in Central American genocide when the victims’ children try to migrate across our borders, or how we can tolerate assassinations by drone missile.

On the other hand, making the tu quoque argument is not good for Russia or for Russians. The United States and other democracies have mechanisms for error-correction and accountability that may be badly flawed and frayed today, but that are still hard-won and worth fighting to defend. They are absent in Putin’s Russia. Russians are the primary victims of that lack.

One mechanism is partisan competition. George W. Bush dominated American public opinion at the onset of the Iraq War. But a little-known Illinois state senator was one of those who strongly criticized the invasion. Six years and a few months later, that state senator succeeded Bush in the White House, having benefited politically from his opposition to the war. I am not satisfied by the Schumpeterian justification for elections—that they allow us to vote the incumbent idiots out when their performance becomes intolerable. But a Schumperian democracy is better than none at all. Incumbents are vulnerable; the opposition has powerful incentives to criticize them. Those protections are missing in Putin’s Russia.

Additional protections come from a genuinely independent civil society and press. I realize it is hard to demonstrate that the press and civil society are more effective in the US than in Russia, since they are not working all that well here. Mark Kleiman writes:

Russian mass media is now dominated by an extreme-nationalist lunatic fringe, built up by Putin and his cronies but no longer under their detailed control. … It’s a scary picture. What’s scarier is that, if you change the names, it applies to the relationships among the plutocrats, the GOP apparatchiki, and the world of the Murdochized press, the Koch-driven think-tanks, and Red Blogistan.

That is a claim of equivalence. I heard a similar argument in June from a Russian delegation of academics who visited me in my office. They insisted that they have more NGOs (millions!) than we do and that Putin funds them to ensure their independence from Western influence. I had no crisp refutation to offer, nor was I interested in asserting our system’s superiority. The worthwhile question is not which country has a better public sphere. But I am highly skeptical that Russians are, in fact, being served by an independent press or a robust civil society. If my skepticism is correct, then they and their neighbors (not Americans) are the ones who will suffer.

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