religious liberty and discrimination

If we set aside the invidious motivations for–and the details of–the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, it does raise some fairly complex constitutional questions. Here are five theories that one might adopt in response:

1. The law should ban private discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. To deny a regular service to a citizen because she or he is gay is hurtful and cruel and reinforces a whole system or culture of domination that also has serious economic and civic consequences. Therefore, such discrimination can and should be banned.

I endorse the whole premise. The questions are (a) whether the state and law are the appropriate instruments for remedying this problem, and (b) whether a conflicting interest (religious freedom) should be given any weight. We must allow individuals to do some things that we are certain are bad and wrong in order to limit government in the interest of liberty. It is not a free society that permits only good actions. Not any liberty counts, but the establishment and free exercise of religion are two explicit freedoms named in the First Amendment. To deny their relevance not only ignores the constitutional text but suggests that other forms of religious discrimination should also be illegal–for instance, that the Catholic Church should be required to ordain women. This seems a problematic implication.

2. The law should ban private discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, with a special exception for religious freedom. The defendant in a discrimination suit would be required to demonstrate that her or his religion was clearly and stably committed to such discrimination. The defendant’s denomination would then be revealed to hold discriminatory views, with a potential cost to its reputation. If other members of the denomination were moved to contest its position on gay rights, that would be a benefit. Yet the religious liberty of the defendant would be honored.

I endorse some of this argument, but a lot rests on the definition of religion. It seems unjust to give special rights to people who believe in the existence of one or more deities. Just yesterday, the First Church of Cannabis declared its interest in selling marijuana in Indiana under the protection of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Why not? Also, this approach will involve the state in inquiries into religious doctrines and traditions. Is it really wise to ask a secular court to decide whether, for example, discrimination against gays is rooted in the Talmud or in some specific Protestant tract?

3. Jacob Levy’s suggestion: “private businesses should be free to refuse customers, subject to two categories of exceptions: (a) if the firms are common carriers or (in the common law sense) public accommodations rather than ordinary private retailers and (b) in the United States, due to the constitutional and historical distinctiveness of Jim Crow and its melding of public and private discrimination, discrimination on the basis of race.”

This is a more libertarian view, more protective of individuals’ rights to choose their own contracts and relationships. It carves out a special exemption for racial discrimination in the US. (Levy teaches in Canada and is thinking about these issues globally.) I am not hostile to his position, because liberty is a very high principle and because the state is not our only instrument for changing private behavior. I would also agree that race is a unique case in the US. But a lot hangs here on the seriousness of discrimination based on sexual orientation. It’s easy for me–a straight man–to write as if religious freedom can simply be balanced against equality. If I were gay and denied a service on that basis, I would probably feel that my very personhood had been assaulted, not merely as an individual act but as part of a system or culture of oppression that also costs lives. Homophobia is a deadly problem, and perhaps the state should intervene even in private contracts to address it.

4. Forbid discrimination in certain kinds of business. Levy hints at this kind of solution when he mentions “public accommodations,” about which there is a large body of case law, legislation, and scholarship. The basic idea is that McDonald’s should be forbidden from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation (both in hiring and in service), because it operates a mass, transactional enterprise. You pay your money; you get your burger and fries. But Elane Photography (a small New Mexico business) is not running a public accommodation. A more-or-less solo photographer may choose whom to photograph. If she chooses only to photograph opposite-sex weddings, that is allowable under the First Amendment.

I find this distinction somewhat helpful, but there is no bright line between Elane’s and McDonald’s. Furthermore, the mere fact that Elane is a small business does not make its discrimination any less hurtful.

5. Honor the small-r republican principle that the people should govern themselves by deliberating and making law. Let the people decide whether or not to ban discrimination.

I am a small-r republican and believe that collective political freedom is too often overlooked. But who is “the people?” You will get very different laws if Bloomington can decide, if Indiana decides, or if Washington takes up the issue (and probably deadlocks, leaving the status quo in place). Also, the most important reason to restrain the rights of the people to govern themselves is to protect individuals’ rights. But then again, both non-discrimination and free exercise are individual rights. The republican principle doesn’t say which one should trump popular rule.

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bad does not imply worse

Christopher Jencks makes a characteristically wise point (after displaying a graph that shows that real poverty has declined a lot since 1959, and a bit since 2009):

The equation of “bad” with “worse” is so tight in American political discourse that when I tell my friends or my students that “there is still a lot of poverty, but less than there used to be,” they have trouble remembering both halves of the sentence. Some remember that there is still a lot of poverty. Others remember that there is less than there used to be. Few remember both.

I observe the same phenomenon constantly. The problem, for example, with our students’ civic knowledge is not that it has declined. Scores on civics tests have been remarkably stable over a long period. It’s just that civic knowledge is (and used to be) too low. The same is true of voter turnout: quite flat since the 1970s, but at a problematically low level. I offer additional examples from social policy in “why do we feel compelled to argue from decline?” It seems that you cannot get attention for a problem unless you pose it as a recent and alarming deterioration from a previously superior state. That is an obstacle to taking our most stubborn problems seriously.

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on giving content to Fox News

The Fox News website has published four op-eds of mine over the years (“Federal citizenship test: What should a good citizen really know about America?“; “ObamaCare and Millennials: Why lessons of 2014 will last a lifetime“; “What bipartisan budget agreement suggests for future of American democracy“; and “GOP’s future could depend on Romney and your kids“). I believe I also appeared on the Fox TV network once in 2012. When people see these stories on my Facebook page or posted on other people’s pages, the venue–Fox News–draws the most attention. Some assume that the author is a right-winger and attack my position without reading it. Some are perplexed–or pleased–that Fox would run these stories.

I’ve had entirely positive feelings about appearing on Fox. (I also go on conservative talk radio for similar reasons.) But this isn’t a simple matter, and I understand where the critical reactions are coming from.

I would be the first to decry the impact of Fox on our national political culture and on public opinion about specific topics (such as climate change). Some critics may overestimate the political impact of the network; to a significant extent, a media business is a manifestation, not a cause, of public opinion. It mostly serves a market; it doesn’t create one. DellaVigna and Kaplan find that the rise of Fox News affected political outcomes, but not by much: the GOP gained up to 0.7 percent of the vote as a result of its growth.

But a case can be made that Fox has expanded the market for what my colleagues Sarah Sobieraj and Jeff Berry call “outrage,” which, in turn, has debased our political culture and made it harder for us to govern ourselves as a republic. Sobieraj and Berry define outrage as “efforts to provoke emotional responses (e.g., anger, fear moral indignation) from the audience through the use of overgeneralization, sensationalism, misleading or patently inaccurate information, ad hominem attacks, and belittling ridicule of opponents.” Outrage as a genre also has other notable characteristics: a celebrity voice, a purely editorial stance (no original reporting), ideological narrowness, skill at engaging viewers, and lots of mutual references among like-minded commentators. (See Jeffrey M. Berry  and Sarah Sobieraj, The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility.) Outrage sells, and Fox News has pioneered and expanded that market.

Fox does not pay its editorialists or guests who appear on the air. Thus I am not guilty of taking money from the network. On the other hand, I am giving them free content. If they are a malevolent force, one could ask whether that is the right thing to do.

I believe the answer is yes, for these reasons:

  1. It’s not a one-way relationship, with me giving them content. They are giving me and my organization a platform. It is an especially valuable platform for engaging people I might not otherwise reach.
  2. One of our problems as a nation is “outrage,” which is practiced on both the right and the left. Another national problem is the kind of right-wing politics exemplified by at least some of Fox’s hosts. But a third problem is polarization. If we stop trying to reach across the partisan divide, we are giving up on that third problem, which I am not willing to do.
  3. I endorse Archon Fung’s argument in “Deliberation Before the Revolution: Toward an Ethics of Deliberative Democracy in an Unjust World?” (Political Theory, Vol. 33, No. 3, Spring 2005). I’ve written at greater length about this piece before, but the basic idea is that you should presume that a powerful entity will deliberate with you until it specifically demonstrates that it won’t, at which point you are free to be strictly adversarial. You shouldn’t write them off because of their overall record or structure, but try to engage them until they fail to reciprocate. In game-theory terms, this is not a losing strategy, because you are free to disengage. It is rather a strategy for spreading deliberative norms as far as they will go.
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talk at the Vermont League of Women Voters

Last Friday, I gave a talk on We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For at a Vermont League of Women Voters meeting. The talk itself was the latest iteration of my effort to summarize my book. The conversation that followed was rich and interesting, thanks entirely to the League members and others who had turned out. The whole event was covered on local public-access TV, and the video is below.

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how public opinion on social spending has changed: a generational approach

Education spending is pretty popular. In 2012, three quarters of American adults told the General Social Survey that our nation spends too little on education. If you look at that question over time, you’ll find an interesting generational pattern. The three generations born (respectively) before 1926, before 1946, and before 1966 have each held successively more favorable views of education spending. I’d understand that as a story of economic growth and development. Young people have needed increasing amounts of education to flourish in our increasingly complex society. That need became increasingly evident to adults who came of age later in the 20th century. Generation-X, however, has held the same opinion as the Baby Boomers; and the limited data on Millennials suggests they are also in the same camp. The upshot: support for education spending is stable at a high level, buoyed by the majority opinion of everyone born since 1926, and not subject to much short-term change.

education_trend

Welfare is different story. In 2012, almost half of adults (47.6%) told the GSS that we spend too much on it; one third thought welfare spending was about right, and just 19.1% said we should spend more. I have run a graph showing the “liberal” opinion (we should spend more), but I find the opposite graph more illuminating: see below.

Here we observe the oldest generation only toward the end of their lives, when they (alone) disagree with the conservative argument that we are spending too much on welfare. All the subsequent generations have moved pretty closely together. There have been spikes of concern about excessive welfare spending in the 1970s and the early 1990s. In those upticks, one can see the political opportunity for Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich. But there really hasn’t been a significant generational pattern to beliefs about welfare. The changes seem more correlated with short-term economic circumstances and/or government policy. For instance, when Reagan began cutting social spending and when Clinton declared the end of “welfare as we know it,” concern about over-spending fell. The implication: welfare spending is a constant political debate, and who wins at a given moment depends on policy and circumstances.

welfare_trend

Finally, Social Security. One might expect that people nearing or in retirement would be the strongest supporters of spending money on this program, whereas younger people would be more reluctant. But the pattern of change over time for each generation is quite subtle, if one can detect it at all. Members of the “Greatest Generation,” for example, have held the same view of Social Security expenditures for the past 30 years. Likewise, Generation X has felt the same since they were young, even though they are now in middle age. The key pattern is a general increase in felt need to spend money on Social Security during the 1970s and 1980s, followed by a plateau. But if anything, the strongest supporters since 1990 have been relatively young adults.

social_security_trend

The implication is that Social Security remains very popular (no surprise there), but also that it’s not an old-person’s issue. X-ers and Millennials are actually more supportive than members of the Greatest Generation today.

The education and Social Security graphs look very similar. That is interesting because education is presumed to benefit the young. whereas Social Security focuses on the aged. Yet opinions about spending money for these two purposes track closely.  It would appear that the driving force is one’s general view of the role of government, not a calculation of one’s own needs and interests.

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empathy: good or bad?

I am speaking next week on a panel about empathy:

“Generative Empathies” (Rabb Room, Lincoln Filene Hall, Tufts University, March 30, 12 pm) with …

  • Amahl Bishara, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Tufts
  • Doris Sommer, Ira Jewell Williams, Jr. Professor of Romance Languages and Literature and Director, Cultural Agents Initiative, Harvard University
  • Peter Levine, Associate Dean for Research, Tisch College

I don’t know quite what to say yet, but I am inclined to raise the following points.

First, for a very long time, writers have argued that sad stories generate empathy and improve the character. From his dismal exile on the shore of the Black Sea, the poet Ovid addresses a soldier friend in these lines:

Is it true? When you heard of my misfortune
From a distant land, was your heart sad?
You can hide and shrink to say it, Graecinus,
But if I know you well, it was sad.
Revolting cruelty does not fit your type,
And even less your avocation. For
The liberal arts, your highest concern,
Soften the chest so that harshness escapes.
– Ex Ponto, 1.6 (my trans.)

Ovid presumes that his story will soften the gruff Roman’s heart, especially because it comes in the form of a poem and the soldier is a devotee of the artes ingenuae: the liberal arts, or literally, the freeborn arts. The poem will work because the reader has been habituated by many previous poems to dislike cruelty. Apparently, “ingenuae” has aristocratic connotations, and so Ovid’s phrase for the “liberal arts” implies a higher class of people who have been civilized or humanized by the arts.

Here is another classic source for the idea that writing generates empathy:

  1. And early in the morning, he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.
  2. And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
  3. They say [sic] unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
  4. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
  5. This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote [or drew] on the ground.
  6. So when they continued asking him, he lifted himself up, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
  7. And again he stooped down, and wrote [not drew] on the ground.
  8. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
  9. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?
  10. She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more (John, 8:2?11)

What was Jesus writing? One answer: something concrete about the specific Woman, which made the scribes and Pharisees think about her (and about themselves) instead of applying the abstract law.

For centuries in the English-speaking world, to enter the ranks of the civilized and humane meant reading Shakespeare. One possible reason: Shakespeare’s special capacity for empathy, which is related to his refusal to push arguments of his own. Keats found in Shakespeare the quality that he called “Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Other critics have noted Shakespeare’s remarkable ability not to speak on his own behalf, from his own perspective, or in support of his own positions. Coleridge called this skill “myriad-mindedness,” and Matthew Arnold said that Shakespeare was “free from our questions.” Hazlitt said that the “striking peculiarity of [Shakespeare’s] mind was its generic quality, its power of communication with all other minds–so that it contained a universe of feeling within itself, and had no one peculiar bias, or exclusive excellence more than another. He was just like any other man, but that he was like all other men.”

So we have a model of the humane and sensitive educated person as one who has been habituated by the reading of moving stories to be empathetic and thus to show mercy or otherwise depart from harsh decisions.

This model conflicts with the idea that a just person knows the truth and obeys the consequences.  St. Augustine recalls his sinful younger self enjoying the theater, where he was “forced to learn I don’t know what wanderings of Aeneas, oblivious to my own, and to lament the dead Dido, because she killed herself for love, while meanwhile with dry eyes I endured my miserable self dying among these things before you, God, my life. … In the theaters I took pleasure along with the lovers when they used each other for vice, even though their behavior was just the imaginary sport of a play, and when they parted I was sad along with them, as if I were really compassionate; yet I enjoyed both parts.”  At the moment of his conversion, Augustine hears a voice saying, “take up and read, take up and read.” He understands this as a command to open the Bible at random. The first words he finds are those of Paul: “But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof” [Rom. 13:13?14]. Augustine recalls: “I wanted to read no further, nor was there need” (Conf., 1.13.20; Conf. 3.2.3.; Conf., 8.12.29).

This is a model of the just person as one who is unmoved by inappropriate empathy and who avoids reading texts that might make him sympathize with sin. Although he is a very different kind of person from Augustine, Judge Richard A. Posner writes in “Against Ethical Criticism” that “empathy is amoral.”

Imaginative literature can engender in its readers emotional responses to experiences that they have not had. We read King Lear and feel how–or some approximation to how–a failing king feels, the wicked bastard feels, the evil daughters, the good daughter, the blinded earl, the faithful retainer, the corrupt retainer, the fool, all feel. We experience simulacra of the agony of madness and the pang of early death in Hamlet, the depths of mutual misunderstanding in The Secret Agent, the loneliness of command in Billy Budd, the triumph of the will in Yeats’s late poetry. This is the empathy-inducing role of literature of which [Hilary] Putnam and [Martha] Nussbaum speak. But empathy is amoral. The mind that you work your way into, learning to see the world from its perspective, may be the mind of a Meursault [from The Stranger], an Edmund [from Lear], a Lafcadio [the lion?], a Macbeth, a Tamerlane, a torturer, a sadist, even a Hitler (Richard Hughes’s The Fox in the Attic).

Empathy can even undermine justice. It can make the empathetic person feel more virtuous without doing anything, and it can even strengthen his position in a conflict by making him look better to third parties. This can be true of sincere empathy. I believe, for instance, that the median Israeli voter has achieved some empathy for Palestinians, and that feeling both blunts the urgency of justice and makes Israel look better than it should in the eyes of the world. Note the applause in this speech by Barack Obama in Jerusalem on March 21, 2013:

I — I’m going off script here for a second, but before I — before I came here, I — I met with a — a group of young Palestinians from the age of 15 to 22. And talking to them, they weren’t that different from my daughters. They weren’t that different from your daughters or sons.

I honestly believe that if — if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say, I want these kids to succeed. (Applause.) I want them to prosper. I want them to have opportunities just like my kids do. (Applause.) I believe that’s what Israeli parents would want for these kids if they had a chance to listen to them and talk to them. (Cheers, applause.) I believe that. (Cheers, applause.)

In sum: I don’t think empathy will suffice on its own. It must be connected somehow with justice and with actually taking just action. If you favor systematic moral theories, than you may recommend using one or more general moral premises that distinguish good empathy from bad empathy. A feeling of empathy will not be a reliable guide to right action, only an urge that you must critically assess in other terms.

If, like me, you are skeptical about organized moral theories and believe that empathetic responses can convey truths about the world, then you will view an empathetic response as a valid source of guidance. But not as the only kind of valid input: relatively abstract and impersonal considerations must also apply.

Posted in notes on poems, philosophy, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

a different approach to human problems

Crime, poverty, tyranny, racial injustice, and environmental degradation may be among the chief issues at a given time. But beneath such specific challenges are general forms of problems. To reprise a diagram from a previous post, we face problems of discourse (when we think or want the wrong things) and problems of collective action (when we can’t get what we want).

discourseAcademics certainly study these problems. Google Scholar finds more than 77,000 books or articles on free-riding, which is one variety of a collective action problem. It finds more than 9,000 citations of implicit bias, which I would categorize as a discourse problem. There is no shortage of material to read, and much of it is useful.

But the study of human problems and their solutions suffers from three general collective actionlimitations that we should address:

  1. Too little attention is paid to what we (you and I and the people we can influence) are able to do. For instance, pumping carbon into the air is a classic harmful externality. It’s serious enough that it threatens our survival. Economics offers a solution: tax the carbon. The tax might not even have to be very high, and other tax cuts could offset it. That sounds like the answer, but it isn’t something that we (you and I and our friends and colleagues) can implement. We lack the power to set taxes. Even if we formed the body of the US Congress, we couldn’t tax carbon in China. So the proposal to tax carbon is not the solution; it just poses new problems that we must define, analyze, and address in ways that guide our actions. (By the way, several of the most common proposed solutions are inadequate. For instance, we cannot vote for candidates who would tax carbon unless such candidates actually run, have a chance of winning, and hold a whole platform of ideas that we endorse. Also, we cannot just voluntarily cut our own carbon emissions and hope that others do as well. So what should we do?)
  2. The moral question (what is right and good?) is too often sidelined. Although the diagrams shown above list “problems,” these phenomena are not necessarily bad. For instance, when we promote competition among firms by preventing them from coordinating their prices, we are putting them in a Prisoner’s Dilemma. That is desirable because it’s better for profits and prices to be low. But when nonprofits compete instead of collaborating on the common good, that is damaging. So I say–but clearly, I owe an argument for those judgments. An underlying theory of justice must determine which Prisoner’s Dilemmas are good and bad. Some of the prevalent methods for deciding what constitutes a problem–or a solution–are morally indefensible. For example, neither false consciousness as a methodological tool on the left nor Pareto optimality on the right will reliably distinguish right from wrong. So what is right for us to do?
  3. Theory is insufficiently exploited as a resource. Sometimes people teach and investigate social problems in highly experiential ways, by rolling up their sleeves and tackling issues like homelessness or habitat loss in specific programs, classes, or other projects. Much can be learned from experience, which is why I am a lifelong advocate of civic engagement in k-12 schools and colleges. And yet, if you invite a group of people to choose, define, and address a problem from scratch, you are asking them to reinvent the whole history of thought. You may inspire them by telling them, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” But when they fail to improve the world, as they almost always will, their sense of self-confidence will fall–as seen consistently across a wide range of programs. It is hard enough to make noticeable progress on entrenched challenges without taking full advantage of the accumulated and organized analysis of other people. So what is smart for us to do?

The nascent Civic Studies movement proposes to ask “What should we do?” and then take very seriously the various generic forms of human problems–along with explicit moral argumentation. Three benefits should follow. We should unify our understanding of the various genera of problems–which are now distributed across the social sciences and humanities–by viewing them from a single perspective, that of a reflective small group of citizens. We should enhance human agency and satisfaction by making ourselves the cause of solutions, not just the objects of other people’s actions. Above all, we should actually improve the world by identifying solutions that we (you and I and our friends) can accomplish.

To give a little more concreteness to the list of problems, I will briefly discuss some of the key ones. This is a radically incomplete list; and the discussion of each one below is highly preliminary. The point is to indicate the agenda of Civic Studies.

  1. Discourse Problems
    1. Ideology: This word can be defined in various ways, but I have in mind a systematic distortion of one’s beliefs and preferences due to an overall theory that is wrong. For instance, some people believe that the United States was once a welfare state with a social safety net that has been badly frayed because of neoliberalism. And other people believe that the United States was once a society of free, self-reliant entrepreneurs that is now becoming socialist. They cannot both be right. If either belief or (as I happen to think) both beliefs are wrong, then we have a problem of ideology, because these ideas are prevalent and influential.
    2. Implicit Bias: In experiments using fictional resumes, “White-sounding names (e.g., Emily, Greg, Sarah, Todd) received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews than resumes with African American-sounding names (e.g., Lakisha, Jamal, Latoya, Tyrone) (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004). Putting this in perspective, ‘a White name yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience on a resume’ (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004, p. 992).” That is evidence of a bias that is pervasive and damaging even if it is unconscious and unintended. Implicit bias is not limited to matters of race and seems to be extraordinarily common.
    3. Motivated Reasoning: We are good at selecting and emphasizing facts that support our pre-determined ideas, and equally good at marginalizing or debunking facts that complicate or challenge those ideas. For example, as people obtain more education, their opinion about climate change correlates more with their political ideology. Conservatives become less likely to believe in it, and liberals more so, the more education they have. Why? Because well-educated conservatives are sophisticated enough to recognize that accepting evidence of climate change would challenge their economic views, so they use mental techniques (also exhibited by liberals on other topics) to debunk or marginalize the evidence. Many studies find that deliberate efforts to debunk myths actually reinforce the same myths because people hear the information selectively.
    4. Polarization: Numerous studies have found that groups on one general side of an issue will migrate toward more radical opinions as a result of interacting. Groups that span a wide spectrum of opinion will often polarize into relatively radical opposing subgroups. One of several reasons is that individuals want to be accepted into a group of like-minded peers.
  2. Collective Action Problems
    1. Principal-agent problems: An “agent” is someone whom a “principal” employs to take care of her interests. For instance, I employ my dentist to take care of my teeth. But my dentist’s interests may diverge from mine: for instance, if expensive surgery is an option. The same divergence can occur in political contexts. Almost all Americans believe that money has too much influence in politics and should be curtailed. Yet for decades before the Supreme Court got in the way, Congress did very little to restrain private money in politics, even when the Democrats (who were rhetorically opposed to it) controlled both branches of government. Why? Because politicians are agents of citizens, and as agents who have been elected in a system of unrestricted private money, they have different interests from their principals.
    2. Free riders: It is often tempting to let other people carry the burden for a public good, in which case the good may not be provided even if everyone wants it. Examples range from a failure to clean the dishes in a group house to the failure of nations to limit their carbon emissions.
    3. Path dependence: We might all be better off if, a century ago, cars had been developed to use electricity instead of gasoline. By the 21st century, electric cars would be fantastically fuel-efficient and convenient. But the petroleum path was chosen, and now to shift to electricity is very expensive and difficult–so much so that it might even be unwise.
    4. Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem: It has been logically proven that no system for turning votes into decisions can simultaneously meet several obvious criteria. In practical terms, the main implication is that we must choose between voting systems that force a two-sided choice (like referenda or two-party elections) or voting systems that allow many to win small shares of power (as in Israeli elections). The former systems disadvantage anyone who is dissatisfied with the forced choice. The latter can lead to stalemate or unpopular minority rule.

A subset of these problems will typically confront any concrete group of human beings who aim to improve their world. In many circumstances, the various problems will closely interrelate, causing webs or cycles of challenges. For instance, ideology may prevail over good evidence (a discourse problem) because the effort to become truly informed about public issues is not worthwhile for each party (a collective action problem).

Yet–and this is a crucial point–groups of people do solve human problems. They do build institutions and norms that make life better. Every decent and functioning government, association, neighborhood, and network is a triumph of reasonable hope over chastened experience. The master theorists of Civic Studies are people like Elinor Ostrom and Jürgen Habermas (a student, respectively, of collective-action problems and of discourse problems), who seek to understand in order to defend, improve, and spread such cases of human success.

See also Ostrom plus Habermas is nearly all we need; my piece on Civic Studies in Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly; the book Civic Studies: Approaches to the Emerging Field; and The Good Society symposium on Civic Studies.

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my news habits are getting worse

(National Airport) After a day with colleagues at the American Press Institute, I am reflecting on changes in my own habits of news consumption. A decade ago, I used to read almost the whole of the New York Times every day. That gave me one institutional perspective on the world–and I spent more time than I should have on ephemera. On the bright side, I daily explored a wide range of topics, from obituaries to human-interest stories, from tech to the arts. I still subscribe to the Times, but I find my attention span much shorter online; the temptation is always to click on something different. I tend to focus on a few developing stories–lately, the Israeli election, the temporary absence of Putin, and the congressional budget process–and obsessively read lots of largely repetitive news and opinion. I think sometimes I am just looking for a more positive angle on the same troubling story. I am not sure whether the total amount of time I spend/waste on daily news is more or less than it was in 2005, but I am pretty sure the total amount of daily learning is lower.

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on requiring the federal citizenship test in high school

I have an op-ed on FoxNews.com against the recent wave of state laws that require students to pass the US citizenship test. It begins:

Quick: how many amendments to the U.S. Constitution have been ratified?

The answer is 27. The question comes from the federal test required for new citizens. Arizona and North Dakota recently made passing that test a graduation requirement for all their high school students, and several other states are considering the idea.  I fear imposing this test will actually reduce the amount of civics our young people study and remember.

The federal citizenship test consists of 100 multiple-choice questions; individuals see a random sample of 10. The easiest way to prepare for it is to memorize the 100 right answers. When you see the key word “amendment,” you remember to choose “27.”

I argue against this test as a tool for improving civics. But the idea is well-intentioned and may do good if it prompts a discussion about what our kids should learn and how we should test them. Civics doesn’t get a lot of attention; those of us who try to raise its profile are rarely successful. This year’s debate about the citizenship test in high schools may have brought more visibility to the topic than anything that’s happened in all the years I’ve been involved with civics. In my Fox News piece, I ask readers to consider what a better assessment would look like. If legislators and other leaders ask themselves that question, we may see better policies–and then we should thank the proponents of the citizenship test for prompting this conversation.

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the age of the strongman

China: Xi Jinping is “a president who has ruthlessly centralised power while embarking on an ambitious project to revitalise Communist rule and to secure the party’s future. … One of his major themes is a war on ‘western values’, including a free press, democracy and the constitutional separation of powers, all of which he believes pose an insidious threat to one-party rule. … Xi considers himself the antithesis of the ‘weak man’ who turned out the light on the Soviet empire.”

India:  A “cult of personality is slowly building around” Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “No surprise, then, that he rules firmly. … Many fear that unchallenged by a weakened opposition, Mr Modi will help turn the world’s largest – and most diverse – democracy into a Hindu nationalist state. There’s trepidation over a lack of tolerance among many of Mr Modi’s supporters, particularly on social media, to any criticism.”

Russia: “The elevation of Mr Putin as a father of the nation, a man who may be elected in a nominal political process but is in fact apart from and above politics, is a symptom of Russia’s ‘deep demodernising trend’, according to Andrei Zorin, a historian at Oxford University.”

Turkey: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip “Erdogan’s achievements are now shadowed by his undeniable lurch toward autocracy. Over the last year, he has initiated a harsh crackdown against peaceful protesters, political opponents, and independent media outlets.”

This is a radically incomplete list, but it includes the leaders of countries with nearly 3 billion subjects and great international influence. How profoundly disappointing that the ascendant ideology of the 1930s should again confront us.

Of course, the momentum in the direction of macho, nationalist, centralizing authoritarianism is not unstoppable. This trend is of fairly short duration–so far–and could still be checked. The question is whether we can develop a sufficiently cohesive, energetic, optimistic, and truly global democratic movement to resist it.

See also: postcolonial reaction;  why is oligarchy everywhere? and why is oligarchy everywhere? (part 2).

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