to the European Institute of Civic Studies

I am fleeing the country heading to Augsburg, Germany for the 2016 Summer Institute of Civic Studies. It is aimed at participants from Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland, but they are convening this summer in Germany (thanks to the generosity of the DAAD). The other organizers are my friends Dr. Tetyana Kloubert (Augsburg) and Prof. Karol Soltan (Maryland). I’ll paste the syllabus below; it may be interesting because of its European focus. It ends with a practical training on nonviolent resistance that should be particularly illuminating when experienced right after relatively abstract discussions of democracy and civic society. I will unfortunately miss that part because I’m coming back to the US on August 29, and I will resume blogging then.

Continue reading

Posted in civic theory | Leave a comment

Massachusetts Citizens Initiative Review: the movie

At Tufts’ Tisch College of Civic Life, we are working with State Rep. Jonathan Hecht and Healthy Democracy to bring the Citizens Initiative Review to our commonwealth this summer. I’ve blogged about the project already, but this 2-minute video by Suffolk student intern Elainy Mata is both more fun and more informative.


Posted in deliberation | Leave a comment

Everyday Democracy: racism, policing, and community change

At this moment, I am especially grateful to serve on the board for Everyday Democracy, which works at the intersection of deliberative democracy, community organizing, and anti-racism. The organization has deep experience with “dialogue and action” efforts that “address community-police relations.” They bring explicit attention to racial injustice and are skilled at engaging police in conversations and reforms. This is an entry page to their relevant work. As we learned at yesterday’s board meeting, additional valuable resources and events are in development, so stay tuned to, @EvDem on Twitter, and EverydayDemocracy on Facebook.

Posted in deliberation | Leave a comment

what is the political economy that people are revolting against?

(Hartford, CT) One interpretation of Trump, Brexit, and related phenomena is that people fear losing their privileges and are reacting with prejudice against immigrants and racial and religious minorities. That thesis must contain a lot of truth. But a different–and compatible–interpretation is that large elements of the working class are revolting against an unjust but dominant political economy.

For instance, Harvard Professor Richard Tuck makes the leftist case for Brexit. Britain needed to leave the EU because “the essence of the EU is neoliberal. … The policies that are enshrined in its treaties and in its administrative structures are essentially those of the neoliberals.” Meanwhile, in the US, Trump holds a double-digit lead over Clinton among the working class as a whole, while he trails by similar margins among college-educated people–and the US Chamber of Commerce denounces his position on trade.

If the working class is rising up, what are they rising against? Hardly anyone calls himself a “neoliberal,” and critics load a lot of diverse ideas into that term. It presumably doesn’t mean libertarianism or laissez-faire, because then we could just use those words (dropping the “neo-“). What’s more, the US and EU have not moved in a libertarian direction. Here, for instance, is the trend in government spending as a percentage of GDP in the USA. It’s basically up, albeit with declines in the last six years of both the Clinton and Obama administrations.


The volume of government regulation is also up, although that’s harder to measure. This is the size of the annual federal compendium of new regulations, measured in pages. A libertarian regime would not issue 80,000 pages of new rules per year.

Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 11.02.19 AM


There are many good things about regimes like the US and the EU member states. In broad, historical context, they are relatively free, prosperous, safe, and democratic. Nevertheless, I will emphasize the negatives, for much the same reason that your doctor wants to talk about your hypertension and family history of cancer, not how wonderfully well your liver and kidneys are working. In other words, I’ll offer a critical assessment even though there would also be many positive to points to make.

In brief, I think that states are increasingly powerful, but they are accountable to capital, not to citizens. That’s what critics mean by “neoliberalism,” although “state corporatism” might be a better phrase. I’ll break the diagnosis into six parts.

1. Deindustrialization

We call the wealthiest countries of the world the “industrialized” nations, but that description is becoming obsolete. These countries did industrialize after 1800 but have shed most of their manufacturing jobs. Below is the trend for the US since 1977. The graph understates the decline, because many more than 14% of households had at least one manufacturing worker, usually a man, in 1978. Also, the rate was higher in 1950, but I can’t find a longer time series. In any case, the decline since 1977 has been steep.
Screen Shot 2016-07-10 at 8.27.17 PM

Manufacturing jobs are rarely enviable, but they give their workers political leverage because they require expensive, fixed investments. Ford’s River Rouge plant in Detroit employed 100,000 men at its peak (versus 6,000 people today). Autoworkers could organize and strike. They voted in city and state elections. It was expensive for Ford to move its investments out of Detroit, although that gradually happened, and the city has lost 61% of its population. But in the heyday of industrialization, Ford needed those men to be reasonably happy. In return, manufacturing workers benefitted from their political leverage–including Black workers, whose civil rights improved with their concentrated market power in factories.

By contrast, Google, which is worth about half a trillion dollars, employs some 50,000 people, worldwide. They are well paid, but they remain at Google for a median of 1.1 years. They have market value–far above the average market value of average Americans, let alone average human beings–but they have little or no political leverage. Even the best-paid are dispersed, transient, and eminently replaceable.

2. Mobile capital

The fact that you can now make more money by investing in intellectual property and networks rather than rooted industries is one reason that capital moves faster than ever before. Capital mobility is also encouraged by favorable laws and treaties and by financial instruments, analytics, and other tools that assist investors.

The result is a substantial increase in the leverage of capital even as the leverage of labor has weakened. Businesses gain their “privileged position“–even in democracies with free and fair elections–from two major sources. First, since a business is organized, it can deliberately advocate for its interests by lobbying or advertising, whereas diffuse interests (like consumers or workers) have much more trouble acting politically. Second, investments are essential for prosperity, and a business can move its investments. Thus, even without lobbying at all, a business–or an individual investor–gains leverage over governments. Its ability to invest and or disinvest gives it power. That power has rapidly increased. It also reinforces …

3. Deference to wealth

This point is harder to quantify, but I perceive that we live at a time when billionaires, celebrities, and CEOs are given extraordinary deference, especially in comparison to run-of-the-mill elected officials, civil servants, union leaders, and grassroots organizers. Politicians, for instance, are constantly in contact with their wealthiest constituents. First-year Democratic Members of the House are advised to spend four hours per day of every day calling donors. Meanwhile, many advocacy groups are funded by rich individuals, not sustained by membership dues, so their leaders are also constantly on the phone or at conferences and meetings with wealthy people. The conversations in these settings tend to be deeply deferential, and they occur behind closed doors. Of course, these habits are abetted by laws and policies–especially, laws governing campaign finance in the US. But we observe somewhat similar deference in other countries with better laws. I think the deeper cause is the shift of leverage to economic elites.

4. The market colonizes the public sphere 

“Commonwealth” is a translation of “republic,” which could be more literally rendered as “the public’s thing.” In a republic, the government is supposed to be distinct from the private sector. As the custodian of the common wealth, it operates on different principles from a market. These principles are not simply majoritarian, for the commonwealth belongs to our unborn children as well to us. We have no right to waste it by voting for the wrong policies. A republic strives to define and implement something worthy of the title “public good.”

That distinct ethic has been lost, as governments are almost universally seen simply as service-providers, constantly compared to businesses on the grounds of efficiency, and expected to compete in a market for popularity and influence. In a 1870 case, the Supreme Court declared a lobbyist’s contract void on the ground that it would be “steeped in corruption” and “infamous” for any business to hire someone “to procure the passage of a general law with a view to the promotion of their private interests.” The Court added:

The foundation of a republic is the virtue of its citizens. They are at once sovereigns and subjects. As the foundation is undermined, the structure is weakened. When it is destroyed, the fabric must fall. Such is the voice of universal history. The theory of our government is that all public stations are trusts, and that those clothed with them are to be animated in the discharge of their duties solely by considerations of right, justice, and the public good.

We certainly didn’t live up to those words in 1870s, when government was in many ways more corrupt than it is now. But the animating philosophy of a public good was still alive then. In contrast, Buckley v Valeo (1976) defines political money as constitutionally protected speech, and Citizens United (2010) equates businesses with civic associations. These are examples of a general erosion of a distinction between public good and private interests.

5. States have increasing power

If we lived in a neo-“liberal” or laissez-faire era, states would be constrained. In some ways, they are, but they also have more access to data about people than ever before; they have an easier time surveilling, influencing, punishing, and even killing individuals; and they operate increasingly powerful systems for enforcing discipline, headlined by the vast prison system of the USA. Their ability to see, count, and act also extends far beyond their borders, making people in most parts of the world subject to more than one government at once.

6. But states need their citizens less

On the other hand, states don’t need their own citizens. They don’t need us as military conscripts, because they can fight using small numbers of highly equipped experts, and they don’t need most of us as taxpayers, because they can finance their operations on international markets.

Mitt Romney did himself no favors by accusing 53% of Americans of being “takers” instead of “makers.” (Also, his numbers were off, since he omitted people who pay payroll taxes.) But he was right that a small minority can finance a modern government, which means that the state really doesn’t have to pay much attention to the rest of its people.

Put those six premises together, and you would predict a political regime in which investors use an expansive and intrusive state to promote their own interests. This seems almost precisely accurate as a description of regime like China’s, and all too apt when applied to the US, the UK, or the EU as well. It doesn’t excuse voting for Donald Trump, who offers no alternative and threatens fundamental rights. I don’t think it offers a very good rationale for Brexit, either. But it does explain why a political class wedded to this status quo would face an electoral insurrection.

Posted in 2016 election, revitalizing the left, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

on inhabiting earth with inaccessibly beautiful things

I unfortunately know no Chinese. The sounds, resonances, allusions, and calligraphy of traditional Chinese poetry can reach me only through paraphrase or as abstract patterns, each character looking not much different from the next. However, Perry Link writes,

Should we compare poetry across civilizations? If we do, classical Chinese poetry wins easily. The contest is almost unfair, because, as my students of Chinese language eventually come to see, the fundaments of language are different.

Indo-European languages, with their requirements that tense, number, gender, and part of speech be specified, and with the mandatory word inflections that the specifications entail, and with the extra syllables that the inflections add, just can’t achieve the same purity—a sense of terseness and expanse at the same time—that tenseless, numberless, voiceless, uninflected, and uninflectible Chinese characters can achieve. In a contest, one person has a butterfly net and the other a window screen.

I thought of this passage during a recent, brief visit to the Sackler Gallery in Washington, which is showing “Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty.” The highlights are vast, wall-sized hanging scrolls that display poems in the original authors’ calligraphy. The setting is abstract, modern, respectfully dark. In the background, a recording of a classical Chinese zither plays. The English translations by a Sackler curator, Stephen D. Allee, produce what I would call good poetry. The language is moving and sometimes surprising. For instance:

My friends are scattered few and far apart and the rain just drizzles on.
Fragrance fades from the incense burner and the teacups have toppled over;
I composed a poem on plum blossoms, but I’m sorry it is not well done.

I trust that these English lines convey the sense of the end of a poem by Wen Zhengming (composed ca. 1500), but they bear only a distant relationship to the scroll he painted and the sounds that his intended audience would hear as they read it. It’s strange to think that I will never be able to experience a deeply valuable art form–in Link’s estimation, the best tradition of poetry in the world–even though I can stand in the same room with it.

(See also: nostalgia for now and Ito Jakuchu at the National Gallery)

Posted in fine arts, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Hillary Clinton on spending for infrastructure

There’s an important exchange about government spending in Ezra Klein’s long, wonky interview with Hillary Clinton.

Klein notes that the government can currently borrow very cheaply, paying virtually no interest. The US has grave infrastructure needs. Businesses normally borrow in order to invest: they don’t pay for a new factory the same year they open it. So why shouldn’t the feds accept the markets’ offer of “free money?” “Shouldn’t we be doing more deficit spending for infrastructure, for middle-class tax cuts—and worrying less in the near-term about deficits?”

Paul Krugman recently put the same case even more forcefully. “Policy makers should be … accepting the markets’ offer of incredibly cheap financing. … America’s aging infrastructure is legendary. …. So why not borrow money at these low, low rates and do some much-needed repair and renovation?”

Clinton responds to Klein that our infrastructure needs are great, and we should “look for ways to pay for our investments. … But I’m not going to commit myself to [borrowing] … because I think we’ve had a period when the gains have gone to the wealthy. … I think we can pay for what we need to do though raising taxes on the wealthy.”

Klein summarizes her answer: “I’ve not heard you say it that way before. So part of the argument of doing pay-fors in the near term is not just balancing the budget or reducing the deficit but also bringing distributional fairness to the aftermath of the recession.”

If liberals could design and implement a coherent policy, they should borrow now to take advantage of the rock-bottom interest rates, and structure the repayment so that upper-income people bear the costs over time. But Clinton is not in a position to write and implement a multi-year policy all by herself. If she can do anything at all, it will have to be a compromise with Republicans in Congress. Her view is that she can get more infrastructure spending and tax equity by paying for everything right away, with some kind of surplus tax on the rich.

I respect her expertise and don’t have any desire to argue with her about economics, but I wonder: 1) How much revenue can really come from upper-income tax increases next year, given the political balance? Couldn’t we get a lot more money by borrowing? 2) Politically, will voters support a tax-and-spend program, given their extremely low trust in government to create jobs? And 3) Shouldn’t we be challenging the widespread assumption that good government requires never borrowing to make investments?

(See also “why Hillary Clinton appears untrustworthy,” in which I proposed that her failure to argue for infrastructure spending exemplifies a general tendency among technocratic liberals to refuse to say what they believe because they don’t trust the American people to understand or accept their reasons.)

Posted in 2016 election | Leave a comment

progress on civics

I’m back from a very inspiring meeting of civic activists, civic educators, and students in the White House. It was convened by the Domestic Policy Council along with Civic Nation and the Beeck Center, with support from Tisch College and oCnQrgM6XgAAz4-0thers. Committed and skillful teachers and students attended from selected schools across the country. These students are not just learning about civic engagement, practicing to be citizens, or developing civic skills. They are at the forefront, right now, of addressing the most serious issues in their communities. We need them, and many more like them, to govern the republic better than it has been governed and to achieve justice that has eluded us so far.

We learned that US Secretary of Education John King is sending a “letter of guidance” to all state education agencies about new federal support for the humanities as part of the “well-rounded” education mandate of the Every Student Succeeds Act. As a humanities person, I am glad about that direction, and as a civics advocate, I’m pleased that civics is included among the humanities. 

The US Department of Education has also made civics a core component of the Department’s “Blue Ribbon Schools” program, which recognizes excellence. 

Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor/HHS and Education recently passed the 2017 appropriations bill, which includes the first funding for civics and American History in years. The appropriation includes $6.5 million for competitive grants to improve instruction in American history, civics, and geography, particularly for schools in under-served rural and urban communities. It also includes nearly $2 million for American History and Civics Academies: professional development opportunities for teachers of these disciplines. For now, it’s just a House appropriations bill, but it’s an important step toward actual dollars for civics.

Posted in advocating civic education, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

the metaphysics of latent variables in psychology

(Washington, DC) The search for “latent variables” is so common in psychology that I would almost call it definitive of the discipline today. Other disciplines also study people’s thoughts and actions, but the distinctive contribution of psychology seems to be the use of variables that are not directly observed but rather inferred from data. Latent variables have been “so useful … that they pervade … psychology and the social sciences” (Bollen, 2002, p. 606).

But what are they? This is a metaphysical question, in the sense that contemporary, professional, Anglophone philosophers use the word “metaphysics.” It doesn’t mean that latent variables are spooky or illusory, but rather that it’s worth trying to figure out what kinds of things they are and how they relate to other sorts of things, such as beliefs, observations, numbers, mental states, processes, physical brains, etc. (Cf. why social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics.)

It turns out (Mulaik, 1987) that the main tools of psychometrics were invented by early-20th century thinkers who were explicitly interested in philosophical issues. For instance, Karl Pearson, who invented P-values, chi-square tests, and Principal Components Analysis–and who first used a histogram–wrote a book about philosophy of science before he developed these tools in order to implement his philosophy. He sounds like an awful man–an active proponent of racism–but that doesn’t invalidate his contributions to statistics. Their origin in his philosophical thought does, however, reinforce the point that latent factors need a philosophical explanation.

In very general terms, a latent variable is a number derived from several direct observations (the manifest variables) and used to say something meaningful about the subject. A history test provides a simple example. The student’s answers to each question are manifest variables. The student’s grade is derived from them, usually by just calculating the percentage of correct answers, and it is supposed to measure “knowledge of history,” which is latent. Only if the test is designed according to the best statistical principals is the overall grade indeed a valid measure of knowledge.

The same example can be used to illustrate a more sophisticated tool, factor analysis. Suppose that any student’s chance of answering a given question on the history test can be predicted fairly well by a function of several measured variables (the student’s family income, the teacher’s background, the amount of time studying history, etc.) plus X, plus Y. X and Y correlate with the answers, but X and Y are not correlated with each other, and they remain constant for each student.

That much might be a mathematical result: a function that roughly matches the actual data. The question then arises: what do X and Y mean? Suppose that X has a very strong correlation with students’ performance on questions that involve difficult reading assignments, such as original source material. And Y has a very strong correlation with students’ performance on questions that involve concrete factual information, such as the dates of the Civil War. Assuming that X and Y are not correlated, we can conclude that history test scores involve two “factors”: reading ability and memorization of concrete factual information. That interpretation would likely be presented as a meaningful finding, with implications for how educators should teach history.*

I don’t disagree. I am involved in this kind of research myself (albeit usually contributing less than my fair share of the math). But what kind of a thing is “reading ability” or “memorization of concrete factual information” in this example?

They are not exactly causes of the students’ actual answers to questions, for four reasons.

First, it is often (always?) possible to describe any given set of data with multiple functions.

Second, given a mathematical function that well describes a given set of data–such as the kids’ specific answers to Mr. Brown’s AP history test–it doesn’t follow that the same factors would also describe another set of data. The next 10 kids who took Mr. Brown’s test might not fit the function at all. This is an example of the general problem of induction.

Third, we can often switch the direction of the explanatory arrow. Instead of using the student’s latent ability in reading to explain or predict her answers to specific test questions, we could use her answers to those questions to explain or predict her reading ability. If you can switch the direction of an explanation, it doesn’t seem like a causal thesis.

Finally, we don’t usually describe a “cause” as something that is derived mathematically from the effects. A student’s family income might be postulated as a cause of her test scores–although it would require an experiment to assess this hypothesis–but a variable that is derived from the test data itself doesn’t seem to be a cause of it. Mulaik (p. 300) writes, “causes generally are not strictly determinate from effects but rather must be distinct from what they explain.”

If you are a strict inductive empiricist, in the tradition of David Hume, you don’t believe that anything is real except for direct observations. That means there are no causes. But it is possible to generalize based on what you have observed so far. Statistics is just a more refined toolkit for the kind of generalizations that we perform naturally when we observe, for instance, that kids tend to perform better on a test if they study for it. This is one way to make sense of a latent variable. It is a sophisticated version of ordinary induction. However, pure inductivism has been criticized on numerous grounds.

A different view is that some kind of mental process or activity causes people to do things like score well on a given history test question. For instance, memorizing dates increases your odds of correctly answering questions on a history test. We can tell a causal story: the information enters the brain, is stored, and is then retrieved to answer the question. The latent variable that correlates with test scores is an indication of this process. (But see Robert Epstein arguing in Aeon against the storage metaphor for human memory.)

In any case, the mathematics of factor analysis would not explain that this is what’s going on. It would only very roughly suggest a phenomenon that requires causal explanation. And although it is fairly straightforward to infer a causal relationship in this case–you should study in order to do well on a test–it is much less plausible that other factors are causal. For instance, do the Big Five Personality traits “cause” answers to concrete questions about emotions and behavior?  In 1939, Wilson and Worcester (quoted in Mulaik) asked, “Why should there be any particular significance psychologically to that vector of the mind which has the property that the sum of squares of the projections of a set of unit vectors (tests) along it be maximum?”

Another level of challenge is that the data for any latent variable come from observations that someone has designed and selected. For instance, that history test could have included entirely different questions. Or we could give tests on reading but not on history. The resulting factors would look different. Some conception of what’s important underlies the design of the test in the first place.

This is what I’m inclined to propose: latent variables are numbers inferred from data. We give them names that refer to actual things that are very heterogeneous, metaphysically. Sometimes latent variables suggest causal theories, although causation requires other kinds of evidence to test. Sometimes they are descriptions of patterns in the accumulated data that are not causal at all. Sometimes they are just tools that are useful for practical reasons–for instance, a kid needs one grade in history instead of a whole bunch of numbers. Whether that grade is appropriate is partly a question of fairness, partly a question about what is valuable to learn, and partly a question of the pragmatic consequences (e.g. does this kind of test cause kids to learn well?). It is only partly a statistical question.

*The example I am informally describing here involves exploratory factor analysis. You identify factors based on pure math and name them based on a theory. On the other hand, in confirmatory factor analysis, you hypothesize a relationship based on a theory and look for patterns in the data that support or reject it. The math is somewhat different, as is the theoretical framework. I don’t want to go too deeply into that contrast because my topic here is broader than factor analysis. I am interested in uses of all latent variables.

Sources: Bollen, Kenneth A. 2002. Latent Variables in Psychology and the Social Sciences. Annual Review of Psychology, vol. 53, 605-634; Mulaik, Stanley A. “A brief history of the philosophical foundations of exploratory factor analysis.” Multivariate Behavioral Research 22.3 (1987): 267-305.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

generational differences in attitudes toward racism

(New York City) As the nation grapples with racism and deep divisions over race, it is important to understand trends in opinions on these issues. Here is a small contribution to that topic.

In 1977, and then consistently since 1985, the General Social Survey has asked a representative sample of Americans this question: “On the average [negroes/blacks/African-Americans] have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people. Do you think these differences are mainly due to discrimination?”

This first graph shows the trends for Whites, Blacks, and all others.

GSS racial discrimination measure

Between the early 1990s and 2012, Blacks became less likely to agree that discrimination causes unequal outcomes. In fact, the “yes’s” dipped below 50% for African Americans in 2012. Blacks have become more likely to answer “yes” since then. There hasn’t been a lot of change in the Whites’ responses since 1977, although a moderate decline is evident.

The second graph shows answers by generation. One important complication is that each generation has had a different racial composition from the others. In particular, Latinos and Asian Americans have become much more numerous as the Xers and then the Millennials have arrived. By itself, that demographic change would raise the positive response rate to this question for the youngest generations. To control for that, I show only White respondents in this graph.

GSS racial discrimination

White Millennials are currently more likely to blame inequality on racial discrimination than the older groups are. That reflects a rather rapid change, since only a third of their cohort agreed in 2006. Nevertheless, less than half of them (44.5%) agreed with the statement in 2014. In 2012, according to a different survey, 58% of White Millennials said, “discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”

Xers, by the way, have become substantially less likely to blame anti-Black discrimination over the course of their lives so far. More than half did when they were young, but just 27% did in 2014.

I think that Black Lives Matter reflects and contributes to a substantial increase in concern about racial discrimination since 2012. That concern has by no means captured a majority of White people, or even of White youth. However, the increase has been rapid among White youth and also among African Americans. The result is a movement that has a generational element, and a base in the Black community, but that also faces a lot of backlash.

See also: in what ways are Millennials distinctive?; tolerance and generational change; and the most educated Americans are liberal but not egalitarian (2).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

the lack of diversity in philosophy is blocking its progress

I’m on vacation this week and most of next, so I’m not blogging. However, a piece of mine has just appeared in Aeon, entitled “The lack of diversity in philosophy is blocking its progress.” It begins:

Philosophy is a remarkably un-diverse discipline. Compared with other scholars who read, interpret and assign texts, philosophers in the United States typically choose a much higher percentage of their sources (often, 100 per cent) from Europe and countries settled by Europeans. Philosophy teachers, too, look homogeneous: 86 per cent of new PhD researchers in philosophy are white, and 72 per cent are male. In the whole country, only about 30 African-American women work as philosophy professors.

Posted in academia, philosophy, Uncategorized | Leave a comment