other threads (collected entries on recurrent themes)
an experimental high school civics class
Iraq and democratic theory
The Internet and civic life
advocacy for civic education
deliberative democracy work
moral philosophy


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Thursday, Nov. 27

Why do the international lending institutions (the IMF and World Bank) draw such ire? Protestors picket at their doors, not outside Citigroup (US), Mizuho Holdings (Japan) or UBS (Switzerland), which are currently the world’s three biggest banks. Yet the IMF and World Bank exist to make subsidized loans to needy countries. Their loan agreements are intensively negotiated; no potential borrower is required to accept their offer.

On the other hand, the World Bank and IMF make their loans contingent on changes in the borrowers’ behavior, and the changes they demand are based on current mainstream economic theory. Thus, for instance, they tell borrowing countries to privatize their large state-owned enterprises and to cut spending, in return for loans (when there are no other sources of capital). I see four plausible interpretations of these demands:

(1) Perhaps the Bank and the IMF give good advice--good for a whole borrowing country’s population. Indeed, independent professional economists tend to endorse the main themes of the “Washington consensus.” If they are right, then the anger of the anti-globalism activists is misplaced.

(2) Perhaps these lenders are interested in maximizing the odds that their loans will be repaid. Then their advice is hard-headed and practical, but they ought to be more generous with very poor countries. If they ran out of funds as a result, the donor nations should give them more money.

(3) Perhaps they are well-meaning but misguided. They require reforms that will (as they claim) maximize economic growth in the borrowing countries. However, a government can add a percentage point to GNP through a policy that plunges a significant portion of its population into hunger and homelessness. Growth of GNP is a good thing all else being equal, but it’s often not the right goal to aim for.

(4) Or perhaps they require reforms that will harm recipients but benefit holders of capital, who are concentrated in the wealthy countries of the north. This doesn’t mean that lenders are deliberately and consciously cruel. Rather, they may honestly believe in mainstream academic economics, which could be a fundamentally biased discipline. In that case, wouldn’t borrowing countries prefer not to take their loans at all? Wouldn’t they be better off defaulting? Not necessarily. The overall system imposed by the “Washington consensus” could be bad for all poor countries, yet each country could be better off taking a loan than refusing it.

I don’t know enough to choose among these interpretations. But I’ve reached the point where all I want is empirical evidence that helps me see which of the above theories is true. Most of the rhetoric on both sides (about greedy capitalists or wise economists) is unhelpful.

Thursday, November 21

Reading about anti-Bush protests in London reminds me that the Republican National Convention will be held next summer in New York City, where a lot of people are Democrats, against the war, and angry about federal economic policies, from the big tax cuts to the scanty post-9/11 aid for New York. I hope there will be massive protests, but I hope that the organizers will heed the following message, which Harry Boyte saved from the March on Washington in 1963. In the program guide, Dr. Martin Luther King and the other organizers wrote: "In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words, and even hot insults; but when a whole people speaks to its government the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government."

Specifically, I hope that the dominant tone in New York is one of sober disagreement with the incumbent administration and its explicit, declared values (e.g., opposition to taxes, unilateral preemptive warfare, and limitations on civil rights). I hope that the major images from New York City do not show protesters attacking symbols of capitalism or denouncing Bush as a war criminal or profiteer.

First of all, those positions do not impress me personally. Starbucks is not a symbol of an economic system that we should overturn, although I'm all for reform. The legal justification for invading Iraq was dubious, but the president is not a war criminal, nor did he authorize an invasion to increase oil profits. In any case, I don't think that such rhetoric will have any resonance with mainstream Americans. People see Bush as principled and honest, but possibly superficial, inexperienced, and just plain wrong about some important matters, economic and military. So it's very important to engage him on what he says, rather than rely on personal attacks or conspiracy theories to turn people against him.

In the Guardian newspaper, Harold Pinter writes, "Dear President Bush, I'm sure you'll be having a nice little tea party with your fellow war criminal, Tony Blair. Please wash the cucumber sandwiches down with a glass of blood, with my compliments." Just about the only thing that can make me defend George W. Bush is this kind of rhetoric; and I think my visceral sentiments may be in line with American public opinion.

Tuesday, Nov. 11

In his Washington Post column today, E.J. Dionne writes, "Our foreign policy debate right now pits radicals against conservatives. Republicans are the radicals. Democrats are the conservatives." Republicans want to remake the world to match abstract ideals; Democrats are concerned about traditional alliances and institutions, unintended consequences, and appropriate limits on national power. In recent blog entries, I've been claiming that Democrats and "progressives" represent the more conservative voice in many areas of domestic policy. Dionne is making the same argument about foreign policy (writ large).

Dionne's big point can be applied to the narrower issue of reconstruction in Iraq. Apparently, most Iraqis are members of groups (religious, occupational, ethnic, regional, and tribal) that have traditional rights and privileges. The system is unfair, because privileges are not equally distributed, nor can one freely move from the group into which one is born. This is also an inefficient and irrational way to organize a society. The Bush people understandably want to rationalize and liberalize the system. But since they are eager to impose grand and simple theories directly on reality, they tend to choose the most radical approaches, for example, the "flat tax" that they are considering for Iraq.

They remind me somewhat of the French revolutionaries, who captured a regime that had conferred arbitrary privileges on most of its subjects. Even French peasants had often inherited special rights by virtue of the villages in which they were born. In contrast, the revolutionaries believed in equality for all, careers open to talents, property rights, and a system in which everything of value was exchangeable for money. Thus they revoked all special privileges (for egalitarian reasons). But this assault on the social order set them against most Frenchmen qua members of hereditary groups. The result, as Donald Sutherland shows, was a popular counterrevolution that developed almost immediately and that drew from the lower classes as well as the clergy and aristocrats (France 1789-1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution [1986]). The revolutionaries assumed that lower-class opposition must be the fruit of some conspiracy, so they turned quickly to Terror, with tragic results.

In Iraq today, the counterrevolution appears still to have very narrow support. The American occupation has not yet repeated the mistakes of the French revolution. Still, this is a good time to remember that revolutions usually backfire and traditional arrangements deserve some respect.

Thursday, Nov. 6.

In JFK Airport, en route to Salt Lake City: Two decisions regarding the Dean presidential campaign appear imminent. Gov. Dean is likely to refuse federal funding (thus gaining the freedom to spend unlimited private money); and he is expected to receive the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU, pronounced "see you"). These events are symptomatic of the collapse of a set of institutions that, 20 years ago, amplified the political voice of ordinary people. In those days, federal funding for presidential campaigns was adequate to replace private money, so there were no big donors in presidential politics. Everyone counted the same under the presidential campaign finance system. As for major unions, they had a powerful influence on the institutional Democratic party and supported candidates with whom they had lasting relationships—politicians who had risen through the political ranks mainly because of organized labor. Today, SEIU evidently thinks that it cannot afford to support the man who best fits that description, Dick Gephardt, because his chances of winning the presidency are too low. Instead, they are backing someone who owes them nothing, who has never had much to do with them, but who has harnessed mostly white-collar support through clever use of the Internet and a strong anti-War stance. Evidently, they think Gov. Dean has the best chance of winning and they want to have some leverage over him.

Two immediate results are likely: the demise of the whole public financing system (since neither party will use it), and the defeat of Rep. Gephardt, who is now blocked from receiving the AFL-CIO's collective endorsement.

Many people believe that the Dean campaign represents a new form of citizen influence. But we have to ask whom this new system benefits. Dean supporters have a political ideology and an identity as active citizens. Polls show that most Americans lack both of these characteristics. Dean supporters also have the means to contribute to his campaign, and they are early adapters of the latest technologies (blogs and Meetup.com this year; something else in 2008). In contrast, unions like SEIU traditionally gave people political ideologies and identities, collected modest dues to produce substantial political donations, and used tools (such as phone banks) that were familiar to blue-collar workers. I don't hold Gov. Dean's success against him, but I think it spells deep trouble for working-class politics in America.

Tuesday, Nov. 4

My Oct. 30 entry argues that today's "progressives" are best understood as conservatives, seeking to maintain a set of institutions that they do not believe are well designed, but which they prefer to the speculative market alternatives promoted by the Right. I did not mean this as a criticism, since such conservatism is valuable. Edmund Burke taught that we should hesitate to overturn interrelated social systems that have evolved over generations; they embody the experience of the people who have learned to live with them. It is easy to prove that their design is inefficient or inequitable, compared to some chalkboard alternative. But radical changes often go awry. On these grounds, Burke rightly preferred the Old Regime in France, for all its aribitrary, wasteful, unjust features, to the revolutionary system that fell apart after it had cost millions of lives. Similarly, I respect people who believe that public schools, unions, and welfare programs are better than the radical alternatives suggested by economic theory. The problem with progressivism is not that it is wrong. Rather, it is politically and rhetorically weak, for it's always difficult to win elections with a grudging defense of the status quo.

I would add that today's progressives are not only conservative about New Deal institutions. They are eager to conserve both natural ecosystems and minority cultures (especially poor, indigenous ones). They are more fiscally conservative than Republicans. They are also more resistant to scientific progress: witness their response to genetically engineered crops. They object to the expanding federal power over law enforcement (the USA Patriot Act) and education (No Child Left Behind). And they are the biggest defenders of institutions, such as public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities, that promote the high culture of the past.

This is a selective list. One could mention issues on which self-described "conservatives" are more conservative than liberals are. (The public role of religion would be one.) However, I think we should recognize the deep conservatism of the modern Left—in Europe as well as America—for this partly expains the present political situation. Conservatism is a virtue of so-called "progressivism" today; it is also a profound political weakness.

Thursday, Oct. 30

En route from Colorado to DC: I frequently talk to progressives who claim that Republicans and conservatives play the political game more skillfully (and roughly) than Democrats and liberals, which explains the success of the Right. Democrats would win if they could come up with simpler and more effective messages; choose issues that embarrass Republicans or split their constituencies; and tie individual conservative leaders to scandals.

I find this vision deeply disturbing, because it would damage an already fragile civic culture. What's more, I don't think that Democrats can win by playing the political game with less sportsmanship than they exhibit today. It may be true that some aspects of the system are tilted against them: for instance, they get less than their fair share of campaign money and access to the mass media. But imagine that liberal leaders were granted two hours of Americans' time, unfiltered and uncensored. What would they say?

Democrats are in the position today of defending old institutions that they are also the first to criticize. Thus they favor increased support for public schools, yet they have been saying for generations that schools are alienating and dehumanizing as well as unfair to vulnerable minorities. They do have plans for school reform, but past reforms have always run aground. They support regulation, yet the most powerful and trenchant criticisms of expert-driven, centralized regulation have come from the Left. They defend the welfare state, yet they have been arguing for 50 years that welfare systems dehumanize "clients." They defend unions, yet unions violate modern progressive values by being hierarchical and disciplined (and often corrupt, to boot). Thus, at their most effective, today's "progressives" are actually conservatives, staving off radical change and defending old institutions as preferable to the market alternatives promoted by Republicans. Bill Clinton is a progressive hero not because of what he built, but because of the proposals he vetoed.

I actually think that the old institutions are preferable to markets; but no political movement can win by half-heartedly defending the recent past. Nor are school systems, unions, and welfare programs worthy of more than half-hearted support. Thus what we need are new models, new institutional arrangements. The best of these, however, are still in a nascent, experimental, R&D stage. If that is our problem, then we will get nowhere by playing politics Texas-style.

Scott Dinsmore writes:

I wonder how you and the other Peter (Berkowitz) would engage on these issues. He's been writing about conservative reform efforts and "leftists as conservatives" in "The Liberal Spirit in America" and on "school choice"; see http://www.policyreview.org/aug03/berkowitz.html and http://weeklystandard.com/content/public/articles/000/000/001/230pwtwp.asp).

I see four rich questions arising between your arguments:

1) How do institutions need reform today? (analysis of cause)
2) What kind of reform is therefore neessary? (ideal solutions)
3) What kind of reform is possible? (viable options)
4) How does a movement market? (strategy)

Your answers to the first which you mentioned in your blog, may overlap with Peter B. Ideals (second) may be different because I think he is more of a hesitant "liberal" than you (re: his book on virtues in liberal thought vs. your Next Progressive). On item four I also see overlap -- the integrity of reform of which wrote. I guess answers to number three vary depending on answers to other the others -- I'd later like to consider the dynamics of agreement on these points, how they influence each other, etc.

On the point about MESSAGE, I think of Michael Lerner's commitment to this question. (why don't a majority of citizens see mutual affirmation in social programs? what are their existential needs and commitments?) More recently at http://www.rockridgeinstitute.org/ George Lakoff, cognitive linguist, I think, and friends, try to address these questions from a left/liberal perspective.

Thursday, Sept. 25

According to a scholarly article cited here, there were between 2 million and 2.5 million people in Soviet prisons and camps every year between 1938 and 1953. The current population in US jails plus prisons also exceeds 2 million (Bureau of Justice Statistics). This comparison has not escaped people's notice, as a Google search of "Gulag" and "prison population" will reveal.

Of course, there are differences between prisons in the US and in Stalin's Soviet Union. First, the vast majority of incarcerated people in America have committed crimes, and they have received due process, albeit flawed in some cases. Second, conditions in US prisons are better than conditions in Siberian work camps. Third, our incarceration rate is lower as a percentage of our population, although it may be higher in some inner-city neighborhoods today than it was in the USSR circa 1950. Fourth, the modern rationale for mass incarceration (reducing crime) is better than Stalin's reason (terrorizing people into submission to him personally). Above all, the Soviet terror involved mass killing as well as imprisonment.

Nevertheless, at the very least, the incarceration of 2 million Americans—with collateral damage to their victims, and to their families and communities)—represents a social failure that's unique in today's world and comparable to the disasters under Stalin.

Monday, Sept. 15

Public participation and the war on terror: Influenced by Harry Boyte, I believe that opportunities for people to contribute public goods have shrunk over the last century. Government is increasingly "rational" (in Weber's sense): this means that important functions are divided into specialized tasks and assigned to experts, who are given minimal discretion. The government as a whole does good, but relatively few people can gain deep personal satisfaction from their own public service. Meanwhile, the private sector grows ever more efficient and competitive. As a result, there are few niches for people who want to work in business for partly public purposes. (An example would be the demise of the old publishing houses, which were "for profit," but not very efficient about it; editors saw themselves mainly as friends of literature.)

The loss of opportunities for public work is unfortunate, because we waste the talents and energies of millions of citizens. It also means that people lose the very special satisfaction that comes from creating public goods. And I believe that it partly explains the decline of other forms of citizenship, such as voting and reading the newspaper. People who don't make public goods are less likely to participate in other ways.

Now we face a national crisis, terrorism, and it seems worthwhile to look for opportunities to involve many citizens in significant public work. Only an expert on national security could tell us what jobs people are equipped to do. Spying on our fellow citizens is not a good idea (the damage to privacy and due process is too great). Thus I offer some very ill-informed ideas about some other roles that citizens might play. My main goal here is to provoke others to think of better ideas:

  • The military personnel who are doing peace-keeping and nation-building work in Iraq are creating public goods. They are creative and improvisational, in the best tradition of public work. We should celebrate them as good citizens, and recognize the (non-martial) virtues that they are displaying—virtues that we also need in civilian life. Everyone wants Iraqis to play a larger role; but for the time being, let's recognize that Americans are exemplifying citizenship in Iraq. (This is true even if the invasion was ill-advised or even illegal.) We also need ways to help veterans of Iraq to use their skills back home.
  • Citizens could deliberately learn strategic languages, such as Pashto or Malay; read newspapers and websites in those languages; and then post their own translations of key excerpts online. Their audience would be US experts in foreign affairs, and also fellow citizens who are trying to understand a complex world. Clearly, volunteers would have to learn these languages from someone. This suggests a great opportunity to employ immigrants as language teachers.
  • Citizens could assist in planning the emergency evacuation of major cities. Big highways would be quickly jammed after a catastophe, so we need to figure out how to move large numbers of people through side streets. Citizens could collect data on the capacity of each street segment to carry heavy traffic. Fed into GIS software, these data would show alternative evacuation routes.
  • There are many ways for citizens to work together to conserve oil, thereby reducing our dependence on middle eastern sources.

I'm sure there are better ideas than these. It's a shame that our creativity and dedication were not tapped soon after 9/11, when people were desperate to serve. But it's not too late.

    In response to this entry, Scott Dinsmore writes:

    How about expanding the sister city idea to focus on the Muslim world? US participants could design 2 week trips for visitors here, exploring themes of religious pluralism, education, family life, local politics, economic opportunity. I don't really know how the sister city program worked, mostly with European cities I think.

Next, classrooms in Europe, US and the Muslim world could link for fellowship and academic resources. Are colleges doing this yet in language, politics or anthropology classes?

Tuesday, Sept. 2

[This is Idea #2 for a Revitalized Left:]

I'm increasingly dissatisfied with programs to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. To be sure, redistribution can increase aggregate happiness and opportunity, since an extra dollar makes much more of a difference to a poor person than to a rich one. Also, there is some evidence that inequality reduces health and longevity (regardless of the total amount of wealth in the society). Nevertheless, I think that aiming for more redistribution is politically foolish, since a majority of American households are now wealthy enough that they do not imagine themselves as the beneficiaries. Even some of those who might benefit from redistribution consider it undesirable. It's coercive; it's divisive; it may be economically inefficient (at best, it's zero-sum); and it makes the recipient feel beholden and dependent.

The alternative would be to increase people's opportunities to become creators of wealth. There could be two parts to this agenda. First, we could strive to lower barriers to entrepreneurship. This is a Republican goal, identified especially with Jack Kemp (who has done good work). The problem is the standard Republican solution, which boils down to tax cuts. Cutting taxes does nothing to increase opportunities for people who don't have much money to start with.

The Hope Street Group, an organization of business executives, is working on much more serious ideas for expanding real economic opportunity. They say:

"Equality of opportunity" is the notion that all Americans should get a genuine chance to make the most of their talents and efforts to benefit themselves, their families, and their communities. It requires that children have the educational opportunities that allow them to realize their own potential. It requires fair access to job markets, capital markets, and the home market. It requires that government lighten the burden of those who are just beginning to build up their earning power and their savings. It requires a system in which people can bounce back from failure, so that they're not afraid to take risks and to invest in themselves in the first place.

While helping more everyone to contribute to the market economy, we could also increase citizens' opportunities to make public goods. To do this, we would encourage public service by expanding (rather than brutally cutting) Americorps; by opening new routes into professions such as teaching and nursing; and by making such professions more desirable and satisfying. Indeed, we would encourage all the learned professions to recover their civic and public purposes. And we would increase public contributions to the government itself, for instance by asking citizens to collect GIS data on environmental issues, or by assigning important regulatory issues to citizen juries.

Not all public goods are created in the state sector. For example, as I've argued in several articles (for instance, this one), there is a "digital commons" composed of the protocols, the open-source software, and the free webpages of the Internet. The Internet was built by volunteers, including teenagers and poor immigrants; by nonprofit associations; by the government; by profit-seeking entrepreneurs; and my major corporations. All these players were doing what Harry Boyte calls "public work," that is, working together to build an accessible public good. The Internet commons is now in grave danger from several directions (spammers and virus-makers, corporate monopolists, government censors). However, groups such as the New America Foundation have lots of concrete ideas about how to expand and protect the Internet and other public assets.

Putting all these policies together, we could have a movement whose goal would be to make everyone a creator of wealth.

Friday, June 27

Terms like "Asset Based Community Development" and the "developmental assets" approach to working with adolescents are extremely popular today in foundations, schools, and social service agencies. One could dismiss such language as a mere effort to sound positive and uplifting, unconnected to any substantial change in philosophy or methodology. But I think that would be a mistake. The "asset-based" approach (for lack of a better term) is being used by people who come out of the Left, and it represents a real change in their views and methods.

My favorite example of the old ways is now somewhat out of date, but I can't resist using it. In March 2002, ACORN organized protests against federal welfare policy. The angry crowd that they had assembled shouted down the sole member of Congress who chose to address them, Rep. Charles B. Rangel of Harlem, demanding that he answer their questions and meet with them in New York City. One of the rally's organizers (a Harvard graduate) explained: "Most of the crowd are people living with the reality of fairly extreme poverty in their own lives, and they are rightly angry." A colleague added that the Administration's welfare policies "are an attack on poor families in America."

The organizers of this protest apparently believed that they could speak for poor people, whose main need was more federal welfare spending. Their strategy for winning such aid was to parade welfare recipients before Congress and the press, emphasizing their deprivation and anger. (They also displayed the political naivety and weakness of these people.) The protest organizers implied that anyone who did not completely endorse their demands was their enemy. And of course they failed completely.

An assets-based approach would look quite different. It would treat the welfare recipients as potentially powerful and skillful political actors, capable of working as peers with selected allies in Congress. It would also recognize their capacity to build things of value in their own communities, regardless of federal welfare policy. Poor people do need outside resources, both capital and government assistance. However, they are unlikely to get such help unless they have first organized themselves as a powerful political force. The best way to organize is to identify, advertise, and build up local assets, even before powerful outsiders offer aid. If residents are used to working together, have identified their own assets, are confident and experienced, and have created their own new institutions, then they can win outside support. They can also handle the influx of aid without being overwhelmed by corruption or manipulative outsiders.

Thursday, June 5

It appears that John Podesta will lead a new American Majority Institute designed to develop and popularize "progressive" ideas. (The New York Times story is here.) I think this is great news, even from a non-partisan and non-ideological perspective, because the intellectual collapse of the American Left is reducing competition and debate in US politics.

There are some good idea for broad political movements that could be adopted by the Left. Here's one (more will follow in future postings):

Idea # 1: A strong "good government" program. To attract the Perot-McCain-Bradley vote in addition to its usual base, either party could propose the following policies:

  • Public financing (or at least free broadcast time) for political candidates and parties. Politicians always circumvent limits on campaign spending, but direct subsidies can make politics accessible to newcomers and increase competition. Public financing is available now in several states and major cities.
  • Radical tax simplification. On a revenue-neutral basis, taxes could be dramatically simplified so that the tax form became a single page for everyone. The fairness of the system would improve dramatically if this were done right.
  • Alternatives to standard methods of federal regulation. Administrative agencies generate malleable, complex, and inconsistent bodies of law that are always full of loopholes and inefficiencies and impossible to understand. Agencies always get "captured" by special interests. In each field, there are alternatives to rule-making by administrative agencies. Sometimes, Congress can replace an elaborate system of rules with vouchers or other simple payments to consumers. Sometimes, Congress can codify the important parts of a body of existing regulations into a sweeping new statute. And sometimes, administrative agencies can use new methods of rule-making, such as citizen juries or Deliberative Polls. The overall theme would be a criticism of both regulation and unregulated corporate behavior.
  • Aggressive efforts to promote diversity, competition, and localism in the news media, including support for low-powered radio; aggressive antitrust enforcement in the media industry; higher subsides for public television and radio; and laws requiring providers of Internet connections to offer neutral services so that their customers may freely explore the World Wide Web and easily post their own material.
  • More federal support for civic education and voluntary service, to increase the capacity of the next generation to play an active role in politics and community life.

Wednesday, May 28

A report for Washington: I know many Democrats, and they all seem highly pessimistic about 2004. They think that Karl Rove is a genius, that Bush will coast to re-election because of the Iraq war, that Republicans have enormous advantages in money and media support, that the country is moving rightward, that the Democratic leadership is weak and divided—in short, that we are headed for a landslide.

I dislike political prognostication and am generally not good at it. (It seems to me that the important question is not who will win, but what policies we should want to prevail.) Nevertheless, I cannot resist observing that the future is completely unpredictable and that a Democrat could be the one to win by a landslide in '04. The economy will need to improve quickly to get above the level that usually re-elects presidents (3% annual growth). Surveys show very little support for the Bush economic strategy if it is separated from his personal popularity. The stimulative effects of the new budget are likely to be small, and the expected postwar bounce has been modest. Iraq represents a genuine victory right now, which no one should gainsay—but unfortunately for all of us, it could still easily turn into a momentous disaster. Cutbacks at the state level are going to remain a huge issue, and state leaders will have justifiable reasons to blame Washington. If governors start accusing Bush of cutting taxes at their expense, it could create a serious political problem for him. (The $20 billion in aid to states that Congress just passed may inoculate Bush against charges that he abandoned the states, so it very lucky for him.) The Republicans are planning to use Sept. 11 politically, even choosing New York City for their convention—a strategy that will backfire if New Yorkers effectively protest the way that they have been mistreated since 2001. (Or if, God forbid, we are attacked again.) The demographic trends in states like Florida point the Democrats' way, and they start with a 2000 base that was bigger than Bush's. The absence of serious third-party competition from the left will help too. Even the media may be neutralized if reporters shift, pack-like, from adulating Bush to criticizing him once his popularity starts to slip for other reasons.

In short, this is a nonpartisan blog, but I wouldn't bet a lot of money on a Republican victory, even if I were a Republican.

Monday, May 26

Adam Clymer has an article in today's New York Times about the Democrats' search for a broad and coherent message. The party is a coalition of disparate, often antagonistic interest groups, according to this article—not a movement inspired by coherent principles. The Republican pollster Ed Goeas made the same charge at a public event I attended recently.

Democrats have had this problem for over a century: they used to be a completely incoherent coalition composed of liberals, Northern white ethnics, and Southern segregationists. The New Deal was much criticized for lacking principle and merely representing the aggregation of these groups' demands. From that period until the 1990s, the Democrats consistently held a national majority and controlled the House. This situation prolonged their reliance on coalition politics—for two reasons. First, since they had a majority, their leaders didn't have to develop a broad, coherent agenda to win. Instead, they tended to fight over the spoils of their regular victories. Second, the House (with its 435 independently elected members) teaches and rewards coalition politics, whereas the presidency is usually the source of broad ideas.

In my view, the historic character of Democrats as a coalition party was not a serious impediment until a separate phenomenon developed: the intellectual collapse of the left. Conservatives win elections, I believe, not because they cheat (that is, spend more money, or get more support in the media), nor because they are better than liberals at communicating their message. They win because they have broad, coherent principles, which boil down to this: "Families use their discretionary income to buy things that make them happy, to exercise their freedom, and to enrich their spiritual lives if they so choose. Therefore, we should maximize the aggregate disposable income of American families. Government does not create income and tends to waste it, so its size should be minimized."

The left has a set of cogent criticisms of this position. Contrary to what conservatives say: (a) Government does create wealth by providing necessary public goods such as universal education, research, and transportation. (b) Maximizing aggregate wealth is not an adequate goal, because we can achieve that end by making the rich much richer while leaving the poor where they are—and this does not increase happiness or freedom. (c) We should care about the prosperity of future generations, not about short-term growth, and therefore we should not cut taxes if this will increase the deficit. (d) All wealth circulates through households, but it most of it also passes through corporations. Large firms have great power and are not accountable to citizens unless regulated by the state. (e) Maximizing aggregate wealth is not sustainable, because human consumption degrades the environment. (f) Maximizing aggregate wealth is incompatible with preserving traditional human cultures and cultural diversity. (g) Maximizing disposable income should not be our only goal; we should also be concerned about how safe, available, and rewarding work is. (h) Private goods are not the only important things; nature, science, and art also matter, and they require public support. (i) Unregulated capitalism is not meritocratic: over time, it creates a class of wealthy and lazy heirs.

These are sensible criticisms, but they are somewhat at odds with each other, and each appeals to a different set of Democratic constituencies. Moreover, Democrats cannot conceal their differences by uniting in support of a concrete national policy. Despite their criticisms of conservatism, they do not believe in the traditional mechanisms for generating equity, sustainability, safety, and the other progressive goods. Above all, they do not believe in centralized state bureaucracies. Thus they fight fairly half-heartedly in defense of traditional institutions, from public schools to unions to the EPA, while failing to articulate a coherent, principled message. And this is why they lose. In short, the problem is intellectual-ideological, not merely tactical, and thus it will not disappear soon.

Tuesday, May 13

Here is a somewhat different way of analyzing the campus battles over "great books" versus "multiculturalism" or "diversity." Participants can be sorted into groups depending on what kind of works they think should be available or required in schools, colleges, and other venues. "Canonical classicists" want everyone to read great works from Plato to NATO. "Diversity proponents" want everyone to be exposed to works written (or composed, or painted) by people of multiple ethnic, cultural, religious, sexual, and racial identities—in order to promote empathy, respect, tolerance, etc. And true "multiculturalists" want people of different cultural backgrounds to be able to study intensively works created by people like them, so that a campus will be home to multiple cultural communities.

This is one dimension that we can use to categorize the antagonists in the campus culture wars. But there is also another dimension. At one end of this second spectrum are those who emphasize that students should experience, appreciate, understand, or at least be exposed to works created in the past or in other places. Somewhat contentiously, I'll call this the "consumerist" approach. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who stress that we should create new cultural products, including stories and paintings, performances, critical interpretations, and historical narratives.

Putting the two dimensions together, we see that there are at least six possible positions in the debate:

canonical classicism

The standard conservative view is (a)—there is a fixed supply of great works from the past that students should experience and appreciate. The standard diversity view is (b)—everyone should experience works by authors of color. And the standard multiculturalism view is (c)—people should be encouraged to study works by members of their own groups, using their own cultures' criteria of excellence. These positions are "zero-sum": adding a text to the curriculum may require taking another text out. In contrast, options (d)-(f) are potentially "win-win," and I think they are underdeveloped. There is a fair amount of (e)—i.e., people of all colors and creeds should collaborate because this will create the most interesting new works of art. But I think conservatives should work on developing (d), if indeed it is a viable position. And multiculturalists should develop (f), which would amount to the view that people of various cultures should be assisted in producing new works, thereby contributing to the global commons.

Thursday, April 3

At the Society for Values in Higher Education's conference on "Discussion, Dialogue, and Deliberation," some of us watched a video advertising a University of Michigan program that involves students in "sustained dialogues" on race, gender, and sexual orientation. It struck me that the video would drive conservatives up the wall, because of the choice of topics, the assumption that the personal is political, the psycho-therapeutic style, and the attempt to raise consciousness by unrooting hidden prejudices even among apparently enlightened students. It also struck me that there were hardly any conservatives at our conference. This is a common experience in my life. I'm a "progressive" on most issues myself; yet almost all my professional projects are defined in strictly nonpartisan, nonideological ways; yet practically everyone I meet and work with is on the left. I raised this issue at the conference, illiciting diverse and interesting responses. I won't try to characterize other people's views of this matter. For myself, I think we have three choices:

1. We could decide that dialogue or deliberation, properly understood and worked out, isn't neutral. It's a form of politics that's inherently more attractive to the Left than to the Right. (For example, some people think that it must deal with racial and gender oppression, because these topics are at the root of most important conflicts.) Thus, although conservatives should be welcomed and respected if they choose to participate, we shouldn't expect them to join in large numbers, nor should we adjust our styles and topics to attract them. To a considerable extent, deliberation (at least on college campuses) will attract the traditional blocks of the Democratic Party: liberal whites, racial and ethnic minorities, gays. They have plenty of diagreements and plenty of hidden mutual animosity to work though, so it is worthwhile to bring them together to deliberate.

2. We could decide that a properly deliberative approach requires the participation of underrepresented groups. In the case of this conference, there was pretty good participation by people of color, but to my knowledge there were no Republicans, evangelical Christians, or people with any current connection to the military. Just as we would act affirmatively to increase the representation of an underrepresented minority group, so we should take affirmative steps to invite the Right to participate. We should make sure we identify potentially interested conservatives and ask them to participate. We should evaluate our public statements and image to make sure that they don't appear hostile to the Right. We should include conservatives as partners from the beginning of our projects, asking them to help us frame our questions and concerns. And we should not presume to speak for them in their absence. I sense, for instance, that they would dislike the University of Michigan's dialogue program, but it is up to them to express their own views of it. I thought some of the characterizations of conservative views at the conference were stereotyped and inaccurate.

3. We should do a bit of both. Some useful exercises (for example, dialogues on racial identity) are going to be dominated by leftish participants, and that's fine. Others will naturally attract conservatives.

Choice #3 seems attractive because it is moderate, but I believe it is impractical. Given very limited energy and resources, the movement for deliberative democracy is going to have to choose between #1 and #2, I believe, and not imagine that we can manage a bit of both.

Friday, February 28

I spent almost all of today at a good Democracy Collaborative conference on "engaged," or "collaborative," or "community-based" research (i.e., research in which academics and members of a community work together, at least to frame a common research agenda and sometimes to conduct the whole project.) There was a lot of talk about potential research involving University of Maryland faculty in our own community, Prince George's County, although many of the speakers came from elsewhere. (One of the best was Gary Cunningham, who runs the Hennepin County African American Men Project in and around Minneapolis, MN.) I was generally impressed and inspired, although a couple of worries stick with me.

First, this was the kind of conference in which everyone quickly feels comfortable with one another and starts to talk as "we." For example: "We need to convince young people to work in the World Bank, so that they can bring our perspective inside that place." But no one ever exactly says what defines "us." I suspect this is partly because everyone in the room is on the left, and that's their most fundamental identity. That's why they all feel confortable with one another. But the agenda and purpose of the meeting are officially non-partisan and non-ideological: we're supposed to be talking about research in partnership with communities. The fact that everyone is on the left is an unacknowledged but crucial fact.

Second, one graduate student gave a presentation on an extremely disadvantaged group that she had studied. No one asked the kind of questions that would routinely arise after a presentation at a regular academic event. For example, individuals had volunteered to participate in her focus groups, and no one asked whether these volunteers were representative of the whole population being studied. Also, many of the individuals claimed to have given up drugs, but no one asked whether this claim was tested or credible. I wondered why these questions didn't come up. (I didn't ask them, either). Here are three guesses:

  • She made a good presentation about a terribly oppressed group, and everyone was moved and sympathetic and didn't want to appear skeptical in any respect. or
  • People who do action-research are not primed to think about such matters as the representativeness of their samples. or
  • This was a middle-aged, female, African American graduate student and no one wanted to ask the tough questions that they would naturally pose of a young, white student who was starting on the standard academic career path.

If the last hypothesis is true, than I worry about what one of my least favorite presidents calls "the soft bigotry of low expectations." In other words, I hope we are not afraid to ask tough questions of middle-aged, black, female graduate students because we think that they will be unable to answer effectively.


Friday, February 14

... I suppose my suspicions about European anti-Americanism were born a long time ago, especially in graduate school in England. There's a lot of bad faith and scapegoating on the European left: a desire to attribute bad things to the US when European countries are just as responsible. I also think that people on the European left tend to attribute undesirable features of American life to something intrinsic and cultural about us—for instance, "American individualism"—when the causes of our problems apply to them as well. Three examples:

  • I was in Britain when American teenagers started mass shootings in high schools. Universally, British pundits attributed these crimes to a profound sickness in US culture. I would have said that the "epidemic" of school shootings (which involved about 1 in every ten million students) was not a symptom of anything; it was a copy-cat phenemonon. Indeed, copy-cat school killers subsequently turned up in France, Scotland, and Germany.
  • European critics generally analyze vulgar popular culture as a reflection of American culture, although European and Japanese firms generate a considerable amount of it; the US also produces a mighty stream of high culture; and the demand for the worst products is global. So I think it's largely irrelevant to interpret Hollywood and pop music as "American" phenomena.
  • Our social policy is more conservative than the norm in European, although the gap is not as big as Europeans tend to think. (They focus on the federal government and don't realize that our states take 8.5 percent of GNP in taxes and spend it on domestic programs. As a result, the government's share of GNP is almost exactly the same—30 percent—in the US and in Sweden.) In any case, I do not believe that our social policy is more conservative because of American individualism or some other feature of our culture. We have a median family income of $62,228 (for 4-person families). At that level, people don't believe that they will benefit from social spending, except to support retirement and local public education. Hence the solid support for Social Security and Medicare and local education. In Europe, median family incomes are lower—but rising. Hence the political center in Europe is gradually drifting right, and will not stop soon.

Thursday, January 30

I agreed today to serve on the dissertation committee of a graduate student who wants to study the political strategy of the "progressive" public-interest groups that lobby for changes in federal communications policy. These groups (the so-called "geektivists") are concerned about the way the Internet is regulated, legal treatment of software monopolies, excessive intellectual property rights, and erosion of privacy. I know them well; I have often been the sole academic at Washington strategy meetings involving their issues. I encouraged the student's dissertation, because I am dissastisfied with the general approach of the progressive national groups—an approach that derives from Ralph Nader and the other consumer advocates of the early 1970s. They analyze complex issues to determine what is in the "public interest"; identify enemies; "expose" their crimes and misdemeanors; develop a simple, marketable "message" through public opinion research, and then "mobilize" popular support by making people angry. I find this approach ethically dubious, because it isn't sufficiently democratic (respectful of ordinary people's opinions and capacities) or deliberative (willing to recognize alternative points of view). By making people angry, it often discourages them or turns them away from politics. Above all, approach tends to fail when pitted against professional corporate lobbying campaigns. Thus I think that the proposed dissertation could be useful for activists well beyond the telecommunications field.