Monthly Archives: May 2003

at the ECS

p>I’m still at the Education Commission of

the States in Denver, discussing state standards in civics. One distinguished

colleague argued that no educational reform really succeeds unless a state

has all of the following elements in place: appropriate standards,

tests, courses, textbooks, funding, and professional development opportunities.

(It can also be useful to have appropriate admissions requirements at

the state university.) Unfortunately, all the elements of an effective

civics program are missing in most states today. This is a serious matter,

for young people are being inadequately prepared to participate in politics

in civic life, and consequently many are not involved at all. (We make

this general argument in The

Civic Mission of Schools report.)

the risks of controversy in schools

I’m in Denver, at the Education Commission

of the States, talking about state standards in civics and social

studies. The topic is what students should know, think, feel, and

do about politics and civil society. The group is very well informed and

represents all the relevant disciplines and professions. So far, there

have been few (if any) broad and systematic disagreements. Most experts

feel some tension about standards, accountability, and testing. They ask

themselves: are these things inherently harmful, since they reduce schools’

capacity to operate democratically, or do we need good standards and tests

to encourage civics? There was also a very interesting discussion that

pitted academics (including me) against a school superintendent of a fairly

major school system. The academics worry that schools are suppressing

discussion of controversial political issues. The superintendent told

horror stories about teachers who proselytize for various fringe political

causes. I certainly could see his point about the risks—both moral

and political—of encouraging teachers to bring politics into the

classroom. On the other hand, if we prevent teachers from advocating for

political causes, then there is a risk that students will never meet any

adults who are politically active and articulate.

the 2004 election will be close

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.

a “gift” from Bill Gates?

Microsoft is giving away free software to nonprofits, and critics

charge that this is a deliberate plot to undermine open-source alternatives

that were gaining ground in the nonprofit sector. I’ll have to leave it

to economists to decide whether Microsoft’s strategy is good or bad for

nonprofit organizations in strictly economic terms. (Economists might

also ask whether it is a good deal for taxpayers to let Microsoft take

a tax deduction for donating Windows, each copy of which actually costs

the company nothing). Likewise, I’ll have to defer to antitrust lawyers

about whether this strategy violates laws against anti-competitive pricing.

My concern is different from either of these. It may be that open-source

software is good for civil society because it promotes cooperation

in the writing and improving of the code; diversity (since

open-source products can be tailored for various purposes and produced

by many actors); and creativity by a wide range of individuals

and groups. Whether open-source products such as Linux actually have these

effects is an empirical matter than needs to be assessed. I suspect, however,

that nonprofits like to use open-source products for these reasons and

not merely to save money. If that is true, then Microsoft’s donation is


the intellectual crisis of the Left

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.