Monthly Archives: August 2003

civic renewal in NYC

I was supposed to go to New York City today for a meeting at the Social

Science Research Council, but I found when I reached the airport at

6 am that no flights were leaving because of the huge blackout.

According to the New

York Times, the 1965 power failure "was largely characterized

by cooperation and good cheer," whereas the one in 1977 was "defined

by widespread looting and arson."

In 2003, we seem to be back to civility. Jeff

Greenfield of CNN says he "saw tourists pouring off those double-decker

buses looking dazed and confused. People were offering them free glasses

of water and restaurants were putting out food that was spoiled for

free. I saw police officers politely asking New Yorkers, ‘Would you

mind please getting out of the street.’"

When I was deputy director of the National

Commission on Civic Renewal, I developed an Index

of National Civic Health. INCH, as we called it, declined sharply

in the early 1970s and then rebounded in the 1990s. I have to

wonder whether the three great NYC blackouts are evidence of the same

trend. Three scattered events do not really make a trend. Besides, I

have no specific data for New York City, and no INCH data at all for

2000-3. Still, it’s interesting that New York has fared so much better

in emergencies when the national civic health is higher. More than 1,037

fires burned while the lights were out in 1977. In 1965, and again in

2003, people took care of each other instead.

(Incidentally, we couldn’t run INCH back through the 1960s, because

we didn’t have enough data from those early years. But if you make an

index out of the variables that we do have, then INCH declines throughout

the sixties. That means that it was much higher in 1965 than in 1977.)

a class on geography & obesity

This is the latest plan for a grant proposal that would allow us to

work with high school kids, doing research in the community and generating

public products for the website that they have been building at

It is important for people to consume healthy food: products that are

low-fat, high-fiber, varied, and cooked with fresh ingredients. It is

also important for people to walk to work or to school and to complete

routine errands such as food shopping on foot—if the local streets

are safe. This is because regular activity plus healthy nutrition decreases

the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes and may relieve depression

and obesity.

Promoting healthy nutrition and walking is especially important today,

since obesity is increasing at an alarming rate, above all among adolescents.

Also, physical activity is lower among minorities and people with lower

education levels and less income.

A standard approach is to educate people to live more active

lifestyles, but such efforts tend to be disappointing. Changes in the

environment are more promising. To find out what environmental factors

influence whether people walk, consume healthy food, and (specifically)

walk to purchase healthy food, we will first survey a large sample of

students about their own nutrition and exercise within the preceding

24 hours. They will be asked exactly where they walked during that period

(i.e., the addresses or names of the places they visited). The respondents’

home addresses will also be collected, along with some demographic information.

This survey will allow us to estimate the distance that each student

walked using GIS methods, without relying on their own approximations.

Under our direction, a smaller group of high school and college students

will then collect data on the walkability of local streets; the danger

of crime on those streets; and the availability, cultural characteristics,

and price of healthy food in the community. To collect some of these

data, students will walk around the neighborhood with Palm Pilots, filling

in a field survey. The data that they collect will be layered onto a

GIS map. The most useful parts of this map (for example, the locations

of healthy food sources) will be made public on the website.

By combining these two sets of data—on student behaviors and

home addresses; and on local physical features—we hope to develop

a mathematical model that shows the relationships between active lifestyles

and specific aspects of the local environment

We hypothesize that it is not only the proximity of healthy food sources

that increases the chance that people will walk to these sources and

consume healthy food. It also matters how safe the streets are between

the person’s home and the store or restaurant; the price and cultural

attractiveness of food at that establishment; the concentration of stores

near the destination; and other variables that have never been studied

together in projects of this kind.

the budget

A lot of people’s eyes glaze over when they hear about a “budget”—whether

it’s for a business, a club, or the government of the United States.

Yet the government has enormous influence on our lives because of the

way it collects our money and spends it for various purposes. Its spending

priorities are reflected in its budget.

Unless you understand roughly what the budget includes, your opinions

may be completely irrelevant. For example, according to an

excellent survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes

(PIPA), a majority of Americans believe that the US spends too much

money on foreign aid. They estimate that 20 percent of the federal budget

goes to foreign aid; they would reduce this amount to 5 percent. In

fact, the federal government devotes less than 1 percent of its budget

to foreign, nonmilitary aid. Anyone who calls for aid to be cut to 5

percent has an irrelevant opinion, because he or she doesn’t understand

what the government does.

Here, then, is how the federal government spent an average

tax dollar during the years 1998-2004 (2003-4 are estimated).

The data come from this

OMB document, but I have made decisions about what programs to put

in each category. The federal government is responsible for about two-thirds

of all taxation, although it gives some of its funds to states. States

and local governments together raise about one third of all taxes. (Source:


The "all other" slice in the chart above is distributed as


Here is how an average state tax dollar is spent. Data from National

Association of State Budget Officers, State Expenditure Report, 2001

(Summer, 2002).

And this is an average county budget from 1996-7, based on the US Census

Bureau’s survey of county officials

involving kids in research

I’m busy trying to raise money for the Prince

George’s Information Commons, our project that helps local kids

use the Internet for civic purposes. There’s one specific grant opportunity

that I want to go after, and it has a Sept. 2 deadline.

Given the terms of the grant opportunity ("research in active

living"), I can imagine us doing these three things:

1. We could help kids to map the walkable streets, parks, and healthy

food sources of the r community, so that we can investigate whether

that kind of research makes adolescents more aware of health issues,

more prone to healthy behavior, and more civically engaged. Our method

would be to give them (and a control group) questionnaires both before

and after the course, and measure the change.

2. We could help kids to produce public documents—such as maps,

brochures, website materials—that advertise the health assets

in the community, and investigate whether these materials lead to positive

health outcomes in the school or community. Our method would be to give

students in a set of classes a questionnaire, then expose them to the

materials that our kids create, and then survey them again.

3. We could use the data that the kids collect to generate genuine

research findings of value to other communities.

I’m convinced that the funder actually wants #3, and it’s the hardest

item for me to conceive. We could say that we will collect baseline

data on walkability, nutritional quality, and crime, and use these data

for research purposes—but I doubt that that’s specific enough.

We could say that we will investigate whether proximity to healthy assets

correlates with good health, controlling for lots of stuff, but I’m

not sure that kind of correlational research is rigorous enough. We

could say that we will resurvey the neighborhood periodically to establish

how much change occurs in walkability and other health variables. But

I’m not sure how interesting the mere rate of change would be. Or we

could say that we will use specific changes in the community as "natural

experiments." But then I think we need to describe one likely change

that we will be able to investigate. I haven’t thought of one yet.

Arnold and stealth democracy

Saturday’s Washington

Post quotes a California citizen who supports Arnold Schwartzenegger’s

gubernatorial bid: "His eyes brightened behind his glasses as he

discussed how someone like Schwarzenegger would bring fresh ideas and

an eagerness to correct the state’s problems. "’I’m hopeful that

he will be independent enough in his thoughts that he thinks like a

citizen and not as an experienced politician,’ [the citizen] said, ‘so

that he can do the right thing." Echoing Schwarzenegger’s ‘Tonight

Show’ line that he could not be bought, [he added]: ‘Everyone who comes

to work with him knows that they’re going to get nothing in return except

the satisfaction. We know he’s not looking for money, and that’s a plus.’"

This quote perfectly exemplifies what Hibbing and Theiss-Morse call

"stealth democracy" (See my

review of their book.) According to them, Americans believe that

there is no need for debates about policy, because all reasonable people

share the same goals. The fact that heated debates actually take place

proves that professional politicians are trying to gain some kind of

advantage over each other in a competitive game. And the reason they

play this game is that they want to obtain personal wealth from holding

political office.

I have no doubt that some Americans believe all this (including some

highly sophisticated people whom I have met). We’ll

see from the California recall campaign whether it’s the dominant view

in that state.