Monthly Archives: March 2004

what’s wrong with the left, and what we can do about it

I’ve reorganized and expanded my previous comments about how to revitalize the Left and have turned them into a single continuous essay, which begins below. I argue that the left suffers from a lack of positive vision that will probably cost the Democrats the 2004 election–and will certainly deny them a mandate, even if they manage to win. I then propose some alternatives for progressives to consider.

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character education

One of the things I like best about my job is the opportunity to move almost daily from one professional context to another. Today, I attended a conference organized by the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools (OSDFS). This is a federal program, buried deep within the bureaucracy of the US Department of Education. It is also an educational program, so most of the people who attended today were teachers, principals, or district supervisors. Federal bureaucrats and educators are two groups with their own distinctive folkways and vocabularies.

OSDFS has responsibility for “character education,” which is a national movement. For me, it raises several questions:

  • To what extent is character education driven by the desire to prevent school shootings and other famous atrocities? I don’t believe that any general policy can possibly reduce the chances of extremely aberrant behavior. After all, only about 0.0001% of American students slaughter their classmates. So there isn’t anything in the general context of American schools that causes this behavior. If character education is expected to prevent extreme acts of violence, it will fail, or the whole problem will disappear–but either way the program will lose support.
  • Do we want kids to internalize norms (such as sexual abstinence, or non-violence, or being polite)? Or do we want them to think critically about ethics–weighing competing values, challenging assumptions, and reasoning with people who hold different moral beliefs? We may want to encourage both good behavior and critical thinking; but these are quite different objectives.
  • What kind of change (and how much change) can we expect from a $25 million federal program?
  • forecasting the election

    I’m against progonistication. Our job is to decide who should win the election and what he or she should do in office, not who is most likely to win. Nevertheless, near the beginning of a long and very close race, who can resist trying to predict the outcome?

    Many political scientists think that an election involving an incumbent president is a referendum on current economic performance. Everything else–debates and tv spots, scandals and endorsements–is mere atmospherics. But what is the relevant way to measure “economic performance”? Bob Dole claimed yesterday that President Bush has the advantage because “the misery index?the combination of unemployment and inflation?is actually lower now than it was at this point in 1996. And less misery is a good thing for incumbents.” But Professor Larry Bartels of Princeton conducted a sophisticated meta-analysis of 48 election models and found that while no single variable can predict an election, the single best predictor is the change in disposable per capita personal income (dpi) over the twelve months prior to the election. The more buying power people have (after taxes), the more they like the powers that be. Figure 1 in this article by Bartels makes the point pretty clearly. It suggests that incumbents need to preside over at least 2% annual growth in real per capita dpi to get more than 50% of the vote. Of course, that 2% figure has a large margin of error and is nothing more than a rule-of-thumb. Moreover, in a year when most states are considered safe for one party or the other, I’m guessing that the only thing that really matters is the change in dpi in “swing” states such as Ohio. If I could find current dpi/capita statistics for Ohio, I’d risk predicting the election outcome. I cannot find those statistics, but I do see that the growth in the nation’s real annual dpi over the six months ending this February was just $163 per capita, or 0.6% percent. That is dangerously low for the incumbent.

    the Frist speech in historical context

    Yesterday, Senator Frist charged Richard Clarke with perjury, imputing

    extremely dishonorable motives to this career public servant. If the Senator is correct, which is certainly possible, then he should produce proof and call for Mr.

    Clarke to be prosecuted for perjury. If he is not correct, then Senator Frist’s denunciation reminds me of a famous moment in the US Senate, fifty years ago:

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    a defense of civic education

    James Murphy, a Dartmouth political scientist, wrote an article that was very critical of k-12 civic education in last fall’s Education Next. That journal then published a shortened version of my reply to Prof. Murphy in its winter issue. I don’t blame the editors for abridging my letter, but I’ve copied the whole thing here, because it summarizes the empirical evidence in favor of civic ed. (Click “continue reading” for the full letter.)

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