Monthly Archives: October 2006

celebrating Campus Compact

(Chicago) I’m here to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Campus Compact, a network of 1,037 colleges and universities. Campus Compact supports and encourages several crucial trends in higher education: a move from “service” to collaboration; a rediscovery of geographical communities; a reflection on colleges’ power as employers, builders, and consumers; and a turn to sophisticated research that requires learning with and from non-academics.

Institutions that embrace such work are recovering their fundamental purposes and missions, which are too often forgotten amid competition to attract the most qualified students and to generate the maximum number of peer-reviewed articles. Those measures of success are essentially pointless; what matters is whether we help our students–and the broader society–to develop through combinations of teaching, service, and research.

In the Campus Compact network, there is now an impressive array of excellent practice. Rigorous research (of which more is needed) is beginning to show the value of service-learning, community-based research, youth-media production, public deliberation, and other forms of engagement. However, such work will not endure or spread unless we can change policies regarding accreditation, tenure, promotion, and funding. Change cannot be accomplished one campus at a time, because institutions are forced to compete with one another. An important role of a network like Campus Compact is to press for reforms that change incentives for many institutions at once.

The value of Campus Compact’s work extends beyond higher education to American democracy as a whole. The formal political system has become highly efficient at manipulating people to obtain outcomes that professionals (consultants, candidates, and lobbyists) have chosen. Sometimes, the professionals’ goals are idealistic. But, as Joe Klein wrote recently, the public “has been sliced and diced by … pollsters, their prejudices and policy priorities cross-tabbed, their favorite words discovered by carefully targeted focus groups.” People know that they are being manipulated, and they resent it.

In contrast, the work that Campus Compact supports is open-ended. Organizers of community-based research or service-learning do not decide what should be done and then motivate, cajole, or manipulate students and community partners into doing it. Instead, they help students and partners make up their own minds about their goals and tactics. This approach reflects the best spirit of liberal education; it builds citizens’ capacities for self-government; and it introduces Americans to a kind of politics that they should also expect from political parties and government agencies.

In several other respects, the work that Campus Compact supports is a powerful alternative to the mainstream of modern American politics.

  • In general, we invest far too little in the civic education (broadly defined) of young people, even though research finds that early civic experiences have lasting effects. But Campus Compact advocates and encourages effective youth civic development.
  • In general, our politics is constrained by the fact that investments can quickly be moved away from communities that decide to impose regulations (or cultural norms) that businesses don’t like. But Campus Compact is a network of 1,000 important economic institutions–colleges and universities–that are rooted in their communities and that increasingly see their own interests as tied to their localities.
  • In general, we treat young people as baskets of problems or potential problems and rely upon surveillance, assessment, diagnosis, discipline, and treatment to stop them from acting in damaging ways. But Campus Compact embodies the alternative approach of “positive youth development,” which recognizes that young people have special assets to contribute to their communities–creativity, energy, idealism, and a fresh outlook. If they are given opportunities to contribute, they develop in healthy ways. While major recent policies (such as the No Child Left Behind Act) have very little to say about providing positive opportunities for youth, Campus Compact and its members take that responsibility on themselves.
  • In general, our politics is state-centered. Liberals want the government to accept new tasks, such as health insurance; whereas conservatives believe that problems would be mitigated if the state were shrunk. Governments are important, but they are not the only institutions that matter. Furthermore, a state-centered view of politics leaves citizens little to do but inform themselves and vote. Campus Compact epitomizes a citizen-centered politics in which people form relationships with peers, deliberate about their common interests, and then use a range of strategies, some having little to do with the state.
  • I do not believe that we should turn our current political system upside-down so that it is completely open-ended, citizen-centered, local, and oriented toward youth development. But the overall balance today is wrong, and Campus Compact is helping to restore it.

    single-payer and democracy

    (On my way to Chicago for Campus Compact’s 20th Anniversary.) On Friday, I heard a good paper by David DeGrazia, who argued for a single-payer health insurance system. Everyone would be insured by the federal government. Healthcare providers would be private companies, but the government would be the only “payer.”

    I generally favor this approach, but I asked a devil’s advocate question–just to provoke discussion–and ended by convincing myself that single-payer would pose serious risks.

    What would the government pay for, and how would it set prices? If it paid too much, it would waste taxpayers’ money. If it paid too little, services would be inadequate. And if it paid for the wrong things, it would waste money and provide bad services.

    The procedural answer is that the government would negotiate with representatives of physicians, nurses, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies to set prices. In principle, the government would represent us, the people, and would set prices in the public interest. But no government represents “the people” in an unproblematic way. Campaign contributions, professional lobbying efforts, differences in seniority among legislators, gaps in voter participation by class, asymmetries in information, differences between swing districts and safe seats, clashes between local and national interests, incumbents’ advantages, organized interests versus general interests, threats to withdraw capital, human ties between lobbyists and officials, prospects of corporate jobs for former public servants–all these factors distort decisions by democratic governments.

    Thus I can easily imagine that negotiations between Big Government and Big Medicine would produce excessive payments and bad priorities. Huge hospitals would be built in favored congressional districts, but there would be inadequate preventive care for weak political constituencies, such as the urban poor. Health care would be like defense–lavishly funded, but with striking gaps. Just as we have stealth bombers but not enough body-armor, so we’d have sweetheart deals for Eli Lilly and Co but not enough pediatricians in poor neighborhoods.

    This nightmare scenario has not beset Medicare, which is a single-payer system for those over 65. But Medicare sets prices based on market signals. If there were one “payer” for all medicine, there would be no market. Besides, the new Medicare drug benefit is a nightmare.

    Probably single-payer wouldn’t be worse than the status quo. We spend more in taxes on health care than the Germans or the French do, yet we must also buy private insurance; and so many people are left uncovered that our health outcomes are poor. All that is true, yet I can easily imagine single-payer evolving into a giant duopoly (government plus medicine) that worked only for those interests. Any advantages over the status quo would be modest, at best.

    Since “civic engagement” is my hobby-horse, I’m tempted to say that we need single-payer health care along with a more participatory democracy. Higher turnout, more competitive districts, better informed voters, a revived watchdog press, and procedural innovations such as Citizen’s Juries or Deliberative Polls would help. (Citizens would be randomly selected to set priorities after deliberating.) Maybe community groups could build clinics and hospitals that would enter the negotiations representing genuine grassroots interests.

    But civic engagement is quite weak in the United States, and strengthening it is a hard struggle. We democrats can’t “assume” better public participation any more than economists can assume perfect information or efficient markets. Assigning a huge new responsibility to the public sector might stimulate democratic participation. Or it might overwhelm the public’s capacity for self-government, given the civic institutions and habits we have today.

    unions in China

    The New York Times reports that China is prepared to strengthen labor unions. The regime solicited responses to the proposed legislation and received 190,000 comments. I can’t tell whether the law would make a real difference: it may be inadequate because “it does not provide for independent unions with leaders chosen by their members and the right to strike.” (pdf). The Times, however, claims that the law would “give labor unions real power for the first time.”

    Unions could raise wages and working conditions in China, reduce wage pressure on workers in other countries, and enhance political pluralism inside the world’s largest dictatorship. However, the American Chamber of Commerce and various American companies are against the proposal, modest as it is. They argue that stronger unions would move China backward toward socialism. In fact, unions would be a huge move forward toward pluralistic democracy. (The Communists never tolerated independent unions.)

    The American Chamber’s White Paper takes a relatively moderate tone:

    The new draft Labor Contract Law, scheduled for enactment by the end of 2006, contains much that would affect the operations of multinationals. AmCham commends authorities for their recently announced decision to invite public comment. Concern over the draft legislation is high given a variety of its provisions. For example, under a recent draft, if an employee was hired under a thirty-six month contract and terminated for cause after six months, the firm would still need to compensate him for another thirty months of pay. AmCham acknowledges China?s need and desire to target unethical employers, for which provisions such as these may be targeted, but the impact of these and other equally onerous provisions on responsible FIEs serve to undermine the attractiveness of China?s labor market, one of the key factors that make China such an enticing place to do business.

    I’m not sure if the 30-month provision is wise, but it may be a red herring. The Times and Global Labor Strategies assert that the American Chamber is working against the whole new labor law. The Chamber represents so many firms (e.g., Wal-Mart, Google, UPS, Microsoft, Nike, AT&T, and Intel) that it’s hard to envision a targeted response. If we could single out a few leaders in this effort, I would definitely boycott them. I can’t think of a clearer case in which the companies to which we give our money use it against our interests and against human rights. Alas, there are so many culprits that it’s extremely hard to boycott them.

    (One of my articles in defense of unions was pubished in China, or at least I gave permission for it to be translated into Chinese.)

    [Addendum: I’m beginning to think, based in part on a conversation with a Chinese activist I know, that the Times’s lead misled me. The proposed law would not in any way increase the independence of unions in the PRC. It would impose some new labor laws, but they might not be enforced fairly. Workers would have no voice in their enforcement. There would be no increase of pluralism or democracy.]

    option c

    Kevin Drum (whose blog I like enough to check several times daily) wrote this a while ago:

    If Democrats win in November, they’re still going to have a very limited amount of power to get things done. Policy-wise, they’re going to remain pretty constrained, and that means they can go in two basic directions: (a) acting as the party of moderation and focusing on bipartisan ‘good government’ proposals, or (b) using the subpoena power of Congress to investigate the hell out of what’s been going on in the executive branch for the past six years.

    Drum suggests investigating the hell out of Bush, because polls show that there aren’t many moderate voters who would support option a.

    It took me several days to realize what’s wrong with this. It omits option (c): Develop legislation that might actually address some of our nation’s fundamental issues, such as global warming, incredible rates of crime and incarceration, high school dropout rates of nearly one-third, economic transfers from Gen Y to today’s retirees, loss of blue-collar jobs, vulnerability at the ports, etc. The necessary legislation might be moderate, or it might be radical–the important question is whether it would plausibly address our most crucial issues.

    I am fully aware that most good legislation would be defeated in at least one house or would face a veto. But then Democrats could take the issue to the voters in ’08.

    To anticipate an objection: Isn’t the malfeasance of the current executive branch a national problem that is worth addressing? In my opinion, it is a problem, but one that is soon to end with the departure of the administration. It doesn’t require legislative action as our deeper social, environmental, and security problems do. Finally, all Americans except the ones who identify strongest with the Democratic Party will be suspicious of an elaborate series of investigations. They will think the Dems are trying to achieve partisan advantage, not genuinely working on public or national or common problems.

    Schumpeter in ’06

    (En route to Annapolis for a meeting with state officials.) It strikes me that the ’06 election is a great illustration of Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of democracy–unfortunately.

    Schumpeter did not see elections as opportunities for people to deliberate, debate, learn, or help to specify the public good. Elections were simply competitions among political elites (parties) that promised to provide agreed-upon goods, such as GNP and security, more efficiently than their rivals. Voting was a check on tyranny and incompetence, not a way to express values.

    In 2006, the Democratic leader of the House calls for tax cuts but decries Republican deficits. The Democrats excoriate the Administration for its handling of Iraq, but do not offer an alternative foreign policy. In other words, they endorse the same values as the Republicans but promise to do a better job as managers.

    Schumpeterian democracy is better than none at all. And it is highly tempting for the Democrats to make this year’s election a referendum on competence, given the Republicans’ record. But it means that the ’06 election will not be an opportunity for Americans to review our basic priorities, such as tax cuts versus public services, or aggressive interventionism versus multilateralism, or growth versus environmental protection, or federal power versus localism. None of those issues is on the table.