Monthly Archives: January 2007

volunteering down in 2006

(from Wingspread, near Racine, WI) According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the volunteering rate for the United States as a whole slipped by 2.1 percentage points in 2006, having been stable for the previous three years. The Bureau adds, “The largest decline was among teenagers.” This trend matches our surveys from 2002 and 2006, which showed a decline in youth volunteering after a long and substantial increase during the 1990s. The BLS and other federal agencies are not making much of the 2006 results, which appear on an obscure web page. That makes an interesting contrast with 2005, when the Corporation for National and Community Service announced: “Volunteering Hits a 30-Year High, New Federal Report Finds.” As a matter of fact, the rate had not increased in 2005 compared to the plateau of the previous two years:

And now we see a decrease. For my part, I’m not convinced that the rate of volunteering is an important indicator. It tells us nothing about the seriousness of the work being done; and it arbitrarily excludes paid work of public value. I much prefer such questions as: “Have you worked with others to address a community problem?” But if we are going to draw a lot of attention to an increase in the volunteering rate (David Eisner called the level in 2005 “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get more Americans engaged in making their communities stronger”), then we ought to pay equal attention to a decline.

privilege, giving way slowly

Joseph Palmi: The Irish have their homeland. Us Italians have our families and our

church; the Jews their traditions–hell even the [anti-Black slur] have their music; so what do you people have?

Edward Wilson: We have the United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.

That’s an exchange from The Good Shepherd, Robert de Niro’s movie about the origins of the CIA. Edward Wilson is a spy whose career begins in Yale’s most famous secret society, Skull & Bones. Joseph Palmi is a Miami gangster whom Wilson will ask to murder Fidel Castro. If we take for granted the premise of the story–that a WASP elite once ran Skull & Bones, Yale, and the CIA–it’s interesting to ask why things have changed. Yale is a private institution with a self-perpetuating board. Outsiders cannot vote unless they are invited in. The alumni have contributed Yale’s $15 billion endowment and want their own kids to attend. Nevertheless, the place is no longer dominated by rich WASP families, lineal descendents of Edward Wilson’s classmates. To be sure, the faculty remains about 90 percent white, and just one in four students is a minority, But the current president is named Levin, and his predecessor who presided when I arrived 21 years ago was one Angelo (“Bart”) Giamatti. Why did families like Edward Wilson’s cede any ground at all?

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problems with “stakeholders”

Today, my colleagues and I discussed a paper on assisted human reproduction in Canada. In passing, we learned that the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies “took advice from about 40,000 individuals and organizations with interest [sic] in the matter”–collectively known as the “stakeholders.” Consulting stakeholders is a popular way to enhance the quality and legitimacy of state decisions. It is most often used in the writing of regulations. Laws are written by legislatures, which claim legitimacy on the ground that their members have been elected. But laws always require detailed regulations; and regulators are not elected. Rulemakers and administrators appear more democratic if they consult “the stakeholders” before they make decisions.

Another phrase for “stakeholder” is “interest group.” Whereas consulting people who have “stakes” in a given matter sounds wise, giving access to interest groups sounds problematic. Indeed, consulting organized interests raises several concerns:

1. A set of interest-group representatives (no matter how numerous) will not represent the whole population. To form an organization takes resources. Thus people with more money will have more interest-groups per capita. Also, people whose interests are more clearly defined and pressing will be more likely to organize themselves. For example, there may be lobbies for various types of medical specialists, but only a weak lobby for patients. Diffuse and subtle interests may be completely lost. For instance, as consumers of food, we might have interests when the government is considering health regulations. (Maybe more state funding for in-vitro fertilization means less funding for agricultural research.) But it is unlikely that a lobby would form to represent the health-policy interests of eaters.

2. Because of the “Iron Law of Oligarchy,” the representatives of interest groups may not reflect the opinions of their own members. For example, someone who claims to represent thousands of nurses may not share the views of average actual nurses.

3. Most “stakeholders” arrive with instructions from their organizations. Sometimes those instructions are rather narrow. For instance, a stakeholder may work for a firm with a fiduciary obligation to maximize returns for its shareholders. When people hold rigid but conflicting instructions, they have trouble deliberating as a group. They may negotiate to get the best possible deal, but they cannot learn or change their aims in response to principled arguments. Faced with conflicting demands, public officials may well try to “split the difference.” The result is policymaking as bargaining.

4. Impressing policymakers takes skill. The relevant skills are for sale. Groups with more money will have better powerpoint presentations, more timely polling data, a better grasp of the regulatory timetable and process, more contacts with other groups, and so on. Thus they will tend to prevail.

There are two alternatives to stakeholder consultations–neither of them foolproof. One is to force legislatures to make all the really serious and controversial choices. The other option is to delegate decisions to regulatory agencies but require them to consult representative samples of the public.

[Two classic treatments of this problem are Theodore Lowi’s The End of Liberalism (1969) and Robert Reich’s “Policy Making in a Democracy,” a chapter in his 1990 edited volume The Power of Public Ideas.]

on state apologies and the taking of offense

Around here, the facts of the following case have already been widely reported. But the short version goes like this …

Virginia Delegate Frank D. Hargrove Sr., age 79, when asked about a proposed resolution to apologize for slavery, expressed his opposition and added, “black citizens should get over it.” He then asked, “Are we going to force the Jews to apologize for killing Christ?” Several fellow members of the legislature remarked that his words were personally painful or harmful to them. Del. Donald McEachin “said that when he looks into the eyes of his 102-year-old grandmother, whose parents were slaves, ‘quite frankly, it’s hard to get over it.'” And Del. David Englin showed a picture of his 7-year-old son, saying that the boy is now “much more likely to be verbally attacked or physically attacked” because he is Jewish.

Hargrove replied that Englin’s skin was “a little too thin.” Speaker William J. Howell defended Hargrove and accused the press of having “blown [the story] out of proportion” in the hopes of sinking the Republicans with another “macaca” story. But Del. Brian Moran said, “It’s not up to Bill Howell to determine whether it’s been blown out of proportion. It’s about the hurt that’s been inflicted on others.”

Hurt has been inflicted on others, but that cannot be the end of the story. It is theoretically possible for people to have excessively thin skin, or to take offense at valid statements. Or people may fail to be offended by remarks that are unjust. Furthermore, the issues that Hargrove raised cannot be assessed only by considering their emotional impact on people who have enslaved ancestors or Jewish children. I happen to have a 7-year-old Jewish child myself, but that doesn’t give me special standing to complain–more than a WASP neighbor has. As a matter of fact, I find Hargrove’s statements laughable and pathetic and likely to redound to the benefit of my favored political party. Thus I have not been hurt by them. But that doesn’t make them acceptable.

We must decide whether his position on slavery is morally correct or just. (I concentrate on slavery, although he also seems to suggest views about Judaism.) In my view, an apology is appropriate and indeed obligatory. The apology would not imply that current members of the Virginia General Assembly own slaves or support the practice. Some members happen to be descendents of slaves. But the State of Virginia is a corporate entity that has been continuously operating since 1619. Each successive batch of leaders has taken over the assets and debts of the previous ones. For the first 246 of those years, the Assembly allowed slavery to exist in its jurisdiction. More than that, it enacted laws against fugitive slaves and abolitionists. It also directly profited by using slaves to build its own buildings and other possessions. An apology would come from that corporate entity and would go, not to people who happen to be descended from Virginian slaves, but to the deceased slaves and to the world. It would do nothing to right the original wrong. But if any situation requires an apology, this would seem to be it. And a deliberate refusal to apologize seems unjust–quite apart from whether that refusal happens to hurt anyone’s feelings.

a lesson on civil society and civic engagement

I was a guest lecturer this morning at the Washington Semester, an undergraduate program run by American University. (The other guest was Judy Woodruff, who showed some of her footage from the Generation Next television series. She has conducted great interviews with hundreds of young Americans across the country.)

I presented the 40 indicators of civic engagement that we combined to form America’s Health Index for the National Conference on Citizenship. They are mostly survey questions that have been asked consistently for the last 30 years, such as “Have you worked on a community project?” “Did you vote in last month’s election?” “Does your family usually eat dinner together?” and “Do you believe that most people are honest?”

When you put these indicators together into an index, you see a pretty steep decline. Of course, that is an artefact of which variables you include and how you weigh them. I simply went through the 40 indicators, one by one, and asked the class such questions as: “Do you engage this way?” “Do you think it’s important for people to do this?” “Is it part of ‘civic engagement?'” “Why do you think it has declined since 1975?” “Is the problem with motivations? Or opportunities?” “What should we do about the decline?”

Overall, I thought it made for a lively discussion that brought out many of the empirical and theoretical issues in the field.