Monthly Archives: November 2007

youth, media, & civic participation

(From the Deliberative Democracy Consortium meeting in Bethesda, MD): Last summer, Lance Bennett of the University of Washington convened an online discussion about young people, the Internet, and civic/political participation. It was a rich dialog, representing numerous opinions, and it’s worth reading if you’re interested in such issues. The PDF is online.

public deliberation: research & practice

I’m attending (and helping to host) the third in an interesting series of annual meetings. The Deliberative Democracy Consortium has convened researchers and practitioners who organize and/or study public deliberations. At each conference, the whole group develops a research agenda that would be useful for practice, forms small teams to work on projects, and actually funds the projects. All of this is done deliberatively. This year, to get ourselves started, some of us have written a report about the meetings and projects so far and what has been learned about public deliberation. This report is on a “wiki” (an editable, online document). This afternoon, in small groups, conference-participants will edit and add to the wiki, which you can also read if you are interested in public deliberation.

the next national service agenda

Proponents of the national civilian service programs (AmeriCorps and its relations) tend to feel that the service movement has stagnated. AmeriCorps itself was based on a series of bargains struck early in the Clinton administration. For instance, the number of volunteers was capped to satisfy labor, which was concerned about job displacement. The Clinton-era programs also had a particular rationale: moving beyond entitlement programs and providing financial help to those who worked.

Today, each existing program is associated with a particular president, which means that no future president will get a lot of glory by expanding them. (Peace Corps = JFK; VISTA = LBJ; Points of Light = Bush I; AmeriCorps = Clinton; USA Freedom Corps = Bush II.)

If one assumes that voluntary national service should be expanded substantially–and there is evidence that the programs work–then we need a new bargain, a new rationale, and a new spirit to inspire a new administration.

One argument would go like this: Young people want to serve and address problems, but they are very entrepreneurial. They don’t want to serve in government bureaucracies or pile up specialized credentials in preparation for public work. Therefore, we should give them opportunities to work together on public problems through the national service programs. These programs will be training grounds or launching pads for social entrepreneurship. But then government needs to be reformed so that it is more open, flexible, and entrepreneurial. Otherwise, the training grounds will not train for anything. To reform government, we’ll need new policies:

1. Despite a somewhat mixed performance record, charter schools certainly provide opportunities for creativity and entrepreneurship within the public sector. Could they be improved, and could a similar approach be used in other areas of public policy? For example, foreign relations and international development are crucial issues today. Could the United States Agency for International Development (AID) use a “charter school” model to run overseas development projects?

2. The No Child Left Behind Act could be amended so that communities, with substantial public participation, are permitted to create their own assessments and accountability measures.

3. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are planning a national deliberation on how to respond in the event of a pandemic flu outbreak. Other agencies could use similar processes to address issues that involve serious value conflicts, thereby building genuine legitimacy.

4. AmericaSpeaks (on whose board I sit) has a detailed plan called “millions of voices” for a national deliberation on a public policy issue, using a variety of formats and methods. Congress could convene such a deliberation on an issue like climate change or health and promise to hold hearings on the results.

5. The rulemaking/regulatory process could be transformed if proposed rules were posted online in a format that allowed the public to create discussion threads and wiki-like documents.

6. Several countries have achieved enormous gains in efficiency and cut corruption by involving members of the public in auditing and monitoring government expenditures. This approach could be implemented in the US to improve the performance of schools, public health agencies, and other government programs. One tool for “public accountability” is participatory budgeting, wherein citizens are able to allocate portions of a local capital budget and then track expenditures.

7. FEMA could be required to create a process for convening broad public deliberations in the aftermath of any disaster. Then we would not only see tremendous outpourings of individual volunteerism (as in response to Katrina), but also public participation in setting policies and priorities.

8. Problem-solving courts, such as drug courts, are venues for social entrepreneurship and could be expanded.

9. The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities could focus attention on collaborative, community-based projects.

10. All proposed legislation could be evaluated for its potential impact on civil society and public participation, as a kind of “civic impact statement.”

11. As proposed by Paul Light in 2004, each federal agency could have a “Citizen Liaison Office” that would review existing procedures and programs for barriers to citizen participation. (AmeriCorps members could serve in these offices.)

intangible wealth and international equity

If, by sheer dumb luck, you happen to be born one mile north of the Rio Grande, you have economic advantages that you’d miss if you were born one mile south of the same river. According to estimates by the World Bank, the total wealth per capita in Mexico is about $62,000. It’s about $513,000 in the USA. If we imagine that everyone got an equal share of national assets, then simply by changing your citizenship from Mexico to the US, you would multiply your wealth eight-fold. Of course, that’s a false presumption: wealth is very unevenly shared. Merely receiving a US passport does not give you access to $513k in assets. However, lots of per capita wealth is floating around in the US, which offers some trickle-down benefits to the poor and allows the state to afford a lot of public services. Even for the least advantaged, it’s generally better to live in a country with eight times more per capita wealth.

Because one’s location at birth is an accident, this difference seems unjust. One response is to open borders so that people can move; another is to redistribute wealth across borders. Both ideas are highly unrealistic politically but worth considering as moral principles. The World Bank’s study, however, casts some doubt on both. That’s because the Bank attempts to disaggregate national wealth. According to its analysis, the vast majority of a nation’s per capital wealth is due to “intangible” assets such as education, social capital (trust and human networks) and rule of law. In the USA, for instance, natural resources contribute about $15,000 to per capita wealth, physical capital (including buildings, machines, and urban land) contribute about $80,000, but intangible assets contribute $418,000. In Mexico, natural resources contribute $8,000, physical capital adds $19,000, but intangible assets are worth $34,000. The big gap, in other words, is in education, social capital, and governance.

This means that the wealth gap is largely attributable to institutions and culture/society, not to natural resources or accumulated factories and machines. As Michael Edwards of the Ford Foundation wrote, “It’s the polity, stupid.”

This does not mean that we “deserve” the advantages we have. I didn’t build my country’s rule of law, education system, and social networks, any more than I put oil and coal under the earth. To profit from what other human beings have constructed is morally equivalent to benefiting from nature: it’s a matter of luck. Thus it seems to me that if we can make life better in Mexico, we have an obligation to do so, even if it costs us wealth. The World Bank study does, however, raise doubts about whether we could achieve much by simply transferring cash or opening borders. That’s because the path to prosperity lies through social and political reform. Cash would only help if it were very well invested, and emigration might hurt.

digital nativism

(Wisconsin) I am not a “digital native,” someone who grew up with computers from infancy. Instead, I am an immigrant to the land of the digital–but I arrived here early. In mid-elementary school, my Mom took me and a friend to the Syracuse University computer lab, where we played around with a mainframe machine that used punch cards. Around the same period, one of my aunts had a friend who owned a store in New York City that sold robots and home computers. I visited the store and probably had some contact with a desktop computer.

By seventh grade, some of my friends knew a bit about how to use our middle-school’s work stations, which were networked with the downtown machine by way of old-fashioned modems. (You put the phone receiver in a velvet-lined box, closed the latch, and then dialed.) That year, I remember a friend telling me about computer viruses. By ninth grade, I owned a Commodore 64 for playing video games and programming a little in BASIC.

I arrived at college with a portable, manual (non-electric typewriter) which served me through freshman year. By the time I graduated, I was composing all my papers on one of the college’s shared Apple Macs.

As an immigrant to the land of the digital, I can still remember the Old Country and probably speak computerese with a slight offline accent. But I function well. I would be highly uncomfortable in a pre-digital world, and I have more experience with computers than the young digital natives whom I meet in high schools and colleges.

You can tell those who immigrated much later in life and who still long for the old country–the digital exiles. They may, for example, work from a single Word file, which they erase and rewrite every time they need a new document. That way, they don’t have to save and quit, which they have never quite learned to do. Another telltale sign: keeping all of one’s email in the inbox (forever) and only writing to people by replying to old emails. Using the email subject line “From [your name]” is also a mark of the digital exile.