Monthly Archives: June 2010

doing good and doing well (civic engagement and happiness)

(On a northbound Amtrak train in Connecticut) I spent today at Wagner College on Staten Island, NY with knowledgeable colleagues from around the country. We were discussing the “psychosocial” effects of civic engagement. The idea is that people are better off when they participate in civic affairs, from volunteering to joining social movements. College students were the focus of today’s meeting, and the theory holds that they would flourish or thrive better if they were more engaged in community and civic work. We have a grant at Tufts to investigate that thesis rigorously.

I think the literature shows pretty convincingly that if you offer disadvantaged or marginalized teenagers opportunities to serve or contribute in ways that are constructive and feel positive, they will do better psychologically. In field experiments, teenagers’ rates of unwanted pregnancies and other bad outcomes have been cut through service programs.

But Doug McAdam showed rigorously in his book Freedom Summer that the successful college students who went to Mississippi to fight de jure segregation in 1964 paid a severe psychological price for their “service.” Using statistical data with comparison groups and in-depth interviews, McAdam showed that the Freedom Summer experience made the volunteers more likely to be divorced, less likely to be employed, and less happy by the mid-1980s. Of course, they were heroes for their contribution to the Freedom Movement. But no one would argue that their kind of “civic engagement” was good for their psychological well-being–not to mention that three of them were tortured to death within the first week of the summer.

Thus, although I am eager to investigate the empirical link between civic engagement and well-being, I think we should not be surprised to find tradeoffs between doing good and doing well.

the Russian spies, and me

(On the Acela train south of Boston) If yesterday’s federal charges are correct, Russia decided to place 11 people in middle class American lives so that they could gradually “develop ties in policymaking circles.” Their ultimate prize was secret information about “nuclear weapons, American policy toward Iran, C.I.A. leadership, Congressional politics and many other topics.” To obtain positions where such information was available, the Russians allegedly were ordered to “pursue degrees at target-country universities, obtain employment, and join relevant professional associations to deepen false identities.” Meanwhile, they kept in touch by means of classic cloak-and-dagger techniques and high-tech gizmos.

I find this strategy fascinating. I was born in the United States and had many advantages: educator parents, an identity as a white, male, native-born citizen, an Ivy League education and an overseas graduate school. I am ambitious, interested in politics, and eager to share opinions with policymakers, both for my own satisfaction and because I think I have something to offer them. I am curious about what is really going on in Washington. Like one of the alleged spy couples, I live with my family “on a residential street [near] where some Harvard professors and students live.” In a sense, I actually have the identity that these alleged spies allegedly sought to simulate.

Yet in my 43 years, I have never found myself in a place where I know anything that couldn’t be found with a Google search. I’ve met some famous people; they have never told me anything that would be news to the Kremlin. I have informed opinions–not about nuclear weapons or CIA leadership, but about congressional politics. Those opinions are based on books and articles that the Russian government can also read if they subscribe to JSTOR.

So what’s going on? Perhaps I utterly misunderstand how the game of politics is played in the United States and consequently have failed to parlay my advantages into influence and insider knowledge. Or perhaps the Russians utterly misunderstand where valuable knowledge exists in the modern world, and how to gain it. Instead of spending all that money on spies (who are now at risk of long prison sentences), they could have sent some legal diplomats over to read good books, attend a few lectures, and do a Google search or two.

Our Budget, Our Economy National Town Meeting

The main event of AmericaSPEAKS: OurBudget, Our Economy took place on Saturday. In video-linked meetings across the United States, some 3,500 diverse people deliberated about the federal budget and selected these recommendations:

  • Raise the limit on taxable earnings so it covers 90% of total earnings.
  • Reduce spending on health care and non-defense discretionary spending by at least 5%.
  • Raise tax rates on corporate income and those earning more than $1 million.
  • Raise the age for receiving full Social Security benefits to 69.
  • Reduce defense spending by 10% – 15%.
  • Create a carbon and securities-transaction tax.

They also said:

  • Please find the political will to use this input as if it were coming from a powerful lobbying group–because we are.
  • Abandon the failed politics of partisanship. You can’t demonize each other and expect us to trust you.

This process has been attacked from the left. Richard (RJ) Eskow blogged in the Huffington Post that the process was biased to “manipulate attendees into ‘spontaneously’ deciding that the social safety net must be cut (with some limited tax increases possibly thrown in for camouflage).” Escow says, “It’s no coincidence that the self-described centrist group Third Way sponsored an event this week in Washington, just before this ‘town meeting,’ which also emphasized ‘defeating the deficit.'” Third Way is not listed as a supporter or partner of the Town Meetings, but the Center for American Progress is. So if I wanted to play Escow’s game in reverse, I could just as well write, “It is no coincidence that the Center for American Progress, a liberal group, held an event entitled ‘The Case for Big Government‘ just days before the ‘Town Meeting’ that resulted in calls for tax increases.” Sometimes a coincidence really is a coincidence.

Also in the Huffington Post, Dean Baker decried a process “rigged” to produce cuts in Social Security and Medicare–“no surprise [since] America Speaks is largely funded by Peter G. Peterson, the investment banker billionaire who has been on a decades long crusade to gut these programs.”

That assertion happens to be flatly false. I serve on AmericaSPEAKS’ board and can testify that Peterson provided less money for this particular initiative than several foundations generally depicted as liberal. Peterson certainly covers a very small portion of AmericaSPEAKS’ overall budget. So I am inclined to counter Baker’s accusation with another ad hominem: someone who makes up false statements about other people’s budgets is not a reliable guide to budgetary issues.

But I think Dean Baker is a pretty reliable guide to federal priorities. In a different context,I would be prone to agree with him about budgetary issues. He and Eskow are entitled to critically review the briefing materials provided to the attendees. I doubt anyone on either side of the aisle loved every aspect of them, but I am confident that the intent was to give the participants maximum scope to come up with the results they preferred. If you read the materials and scan the supporters suspiciously, looking for bias, you will probably find some. If you are convinced that the hidden purpose of the effort is to cut Social Security, then you will read with a gimlet eye. The actual examples of biased statements cited by Baker and Escow strike me as pretty innocuous–or, indeed, as true–but that’s because I have some overall trust in the process. I would also note the support of John Rother, AARP; Neera Tanden, Center for American Progress; Robert Greenstein, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; and Margaret Simms, Urban Institute, among other progressives.

The question is which process best serves democracy. Baker and Escow want to persuade opinion-leaders and the mass public of their position. They use strong rhetoric and attribute wicked motives to their opponents. They see danger in a process that involves recruiting representative Americans for a discussion that is out of their control.

I think the regular process of advocacy, debate, and charge-and-counter-charge has served us miserably. We do not get the policies that citizens proposed on Saturday, but rather utterly indefensible priorities that (by the way) lie far to the right of the Town Meetings’ results. We also get a process that Americans despise as demonizing and manipulative.

Apparently, MoveOn urged its members to try to attend the Town Meetings, and if not admitted, to protest outside them. If they were successful in getting their people inside, they would turn the Town Meetings from a representative sample of Americans into a contest to see who could mobilize the most hard-core supporters. That is politics as we already know it. “Our Budget, Our Economy” is an experiment in a better way. Outsiders are entitled to criticize its materials and results. However, I find the desire to discredit it deeply discouraging. It illustrates an unnecessary and unhealthy gap between professional liberal policy advocacy and democratic or popular self-government.

Public Conversations Project

Yesterday I met with board members of Public Conversations Project, an organization that brings people together to talk when they have reached an angry impasse over some matter of public or political concern. A great example is a series of conversations between pro-choice and anti-abortion advocates in Boston that started in 1990 and lasted more than a decade. PCP provides workshops, materials, and hand-on assistance. It operates both in the US and abroad. For an example of an overseas project, see this excellent conversation between Israeli and Palestinian journalists. PCP is a peer of several organizations with which I have worked more closely: National Issues Forums, Everyday Democracy, and AmericaSPEAKS. One distinctive contribution of PCP is to draw deeply on methodologies developed for family therapy.

While PCP applies family therapy to community-building and democratic work, Bill Doherty and his colleagues at The Families and Democracy Project use community organizing techniques to address issues that are usually treated by family therapists. Over-scheduled suburban families encounter stress when, for example, siblings have simultaneous, mandatory sports practices. Doherty and colleagues realized that this is a shared problem that can be addressed politically: parents should band together and demand more rational practice schedules.

The dynamics are not completely different in families, communities, and polities; they all need combinations of talk and work.

government of the people needs a rebirth

I’m turning the mike over to Harry Boyte for today. Here’s his latest op-ed:

    Neither ‘nurturing mother’ nor ‘alien force,’ government of the people needs a rebirth

    By Harry C. Boyte St. Paul Pioneer Press June 24, 2010

    The fall governor’s race offers a chance to bring back the genuinely populist politics which created the ‘Minnesota Miracle.’ But it will be up to everyone to make it real. Both Democrats and Republicans have forgotten the essence of this politics – productive citizenship in which government is partner of citizens in addressing our problems. A campaign built on renewed citizenship would be far different than the pro or anti-government approaches that now dominate.

    There is no better formulation of the authentic populist philosophy than Abraham Lincoln, who called for government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” In his formulation government was not simply “for” the people. It was embedded in the life of communities, “of” the people. And it was meeting ground and instrument of the people, “by” the people.

Read the rest here.