Monthly Archives: January 2012

what is a republic?

In Colorado, fiscal policy is strongly constrained by a referendum called the Colorado Taxpayer Bill of Rights (Tabor). A lawsuit has been filed to overturn Tabor on the grounds that Colorado is no longer a republic if an elected legislature cannot determine the budget. Not being a republic would violate the US Constitution, Article 4, clause 1: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government …”

I believe that Tabor is bad policy, and it’s generally wiser for a legislature to determine a budget than for voters to make fiscal policy through the ballot box, because the legislative process requires a comprehensive, deliberative look at all revenues and expenses, whereas a referendum can enact inconsistent requirements. (See: California.) But I don’t believe a court should declare that Colorado isn’t a “republic”; the word is simply too contested.

The Romans coined res publica to describe their own regime from ca. 509-59 BCE. Ever since, people have examined the Romans’ complex and evolving constitution and have seen various aspects of it as salient. They have defined a “republic” accordingly. For example:

1. Sometimes it just means an alternative to a monarchy, for the Roman Republic legendarily originated with the overthrow of a king and ended with the rise of the Caesars. Removing a monarch can be a revolutionary moment–or it can be symbolic. In countries like Canada and Australia, “republicans” are proponents of removing Elizabeth II as the titular sovereign. The effects on power and policy would be very modest. By this definition, Colorado is certainly republican because it has no king or queen.

2. We might say that there is something specifically problematic about a monarchy, even if the ruler is benign or his powers have been sharply limited by other institutions. The monarch’s power is arbitrary because it is not rooted in something like the consent of the governed. “Republicanism” has sometimes been defined as non-domination, and even constitutional monarchies are perhaps tainted by some degree of domination because the sovereign inherits her office. Again, by this definition, Colorado is republican.

3. The etymology of the word is “public thing [res],” perhaps better translated as “public property” or “commonwealth.” That marks an important distinction. The United Kingdom is highly democratic; almost all power is vested in a directly elected, unicameral legislature, which controls the nation’s laws and institutions. But in theory, those institutions belong to the crown. It is the Royal Navy, Her Majesty’s Prison Service, and the Royal Mail, Ltd. When Oliver Cromwell  monopolized power, “By the Grace of God and Republic, Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland,” the nation was much less democratic than it is now, but its laws and institutions were seen as public property. Cromwell governed but did not own the navy, the courts, etc. Similarly, a communist state may claim to be a “people’s republic” because the nation’s goods are publicly owned (even if they are managed by tyrants). By this definition, Colorado is clearly republican.

4. The Roman Republic had elected officials, such as Tribunes, as well as hereditary officials, like Senators. Laws were made by direct popular votes and by small legislative bodies. In short, Rome depended on limited popular sovereignty–in contrast to a pure democracy, where the people would assemble and vote on everything. This is the distinction at the heart of the Colorado lawsuit, which asserts that the state has become a democracy and not a republic. But Colorado, like ancient Rome, has a mix of offices and processes, including a legislature that retains power and an independent judiciary. Maybe the state is a little less republican than it used to be, but it’s hard to see how it has crossed a bright line.

5. Republican Romans believed in civic duty. Gentlemen were expected to serve in the army and to take part arduously in public life as orators and leaders. The ideal was the soldier/statesman. Civic life was held in  much higher regard than private life or market exchange. It could even be called sacred, because religion and government were deeply enmeshed. When Renaissance Italian city states revived republicanism, they were mainly interested in republican virtues. In contrast, today’s liberal regimes prize what Benjamin Constant called “the liberty of the moderns”: the freedom to live one’s own life as independently as possible. So one definition of republicanism is a culture or political order that expects a lot from its citizens. Civic participation as an intrinsic good, not a cost. By this definition, Colorado is not very republican, but neither are the other states or the United States as a whole.

although politicians won’t admit it, politics is played between the 40 yard lines

National candidates typically depict their differences as epic battles about the very essence of our society. For example, Mitt Romney’s victory speech on the night of the New Hampshire Primary:

President Obama wants to “fundamentally transform” America. We want to restore America to the founding principles that made this country great.

He wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society. We want to ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity.

This President takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe; we look to the cities and small towns of America.

This President puts his faith in government. We put our faith in the American people.

This is pretty much nonsense. The election will make a difference–it matters who wins–but it is not a battle between European socialism and a return to the Republic as it stood in 1788. Neither option is on the table. Ezra Klein has, I think, a pretty accurate summary:

It matters that Obama’s proposed tax cuts amount to $3 trillion and benefit taxpayers making less than $250,000 while Romney’s would cost more than $6 trillion and are tilted toward the top 1 percent. It matters that Obama would implement the Affordable Care Act and Romney would try to repeal it. It matters that Obama is inclined to strengthen the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau while Republicans want to weaken it.

But the 2012 election is not an epochal clash of irreconcilable worldviews. Judging from their respective records, Obama and Romney would have little trouble coming to agreement if locked in a room together. That’s a very different conclusion than you would draw from listening to their rhetoric, which implies a Thunderdomish battle to the death.

I would not claim that both sides exaggerate their differences to the same degree. “Movement” conservatives are especially likely to regard their debate with Democrats as fundamental and existential. This is not all pretense or rhetoric; I suspect they are genuinely disappointed when they discover that winning the House means a shift in the federal budget of just a couple of percent. Running for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney has every reason to depict himself as a scourge of anti-American socialists. Democrats, meanwhile, are more aware that liberalism is a minority position and are therefore more likely to try to position themselves as consensus candidates.

That said, you get no points on either side for depicting the partisan debate realistically. No candidate says, “We’re all for a mixed economy with a regulated capitalist market, federal provision of pensions and health care for the elderly, a vast military that projects power globally in our economic interests, huge prisons, sharply limited federal aid to poor people, and tax cuts whenever we think we can afford them. We just disagree about how much to spend on all that.”

A new study finds that “Strongly identified Republicans or Democrats perceive and exaggerate polarization more than weakly identified Republicans or Democrats or political independents.” They also vote at higher rates, presumably motivated by the sense that we face an epic battle between good and evil. Although Independents have grown in number, their turnout has fallen. Maybe some of them are turned off because they can’t believe the prevailing claim that elections are existential choices. That just doesn’t ring true.

I think we’d be better off if Americans saw through the exaggerations and recognized that politics is played within the 40 yard lines. Then they could tell when someone (such as Ron Paul) really proposes to move outside that range and could decide whether he has a realistic chance of doing so. They would also be more aware of genuinely radical ideas, from authentic socialism to authentic libertarianism–not to mention real environmentalism and real pacifism–which are conspicuous by their absence. Finally, they could make a more judicious choice among the available options. If you’re looking for Kenyan socialists or the Founding Fathers, the 2012 general election will not offer what you want (or what you fear). But we are going to spend the next few years implementing and improving Obamacare or gutting it; closing the budget gap with new taxes or not; and strengthening environmental and labor laws or trimming them. We may end up at the Republicans’ 40 or the Democrats’ 40, and it will make a difference.

why young people react favorably to the word socialism

A recent Pew survey asked people to react to the words “socialism” and “capitalism.” It reveals some quirks, like the 12% of Tea Party supporters who favor socialism–what’s up with them? (See the table below.) But I’m especially interested in the age differences, brought to my attention by Iris Deroeux.

Among 18-29s, 49% react favorably to “socialism,” compared to 31% of the whole adult population and just 13% in the 65+ age range. Fewer young people (46%) react favorably to “capitalism.” The latter is not a wildly popular term in the whole sample, but around half the individuals in each age group like it.

One could explain young people’s favorable response to “socialism” in several ways. Their experience with actual capitalism has been limited to the past decade, which was a bad one. Arguably, they don’t have as much information/understanding of socialism as older people do–although I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion without data. (I would rather suspect that hardly anyone knows what it is.)

But here’s my actual guess: young people have heard “socialist” thrown as an epithet at Barack Obama. The President remains popular among them, and to the extent that he has lost popularity, a major reason is his perceived unwillingness to confront his opponents: the very people who label him a socialist. Those opponents (conservative or “movement” Republicans) have very weak youth following. So every time they call the President a socialist, the reputation of socialism rises.

What should “socialism” mean, anyway? I would say: Workers’ or popular control of the means of production. In a socialist society, either the workers own and manage the factories and farms by committee, or the government (seen as responsive to the whole population) owns and manages all the productive assets. Genuine popular control may be impossible because of Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy–which asserts that a small group will inevitably seize assets in their own interest–or it may be undesirable, but it is clear enough as an ideal.

By this definition, the United States has never been socialist, but the elements of our economy that could be described as socialist are relatively old and have shrunk. I am thinking of the Postal Service, public schools and universities, the Forest Service, prisons, and scattered agencies like the Tennessee Valley Authority and NASA. All could be described as providing goods or services by directly employing workers in the state sector. But all have lost their monopolies in an age of UPS and FexEx, the University of Phoenix, school vouchers, SpaceX, and for-profit prisons. The US has never nationalized companies, and worker-owned enterprises have always been small.

Another definition holds that a government is socialist if it taxes and spends in order to distribute goods or social outcomes more equally. I would reject that definition because it conceals an important difference between states that produce things and states that buy things from private vendors. Our governments (at all levels) tax and spend, but to a large extent, they spend tax dollars on capitalist goods and services. Social Security checks go to individuals who buy what they need on the market. Medicare and Medicaid checks go to private hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and physicians’ practices. The Department of Defense buys aircraft carriers from Northrop Grumman et al. I see that as regulated or subsidized capitalism, not socialism. It is the central direction of the Obama administration, which has tried to stimulate capitalist enterprise and subsidize and regulate private medical insurance. When they’ve ended up owning an enterprise, they’ve tried to get rid of it as fast as possible: what I’ve called “hot potato” socialism.

It would be analytically less clear, but not wrong, to assert that any government that taxes and spends is socialist. In that case, however, Mitt Romney is only a few percent less socialist than Barack Obama is, and FDR was only a bit more socialist than Herbert Hoover was. Socialism can’t be a deep political divide if all governments have taxed and spent since the 1700s. (We just haggle over the quantity.)

That’s why I think modern libertarianism often adds two ingredients: 1) taxing and spending should be local or state prerogatives, and 2) any federal spending should be limited to the express purposes listed in Article I of the Constitution. There are arguments for these views, but it’s important to notice that they are but weakly tied to the basic arguments against socialism. If socialism is taxing and spending, then any American city would be a socialist republic even if the federal government got completely out of the business of education, welfare, health, and environmental protection.

To return to the survey results: I doubt very many Americans have a sharp definition of socialism, and I suspect that our implicit definitions vary quite widely (from any degree of government-funded welfare to a Leninist state monopoly of production). “Capitalism” seems surprisingly unpopular to me, and “socialism” polls better than I would have expected. I would guess that reflects a backlash against the way the term is being used to marginalize President Obama, rather than an actual endorsement of socialist principles–but who knows?

Connie Flanagan at Tufts

University of Wisconsin Professor Constance Flanagan has won the 2012 Tisch Research Prize, which recognizes her career of distinguished research on young people’s civic engagement. The award will be presented at Lincoln Filene Hall, Tisch College, on March 26 from 4:30-6 pm. Following a very brief ceremony, I will interview her about her work and major findings. We will then welcome the audience to join the conversation about what encourages young people to develop as active citizens, what results from their civic engagement, and how their political identities vary.

An RSVP is not required, but it would be helpful if you would indicate that you plan to attend by clicking here.

Connie Flanagan is a psychologist who had investigated young people’s civic and political engagement in Europe, Latin America, and in the United States among college students, non-college-bound young adults, and adolescents. She conducts both qualitative and quantitative research, thinks and writes theoretically, and has launched civic education programs for undergraduates at both Penn State and Wisconsin. She has won many awards, served as a mentor for many colleagues, and written widely cited works.

are college faculty responsible for educating the whole student?

(Washington, DC) I am at a conference at which most of the participants–who represent a few dozen diverse colleges and universities–believe that faculty should take more responsibility for the overall welfare and development of their students. Professors should worry about problems (such as depression and interpersonal conflict) that interfere with learning, and they should treat students’ non-academic experiences as assets for learning.

I agree that many students, including those enrolled at expensive, private colleges, face significant challenges outside of the classroom that should be addressed. I also agree that the best education always draws on the “whole person.” But whether faculty should pay attention to these issues is a more complicated question. Consider professors in the following imaginary cases:

  1. A poorly funded metropolitan public university whose student body (of more than 50,000) is mostly composed of part-time commuters older than 25. The issues that arise in their personal lives clearly interfere with their learning. If daycare falls through, they will fail a course. At the same time, their experiences from family, work, and community are educational assets. But each professor teaches hundreds of such students every semester. Their personal challenges seem overwhelming. The faculty have their own problems balancing work and life on inadequate salaries–many are adjuncts. They are likely to agree that students need help with psychosocial problems, but they may not feel that the responsibility can justly be assigned to them. Professors may also resist being paternalistic toward adult students.
  2. An expensive, private, selective college. It may employ more professionals in student affairs than faculty. For a sticker price of $50,000 or more, it provides 24/7 services for its undergraduates, including counseling, extracurricular activities, and well-appointed facilities. The students may, on average, have higher family incomes and social status than the faculty. Professors should recognize that these students still have psychosocial problems, including depression, which are relevant to their learning. (And to teach them is the faculty’s job.) Yet professors can reasonably conclude that students’ problems are mainly someone else’s business.
  3. A large, research-oriented university with impressive graduate programs, labs, and libraries. Its students probably face personal and psychosocial problems at rates approaching those at the metropolitan public university, and the institution’s support per/student is probably scanty. But faculty have legitimate reasons not to make addressing their students’ needs a high priority. Professors don’t conduct research and train PhD students just for the prestige and grant money or for self-indulgent reasons. They are trying to cure HIV/AIDS, save migratory birds, preserve the heritage of the Renaissance, or understand the relationship between freedom and prosperity (to name just a few examples). These are idealistic goals, requiring a degree of commitment and even self-sacrifice. When faculty weigh an extra hour trying to cure cancer versus an hour caring about undergraduates’ depression, I think they have legitimate reasons to stay in the lab.
  4. A teaching-oriented liberal arts college in a small town. In this case, the implicit agreement holds that the college will take care of the “whole student.” That is pretty obviously what all the faculty and staff are employed to do. Besides, the students may represent a substantial proportion of the town’s population, so they are neighbors and fellow citizens as well as “customers.” The college may not have highly impressive labs or libraries, and its students may be some of its most important assets. So this is a case where holistic concern for the student is obligatory.

Because students at all four kinds of institutions bring problems and assets from outside of academia, we should pay more attention to their whole lives. I think there are ways to integrate concern for the “whole student” into all kinds of courses and programs. But we shouldn’t pretend that this is easy or free of tradeoffs and legitimate concerns.