Monthly Archives: July 2012

an innovative conference format

At least week’s Frontiers of Democracy II conference, we tried a new format. I don’t think it was perfect, and I welcome feedback, but it does seem promising. According to preliminary evaluations from the conference, 61.8% said the new format was ideal (and zero percent didn’t like it at all), so it obviously had some fans.

We asked three people to speak at the beginning of each session. Each one gave a talk, strictly limited to 10 minutes. We asked them to rehearse and told them we would tape their talks for rebroadcast later. These were not dry, academic presentations, but they varied wonderfully in style as well as content. Some were personal and emotional; others more dispassionate.

They were very loosely clustered, so that the talks that began each session would likely have common resonances and themes; but the sessions did not have headings or official topics. We did not take any time to introduce the speakers or allow any Q&A at the end. All other participants sat at tables of eight and talked as soon as the featured speakers were done. The speakers were encouraged to stay for the whole conference and join table discussions. Tables were given suggested discussion topics (broad ones, like “Is there a global civic awakening?”). At each new session, everyone was asked to sit at a new table.

The idea was to use the prepared talks to inspire conversation and to inject into the discussion some carefully honed arguments, experiences, or ideas–but to take the focus off the featured speakers once their 10 minutes were up. We wanted to avoid bilateral exchanges between speakers and members of the “audience.”

Some people who have completed evaluations so far suggest that we should organize the talks more, so that each session has a clear focus. I’m open to that but I liked the relatively serendipitous connections that emerged in the loosely defined sessions. For example, no one could have predicted that Martha McCoy (Everyday Democracy) and Eric Liu (Guiding Lights Network) would both emphasize organic metaphors in talking about citizenship.

In the very first panel, three speakers who used radically different styles pointed to three totally different kinds of engagement. Kristen Cambell (National Conference on Citizenship) talked about belonging and joining as sources of economic resilience in US communities. Jamila Raqib (Albert Einstein Institution) laid out a strategy for peacefully overturning governments. And Amii Omara Otunnu (UNESCO Human Rights Chair UConn) advocated loving people around the world. If we could somehow combine social capital and community participation with revolutionary disruptions and global agape, we would really have something.

The conference format is available for imitation and improvement: just call it the “Frontiers model.”

where are citizens in the Capabilities Approach?

The “capabilities approach” is a theoretical position in political philosophy and development economics that has been advanced by Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, and now numerous others. Summarized very crudely, it presumes that human beings have a set of potential “functionings.” These functionings, which Sen has called “beings and doings,” range from eating and being calm to raising children and holding office. A “capability” is the actual capacity to perform one of the functionings. So, if I can afford food, if I am allowed to eat, if I have time for a meal, and if I am in normal health, then I have the capability to eat. Whether I choose to eat is substantially my business–I may fast for religious reasons or skip a meal to do something important–but a better society is one that provides more capabilities.

This approach steers a course among several dangerous shoals: It doesn’t ignore freedom, because you have the choice about whether to exercise a capability. But it defines freedom in a partly positive way, not merely as the absence of official constraints. (I am not free to eat if I am destitute.) It is a theory of well-being that does not assume that the goal is to maximize subjective happiness. It is concerned with individuals yet allows for the measurement of aggregate social welfare. It makes objective and universal claims about human beings yet encourages diversity.

All that is by way of background. I have a complaint about the specific formulation of the approach in Martha Nussbaum’s 2011 book Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. A few quotes will quickly reveal my concern:

In my view, there is a conceptual connection between Central Capabilities [the really important ones] and government … Of course governments may delegate … to private entities, but in the end it is government, meaning the society’s basic political structure, that bears the ultimate responsibilities for securing capabilities …. . The Capabilities Approach … insists that all entitlements involve an affirmative task for government: it must actively support people’s capabilities, not just fail to set up obstacles. … Fundamental rights are only words unless and until they are made real by government action. [pp. 64-5]

Citizens can deliberate about the fundamental political principles for which they want their nation to stand–if they are framing a new constitution, for example [p. 74].

The task for the constitution-maker (or, more often, for courts interpreting an abstract constitution and for legislators proposing statutes) is to select a level that is aspirational but not utopian. … [p. 42]

Note the emphasis on government as the agent. Citizens originally frame constitutions that will be interpreted and implemented by courts and legislatures, “and citizens deliberate about legislation–subject to the intervention of courts, if a statute violates constitutional guarantee” (p. 75). Citizens emerge only at the end of this long paragraph about professional politicians and lawyers, and the phrase after the dash urgently reminds us that their role is constrained.

I would start in a different place. We the people have the obligation to secure capabilities for our fellow citizens–or even for all human beings. Whether a government is the best tool for securing any particular capability is a worthy question for us to consider. In general, governments have the ability to make rights and entitlements official and universal, to fund them through taxes, and to enforce them at the point of a gun. But they have known frailties, too: limited information, a tendency to corruption, limited territorial control in a global market, and limited ability to constrain the bad behavior of individuals. Sen opens his book The Idea of Justice (2009) with a passage from Great Expectations. Pip is decrying his unjust treatment at the hands (literally) of his sister. Sen observes that injustice “may well be connected with behavioural transgressions rather than with institutional shortcomings.” (Pip has an objection to his sister, but not to the family or family law.)

Apart from the limits of government, there is also a deeper problem. Treating the state as an agent puts us in the position of hoping that the state acts well. Why should it act well if we put no pressure on it? So I think this theory is problematically incomplete:

good government –> capabilities

We might as well just write “capabilities” on the paper and assume that they will somehow be provided. The theory must be:

good citizens –> good government –> capabilities

But that raises the urgent question of how we are to get good citizens. To be sure, good governments help make good citizens–just regimes are self-sustaining. But that is no use to people who live in imperfect societies among imperfect people, with bad laws and leaders and short-sighted or even hateful citizens. (Auden: “I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”) Thus I think the most important question is how to fill in this X:

x –> good citizens –> good government –> capabilities –> good citizens

I don’t blame Nussbaum for failing to address the citizens’ role (no book explains everything), but she implies that it isn’t even relevant.

citizenship in the modern American republic: change or decline?

This is one last session outline from the Summer Institute of Civic Studies. The course covered roughly 18 separate topics, and I blogged about half of them. The topic of this post is changing conceptions of citizenship in the US.

In the mid-1800s, 80 percent of eligible men might vote. Popular movements were loud, boisterous, and effective. Today, we have many more means of engaging with government, but we don’t use the old ways as much. Even a very good year sees turnout only around 60%.

Two perspectives on this change in our assigned readings

  • Michael Schudson, The Good Citizen, introduction and chapter 5
  • Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg, Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined its Citizens and Privatized the Public, pp. 1-46

Michael Schudson argues that the definition and content of citizenship has changed many times in American history. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions about whether the changes are good or bad, because they are embedded in different cultural moments. Crenson and Ginsberg paint a highly critical picture of the present.

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are college sports corrupt?

Big-time college sports are corrupt–not only in the sense that leading programs often break the official rules, but also because institutions that follow the rules may corrupt their characters as universities.

So I would propose, but I am not fully satisfied with the argument. It may depend on the premise that playing quasi-professional sports before large audiences isn’t an appropriate activity at a public or not-for-profit university (in contrast to teaching, scholarship, R&D, policy analysis, ethical leadership, clinical health care, public dialogue, performance and studio arts, archives and collections, and economic development, which are worthy functions). Since playing basketball or football at the Division I level is an impressive achievement, and since the other activities of a modern university are rather miscellaneous, I fear that this premise may hinge on a subjective value-judgment.

Some signs that big-time sports are corrupt: Winning coaches have such strong market positions that they cannot be disciplined by academic administrators. The average football program on the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) list generates $11 million in net assets for its university per year.*  Salaries for even offensive and defensive football coordinators exceed $1 million. Athletes are not paid, but they lose their scholarships if they cease to play. Sometimes a significant proportion of the low-income students of color on a campus must play sports on TV to stay enrolled. Graduation rates are poor. Young athletes are enmeshed in elaborate rules regarding recruitment and money, yet they seem immune to general rules regarding academic performance.

But these points do not demonstrate corruption, at least not one by one. (Maybe they accumulate to an indictment.) After all …

Other individuals on some campuses are too valuable to be disciplined, starting with high-wattage professors. The late Mancur Olson, one of the founders of rational-choice theory, negotiated a contract with the University of Maryland that guaranteed him $1 more than any other professor in the state’s system, to save him the trouble of seeking competing offers. As far as I know, he acted with perfect integrity, but (like the basketball coach) he was “too big to fail.”

Other parts of universities also make profits. Research, in particular, can pay very nicely because of patents. Stanford’s net return from patents was $62 million in 2006, about twice the total surplus generated by Penn State’s athletic department.

In addition to athletes, other students are required to perform services to their universities. The federal government, for example, subsidizes nursing scholarships for students who serve as nurses in selected (needy) facilities. I think nursing is much more valuable than football, but football may be more attractive for participants. It’s not clear that the athletes are more exploited than the nurses–to say nothing of the university’s blue-collar workforce.

The graduation rates for big-time sports programs don’t always look bad in the context of higher education in general. For example, 87% of Penn State’s football players graduate within 6 years, two percentage points better than the student body as a whole.

For the most part, these are tu quoque arguments: in other words, “Don’t criticize Division I sports, because the same problems are seen elsewhere in higher education.” Put in those terms, it’s an illegitimate argument–why not expand the critique to encompass other parts of the university? But note that the critique then becomes very broad, and it’s not clear that what’s left (pure teaching and scholarship) is sustainable outside the elite universities.

In other words, big-time sports do not adulterate a pure substance; they are part of a complicated mix. So we may have to decide whether the intrinsic merits of Division I football and basketball are worthy of support by universities. I would say no, but is that just because I am no longer much of a sports fan?

*Matheson, V.A., O’Connor, D.J., and Herberger, J.H., “The Bottom Line: Accounting for Revenues and Expenditures in Intercollegiate Athletics” (PDF).