Monthly Archives: September 2012

civic engagement makes Tufts students happier

Thanks to a grant from the Bringing Theory to Practice project, my colleagues and I have been able to study the relationship between civic engagement and “psychosocial well-being” among Tufts students by means of a large, longitudinal survey and some qualitative research. One conceptual framework that informs our research comes from the psychologist Corey Keyes, who has shown that people fall on a continuum from “flourishing” to “languishing” that is quite separate from the continuum that runs from mental illness to its absence. Flourishing has huge mental and physical health benefits–regardless of whether one has a mental illness. People can say they are flourishing if (among other things) “their own daily activities [are] useful to and valued by society” and they have a “sense of belonging to, and comfort and support from, a community.” We propose, in turn, that programs and projects of civic engagement can boost flourishing.

At Tufts, according to a summary by Michelle J. Boyd, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Jonathan Zaff, and me:

Current [civic] engagement … was related to higher flourishing scores (Keyes, 2002). … Students who recently engaged in civic activities, most notably activities perceived to be focused on social change, had significantly better scores on indicators of psychosocial well-being (e.g., connection with others, intrinsic motivation toward learning, strategies for managing stress). Furthermore, students who were engaged only for the first semester did not show a lasting psychosocial benefit, and students who had lower socioeconomic backgrounds were less likely to become highly engaged. Moreover, we found that the students who were civically engaged through courses did not necessarily experience better psychosocial outcomes unless they viewed the activities as aimed at social change.

Sometimes, people ask us whether civic engagement is a solution to specific student pathologies, such as alcohol abuse and depression. I think the evidence for that is much weaker than the evidence for flourishing. At least in our Tufts undergraduate sample, civic engagement is a path to finding meaning, purpose, and satisfaction.

the youth vote on PBS NewsHour and elsewhere in the media

Below is a thoughtful and well-reported segment on the youth vote. Judy Woodruff has been covering youth issues with depth and consistency for several cycles and goes beneath the simple, horse-race question (“Will they vote for Obama or not?”) that most reporters ask. She also has a recent blog post with more information. I’m in this clip for a little while, but CIRCLE’s influence on the reporters’ fieldwork and agenda satisfies me much more than my own quotes. (That was also the case with a recent New York Times piece by Susan Saulny.)

Watch In Swing States, Elusive Youth Voters are Jaded, Undecided on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Here are some other recent articles that use our work:

the most redistribution since the Johnson Administration

In today’s Times, Eduardo Porter argues,

Future historians could well conclude that Mr. Obama led the biggest redistribution of wealth in decades.

The Affordable Care Act, which levies new taxes on the wealthy to expand access to health care for the near poor, seems on track to become the biggest increase in government redistribution since the Johnson administration. …

The Obama fiscal stimulus also did much to assist the most vulnerable Americans. It expanded the food stamp program and the earned-income tax credit. It extended unemployment insurance and sent $800 checks to poor and middle-class families. Over all, the Congressional Budget Office found that total government taxes and transfers reduced the nation’s income inequality by more than a quarter in 2009, the most in at least 30 years.

I think this story has been unaccountably overlooked by upper-middle-class liberals who are remote from welfare programs and over-influenced by symbolic issues, such as the “public option” (which was dropped from the health care bill). They use symbolic issues to measure the administration’s economic progressivism, when the graph above is a much better index. I was on a bus full of liberal academics when the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act last summer, and I was the only one who cheered–not because the decision would help Barack Obama, but because, as Porter notes, the top 1% of taxpayers will each pay $52,000 under the ACA to fund up to $2,000 for each family in the bottom 50%.

The graph is full of paradoxes and challenges. Note, for example, that even though Bill Clinton presided over growth and low unemployment, inequality (both before and after government taxes and transfers) grew rapidly during his eight years, echoing the trends first seen under Reagan. On the other hand, both pre-tax and post-tax inequality fell in the last years of GW Bush–perhaps just as a result of the money that rich people lost in the markets.

Of course, factors well beyond the control of a president affect inequality, but Porter cites evidence that the intentional policies of the Obama administration have helped cut inequality substantially.

I cite this graph because I think it displays important and overlooked trends. I do not mean to imply that redistribution is a good in itself, or that a reduction in the GINI inequality coefficient is necessarily a sign of progress. (Consider the fall between 2007 and 2009: bad years for everyone.) Government spending is only beneficial if the people who get the money benefit broadly, in terms of agency, freedom, and well-being as well as cash. But the argument about the Obama administration should begin with the premise that it has redistributed wealth–just as Romney charges, and left-liberals often deny.

do we teach civics anymore?

In the New York Times online (Sept. 23), Thomas B. Edsall quotes a Romney supporter who explains why Obama may win that state: “People are stupid. … [Governments] eliminated civics from our curriculum. The students don’t know about civics, they don’t know about our history, our government, our constitution.” The mega-blogger Atrios asks whether it’s true that civics has been eliminated, and Kevin Drum thinks not, heading his blog post, “Civics is Alive and Well in American High Schools.”

This is an empirical question (a matter of fact), and a relatively full analysis is coming very soon from CIRCLE. We are at the proofreading and layout stage of a study that investigates all the standards, course requirements, and tests for civics and government in the 5o states plus DC. I do not want to scoop our findings, but my previous writing on this topic has already disclosed a major theme: We do still teach–and require–civics, but how we define and assess the subject is not satisfactory if we are trying to produce active and responsible participants in civil society.

game theory and the super PACs

Imagine that you lead a conservative super-PAC like American Crossroads, Restore Our Future, the Koch network, or the US Chamber of Commerce, which collectively planned to spend a $1 billion on this fall’s election. Of course, you must accommodate a bunch of separate and strong-willed donors, but I think these are the goals you will balance:

  1. Support the person you most want to see win, which is probably Mitt Romney, because you most want to see Barack Obama lose.
  2. Make the greatest marginal difference in the election by supporting candidates who are in a position to benefit from your dollars.
  3. Support candidates who will maximize your members’ after-tax profits. Whom to choose is debatable–it could even be the Democrats, if you believe they have a better macroeconomic policy–but leaders of conservative super-PACs presumably believe the answer is fiscally conservative Republicans.
  4. Support candidates who are likely to win, because if they win without your money, you have no pull with them. There’s a debate about how much access and influence money buys, but you have something else to worry about besides influence. If Democrats win despite your spending $1 billion for Republicans, you will send a clear message that you are weak and the Democrats can build a coalition without you.

Now, consider that the odds of Barack Obama’s winning in November are 90% according to Sam Wang, 77.6% according to Nate Silver, and 71.7% according to Intrade. Consider also that both the House and Senate are in play, with numerous unpredictable races.

No wonder Karl Rove is spending his money on behalf of Senate Republicans. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that conservative super-PACS were spending $10 million/week on behalf of Mitt Romney until a few weeks ago, but they are down to just $2.07 million in the last week.  CRP also calculates that Restore Our Future has spent $84 million on congressional races, American crossroads has spent $34 million, and Americans for prosperity has spent $31 million.  Meanwhile, an industry like financial services (including real estate and insurance) demonstrates how to distribute your cash if you are mainly concerned about your own after-tax profits plus mollifying the winner. They’ve given $221 million to Republicans, of which only $29 million had gone to Romney. They have also given $116 million to Democrats, including an ingratiating $12 million to Obama.

Conversely, if you are a liberal Democrat, I think your favorite outcomes, in descending order of priority, are: 1) win Congress, 2) win the presidency with no help from corporate donors, and 3) win the presidency with some corporate support.