Monthly Archives: January 2013

the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy

(Washington, DC) Today, I will be meeting with students and staff of the Chavez Schools in DC. This blog shows that I have visited before–in February and April 2003. The Chavez network has since grown to four schools and 1,300 students. Its founder, Irasema Salcido, not only wanted to provide an excellent education for DC students by engaging them in the critical study of public policy; she also wanted to improve DC’s governance by developing a new generation of mostly minority leaders who had the skills and motivations to run the city. It was an inspiring vision from the start, and the early outcomes were impressive. I look forward to catching up.

See also my posts on Charter Schools and Democracy, The Argument for Small Schools, and Illumination from the Charter Debate–and especially a great series of case studies and policy briefs on “teaching citizenship in charter schools,” from the AEI Program in American Citizenship.

Melissa Bass, The Politics and Civics of National Service

Melissa Bass has published The Politics and Civics of National Service: Lessons from the Civilian Conversation Corps, VISTA, and AmeriCorps (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2013). This book originated with a CIRCLE grant and two CIRCLE Working Papers (numbers 11 and 12). It is a great achievement and truly essential reading for anyone who is interested in civilian national service as an instrument for social reform, civic education, or strengthening communities.

Because Bass describes three federal service initiatives that originated, respectively, in the Depression, the 1960s, and the 1980s, her story also provides an excellent opportunity to think about broader changes in the definition of “citizenship,” the aims of government, prevailing ideas about education, poverty, youth development, and the environment, and the relationship between state and market. Although the Civilian Conservation Corps, VISTA, and AmeriCorps share certain common features, the differences are perhaps more illuminating. No one in 1932 would have thought to promote “social entrepreneurship” with competitive grants to NGOs that place many of their volunteers in white collar nonprofit jobs. No one today would envision housing young men in racially segregated federal work camps to study American ideals while building dams and laying telephone lines.

The interest of the book is not merely historical or analytical. To revive ideals of active, responsible, and inclusive citizenship requires supportive institutions and policies. When designing these policies, we must be attentive not only to how they may affect their participants and beneficiaries, but also to how they will fit into–or alter–the broader political system. Most policies have feedback loops, either strengthening or undermining themselves over time. The CCC, for instance, grew to almost 100 times the maximum size of VISTA because it was understood as a jobs program in the midst of an unemployment crisis. But it was quickly killed when the economic situation changed. In contrast, AmeriCorps’ decentralized model creates a network of grantees that lobby for the program’s preservation–but the grantees are far too small and weak to expand it much. (Despite its breadth and diversity, AmeriCorps remains one fifth the size of the CCC in a much bigger country.) Michael Sandel once called for a “political economy of citizenship.” Anyone who takes up his challenge should pay serious attention to the lessons of Melissa Bass’s book.

coming of age politically in different historical moments

At a fine panel on “The Civic Mission of Higher Education” last week, the panelists basically said:

  1. We should care about college students as whole people, considering their emotional and social well-being as well as their academic success. Engaging with communities benefits students holistically.
  2. Students should not only seek fulfilling and educational experiences, but also fight for justice even if that has costs for themselves. They must ask the really difficult and troubling questions.
  3. Graduate students and others heading for scholarly or intellectual careers face a terrible shortage of traditional jobs, but there are openings for more engaged intellectuals.

All that is true, but putting the three parts together is very difficult. In fact, I doubt that anyone can do it alone–asking profound and troubling questions, taking effective action, finding a relevant career path or calling, and obtaining personal satisfaction and fulfillment along the way. You can do all of that if you belong to a thriving political or social movement, but not if such movements are missing.

In other words, we cannot merely encourage students to ask and explore questions. They must also have a menu of available answers. Meaningful answers are more than ideas or theories. They consist of ideals plus strategies, current leaders and role-models, agendas, institutions, jobs, cultural expressions, and vocabularies, all wrapped up together.

For instance, if you went to Washington with FDR in 1932 or JFK in 1960, you thought you were building something new and great. You had ideas, leaders, agendas, and institutions all ready to embrace you. You could engage in debates within those movements, but you had a structure. In 2008 and 2012, young people voted for the candidate who supported the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society, Barack Obama. But very few young people felt called to Washington to work for the federal administrative state. Its heroes are dead, its ideals are fulfilled or compromised, its vocations seem routine.

If you went to Washington with Reagan and the resurgent conservatives of 1980, you also had an agenda, ideals, theories, strategies, and living heroes. My sense is that the conservative movement does not provide any of that for young people today.

A subtle case is the Civil Rights Movement. In Freedom Summer, Doug McAdam shows that the 1,000 young white college volunteers who went to Mississippi in 1963 did not (for the most part) benefit personally from that experience. They tended to struggle with jobs, relationships, and psychological issues later in life. The Civil Rights Movement was certainly a structure that developed leaders. But for that purpose, it worked better in 1955 than in 1963. By the early 1960s, it was beginning to splinter, its dynamic and vibrant debates turning divisive and caustic. Also, an argument had broken out about whether white middle-class leaders has a place in the movement. I think the critics had a point, but for young white volunteers, the argument was pretty alienating. Most moved to the anti-War or Women’s movements, but the transition was tough.

Higher education cannot build social and political movements. Movement-building cannot be an objective of our institutions, which must be more neutral and deliberative than that. But we must reckon with the political and intellectual context in which we work. If our young people lack a choice of vibrant political movements, that will make our educational mission much harder.

teaching citizenship by teaching about guns

(Concord NH) While traveling up and down the East Coast and talking about civic education, I opened the New York Times to find that the gun industry uses the same language of “citizenship” that my colleagues and I employ:

The N.R.A. has for decades given grants for youth shooting programs, mostly to Boy Scout councils and 4-H groups, which traditionally involved single-shot rimfire rifles, BB guns and archery. Its $21 million in total grants in 2010 was nearly double what it gave out five years earlier.

Newer initiatives by other organizations go further, seeking to introduce children to high-powered rifles and handguns while invoking the same rationale of those older, more traditional programs: that firearms can teach “life skills” like responsibility, ethics and citizenship.

The people I’ve been hanging around with–from Georgia to New Hampshire–argue that deliberation and debate, community-service, and political participation teach “life skills,” ethics, and citizenship. We cite evidence that these organized forms of civic participation are related to psychological well-being, writing skills, academic success, and employment (among other good outcomes).

Is it possible that a shooting club could also bring such benefits? Before you say “no,” I would direct you to the National 4-H Shooting Sports program, which is billed as “Skills for Life–Activity for a Lifetime.” 4-H has one of the best overall civic development models in the country, and its Shooting Sports program aims to:

  • teach decision making, teamwork, self- discipline, self-confidence, and problem solving;
  • promote the highest standards of safety, sportsmanship, and ethical behavior;
  • encourage an appreciation and understanding of natural resources;
  • develop leadership abilities;
  • build character and willingness to assume citizenship responsibility;
  • furnish enjoyable, positive relationships with peers and adult instructors;
  • strengthen families through participation in lifelong recreational activities;
  • build awareness of related career opportunities.

(This all comes from a 4-H brochure entitled “Point Kids in the Right Direction.”) I am suspicious of efforts sponsored by the gun industry to get young children shooting (and buying weapons). According to the Times, an ad in Junior Shooters magazine says, “Who knows? Maybe you’ll find a Bushmaster AR-15 under your tree some frosty Christmas morning!” The motive is transparently commercial and the product is an assault rifle. But 4-H has a well-deserved reputation for actually developing young adults’ leadership and civic skills. And 4-H offers Shooting Sports.

I don’t think anyone conducts comparative research on shooting clubs versus community service programs. We don’t ask which is a better way to teach responsibility and life skills. Of course, the answer might depend on how one defines the goals. If “citizenship” is essentially about caring and non-violence, then community service will have a leg up. If “citizenship” includes a readiness to bear arms in defense of the country or the community, then gun clubs will have the edge. In that respect, the debate is essentially normative–concerning values.

Empirical claims are also relevant. 4-H asserts that Shooting Sports “teach decision making, teamwork, [and] self- discipline.” That could be true (or false). Scholars who investigate community service and political engagement are unlikely to study the possible benefits of gun clubs–or stop-and-frisk policies, or boot camps, or high school football. I assume this is because they do not like these activities very much and are not hoping to find evidence in their favor. Meanwhile, on a different moral planet, Americans who like guns are now positing empirical links between shooting clubs and “life skills.”

Studying things that you hope will work is fine–but your hope is as important as your data. You should have moral principles as well as causal hypotheses. I prize “discursive accountability”: saying what you value and why. I am frustrated by social science rhetoric that bypasses the basic moral questions, and also by the kind of discourse prevalent in the humanities that merely poses moral questions. As I have written in a different context, “Stop problematizing; say something.”

For instance, if you don’t like the idea of 10-year-olds shooting assault weapons, explain why not. Don’t depend on an empirical claim (shooting clubs could make some kids into mass murderers) unless that is your true objection to the shooting clubs. If it is your only objection, be prepared to drop it if the evidence disproves the empirical link. But if you dislike the idea of 10-year-olds with Bushmasters for some other reason, you should be able to say what that is.

Similarly, if you prefer community service, you should be able to justify that preference. I actually have trouble endorsing “service” per se; it rings too much of charity or apolitical altruism. I’d rather see the citizen as a nonviolent fighter for justice. But there is scant evidence that a struggle for justice promotes “life skills” or success on the job market. On the contrary, real political activists sometimes pay a heavy price. So empirical evidence won’t take us where we need to go; the deeper questions are inescapable:

  • What is a good life for you (or me)?
  • What is a just society?
  • How important is your own well-being in comparison to the pursuit of social justice?

Having made that long statement in favor of normative explicitness, I ought to practice what I preach. So, my view of gun clubs as civic education …

Hunting is sustainable and ethical as long as one hunts safely and humanely and uses the meat. Firing at targets is an acceptable pastime. Learning to use a deadly weapon may teach an important lesson about our capacity to kill and thus our profound need for self-control. Owning guns is deeply embedded in some American subcultures. Hunting and target-practice are properly social activities that often involve due respect for peers, adults, and nature. 4-H mentions careers in law enforcement and the National Guard; those are honorable and valuable callings.

On the other hand, in civilian life, it is almost never acceptable to employ either violence or the threat of violence. Even when threatened by a gun, using a gun is almost never the right response. The market for legal guns drives the production of guns used in murder and war. Thus anyone who learns to use a gun should learn not to use it on people. A gun program that presents itself as a citizenship program ought to include lessons about not firing on people and not purchasing or using a weapon more deadly than the legitimate purpose requires. Students should also learn the arguments for and against second-amendment rights and be encouraged to form their own independent views.

I am not saying that these features of civic education are absent in today’s gun clubs, only that they must be present if gun programs are to promote good citizenship. Again, a promising example may be the National 4-H Shooting Sports programs.

addressing climate change by executive action and what that means for constitutional principles

(Atlanta) The Obama Administration is deciding whether to address climate change by regulating power plants, thus bypassing Congress. In addition to the environmental and economic impact of such regulations, there is also a question about whether governance by executive order is acceptable. That question belongs in a broader discussion about the “imperial presidency,” the dysfunctional US Congress, and the regulatory or administrative state. Although climate change arguably poses a fundamental threat to the republic—and although I hold our current president in high regard—the critique of executive power is an important topic. But instead of simply forming a preference for Congress versus the White House (or the EPA), we ought to consider fundamental principles. The following principles seem relevant:

Accountability: Officials who make momentous decisions should always be accountable to the American people, albeit with a time-delay, so that citizens have a chance to reflect and discuss. The EPA administrator is appointed and confirmed, not elected. The president is elected, but he faces no reelection after his second term. Thus the executive branch is not fully accountable. But very few members of Congress face competitive elections; and a vote (whether for Congress or the president) is a blunt instrument of accountability. We only get one vote per candidate even though he or she may hold hundreds of opinions and positions—and we can’t vote at all for the 434 representatives outside our district. Overall, I’d say the president won about as clear a policy mandate as a politician ever gets, although that may not be saying much.  (Score this one a tie.)

Deliberation: The Constitution (Art. 1, sec. 1) vests all legislative (law-making) power in Congress. One important reason is that Congress can deliberate, considering a wide range of arguments and evidence before acting. It can thereby apply what Madison called “the mild voice of reason.”

Congress is not actually very deliberative; discussions within the EPA are generally more mild and reasonable than those on the floor of the House or Senate. Madison would not be too surprised: he acknowledged that the mild voice of reason … “is but too often drowned, before public bodies as well as individuals, by the clamors of an impatient avidity for immediate and immoderate gain.”

But here is an argument for legislative deliberation that does not depend on a high estimate of our legislators or their procedures. Let’s assume that issues like regulating carbon are essentially moral, concerning tradeoffs of goods and conflicting principles. The EPA is ill-equipped to deliberate about value questions. Civil servants lack the mandate and legitimacy to do so. Instead, decision-making within an administrative agency is drowned in empirical data and legal interpretation (two forms of expertise). Although current members of Congress may be ignorant of science and law, they do talk about values in public—and we can hold them accountable for their reasons as well as their decisions. To be sure, the president also articulated and defended values on the campaign trail; but Congress remains a better forum for deliberating values, even when it reaches bad conclusions. (Score this one for Congress.)

Checks and balances: The Constitution makes policies hard to change; usually, at least two separate branches must concur. For instance, Congress has the power to overrule EPA regulations by passing a bill and overriding Obama’s veto. This system of checks and balances is at least adequate and maybe excessive. I say that not just because I support certain forms of government activism that are routinely blocked. From a conservative perspective, too, the proliferation of veto points is an obstacle to reform, accountability, and good government. It gives special interests the power to extract narrow rewards for permitting necessary action. It rewards constant negotiation and procrastination on crucial issues. Thus I have to objection to the president’s taking bold unilateral action, subject to review by Congress and the courts. (Score this one for the President.)

Transparency: Both policies and the reasons for policies should be public and understandable. That is not only a precondition of accountability but also a form of discipline. As Kant and many others have argued, you can’t do many kinds of bad things if you must explain publicly what you are doing and why. Governance is sometimes transparent and sometimes obscure, whether the governing body is the Congress or a regulatory agency, and whether it acts or fails to act. Neither branch seems intrinsically more transparent than the other. If anything, the rules that require public notice and comment and the obligation of agencies to explain their reasoning to courts may make the EPA more transparent than the Congress. (Score a narrow point for the president.)

Rule of law: Laws should establish predictable frameworks for action. Laws should be general and durable. Changes and exceptions are necessary, but they are necessary evils. If revisions and exceptions come to predominate, the rule of law is lost and we have rule by rulemakers. Madison argued that mutable policy “poisons the blessings of liberty itself” (and I expand on his argument here).

Traditionally, this argument favored congressional lawmaking over administrative rulemaking. Passing landmark legislation through any Congress is difficult, and as a result, Congress addresses major topics only rarely. Each time it passes a landmark bill, it creates a structure that lasts for a long time. In contrast, federal agencies, the administrative courts and suboffices that they oversee, and the contractors they employee can constantly adjust their policies. Thus Congress seems, in principle, more likely to make genuine law.

But the actual performance of our Congress matters. Although the frequency with which it passes landmark legislation—liberal or conservative—has fallen dramatically since the 1960s, it has continued to govern and, indeed, to micromanage the rest of the government through constant amendments, resolutions, committee reports that accompany bills, and by larding regular tax and appropriation legislation with irrelevant riders (see this post for details). In contrast, a major new policy enacted by the EPA would be hard to change and might well create a durable framework within which power companies and their customers could plan and operate. (Thus: score one for the president.)

I count the final score as four in favor of administrative action and two against. Clearly, my judgments are contestable. But my main point is that bold executive action on climate change may be appropriate even if one is critical (as I am) of the regulatory state.