Monthly Archives: September 2014

engaging citizens in cities

(Los Angeles) At CityLab 2014, I’m on a panel called “Beyond the Buzz: What Citizen Engagement Strategies are Really Working.”

I think mayors and the people who work for them tend to think of engaged citizens as potential suppliers of:

  1. votes
  2. taxes
  3. input/opinion
  4. voluntary work

The first two won’t be strictly relevant to our panel, because taxes are required by law and voting is a “political” concern, officially separate from public administration (except insofar as the voting process itself should be convenient and reliable).

Input and volunteering are valuable, but we need to push them to the next level. Both  tend to be individual and disconnected from other aspects of life. For example, a private citizen may contact the city to complain about an immediate problem, like a broken light, or to express an opinion about a community problem, like police bias. She may separately sign up to clean a park or tutor a child.

Individuals give their best input when they discuss their ideas with other people, checking their biases and values, holding themselves and others accountable, and learning from collective experience. They do their best volunteer work when they have decided with others what is needed and how to address those needs, and when they can reflect on the results of their efforts. That means that both input and volunteer labor are best when they are connected to citizens’ discussions.

What’s more, both talk and volunteer work are best when they are connected to paid work (presuming that the individual is employed). We learn a great deal on the job, and we have the potential to improve a city through our paid employment. If our civic engagement is limited to free contributions–input and/or volunteer service–it is not nearly as serious, informed, or potentially effective as it is if it also influences our paid work.

So instead of imagining an individual complaining about her children’s school or volunteering to chaperone students, picture her engaging in a discussion with diverse people about how to improve the school for all kids. That conversation should involve parents, other residents, students themselves, and also professional teachers and administrators. Some of the adults will have jobs that affect the welfare of children, from ministering to a religious congregation to operating a local grocery store. They should bring their experience from work into the discussions and hold themselves accountable to their fellow citizens as they go about their jobs. They may also volunteer and express individual opinions, but those acts will be informed by their discussion and their work.

(See also “the rise of urban citizenship” “youth Participatory Budgeting in Boston” and “civic responses to Newtown“)

assessing the sharing economy

(Los Angeles) I’m here for CityLab 2014 (which is being live-streamed):

Hosted by The Atlantic in partnership with The Aspen Institute and Bloomberg Philanthropies, CityLabis one of our most innovative programs of the year, bringing together 300+ of the world’s top mayors, urban experts, city planners, writers, technologists, economists, and designers.

The current panel is entitled “What’s Mine is Yours? The New Dynamics of the Sharing City.” I am struck by an ideological disagreement that may not be as evident to the Moderator (James Bennet, Editor-in-Chief of The Atlantic).

Two participants–Brian Chesky, the CEO and founder of Airbnb, and NYU professor Arun Sundararajan–are enthusiastic about new market mechanisms for pairing individual sellers with buyers, firms like Uber and Airbnb. They see these innovations as not only economically efficient and good for both parties (Sundararajan has found positive impacts on wages) but also as signs of a “profound” shift to a greater degree of interpersonal trust and community. Chesky argues that firms like Airbnb are restoring some of the social bonds that existed before mass manufacturing estranged individuals from one another.

In contrast, David Sheard, the Council Leader in Kirklees (UK) is a Labour politician. He opened his remarks by telling a story of a Council decision to close a public facility. Citizens objected that  the facility was “theirs,” not the city’s. Now the Kirklees Council engages the public in deliberative processes. It may be that Kirlklees also supports new  sharing markets; panelist April Rinne suggested that was the case. Nevertheless, I hear two very different ideas of “community”–one in which people form voluntary relationships in order to exchange services and develop trust, and the other in which people talk together about public goods and make binding decisions for the community as a whole. Sheard said, “It is not about sharing assets, it is about sharing ideas.”

two reviews of We are the Ones

(Salt Lake City) Ego-surfing in the airport, I came across two reviews of We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For in Goodreads. Both reviewers (who happen to be friends of mine) end on the same note. Russell Fox says, “Levine doesn’t provide any easy solutions for putting together winning coalitions, but he makes about as good a case for trying as I’ve ever read.” And Micah Sifry says, “What remains to be seen is whether the nascent civic renewal movement, which Peter argues has more than a million participants, can take a more self-conscious and self-sustaining role on the national stage–a lot of this work is currently either too local or too dependent on foundation support to be that assertive. But we need it.”

at BYU

(Provo, UT) I am at Brigham Young University to speak in three classes and to meet with faculty, all under the aegis of the university’s Office of Civic Engagement and its minor in Civic Engagement Leadership. I’m certainly an outsider to this particular place, which is also a central node in a global faith community. I did read Richard Bushman’s A Very Short Introduction to Mormonism (Oxford UP, 2008) before I came, as a quick orientation to the historical and theological fundamentals, but I know that I know very little. I will be speaking about my usual themes of civic renewal, and it will be interesting to see how they go over.

Last time I was in Utah was 11 years ago. I went from there to pre-Katrina New Orleans and blogged about how Salt Lake City and NOLA were like two elementary aspects of the American character, usually mixed together but here distilled into their pure forms.

the Supreme Court reflects the “degeneracy of the times”

In 1870, Linus Child of Boston, MA hired an attorney to lobby Congress for personal financial relief and promised to pay the attorney one quarter of the value of the award if it came to pass. The attorney was successful, but Child died and his son refused to pay. The Supreme Court ruled in the son’s favor on the ground that the original agreement–“for the sale of the influence and exertions of the lobby agent to bring about the passage of a law for the payment of a private claim, without reference to its merits”–was null and void. The Court cited Roman law: “a promise made to effect a base purpose, as to commit homicide or sacrilege, is not binding.” Likewise, to hire a lobbyist to pursue legislation for money would be “illegal and void because it is contrary to a … sound policy and good morals.”

The Court was eloquent about why lobbying was so immoral as to merit comparison to homicide or sacrilege in Roman law:

The foundation of a republic is the virtue of its citizens. They are at once sovereigns and subjects. As the foundation is undermined, the structure is weakened. When it is destroyed, the fabric must fall. Such is the voice of universal history. The theory of our government is that all public stations are trusts, and that those clothed with them are to be animated in the discharge of their duties solely by considerations of right, justice, and the public good. They are never to descend to a lower plane. But there is a correlative duty resting upon the citizen. In his intercourse with those in authority, whether executive or legislative, touching the performance of their functions, he is bound to exhibit truth, frankness, and integrity. Any departure from the line of rectitude in such cases is not only bad in morals, but involves a public wrong. No people can have any higher public interest, except the preservation of their liberties, than integrity in the administration of their government in all its departments.

The agreement in the present case was for the sale of the influence and exertions of the lobby agent to bring about the passage of a law for the payment of a private claim, without reference to its merits, by means which, if not corrupt, were illegitimate, and considered in connection with the pecuniary interest of the agent at stake, contrary to the plainest principles of public policy. No one has a right in such circumstances to put himself in a position of temptation to do what is regarded as so pernicious in its character. The law forbids the inchoate step, and puts the seal of its reprobation upon the undertaking.

If any of the great corporations of the country were to hire adventurers who make market of themselves in this way, to procure the passage of a general law with a view to the promotion of their private interests, the moral sense of every right-minded man would instinctively denounce the employer and employed as steeped in corruption and the employment as infamous.

If the instances were numerous, open, and tolerated, they would be regarded as measuring the decay of the public morals and the degeneracy of the times. No prophetic spirit would be needed to foretell the consequences near at hand.

In 2013, despite very weak disclosure laws, we know that $3.24 billion was spent to influence the federal government, and 12,353 people registered as federal lobbyists. The Court that decided Trist v Child would conclude that our public morals have decayed to the point that we no longer deserve the name “republic.”

Contrast the majority opinion in Citizens United v. FEC (2010), which views corporate donations to favored candidates as protected speech and doesn’t even hint at the threat to “public morals”:

Because speech is an essential mechanism of democracy—it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people—political speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it by design or inadvertence. Laws burdening such speech are subject to strict scrutiny, which requires the Government to prove that the restriction “furthers a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.” … Premised on mistrust of governmental power, the First Amendment stands against attempts to disfavor certain subjects or viewpoints or to distinguish among different speakers, which may be a means to control content. … There is no basis for the proposition that, in the political speech context, the Government may impose restrictions on certain disfavored speakers. Both history and logic lead to this conclusion.

I came upon Trist v Child in David Cole’s review of Zephyr Teachout’s new book on corruption. I agree with Cole that lobbying and campaign finance raise First Amendment as well as anti-corruption concerns. It would be possible to over-regulate money in politics and thereby violate individual rights. I would not endorse the Court’s ruling in Trist that made lobbying illegal: individuals should be able to petition Congress. I was a registered federal lobbyist in 1991-3. I lobbied on behalf of Common Cause and believed that our goals were patriotic and idealistic, but Common Cause is a corporation, and it paid my salary. Thus I do not favor a ban on money in politics or a blanket law against political speech by corporations.

But we used to have a social norm that it was basically ignoble in a republic to hire someone to lobby or to influence the government for money, especially if cash were the primary motive for the petitioner or his agent. That social norm has decayed in popular opinion and vanished in jurisprudence. As I write in We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For (p. 115)

The Court [in Citizens United] meant that it was entirely appropriate for corporations to exercise power in their own interests by spending money to influence elections. This decision capped a century-long process in which special interests became “civil society,” Madison’s factions became “constituencies” or “stakeholders,” propaganda became “public relations” and “communications,” corporate pressure became “government relations,” and lobbying morphed from a disreputable matter of hanging around hotel lobbies and button-holing politicians into a white-collar profession.

However we reform the laws that govern money in politics, we must also recover the moral intuitions that the Court found self-evident in 1874. People who seek money to influence Congress, regardless of the merits of the case, are “adventurers” abhorrent to the “moral sense of every right-minded man,” “steeped in corruption,” whose proliferation would mark “the decay of the public morals and the degeneracy of the times.”