Monthly Archives: May 2015

the parable of the bricklayer and the Cathedral

(En route to Chicago for an #OFA event) Two people are working side by side, laying bricks at a similar speed. When asked what they are doing, the first says, “Laying bricks,” and the second says, “Building a cathedral.”*

In civic or political organizations and campaigns, we need the activists to feel that they are building cathedrals. Then they will be motivated to go beyond their assigned quotas, they will contribute their ideas to improve the whole structure, they will bring other people into the team, they will hold their fellow workers accountable, and they will go on to start new cathedrals when the current one is finished. On the other hand, if they are just laying bricks, the best we can hope is that they will do what they are asked.

Also, in any political context, we are not working with inanimate objects, like bricks. Rather, people are working with people, which takes enthusiasm, listening, and tact. So the subjective attitude of the worker is even more important in the political domain than on a construction site, although it matters there as well.

In order to get their workers or volunteers to build cathedrals instead of laying bricks, some organizations try to tell them about the overall goal in inspiring ways. They use exalted language and charismatic leaders. That approach will not work if the workers really are laying bricks—just implementing the instructions they have been given. They will only feel that they are building a cathedral if they are building a cathedral.

That means that volunteers and paid employees must (on the one hand) be treated as serious and important workers and held accountable for results: attractive and strong walls. They should not be patronized by being praised for just showing up and trying; results matter. But (on the other hand) they must be given opportunities for creativity and innovation. If they can figure out a better way to lay bricks, or a better brick, or a better wall, or a better cathedral, they should be encouraged to try it.

That recipe—measurement and accountability for outcomes along with scope for creativity and agency—is what Wellesley College professor Hahrie Han, my fellow speaker tonight in Chicago, finds essential for developing leaders and building strong and effective organizations.

*Google tells me that I took this story (like much else) from Harry Boyte.

voting and punishment: Foucault, biopower, and modern elections

Michel Foucault wrote a great deal about punishment as a tool that governors use to discipline the governed. Voting seems like the opposite: a device for the governed to discipline the governing. But Foucault’s concept of bio-politics can be illuminatingly applied as a critique of modern voting.

Foucault begins “Security, Territory, Population” (his 1977-8 lectures at the Collège de France) with a “very simple, very childish example” of punishment in three forms.

  • Juridico-Legal: The law defines a category of actions as a crime (e.g., theft), and sets a certain punishment to follow it in order to restore justice. This punishment is usually conducted in public and on the body of the accused.
  • Disciplinary: Punishment is used to influence behavior, both of the person being punished and of others who may be deterred. Punishments are now designed to have results; for instance, prisons become “houses of correction.” If a given punishment lacks beneficial consequences (as Cesare Beccaria argued of torture), it should be repealed. But in Discipline and Punish, Foucault interprets this apparent humanity or leniency as a reflection of an ominous improvement in the efficiency of discipline, whose purpose is “not to punish less, but to punish better.'”
  • Security: The objective becomes to influence the frequency of undesirable actions (such as theft) in the population as a whole. Outcomes are measured statistically, for instance, in terms of crimes/capita or probabilities of recidivism. A given punishment, such as imprisonment, is now a mere tool for security, to be assessed by its aggregate costs and benefits and compared against other tools, such as paying or training people to behave as desired or subjecting them to surveillance and monitoring.

Foucault emphasizes that these three “modulations” of punishment have not simply replaced one another in a historical sequence. Even medieval law sometimes aimed at security; juridico-legal thinking remains alive today. But security has become far more prominent in the current era than it was before.

Like punishment, voting has adopted relatively durable forms but has changed its purposes and rationales in profound ways. Drawing on Michael Schudson’s accessible history, I would identify the following three stages in the history of US voting:

  • Nineteenth Century: Voting is mostly a public expression of full membership in a group. By voting at all, a man shows that he is a full and free US citizen. By voting for a party, he shows his loyalty to a sub-population, e.g., Southern white Protestant farmers vote for Democrats. Voting is conducted in public (ballots are not secret) along with torchlight parades and other public rituals. Generally, everyone in a given community votes alike and reinforces each other. Voting is an obligation.
  • Progressive Era: Voting is a private choice among independent candidates and ballot questions. Voting maximizes the degree to which the government represents the voter’s interests and values. Elections also punish corrupt or incompetent incumbents by rotating them out of office. To enable a free and precise choice, the ballot is now secret; candidates are distinguished from parties; numerous offices are made elective; and important questions are put to referenda. Reporters, experts, and civic educators purport to assist voters in making up their own minds. Voting is a source of power that should be employed responsibly.
  • Post-Watergate: For individuals, voting is one means of influencing the government (at a time when other means have proliferated) and is one optional way to spend time and energy. A prospective voter is assumed to weigh the costs of voting–including the costs of becoming informed–against its benefits. The population is assumed to vote as a function of large external factors, such as the billions of dollars spent on campaign advertising and the constantly shifting procedures for registering and voting. Candidates are entrepreneurs who make heavy use of Big Data to target and influence citizens. Some prominent political scientists and jurists defend private campaign finance on the basis that the various campaign donors cancel each other out in a competitive market. Voting, running for office, and giving money are choices; aggregate results can be predicted.

The three stages of voting resemble those of punishment. In each case, we see a move from 1) symbolic to 2) deliberately manipulative to 3) scientific and statistical. We also see a move from 1) automatic to 2) individually tailored to 3) designed at a social scale. And a sequence of 1) physical impact on bodies, to 2) influence over individual minds, to 3) tweaking the milieux that shape mass behavior. Foucault calls scientific control over the contexts that shape human behavior “bio-politics,” which is the ascendant norm.

In the case of punishment, the tool’s effectiveness has increased, but control is increasingly dispersed. The medieval king was fully in charge of the gallows, but he couldn’t influence much of his realm with it. The modern regime of schools, prisons, and police is much more effective and pervasive, but there is no single king. Power strengthens but also multiplies.

In the case of voting, the tool may possibly have become more powerful, but the individual voter pretty clearly has less influence today, for other political acts (from drawing district lines to allocating campaign dollars) have become highly sophisticated and effective. Voting looks more like a dependent variable than the cause of anything.

If this portrait of the current situation is accurate, we need both an assessment and a strategy for improvement. Foucault proposes some theses about assessment and strategy at the outset of “Security, Territory, Population”:

I do not think there is any theoretical or analytical discourse which is not permeated or underpinned in one way or another by something like an imperative discourse. However, in the  theoretical domain, the imperative discourse that consists in saying “love this, hate that, this is good, that is bad, be for this, beware of that,” seems to me, at present at any rate, to be no more than an aesthetic discourse that can only be based on choices of an aesthetic order. And the imperative discourse that consists in saying “strike against this and do so in this way,” seems to me to be very flimsy when delivered from a teaching institution or even just on a piece of paper. … So, since there has to be an imperative, I would like the one underpinning the theoretical analysis we are attempting to be quite simply a conditional imperative of the kind: If you want to struggle, here are some key points, here are some lines of force, here are some constrictions and blockages. In other words, I would like these imperatives to be no more than tactical pointers. … So in all of this I will therefore propose only one imperative, but it will be categorical and unconditional: Never engage in polemics.

Contra Foucault, I would like to assert that the current system of elections (and much worse, of prisons) in the US is bad; that this is not a merely aesthetic judgment; that making such judgments is worthwhile if you defend them; and that effective polemics are badly needed. But I take Foucault’s point that a paper argument against the status quo can be valueless or arbitrary. As always, the question “What should we do?” requires tough-minded analysis that is about strategy as well as facts and values. Specifically, if we want to defend the Progressive Era ideal of voting, we must take seriously the deep shift toward what Foucault called “bio-power” in the society as a whole.

See also:when society becomes fully transparent to the state; qualms about Behavioral Economics; citizenship in the modern American republic: change or decline?

talking about lowering the voting age on Wisconsin Public Radio

On Wednesday, I was on the Kathleen Dunn show, which airs in Wisconsin and the upper Midwest. The title of the segment was “Partisanship among the Generations,” and Jocelyn Kiley from the Pew Research Center talked about the interesting results of their recent study on that topic.

By the way, what jumps out at me from their survey of 25,000 people is that a person’s specific birth year seems to influence her political orientation, with each year differing quite a bit from its neighbors. For instance, my birth year cohort (1967) seems more liberal than the years on either side. A likely explanation has nothing to do with the year of birth but rather the political events that occur about 18 years later, when the cohort first votes. The year-by-year variation undermines broad generalizations about 20-year generations.

After 30 minutes with Jocelyn Kiley, Kathleen turned to me and was mainly interested in our argument for lowering the voting age to 17 so that people can vote while they are still in high school. I’ve discussed that idea on other radio shows, but the Wisconsin public radio audience was much more enthusiastic. There were lots of callers; the audio is available here.

will young voters prefer younger candidates?

We are often asked whether young people prefer young(er) candidates, and this question is arising again as Sen. Marco Rubio emphasizes his relative youth as a selling point. CIRCLE has now collected evidence–which I find pretty compelling–that the age of a candidate is a very modest factor in influencing young voters, if it matters at all. See “Does the Age of a Presidential Candidate Matter to Young Voters?,” which is new on the CIRCLE website

what should a college do to improve teaching pervasively?

Here are five potential answers to that question, each of which depends on a different premise.

  1. Teaching would be better if the conditions improved. For instance, class enrollments should be smaller, and teaching loads should be more reasonable. (Premise: faculty/student ratio is too high.)
  2. Teaching would improve if professors went through specific recommended experiences, such as short courses on designing curricula or classroom visits from peers. To make those experiences common, provide them–along with incentives or mandates. (Premise: these experiences reliably improve the actual outcomes of students.)
  3. Teaching would improve if faculty focused more on teaching. That would happen if they were rewarded for good teaching outcomes or possibly penalized for bad ones. This implies changes in tenure and promotion criteria and the like. (Premises: motivation is a core problem, and the impact of teaching can be reliably assessed so that the right people are rewarded.)
  4. Teaching would improve if we employed better teachers. Some people are just better in the classroom than others, and we could marginally improve outcomes if we altered whom we hired and retained. One subtle version of this strategy would involve moving talented teachers into a track where they are responsible for more students, and untalented teachers into a research track where they can teach less. (Premise: talent for teaching is measurable and fairly invariant.)
  5. Teaching would improve if faculty collaborated more and held each other accountable for excellence. Students should also be part of the conversation. (Premise: such collaborations can be made widespread.)

I buy #1 for campuses with very scarce resources; I don’t think it applies at the higher end of the scale. I am philosophically most friendly to #5 but don’t know how you make it happen more than it already does at most campuses. Options #2-4 seem to rest on insecure assumptions.