Monthly Archives: September 2015

what happened to leisure time?

(Hyde Park, NY) I am at FDR’s historic home with (as it happens) a bunch of labor organizers and others concerned with work. On a break, we had a chance to visit the house where the New Deal president was born–we even saw the bed where that blessed event happened–and where he spent most of his life. He was a busy man: Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, President of the United States for 13 epic years. And yet he also had time to collect one million stamps and more than 20,000 books, many of them about naval history, a special interest of his. He also welcomed many house guests and obviously socialized constantly. He had a dog and was interested in birds.

Where did he find the time for all these hobbies? I know hardly anyone who has enough spare time for the equivalent of stamp collecting, even though they aren’t Commanders in Chief during World War II. Here are three explanation for where the time has gone:

  1. Roosevelt had servants and a wife and a mother who did lots of work within the family. His leisure simply came from privilege. I think this is partly true, but even if he had lived alone without kids, it’s hard to imagine how he could have found the time for hobbies while leading the free world.
  2. He was free of some time-wasters. As it happens, he owned just about the only TV set in the world at the time, the very machine that had been exhibited at the World’s Fair. But there was nothing to watch on it. That actual TV, still preserved in his house, stands as a symbol of time that he couldn’t waste.
  3. He had more free time than we do because he could communicate less. Once he mailed a letter, he just had to wait for a response. In contrast, we get thousands and thousands of emails and texts each year, and they bounce back and forth constantly, many of them reaching whole lists of people who feel the need to keep up with the constant flow. My hypothesis: too much communication is using up our lives. Receiving and sending we waste our powers.

how a university “covers” the world

(Philadelphia) Here are the baker’s dozen Tufts faculty who are Tisch College Fellows for 2015-16. Their work involves active citizenship as a topic of study, a research method, or a mode of teaching. I work with a group like this every year; about 100 alumni of the program are still on the Tufts faculty.

Listening to the 2015-16 Fellows introduce their projects last week, I realized that the faculty of a research university resembles a global open-source intelligence service or a nonprofit news-gathering organization to rival a major newspaper. One of our fellows both studies and supports Muslim women leaders in the West African region where Boko Haram makes headlines by suppressing education for women. Another fellow spent this summer conducting detailed ethnographic research in Ferguson, MO. A third is inside the homes of elderly Somerville residents who have mobility problems.

These scholars investigate topics that may also appear on the cable news or the front page of The New York Times. Their methods are more systematic and deeper than those of reporters, although their products also tend to be less timely and (with some exceptions) less accessible. I don’t consider scholarship better than excellent reporting; we need both. But we also need ways to make more public the kinds of knowledge collected or created by scholars. The Conversation is one fascinating and promising effort to marry “academic rigor” with “journalist flair” by employing professional journalistic editors to solicit and edit articles by scholars. That begins to tap the tremendous potential of the academy for public knowledge.

See also Civic Engagement and Community Information: Five Strategies to Revive Civic Communication

the Citizens United decision and the inadequate sociology of the US Constitution

It is a myth prevalent among liberals that the Supreme Court defined corporations as persons in Citizens United. Instead, the court observed that corporations are associations, cited previous rulings that associations have freedom of speech and that freedom of speech includes spending money on elections, and concluded that corporations may spend money on elections. I disagree with the decision and I blame a neoliberal (pro-corporate, anti-regulatory) ideology for it … in part. But Citizens United also reflects the limitations of the Constitution itself. At best, we can say that the Constitution offers scant protection against such rulings and the ideology that they reflect.

Written in the eighteenth century, the Constitution envisions certain political institutions: parliamentary bodies, courts, a president, an Army and a Navy, militias, a mint, ambassadors, ministers, and departments. The First Amendment adds a few more entities: religions, the press, peaceable assemblies of citizens, and–by implication–petitioners who press their claims before the government. The authors also knew about certain political institutions and actors that they associated with European corruption and hoped to avoid  in the new republic: parties, spies, and lobbyists (although that word was not yet coined).

The authors could not envision other essential components of a modern political system, such as limited liability corporations and corporations (in general) that don’t have specific charters, administrative and rulemaking agencies, unions, trade associations, schools and colleges, and security agencies. Since the Constitution is silent on all these organizations, courts have no way to distinguish among them.

For instance, the 2.6 million mostly unionized career civil servants who work in federal agencies get treated as employees of the president, as “inferior officers,” whose appointment may be vested by Congress “in the President alone.” In fact, they enjoy a great deal of autonomy and permanence and are busy making laws in the form of administrative decisions and rules, even though the Constitution assigns “all legislative powers” to the Congress. They should have their own article of the Constitution, defining and limiting their powers as if they were a fourth branch of government.

Likewise, security agencies are permanent paramilitary organizations with the power to spy and to kill, but they are not the Army or Navy of which the president is the Commander-in-Chief in times of war–alone. So should they answer to the president, the Congress, or (as we fear is actually the case) only to themselves? Courts treat them as arms of the president even though presidents may fear them.

Finally, the Constitution makes no distinction among types of association (a word that doesn’t even appear in the text). An association can be a bunch of people who peacefully assemble, a membership group with an elected president, or a company that trades on the NASDAQ. In the 1700s, corporations were perhaps the easiest associations to regulate because each one came into existence through a discretionary decision by the legislature, giving it a charter that strictly delimited its purposes and powers. Today, corporations are exceptionally hard to regulate because they are traded globally and they have the power to withdraw the investments on which prosperity depends.

It is now a virtual consensus that the constitutional freedoms of speech and assembly depend upon associations. A classic case is NAACP v Alabama. Almost everyone would say that the NAACP has constitutional rights as a body, or else its members would not be able to speak, assemble, or petition the government. But note that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is, in fact, a corporation–incorporated on May 25, 1911 under the laws of the State of New York, with W.E.B. DuBois as the first signatory on its Articles of Incorporation. If it has free speech rights, why don’t the NCAA and Nokia?

I can offer reasons why for-profit corporations should not, in fact, have the same rights of speech and petition that not-for-profit membership organizations enjoy, even though both kinds of organizations are incorporated. My reasons would arise from a political sociology that specifies the functions, advantages, and dangers of various kinds of organization that exist in the 21st century. The problem is that our written Constitution has a political sociology appropriate for 1789. Our judges and justices could still decide more wisely than they did in Citizens United. But the Constitution offers no guidance or protection if they are unwilling to make the necessary distinctions.

See also:  liberals, conservatives, and love of the Constitutionconstitutional piety and the Supreme Court reflects the “degeneracy of the times”.


(in St. Paul, Minn.)

Why does the owl, her nest turned into flames
By an errant fire balloon, shriek as she flees?
As the solo goose flaps his steady beat,
Sea-bound, whom does he think will hear his honk?
An eagle chick pecks to a slow death her
New-hatched twin so that the fitter one will last.
It’s clear why the weaker chick pecks back, but
Why have a voice and to whom does he bleat?

PACE Webinar on America’s Civic Renewal Movement

Today, Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) hosted a webinar on “America’s Civic Renewal Movement.” I was a speaker along with:

  • Eric Liu, Citizen University
  • Kelly Born, Hewlett Foundation
  • Joan Blades, Living Room Conversations
  • Kristen Cambell, PACE


Webinar Description: A recently released paper, “America’s Civic Renewal Movement,” explores current sentiments toward civic engagement and identifies opportunities and challenges to expanding our civic infrastructure. This webinar explored philanthropy’s role in supporting and engaging in this movement, and how practitioners perceive foundations’ willingness to partner on these efforts.