Monthly Archives: August 2016

the Danish Parliament’s paternoster

Earlier this month, my family and I took the free and excellent tour of the Danish Parliament in Copenhagen. There were many serious insights to be gleaned about parliamentary government, unicameral legislatures, multiple-party systems, and the cultural norms that prevail in Scandinavia, such as egalitarian informality.

But I write not to share insights; I write to relate an anecdote. Although the embedded sideways video is not mine, it shows part of the same tour that we took. The machine in the background is a “paternoster”–like an elevator except that the doors remain always open and a sequence of boxes passes by continuously. You have to jump on and off. Characteristically for Denmark, this contraption is considered too dangerous for tourists and reporters, but MPs and their staff can ride it. As the guide notes, this makes it a good refuge from journalists (who otherwise are allowed everywhere in the parliament building, at will).

The guide–or one of his colleagues–once explained to some Danish 7th-graders that the paternoster goes up, over, and down. That means that if you ride it up on the left, soon you will be coming back down on the right, still standing comfortably upright. The oldest Member of Parliament at the time, who was also a minister in the government, heard this explanation as he rode up. A few seconds later, down he came on the left–standing on his head.

It is fairly hard to imagine this happening in the US Capitol.


public support for civics

PDKThe annual Phi Delta Kappa survey of public attitudes toward education is out.

Adults are asked whether preparing students to be good citizens is important and how well schools are doing it. Eighty-two percent say it’s extremely or very important, and 33% say schools are doing it extremely or very well. As a priority, it ranks somewhat below developing work habits and providing factual information, it ties with critical thinking, and it comes ahead of working in groups.

In a different question, respondents are asked to pick the single main goal of education. About a quarter choose preparing students to be good citizens, which is on par with preparing students for work but behind preparing students academically.

The advantage of a forced choice is that most people will favor a whole set of good outcomes if allowed to pick them all. However, there’s something a little artificial about the results of a forced choice. My job is to study and advocate for civic education, so I’d pick the “citizenship” choice. I nevertheless believe that preparing students academically and for work are essential goals, and are complementary with civics. So it’s not the case that 26% of Americans think only citizenship matters, or that 74% think it doesn’t matter at all.

Still, the forced-choice reveals that education for citizenship is the top priority for quite a few Americans. That’s valuable to know, because the major reforms that have passed through education like earthquakes’ seismic waves since 1980 have hardly mentioned civics at all. The PDK survey doesn’t prove that Americans put the civic mission of schools above all else, but it does suggest a lot of support, which ought to be reflected in policies.

Further, the forced choice reveals differences within the public. It appears that the civic mission is most important to young and older citizens; parents and other adults in the traditional child-rearing years are more concerned about academics.

There’s also a partisan and ideological split: “Fifty percent of conservatives emphasize academics vs. 43% of moderates and 40% of liberals. Liberals instead are more likely (33%) than moderates (24%) and conservatives (22%) to say schools should focus on building citizenship. Republicans are less apt than others to value a role for citizenship instruction in public schools.” The partisan divide creates challenges for proponents of civic education. In my opinion, citizenship should be a core value for conservatives, and it’s important to make that case.

The PDK poll doesn’t ask people what they mean by “good citizens.” We know from other studies that answers would vary. Some think of good behavior–obedience in the kindergarten classroom or staying out of trouble as a teenager. Others think of patriotism and support for the regime; still others, of activism and debate. Note that support for citizenship education is strongest among liberals and young people, and I doubt that most of them favor simple obedience.

One thing we can conclude is that good citizenship shouldn’t be an afterthought for policymakers, for 82% of adults think it’s at least very important, and 26% think it’s the main goal of schools.

a reason for hope: the Citizens Initiative Review

(Posted from DC) The Massachusetts 2016 Citizens Initiative Review just concluded. Twenty randomly selected citizens spent four full days hearing testimony and intensively deliberating to write a statement meant to inform Massachusetts voters about the pending marijuana legalization referendum. Tufts’ Tisch College is a sponsor of this process, and I made a few visits during the days of deliberation, which are open to the public. I can report that my fellow citizens were deeply responsible, thoughtful, serious, and civil. At the end, I understand they found themselves moved by what they had accomplished.

Their task was to write a statement to guide voters. Their short document had to include the strongest reasons to vote for and against the initiative. Their fine product is here.

In contrast to politics as usual, the CIR isn’t polarized, and it’s not about winning and losing. In a good sense, it’s personal: participants get to know each other and try to make something valuable together. It is demographically reflective of the whole state. Money can’t get you into the room or buy your ideas a better hearing. It’s open-ended: no one can predict or determine what the deliberators will write, and each voter who reads their statement will make up her own mind about the referendum.

To observe 20 of your fellow citizens–of all ages, races, and walks of life–playing a role in making policy is a beautiful thing and an antidote to despair.

the signal in this election versus the noise

Here is a graph of the presidential polls from this election so far. Most people choose narrow ranges for the y-axis in graphs like this, to draw attention to the shifts. I show the full 0%-100% range, to display how the whole American public has split. I also choose the stronger option for “smoothing,” so that each day’s measure is an average of several days on either side. The result is a highly stable advantage for Hillary Clinton all the way along.

It doesn’t really seem to have made that much difference what Trump has said, or what has been reported about Clinton’s emails and her Foundation, or how she has spent her $319 million in TV ads. It looks as if most people had their minds made up as soon as it was clear who the nominees would be.

The trend looked similar in 2012, except that it was always much closer that year.

I’d say that partisan identification outweighs almost everything, except that Trump is underperforming, for a GOP nominee, by a few points.

the Nordic model

We are just back from a vacation in parts of Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden. Although I’ve been in the region before, I am very far from expert on Nordic politics and economics. But it’s worth understanding the Nordic model–even if it looks a little rickety today and may depend on factors that couldn’t transfer to the US–because basic measures of human well-being are extraordinarily high in the five Scandinavian nations. For instance, Norway has the highest human development level in the world. I think the Nordic model represents a fusion of two contrasting impulses, a combination that is perhaps obscured in talk about social democracy or democratic socialism.

The (conservative) Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom makes the point. From Heritage’s perspective, Denmark is an odd mix, although its overall rank is high. Heritage considers Denmark very bad at “limited government,” because one aspect of the Nordic model is high taxation and spending. On the other hand, Heritage ranks Denmark very high on measures like business freedom, investment freedom, and property rights (as well as freedom from corruption, which everyone values).

I think the Nordic model boils down to competitive entrepreneurship in the global marketplace plus strongly egalitarian social policies for everyone in the home country. Scandinavians are out and about, learning foreign languages (95% of Swedes speak English), and studying and working overseas. Goods as well as human beings flow across their borders. Denmark’s international trade is 102% of GDP. I’m not certain how that number can be greater than 100%, but the ratio is obviously much higher there than in the US, where trade is 27% of GDP. You see imports everywhere in Scandinavian stores, as well as export-oriented businesses.

Competitiveness brings material benefits: high-quality goods and services selected from around the world. It provides opportunities for ambitious and talented people to create new things. An index of innovation ranks Sweden first in the world, and Finland and Denmark are also in the top 10. Competition also identifies and rewards excellence. The result is a lively, flexible, future-oriented society. Scandinavians are proud of their nations’ marquee industries and are notably patriotic without being bellicose.

At the same time, competitiveness hurts people–the people who cannot or don’t happen to win, who were doing fine before all the market “disruptions,” who value traditions, or who don’t even want to fight for success in market economies. Competition can also erode civic virtues and responsibilities, including concern for public institutions and shared resources.

That’s why the other side of the Nordic model is so important. At home, everyone has very extensive and unconditional economic rights, which cost a lot of money. The public sector budget is 55% of GDP in Denmark. The state also demands people’s time and attention. Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and Denmark all rank in the top seven for voter turnout, they have among the highest rates of associational membership in the world, and their governments are rated as the least corrupt.

All of this is hard to build and maintain, and I have not mentioned the drawbacks and frailties of the model. My point is really an ideological one. There are genuine virtues to systems that we might call “neoliberal,” systems that involve property rights, competition, and globalization. Strongly democratic societies that protect everyone’s welfare also have virtues. And although these goals can trade off in some respects, it’s possible to pick elements from the neoliberal menu and others from the socialist menu without contradiction.