Monthly Archives: January 2020

where to focus your political energies

Everyone should read Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change by my friend and colleague Eitan Hersh. It is a gentle and disarming critique of how many of us spend our time and energy as citizens. It comes with valuable suggestions for how to improve our impact. Read the whole thing, but for a teaser, see Eitan’s recent New York Times op-ed, “Listen Up, Liberals: You Aren’t Doing Politics Right” (subtitled “Politics is about getting power to enact an agenda. And the only way to do that is face-to-face organizing.”)

My response is to audit my own political activity to select work that meets these criteria: 1) The issues and problems are important. 2) I might be able to shift some people’s opinions or behavior by expressing my views to individuals who trust–or could trust–me. And 3) These people have–or could have–influence over decisions, e.g., by voting in an actually contested upcoming election, by changing their own organizations, by building new organizations, or in other ways.

Using those criteria, here are some possible foci for my own attention, ranked from most valuable (#1) to least worthy (#7). Your list will be different, because everyone has a unique set of assets and opportunities.

  1. Advocate for changes in the state and local policies and the available materials for civic education in US schools. This is not the world’s most important issue. (It isn’t the earth’s climate.) But I have been paid to work on it for decades and have some comparative advantages in terms of credibility, information, access, and networks. Then again, I must be careful not to be satisfied with working on this issue, for which I am paid and assessed. I should also be engaged on other issues in my own time.
  2. Advocate for affordable housing in Cambridge, MA, where I live. Dense and affordable housing in a city with excellent public schools would be good for the climate and for racial and economic justice. Housing is a salient and contested issue in our city. Most neighbors believe in affordable housing abstractly, but the proposed policies are deeply contested. I hold views on the matter, and if I invested my time, I might be able to make persuasive arguments to undecided voters within my own networks of trust, and expand those networks.
  3. Form relationships and exchange ideas with people in one or more other countries, especially countries that do not get a huge amount of attention in the US and about which I might have some direct knowledge. Even though the geographical scale is large, people can increase the odds of peace and understanding through informal diplomacy and by educating their own fellow citizens back home.
  4. Advocate for policies within Tufts, where I work. I do this every week while sitting in committee meetings or sending emails. Sometimes, the issues are significant. I have an increment of influence here. But I also face both practical and ethical limitations as a middle-manager. There are issues on which it is appropriate and important for me to advocate, and others that really aren’t in my domain. Drawing that line can be an ethical challenge for anyone who works within a Weberian organization.
  5. Advocate specific policies to presidential primary candidates and legislators. I am not going to accomplish anything by taking a stand on the major policy issues of the day, such as single-payer healthcare or Iran. But there are specific issues on which I might have some special expertise and credibility and an ability to be mildly influential. For example, I believe that a Green New Deal (of any scale) must incorporate citizen participation in order to be effective. This is something I could advocate.
  6. Take and express a view on the Democratic presidential primary candidates. Millions of others are also doing that, and almost every point that could be made has been made. Still, my social network includes a wide distribution of Democratic primary voters, from strong Democratic Socialists to committed centrists, and I suppose I might shift someone’s view by making a good point. (The reason I haven’t done this yet is that I am deeply torn and don’t know where I stand. Maybe I should just figure that out for myself and quietly cast my secret ballot on March 3.)
  7. Take and express a position on the impeachment of Donald J. Trump. The decision-makers are the members of the US Senate. My senators (Warren and Markey) are 100% likely to convict. Approximately 1 bazillion words have already been said or written about this topic. Among those words are many annoying ones that I could criticize all day. But everyone I know has already made up their minds. I have no special expertise, influence, or leverage. This is one of those bright, shiny objects that lures my attention and distracts me from actually improving the world.

what kind of a good is education?

In Making Up Our Mind: What School Choice is Really About (University of Chicago Press, 2019), Sigal R. Ben-Porath and Michael C. Johanek write that education is a private good, a public good, and a positional good. These concepts are worth unpacking because they are central to debates in education policy, and policy more generally.

Elinor Ostrom argued that pure public goods meet two criteria: they are non-excludable and non-subtractable. The former means that it is practically impossible (regardless of your goals) to keep people from benefitting from the good. The latter means that using some of the good does not use it up; the same amount is left for others.

A classic example of a public good is national defense: if the US maintains a military deterrent against foreign invasion, then everyone in the US benefits, and my security does not detract from yours. Another example is any basic discovery about nature. As Jefferson wrote: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

For Ostrom, a pure private good meets the opposite criteria: it is excludable and subtractable. For instance, a bowl of rice can (practically speaking) be reserved for one person, and if that person eats a bite of it, less rice is left. Even if I leave it in the lunchroom for anyone to take, it is still a private good because I could have excluded it and subtracted from it.

This twofold distinction permits goods that are neither public nor private. Some goods are excludable but non-subtractable. An example would be Netflix: the company can keep you out unless you pay, but one person’s use (hardly) subtracts from anyone else’s. These are called “club goods.”

And some goods are subtractable but non-excludable. For instance, the fish in the ocean are definitely subtractable: over-fishing can wipe them out. But it is practically very difficult and expensive to block individuals from fishing. An even more important case is the earth’s capacity for absorbing carbon. It is subtractable but non-excludable. These are called “common pool resources.”

Using Ostrom’s four-way distinction, what kind of a good is education? This is a complicated question, because education involves a range of inputs, outputs, and contextual factors. Many are neither purely subtractable nor non-subtractable. For instance, adding another student to Tufts’ enrollment doesn’t really subtract from anyone’s experience or the value of Tufts diploma, but adding 10,000 students would. Spaces at Tufts are somewhat subtractable and completely excludable. We offer something between a club good and a private good.

As a rough guide, here are some preliminary categorizations of some (not all) educational goods.

Ostrom’s framework is meant to be exhaustive, and I believe it is. But you can also tag specific goods with additional labels:

A positional good: This is a good whose value is relative to the value of other people’s goods of the same kind. For instance, if one candidate for a job holds a BA, and all the other candidates hold Associates Degrees, the college grad has an advantage that is a positional good. In a competition with MAs, the same person would have a positional disadvantage. Positional goods must be excludable but may not be completely subtractable. (My holding a BA does not reduce the supply of BAs). These are often club goods.

A luxury or “Veblen” goods: These are goods for which the demand increases as the price rises. People sometimes want things because they are expensive–consumer brands are examples. Admission to US private universities may be a Veblen good, although that’s a critical claim. It’s certainly the case that colleges are more desirable the more selective they are, and if you consider the “price” of admission to be tuition plus the applicant’s accomplishments, then college is a classic Veblen good. Most students want to attend colleges that are harder to get into.

What to make of these distinctions depends on your ideological positioning. I start with the stereotypical liberal stance, but I am uncertain about it and interested in shifting. That position says that education is importantly but not exclusively a public good because of the words in the bottom-right square (above). Insofar as it’s also a private good, we don’t want to leave markets to generate it all by themselves, because some families won’t be able to afford it and disparities will create problematic positional goods. Yet education is, in part, a private good, and we wouldn’t be able to generate it without some involvement by markets.

Martin Luther and Martin Luther King

In my course on the thought of Martin Luther King, as we explore various influences on MLK, we are spending some time on the influence of Protestant theology, and specifically, the debates within American Lutheranism that King encountered when he attended Crozer Theological Seminary and then BU’s School of Theology.

One motivation for assigning Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Howard Thurman–along with Martin Buber and some excerpts from the Bible–is to help us understand how King thought. In other words, there is a biographical reason to read these works. But I also believe that it’s our obligation to try to understand justice and injustice, and we inevitably do so by working critically and creatively with the materials we inherit. For Christians, those materials include the highly heterogeneous inheritance of scripture and doctrine, from which many ideas can be made. So, although I am secular, I find it useful to watch Christian theologians work with those inherited materials, and their insights often translate.

One topic for theology in any of the Abrahamic faiths is: Why is there evil in a world created by an omnipotent and omniscient God? And what is the solution to this evil?

For MLK, the specific versions of these questions are: Why does racism (and poverty, and war) exist? What is the solution? Note that it’s a choice to use religious terms like “sin,” and it’s worth thinking about whether these words can and should be translated into secular terms, such as “inequity.”

Howard Thurman puts the question more forcefully (Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 7): “Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion and national origin?” Is this impotence intrinsic to Christianity or a betrayal of it?

In the background is Martin Luther’s view that we all sin. (Even if you didn’t commit any sinful acts, you would have sinful thoughts and sins of omission). No one merits salvation. Salvation is by grace, through Jesus Christ, and enabled by “faith alone.” This faith is individual: an inner state. There is no solution to sin in this world, although you will not intentionally and grievously sin if you are faithful.

Translated into politics, this doctrine can promote acceptance of injustice in this world and an emphasis on individual faith, although Protestant thinkers have not all reached such conclusions.

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918) preached “The Social Gospel.” For him, sin has a social cause; it’s not just individual. In Theology for the Social Gospel, p. 60, he writes, “sin is transmitted along the lines of social tradition.” “Sin is lodged in social customs and institutions.” An explicit example (p. 79) is racism, which doesn’t come naturally but is “lodged” in customs.

For instance, to steal is to break the Seventh Commandment. But people steal because of private property, scarcity, and inequality. The cause is root is “profitability.” With alcoholism and militarism, the mechanism is social authority, which explicitly favors wine and war (pp. 63-5).

The solution is social reform. Social reform can be fully successful on earth. At a minimum, Rauschenbusch endorses “the feasibility of a fairly righteous and fraternal social order” (p. 102)

The Christian Bible is compatible with this view. To put it bluntly, Jesus wants social reform. Individual salvation and conversion really mean social commitment (p. 98). Faith really means hope in social change and a commitment to work for it (p. 101). Sanctification is accomplished by cooperative work. And prayer has pragmatic value. God is a real interlocutor, but the reason to pray is to receive divine encouragement for social work (p. 105)    

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) distinguishes moral “man” (we could say, “individuals”) from immoral society. This is a way of finding both good and evil in the created world.

Individuals can strive for unselfishness, and this is a valid ideal for us as individuals. Selflessness is an intrinsic goal. For instance (per Moral Man and Immoral Society, p. 263), Jesus doesn’t command us to forgive our enemies as a strategy for social change but as “an effort to approximate complete moral perfection, the perfection of God.”

If individuals would all be altruistic, society would not have to coerce and punish. There would be no need for law. And when human relations are “intimate,” love can generate justice (p. 266)

But individuals will never all be altruistic at large scales, so we need coercion: law, power, and conflict. (This is a version of original sin.)

Whereas people should strive to be unselfish, laws must be made just. Justice and altruism fit together uncomfortably. The tension is permanent. But we need both.

Specifically, African Americans have been patient and peaceful, but this has not accomplished justice (p. 268). One specific problem has been the temptation of privileged minorities of Blacks to defect to the dominant group (p. 274).  Pacifism is “altogether unrealistic” (p. 269) and selfishness is inevitable (p. 272). Thinking that society can be made moral encourages fanaticism (p. 277).

But that doesn’t make Niebuhr a hard-nosed realist. He argues that a society needs people who strive for individual goodness. Retaining the inner ideal of unselfishness is “not a luxury but a necessity of the soul.” (p. 277)

Howard Washington Thurman (1899 – 1981) begins by noting that there are many sermons about the Christian obligations of the rich. But what does Christianity say to the oppressed?

God could have taken any human form to save the earth. God chose to be a poor Jew during the Roman Empire, a member of a “minority” (p. 17). Jesus was someone without legal privileges (p. 33) Why did God choose this vessel?

Because Jews were persecuted. Jesus’ sacrifice was not only a death that was an opportunity for a miracle; it was specifically a political persecution. Jesus was unjustly executed by the state because he was poor and a member of a minority group. He preached to the disinherited, not to the powerful.

Jesus’ lot is “the position of the disinherited of every age … This is the question of the Negro in American life.” (p. 23). Thurman explores the “striking similarity” of ancient Jews to modern Blacks (p. 34)

Anyone who is disinherited faces these four choices:

  1. Nonresistance > Imitation (the path of Herod and the Sadducees)
  2. Nonresistance > Separatism (the Pharisees)
  3. Resistance > Armed (the Zealots)
  4. Resistance > Nonviolence (Jesus) “a technique of survival for the oppressed” p. 29

Hence Jesus and God stand with the disinherited. As in the title of Thurman’s early article: “Good news for the disinherited.”

These are some of the materials from which the young Martin Luther began to stitch his own cloth.

See also: the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology; notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King; how to think about the self (Buddhist and Kantian perspectives); and the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence.

new CIRCLE poll of Iowa youth

Here is one finding from CIRCLE’s survey of young Iowans, released today. The differences between younger and older Iowa Democrats on Sanders v. Biden are pretty striking.

Although people always overestimate their chances of participating in future elections, 35% of young Iowans say they are “extremely likely” to participate in the presidential caucus. That suggests a substantial increase in youth turnout compared to past years.

The release is on CIRCLE’s awesome new website, also launched today and valuable to explore.

Ivo Andric, Bosnian Chronicle, Or, The Days of the Consuls

Ivo Andric,* the 1961 Nobel Laureate in Literature, wrote the book variously translated as Bosnian Chronicle or The Days of the Consuls during WWII. It depicts his hometown, Travnik in Bosnia, during the years 1807-1813. I read it as translated by Joseph Hitrec (New York, Arcade, 1963).

Andric introduces scores of characters clustered in seven main groups: the “Begs” (Ottoman chiefs), the Vizier’s court, the French consulate, the Austrian consulate, the Franciscan monastery, the bazaar, and the Sephardic Jewish community.

He describes relationships between pairs of people within these clusters and from one cluster to another. For the most part, these interactions take the form of bilateral meetings and conversations, but there are other formats as well. For instance, an important character in the French consulate, Desfosses, has a largely wordless flirtation with the wife of the Austrian consul. At various points, the French consul sees across the darkened town the candlelight from the Austrian consulate and from a Moslem mausoleum: a physical manifestation of links between clusters.

These interactions create a dense lattice, and I have the sense that they are arranged carefully, with symmetry and other forms of rhythm. I have not taken the time to explore the whole pattern carefully, but, for example, the Prologue and the Epilogue both describe conversations among the Begs, who otherwise rarely speak to anyone. There are 28 chapters, and the 14th tells of the sexual crisis between Desfosses and the Austrian consul’s wife, thus linking the French and Austrian consulates in a debacle of misunderstanding.

In the first chapter, the newly arrived French consul, Daville, receives a cold welcome from the people of Travnik. His “little cavalcade passed through the town arousing little or no interest among the Travnichani. The Moslems pretended not to see it, while the Christians dared not show undue attention.”

In the final chapter, Daville and a Travnik Jew named Solomon experience a moving moment of near-contact just before the Frenchman rides out of Travnik for the last time. Solomon generously assists Daville with money because he wants to convey his own experience to the departing Frenchman so that he can be understood, because this would “make everything we have to bear more tolerable.”

But the very desire that filled him so intensely all of a sudden, to convey and impart something more, some important and sweeping truth about his own life and situation and the indignities which the Travnik Atiases had had to endure all these years, prevented him from finding the right manner and the words needed to express, briefly and adequately, what now choked him and started the blood pounding in his ears. And so he began to stammer out, not the things he was so full of and which he longed to express—how they struggled and managed to preserve an invisible strength and dignity—but only the disjointed phrases that came to his tongue.

The narrator explains in detail what Solomon would have said to Daville “had he known how, had he been a man used to speaking his thoughts,” instead of one who, “even in his crib [had not been allowed] to cry out loud, let alone speak freely and clearly during his lifetime.”

In other words, the novel begins and ends with a rift between Daville and the people of Travnik–the first an intentional shunning, the last a pitifully unsuccessful effort to communicate.

Solomon is not the only one who yearns to be heard. Daville, too, seeks

something that neither life nor books could give: a compassionate fellow spirit who would be willing to listen and would have an endless capacity for understanding, to whom he might talk openly and receive lucid and honest answers to all questions. In this dialogue he might then, as in a mirror, see himself for the first time as he really was and learn the true value of his work and determine, without ambiguity, his own position in the world.

The narrator is interested in why almost all of the bilateral conversations are unsatisfactory. For instance, when the wives of the Austrian and French consuls meet,

their talk was bound to falter. When two people converse, one word usually sparks another and together they light a flame, but here the words missed one another and went off in different directions.

Or a married European couple who wash up in Travnik:

But what they needed most urgently, it seemed, was to talk and quarrel, for they neither listened to nor cared to understand each other.

Or a group of ne’er-do-well Travnik Moslems:

they hummed or talked in undertones, with sluggish tongues, disconnectedly, without particular reference to one another’s words. … They looked at one another with unseeing eyes, they listened without hearing …

Or the two European consuls:

A conversation with the Colonel was, in fact, an exchange of data—which were invariably accurate, interesting, and copious, on any and all subjects—but hardly an exchange of thoughts and impressions. Everything about these talks was impersonal, dispassionate, and general. Having said all he wanted to, the Colonel would leave with his rich and precious bag of facts, as fresh, neat, cool, and upright as he had come, and Daville would be left just as lonely as he had been before, his craving for a good talk unappeased. A discussion with the Colonel left nothing for the senses or the soul; one could not even recall the timbre of his voice. His conversation gave the partner no clue to his inner personality, and invited no confidence from the latter.

In chapter 12, soon before the embarrassing sexual encounter between Desfosses and the Austrian consul’s wife (chapter 14), we are introduced to the four doctors of Travnik: one each from the French consulate, the Austrian consulate, the Franciscan monastery, and the Jewish community. The occasion for introducing them is a tragedy that strikes the most morally appealing character in the novel, Mme Daville (who is the opposite of her Austrian counterpart).

Each doctor has a different relationship with his patients and with the other physicians. Each holds a different theory of human health and fate. The best relationship forms between the Franciscan and the Jew, who “had been inseparable friends and confidants” for 20 years. “The Travnik bazaar had long become used to seeing Mordo and Fra Luka huddling and whispering together, or browsing through herbs and medicines.”

The doctor in the Austrian consulate, Cologna, seems initially as inscrutable as the silent Jewish healer, but for the opposite reason: “he talked too much and constantly modified what he said.” However, in chapter 15 (symmetrical with 13), Desfosses initiates an interview with Cologna in which the latter suddenly becomes both eloquent and sincere in describing himself as a man caught between cultures. At the end of his speech,

The doctor dropped his arms with an air of utter hopelessness, of anger almost. There was no vestige left of that queer, elusive “Illyrian doctor” Desfosses had known. Here stood a man who thought his own thoughts and expressed them forcefully. Desfosses burned with the desire to hear and learn more; he had quite forgotten his own feeling of superiority of a little while before and the house he was in and the business on which he had come.

This is one of the fleeting moments of connection that are distributed on the network of misunderstandings that structure the novel.

Many characters–and sometimes the narrator–employ the categories of Europe and the Orient, or East and West, or Europe and the Levant. Such distinctions are problematic in general. To be more specific, some Bosnians have accused Andric of anti-Moslem prejudice in novels like Bosnian Chronicle.

I cannot judge his whole oeuvre and I could easily have missed bias in this novel, but I read it in a different way. I think the East/West distinction is an error on the part of the characters and works as a red herring for the reader. Human faults and frailties are evenly distributed across the communities of the novel. Their common problem is a failure to connect, and such categories as East and West contribute to that that failure. To be sure, the Ottoman government is tyrannical, but the problem is tyranny, not the Turks as a people. (And some of the Ottoman officials are much more appealing than some of the Christians.)

Apparently, the 1961 Nobel committee considered E.M. Forster along with Andric (and others). The comparison seems fitting, since Forster’s catchphrase, “Only connect,” could also be the motto of Bosnian Chronicle. But I think that gaol is much harder in Andric’s world than in Forster’s.

*His name should be spelled with a diacritical mark under the “c,” but for reasons that I can diagnose but not fix, my website won’t display diacriticals.