we’ve got problems; you’re the solution

I’ll be talking today to a bunch of Boston-area high school students who have been part of Generation Citizen, a program that “emphasizes grassroots community building strategies and effective advocacy” by youth. These are some notes toward my speech. …

We have serious problems as a country right now.

We have put 2.3 million of our own people in prison, far more than any other nation in the world. (China comes second with only 1.5 million incarcerated people.) That is incredibly expensive, and it represents millions of tragedies for all those convicts and their victims. Yet imprisoning all those Americans doesn’t make us safe. Our homicide rate remains at least three times as high as the rate in any other wealthy nation in the world.

We spend more per kid on education than almost any other country, yet one third of our young people drop out before they complete high school. Considering that almost all stable and well-paying jobs today require more than a high-school diplomat, the dropout crisis is a human disaster.

We spend far more on health care per citizen than any other country in the world, yet unlike any other wealthy nation, we provide no health insurance at all for many of our people. Something like 45,000 Americans die every year for lack of medical care. Even if Congress passes a reform bill this year, we will still have the most expensive system in the world, with some of the worst outcomes for poorer people.

Most scientists believe that humans are causing the atmosphere to warm by taking stored carbon out of the earth in the form of oil, gas, and coal and burning it. The consequences of global warming may range from intense human suffering in the poorest parts of the globe, plus the extinction of animal and plant species, to a worldwide catastrophe. The United States burns more carbon per person by far than any country in the world except the tiny kingdoms of the Persian Gulf.

Plainly, our institutions do not work. Their failure is not just wasteful; it is deadly. They are not just broken; they are corrupt–making some people rich and comfortable while failing the rest of us. These are the institutions that we older people are handing over to you.

Can’t we adults fix these institutions with better laws? For example, couldn’t we slap a tax on carbon and cause people to burn less of it? Couldn’t we use that money to make every American eligible for Medicare? Couldn’t we reform criminal sentencing laws and cut the prison population?

Well, maybe–but I wouldn’t count on us adults to solve these problems with laws and reforms.

First of all, we adults don’t have the political will to do anything difficult. Just look how hard it is to get even a very modest health reform bill through Congress.

Second, we don’t necessarily know the answers. I just mentioned some radical ideas, like enacting a huge new tax on carbon. In the past, a lot of great ideas–liberal, conservative and otherwise–have failed because they didn’t turn out as expected in the real world. Especially when institutions are broken and corrupt, you can’t count on even great laws to be implemented well.

Finally, we can’t always use laws to make people and institutions work better. Some of our school systems have plenty of money, yet they still produce high proportions of dropouts. We could change our criminal penalties, but that wouldn’t stop individuals from committing violent crimes and victimizing others. We can provide better health insurance by law, but if our doctors don’t want to provide primary care to low-income residents, the insurance won’t help.

To make schools and neighborhoods and hospitals work better, you have to get inside them and change people’s hearts and minds–not reform just the rules or provide more cash.

You have to do this work because you have the motivation. You’re the ones who may be living with climate change for the next 50 years and with a health system that has collapsed from uncontrolled costs. Just because you’re young, you have different self-interests from older people, and if you don’t advocate for your long-term interests, they will be ignored in favor of short-term gain.

You’re the ones who have the knowledge and skills to tackle some of our major problems. For example, how are we going to understand and fix the causes of the high school dropout crisis unless we have high school students’ help? You’re the ones who know what it’s like day-to-day in our schools.

And by the way, by participating in service, or activism, or civic engagement, you can gain skills and motivations and values that will serve you in life. Students who volunteer are dramatically less likely to drop out of high school than those who don’t. So the simple act of being engaged can be part of the solution to a serious social problem.

Of course, we older people must back you up, guide you, and give you opportunities for service and activism. That’s the point of City Year, where we’re meeting, and Generation Citizen, which has recruited you. It’s the point of our work at Tufts and CIRCLE.

We may be doing this work for you, but we’re certainly doing it for ourselves as well. Strengthening youth civic engagement is our way to create a better form of politics for everyone. Projects like Generation Citizen provide alternatives to the politics we are saddled with today.

In general, we treat young people as baskets of problems or potential problems. But high-quality civic education treats young people as assets and contributors. That approach models a better way of treating citizens of all ages.

In general, we see education as the job of teachers and principals in schools (public or private). It’s a specialized task to be measured by experts. Success then boils down to passing tests. But education should be a community-wide function, the process by which a whole community chooses and transmits to the next generation appropriate values, traditions, skills, practices, and cultural norms. Civic education at its best crosses the lines between schools and communities and reflects a more inclusive definition of “education.”

In general, our politics is governments-centered. Liberals want the government to accept new tasks, such as health insurance; whereas conservatives believe that problems would be mitigated if the state were shrunk.

Governments are important, but they are not the only institutions that matter. Furthermore, a state-centered view of politics leaves citizens little to do but inform themselves and vote. Generation Citizen is an example of citizen-centered politics, in which people form relationships with peers, express their interests and listen to others, and then use a range of strategies, some having little to do with the state.

In general, our politics is manipulative. Experts—politicians, pundits, consultants, marketers, leaders of advocacy groups, and the like—study us, poll us, focus-group us, and assign us to gerrymandered electoral districts; they slice-and-dice us; and then they send us tailored messages designed to encourage us—or to scare us—into acting just how they want.

This is true of liberal politicians as well as conservative ones. It is true of public interest lobbies as well as business lobbies. It is true of big nonprofits as well as political parties.

Americans know they are being manipulated, and they resent it. They want to be able to decide for themselves what is important, what should be done, and then act in common to address their problems. They are interested in what other people think; they want to get out of what students call their “bubbles.” They want an open-ended, citizen-centered politics in which the outcomes are not predetermined by professionals.

Programs like Generation Citizen model open-ended politics. We don’t try to manipulate our students or neighbors into adopting opinions or solutions that we think are right—-at least, we shouldn’t. We give them opportunities to deliberate and reflect and then act in ways that seem best to them. In a time of increasingly sophisticated manipulative politics, these opportunities are precious.

Thank you for being part of this essential work. I’m looking forward to hearing about your projects and achievements, now and in the future.