Monday, February 28, 2011

Required Classes for Civil Discourse: Third Course -- Introduction to Civics

My previous posts in this series dealt with statistics and US History, both legitimate college courses. Unfortunately, while there are courses offered in American Government in many institutions, "civics" or the study of the responsible citizenry, seems to be a high school requirement to get out of the way.

But there are several lessons we should keep in learning about how we govern ourselves. To be careless with these lessons is to ask for trouble within modern society. I want to explore four questions we should all explore about the nature of government and citizenship.

1. What is Government? You know the old Reagan joke -- the eight scariest words are "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." Why does that get traction? Why is it that when we think of government, we only think of the federal government and then only of bureaucrats? Sure, there were problems with the way FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) responded to Katrina. But are we suggesting that those folks along the gulf were SORRY to see a federal response to a hurricane, a flood, or tar balls on the beach? Why do we focus on the cases of abuse as if all assistance were rife with fraud? For example, last month there was an article in the Huffington Post reporting that over 7,000 filings for gulf spill relief were fraudulent. But there were nearly 500,000 filings made. The error rate is about 1.5% and those weren't fraudulently paid, just filed. One more illustration of our unreasonable suspicion. How many times has the trope been repeated about waiting at the DMV as an example of government efficiency? First, that's not the federal level (more below) and second, it's a function of proper review of documents. It's why we wait in lines fairly patiently at the airport.

2. Where is Government? Here is a related idea: government happens at multiple levels. If you look at your W2 when preparing your taxes, you see a box for the federal government, a box for the state, and perhaps boxes for county or city government. Each of them has to deal with the balance of revenues to expenditures. (I'll deal with the issue of budgeting in my next post.) So when the crazy guy in New York runs for Governor on the "Taxes are Too Damn High" ticket, he failed to realize that the state doesn't handle rent control. But its also true that the lines between these levels of government are notoriously fuzzy. Michael Bloomberg pointed out that pension benefits are set by the New York State but paid by New York City. In California, the state government has been supporting public education (normally a local function) and funding enterprise zones for the cities instead. Much needs to be clarified here. But when Florida governor Rick Scott says he wants Federal Block Grants but with No Strings, you see some of our problems of government funding. It is true that many states are required to balance their budgets, but too many do so by using money from either cities or the federal level to do so. And it needs to be recognized that the two biggest drains on state finances today are medical costs and corrections. As those eat up the small discretionary reserves, it will get harder and harder for states to get to balanced budgets. And when ideologues refuse to consider taxes under any circumstances (like in California) it's hard to be optimistic.

3. How should government work? This is a critical issue that seems to have gotten lost in our never-ending battles over politics. Politics may be about winners and losers, but government is about pragmatic things. How do we care for the infrastructure, for public safety, for education, for development, for the general quality of life? These are all related to the successful operation of an economic model because jobs will follow quality of life. Texas has advertised itself as a mecca for business because of low taxes, but there are indications that deteriorating infrastructure and failing schools will make that short-lived.

The time horizon for government programs should be way longer than an election cycle. E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post recently observed that all government has a "temporary majority". One party may be in power right now, but one needs to be careful about the see-saw policies that result from the kind of rapid reversal of political fortune we're currently seeing. This would sugggest that even though the Democrats had the power to pass the Affordable Health Care Law, slower might have been better (if only the other side wasn't being obstructionist). The Republicans in Congress would do well to remember that they have a "temporary majority" and what they do in the short term will come back to visit them if that majority disappears.

The events in Wisconsin point out the challenges of pension negotiations with public workers. How did we get here? Not as political payback as some claim. It was a long process of two sided negotiation of benefits instead of salaries. The focus was on the next contract and not on the long term stability of those payments over time. Yes, there are abuses (many of the most prominent here in California) where a pension payment was extravagant. If I hear about the cities of Vernon or Bell in one more national conversation, I'll go nuts. Just like the fraudulent claims mentioned above, these things are rare. And to paint all public workers with that brush is just as unfair as it would be to treat all corporate workers based on the example of Enron executives.

4. Whom should government serve? This is the heart of the civics challenge. It even has it's own acronm: NIMBY. Not In My Backyard. People want to protect their own way of life. Too many of them treat government as an expression of personal interest. Fortunate enough to not live in a high crime area? Why do you need to pay for police? No kids in school? Why do you need to approve the school bond? But you can't know when you might need governmental services. You pay taxes to provide a potential response. The argument that the city should cut its services to the level can afford is a remarkably short term response. It may be that the fire department can close a couple of stations. But a fire in the uncovered area will do far more damage than the additional cost of having those services available if needed. This is similar to the Health Care debate. The individual mandate makes sense because you can't predict that you won't need health care if you don't have insurance.

I could go on to take about the moral imperative of caring for the poor and underserved who lack the resources to live in nice areas without crime or drugs or poverty or homelessness. It's got to equal the moral imperative that Speaker Boehner sees related to deficit reduction. And those served by government programs aren't future generations of citizens. They're the ones right here in our midst.

Next Time: "Personal Finance"

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Required Classes for Civil Discourse: Second Course -- US History to the Civil War

In this series, I'm attempting to outline some basic knowledge that would support significant civil discourse that strengthened the Common Good instead of encouraging us to shout at each other. Last time I explored how a working knowledge of statistics would cause us to argue from established data sources instead of cherry-picking, misconstruing, or simply making stuff up.

My imaginary curriculum adds a second course in United States History, focused especially on the period before the Civil War. This is a fairly common breaking point in US History courses. I believe that the first half is more relevant to imagining our shared future that the second half. Why? Because it's absolutely foundational to how we understand the nation. And too much of what gets included in contemporary debate involves nice stories we've told ourselves that aren't accurate.

Here's the first takeaway lesson from our History class: The country wasn't founded by "The Founding Fathers". We've all picked our favorite heroes and their voluminous biographies usually make the top 10 on the New York Times book list. But the authors of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 were working 169 years after the founding of Jamestown, 156 years after Plymouth Rock, and 146 years after the settlement of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Want to put that in context? Subtract the same period from today and it would be 1842, 1855, or 1865 respectively. Consider the changes in society since Lee surrendered at Appamatox; that's how much time passed between Massachusetts Bay and the Founding Fathers.

So what? Well, the colonies were formed for very different reasons with different assumptions and goals. Jamestown was an economic outpost. Plymouth Rock was where a group of Puritan separatists attempted to carve out their freedom of worship mixed with civil authority. Massachusetts Bay was created as an experiment in civil society. Sarah Vowell's wonderful book, The Wordy Shipmates, explores the differences between the latter two settlements with stark application to contemporary society. That's my second lesson: Forming a Nation Required Negotiating Different Points of View. Independence, when it came, wasn't broadly embraced by everyone running to pour tea in Boston Harbor. Over time, those recognizing that continuing in colonial status wasn't going to work, especially after British soldiers started killing people. (I'll leave Middle East references for some later time, but you get the point).

The Declaration contains beautiful language but it isn't a structure for a new nation. It was simply the prelude to what would follow. Be careful when folks toss around phrases like "in the course of human events" or "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". Those phrases are about why we were no longer part of England but don't begin to explain what it means to be America. This management of difference was also evident among the men who drafted the Declaration. While not completely accurate, the Musical 1776 does a great job of illustrating these differences. Whether minor issues of the national seal (Eagle vs. Turkey) or major issues like Slavery, the differences were stark and reflected the interests of the citizens of the colonies.

Third Lesson: The tension between States Rights and National Government has been around since the beginning. It's useful to go back and review what was in the Articles of Confederation that lasted from 1777 (ratified in 1781) until the Constitutional Convention supplanted it in 1789. If you review nothing more than the Wikipedia site I've linked, you'll see that the States didn't recognize a national entity except to resolve disputes. This notion of a limited national government, with States being the important entities is with us today.

Of course, the Constitution dramatically adjusted the relationship between national and state entities. And when John Jay ruled in Marbury v. Madison (just 13 years after ratification) that the national interests could trump State interests through the checks and balances enumerated in the Constitution it set in motion the idea of a national government. When Madison created a National Bank in 1816, it was within the context of commerce done by the nation as a whole. President Jackson worked to decertify the National Bank and Congress censured him (funny how the sides got switched -- the Democrat was decentralizing and the Congress tried to stop him).

When States argued in the Nullification Crisis that they didn't need to follow National Law they didn't like, Jackson held his own and held off disunion for another 30 years. (Jon Meachem's American Lion does an excellent job of illustrating Jackson's complexity.) When popular rhetoric rails against the national government in favor of the local level, the argument has far more in common with the Articles of Confederation or the Nullification Crisis than with the Constitutional Convention. What John Jay clarified is that the national perspective wasn't "a difference in philosophy". It was the Settled Law of the United States under its Constitution! Within that context there is room to work through what is done by the States and what is done at the National Level (except for what is constitutionally defined) but the National Level does not "overreach" or "engage in power grabs".

The final lesson is that we went to war to resolve the balance between national and regional interests. It may be a matter of semantics to describe the warring armies as the Army of the Union and the Army of the Confederacy, but I think it's telling. The South was fighting for the unique interests of the region, including the institution of Slavery. The North, at least as Lincoln saw it, was fighting to "preserve the Union". After the bloodiest military exercise in our history, the Union prevailed. Not just as an occupying force, but as a concept. That doesn't excuse some of the excesses of Reconstruction, but it does point out that this idea of "E Pluribus Unum" isn't just a nice idea to put on coins. It's the heart of the American Experiment. That's where the Exceptionalism comes from. We'd do well to hold that in high regard when we talk to our fellow citizens.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Required Classes for Civil Discourse: First Course -- Statistics

In the month since my last post, I've focused a lot of energy on job search issues. There's some reason for hope on that front but I continue the hard work of staying patient and letting things unfold at their own pace.

Of course, I've continued to follow all of the interesting political/cultural dynamics as well as issues in higher education. One of the interesting things to show up on the higher education front is a significant research project conducted by sociologists at New York University and the University of Virginia. They found that the gains we'd hoped to find in students over time aren't happening. Universities need to demand more rigor, they argue, and to expect students to demonstrate what they've learned along the way.

I couldn't agree more. In fact, when I consider some of the dynamics currently in play in American Society, I've decided that there are some courses that ALL CITIZENS should be required to master whether in high school or in college. Mastery means that they take away the learning with them and know how to apply it to everyday situations. Over my next few posts, I'm going to describe lessons people SHOULD have learned from my required classes and explore why those matter. Given my sociologist background, the first example shouldn't be particularly surprising.

Introduction to Statistics

There are three things I want everyone to remember out of a statistics class. Those who argue that you can make statistics mean whatever you want didn't pass their statistics class. The heart of research and measurement is the careful explanation of what is being considered in ways that everyone can share. We agree on the measurement strategy, tell others what we've done, and then they can see the same thing.

Too much of the debate over deficit reduction and spending cuts has used funny statistics. For example, Rep. Paul Ryan claimed that the president's budget raised spending when it simply maintained legislatively mandated cost of living increases. These statistics may mean that one can make the case, but you wouldn't pass my stats course by playing fast and loose with definitions. Cherry-picking the data is not acceptable by any party. If Rep. Ryan made clear that he was describing spending over a decade or President Obama explained that he was counting proposed Medicare savings as part of his calculations, we'd be better off. When they just quote statistics that support their policy solutions without explaining their data, they just aren't being fair. The struggles we face are too important to paint over them with distorted data. It's hard to imagine how the sides will come together without first accepting a set of statistics that can be adequately defined and measured. Only then can policy situations be worked out.

Here's a second lesson one should take away from statistics class: inferences stem from the data. One of the new Republican Representatives from a Southern state gave an interview claiming that "the people" had given her a mandate to make drastic cuts in federal spending. The story went on to show that she had won her election by 51% to 49% over her Democratic opponent. Here's why she didn't pass statistics:

  1. Current estimates are that a congressional district contains about 700,000 people. About 25% of those are under voting age, which leaves 525,000. 
  2. The census department reports than in 2008, 71% of the eligible population was registered to vote which leaves 372,750. 
  3. The 2010 election had a national turnout of 41.5% of registered voters, which leaves 154,691.
  4. The candidate had 51% of her votes. If her district is "normal" that means she got 78,892 votes. Her opponent got 75,798. 
  5. She won by 3,094 votes

Not only is this NOT a mandate for her position but we need to think about her responsibility to the other 75,798 people who didn't vote for her. My example is about a Republican but the same misapplication of statistics occurs for Democrats as well. Statistics don't lie and we shouldn't make them out to be more than they are. This is why our fascination with various polls becomes quickly problematic. We interpret trends when the data is actually quite varied. The right way to read them is to look at the diversity of opinion and not simply the horserace characteristics.

The third thing everyone should know out of statistics involves how to understand the Normal Distribution.

Not everything fits into a normal distribution, but it's good to remember as a mechanism for understanding the varieties of positions folks take. The normal distribution illustrates that most people cluster around a centrist position. The farther to the extreme one goes, the fewer people actually hold that position.

This is good to learn because it's easy to get our impressions formed by the extreme positions (the blue bars of the chart above). Consider how we think about the major cable news organizations involved in discourse today. We have the sense that Fox News represents one side (maybe including the green bars on the right) while MSNBC represents the other side (with blue and green bars). Here's the point: from a probability standpoint, they always reflect a minority view. There is no voice for the red bars above (CNN has an unfortunate tendency to put two blue-bar representatives together in a "debate"). When we talked about The Silent Majority forty years ago, the red bars are who we were talking about. [NOTE: please don't confuse the colors of the bars above for our unfortunate shorthand for political positions; that's not what this means and if it were my chart I'd use different colors.]

Here's another application of the normal distribution to current events. I'm currently working my way through Robert Putnam and David Campbell's American Grace, a very long research piece on the role of religion in contemporary society. They do a wonderful job showing the changes in religious expression over time. One of the critical trends they explore has to do with the rise of those with no religious commitments whatsoever, especially among younger generations. They demonstrate that these shifts are in reaction to how religion is perceived in American society today, especially in reaction to the role of women, attitudes toward sexual orientation, opposition to evolution, and wariness of other religions. But they go on to demonstrate that those highly visible religious position are only held by 25% of the 40% who claim to be evangelicals. The upshot is that the modern Christian church is being perceived by one of the blue bars in the normal distribution. Critics as well as casual observers miss the ways in which faith is meaningful for a host of Americans. Thinking of Westboro Baptist protesting military funerals or the Florida pastor wanting to burn the Qu'ran, they say, "If that's what it means to be Christian, I don't any part of it." As a result of failing to see the red bars, they miss the open-minded Christians who are maintaining a consistent faith without denouncing science, social change, or diversity of thought.

The normal curve cautions us against extrapolating from an extreme position and to pay more attention to the probability that such positions are held by "normal" people. I've read some stuff recently about the number of people who felt abused by organized religion. Reporting on his book about those abused, Jack Watts quotes the Barna Group, a major evangelical religious research operation, suggesting that 37% of the unchurched have experienced some type of negative interaction with religion.  I would suggest that many of the New Atheists and the young people estranged from faith are treating the blue bars as if they represented all people of faith. Maybe if we all worked on seeing complexity rather than oversimplifying the extremes, the church would be a source of healing our civil discourse and not a contributing factor to our challenges.

So if everyone mastered a basic statistics class, they could agree upon the nature of our challenges, resist the temptation to read more into the data than is reasonable, and be careful to see the complexity of the situations we face. You might even find yourself liking the math!