Underinvesting in the public good

There are quite a few investments in social programs that would have spectacular return on investment, but that in fact remain unfunded or underfunded. I am thinking here of things like broadened preschool programs, enhanced dropout prevention programs, regional economic development efforts, and prison re-entry programs. Why are these spectacular opportunities so dramatically under-exploited in the United States and other nations?

One line of answer derives from a public choice perspective: the gains that follow from the investment represent public goods, and public goods are typically under-provided. But that doesn’t really answer the question, because it is governments that are underinvesting, not uncoordinated groups of independent agents. And governments are supposed to make investments to promote the public good.

Another plausible answer is that the citizens who are primarily served by most of the examples provided above are poor and disenfranchised; so the fact that they would benefit from the program doesn’t motivate the politically powerful to adopt the policy.

There is also a powerful influence of political ideology at work here. Conservative ideas about what a good society looks like, how social change occurs, and the role of government all militate against substantial public investment in programs and activities like those mentioned above. These conservative political beliefs are undergirded by a white-hot activism against taxes that makes it all but impossible to gain support in legislative bodies for programs like these — no matter what the return on investment is.

Failure to achieve these kinds of social gains through public investment might seem like a very basic element of injustice within our society. But it also looks like strong evidence of system failure: the political and economic system fail to bring about as much public good as is possible in the circumstances. The polity is stuck somewhere on the low shoulders of the climb towards maximum public benefit for minimum overall investment. It is analogous to the situation in private economic space where there are substantial obstacles to the flow of investment, leaving substantial possible sources of gain untapped. It is s situation of massive collective inefficiency, quite the contrary of Adam Smith’s view of the happy outcomes of the hidden hand and the market mechanism.

This last point brings us back to the public goods aspect of the problem. A legislature that designs a policy or program aimed at capturing the gains mentioned here may succeed in its goal and yet find that the gains accrue to someone else — the public at large or another political party. The gains are separated from the investment, leaving the investment entity with no rational incentive to make the investment after all.

Some policy leaders have recognized this systemic problem and have turned to an innovative possible solution, social impact bonds (link). Here is how the Center for American Progress explains this idea.

A social impact bond, or SIB, is an innovative financial tool that enables government agencies to pay for programs that deliver results. In a SIB agreement, the government sets a specific, measurable outcome that it wants achieved in a population and promises to pay an external organization—sometimes called an intermediary—if and only if the organization accomplishes the outcome. SIBs are one example of what the Obama administration calls “Pay for Success” financing. (link)

Essentially the idea is to try to find a way of privatizing the public gains in question, so that private investors have an incentive to bring them about.

This is an interesting idea, but it doesn’t really solve the fundamental problem: society’s inability to make rational investment in its own wellbeing. It seems more like a way of shifting risks of program success or failure from the state agency to the private entity. Here is a McKinsey discussion of the concept (link), and here is a more skeptical piece in the Economist (link).

Basic social institutions and democratic equality

We would like to think that it is possible for a society to embody basic institutions that work to preserve and enhance the wellbeing of all members of society in a fair way. We want social institutions to be beneficent (producing good outcomes for everyone), and we want them to be fair (treating all individuals and groups with equal consideration; creating comparable opportunities for everyone).  There is a particularly fundamental component of liberal optimism that holds that the institutions of a market-based democracy accomplish both goals.  Economic liberals maintain that the economic institutions of the market create efficient allocations of resources across activities, permitting the highest level of average wellbeing. Free public education permits all persons to develop their talents. And the political institutions of electoral democracy permit all groups to express and defend their interests in the arena of government and law.

But social critics cast doubt on all parts of this story, based on the role played by social inequalities within both sets of institutions. The market embodies and reproduces a set of economic inequalities that result in grave inequalities of wellbeing for different groups. Economic and social inequalities influence the quality of education available to young people. And electoral democracy permits the grossly disproportionate influence of wealth holders relative to other groups in society.  So instead of reducing inequalities among citizens, these basic institutions seem to amplify them.

If we look at the fundamentals of social life in the United States we are forced to recognize a number of unpalatable realities: extensive and increasing inequalities of income, wealth, education, health, and quality of life; persistent racial inequalities; a growing indifference among the affluent and powerful to the poverty and deprivation of others; and a political system that is rapidly approaching the asymptote of oligarchy. It is difficult to be optimistic about our political future if we are particularly concerned about equality and opportunity for all; the politics of our time seem to be taking us further and further from these ideals.

So how should progressives think about a better future for our country and our world? What institutional arrangements might do a better job of ensuring greater economic justice and political legitimacy in the next fifty years in this country and other democracies of western Europe and North America?

Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson’s recent collection, Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond contains an excellent range of reflections on this set of problems, centered around the idea of a property-owning democracy that is articulated within John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. A range of talented contributors provide essays on different aspects and implications of the theory of property-owning democracy. The contributions by O’Neill and Williamson are especially good, and the volume is a major contribution to political theory for the 21st century.

Here is one of Rawls’s early statements of the idea of a property-owning democracy in A Theory of Justice:

In property-owning democracy, … the aim is to realize in the basic institutions the idea of society as a fair system of cooperation between citizens regarded as free and equal.  To do this, those institutions must, from the outset, put in the hands of citizens generally, and not only of a few, sufficient productive means for them to be fully cooperating members of society on a footing of equality. (140)

One thing that is striking about the discussions that recur throughout the essays in this volume is the important relationship they seem to have to Thomas Piketty’s arguments about rising inequalities in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty presents rising inequality as almost unavoidable; whereas the advocates for a property-owning democracy offer a vision of the future in which inequalities of assets are narrowed. The dissonance disappears, however, when we consider the possibility that the institutional arrangements of POD are in fact a powerful antidote to the economic imperatives identified by Piketty. And in fact the editors anticipate this possibility in their paraphrase of Rawls’s reasons for preferring POD over welfare state capitalism:

Because capital is concentrated in private hands under welfare state capitalism, it will be difficult if not impossible to provide to call “the fair value of the political liberties”; that is to say, capitalist interests and the rich will have vastly more influence over the political process than other citizens, a condition which violates the requirement of equal political liberties. Second, Rawls suggests at points that welfare state capitalism produces a politics that tends to undermine the possibility of tax transfers sufficiently large to correct for the inequalities generated by market processes.(3)

These comments suggest that Rawls had an astute understanding of the ways that wealth and power and influence are connected; so he believed that a more equal prior distribution of assets is crucial for a just society.

The primary aim of this public activity is not to maximize economic growth (or to maximize utility) but rather to ensure that capital is widely distributed and that no group is allowed to dominate economic life; but Rawls also assumes that the economy needs to be successful in terms of conventional measures (i.e., by providing full employment, and lifting the living standards of the least well off over time). (4)

The editors make a point that is very incisive with respect to rising economic inequalities.

The concentration of capital and the emergence of finance as a driving sector of capitalism has generated not only instability and crisis; it also has led to extraordinary political power for private financial interests, with banking interest taking control in shaping not only policies immediately affecting that sector but economic (and thereby social) policy in general. (6)

In other words, attention to the idea of a property-owning democracy is in fact a very substantive rebuttal to the processes identified in Piketty’s analysis of the tendencies of capital in the modern economy. As the editors put the point, the idea of a property-owning democracy provides a rich basis for the political programs of progressive movements in contemporary politics (5).

Two questions arise with respect to any political philosophy: is the end-state that it describes a genuinely desirable outcome; and is there a feasible path by which we can get from here to there? One might argue that POD is an appealing end-state; and yet it is an outcome that is virtually impossible to achieve within modern political and economic institutions. (Here is an earlier discussion of this idea; link.) These contributors give at least a moderate level of reason to believe that a progressive foundation for democratic action is available that may provide an effective counterweight to the conservative rhetoric that has dominated the scene for decades.

Guest post by Elizabeth Anderson on race in American politics

Elizabeth Anderson is John Dewey Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author most recently of The Imperative of Integration. This contribution extends a question posed in a recent post on the conservative war on poor people (link). Thanks for contributing, Liz!

American Conservative Politics and the Long Shadow of Slavery

Elizabeth Anderson

An “outright Marxist!”  That’s what Rafael Cruz, Senator Ted Cruz’s father, declared of President Obama on the campaign trail in April 2013.  His accusation is common on the right.  Google “Obama Marxist” and you will get about 4.95 million results.  “Obama communist” yields 40 million.  It’s a strange charge against a man who vigorously supported the bail-out of Wall Street banks as a Senator, and expanded it to other major firms as President.  Yet the charge is nothing new.  Conservatives have long accused anyone to their left of communism or fellow-traveling.  Rick Perlstein traces this practice back to the 1950s.

In fact, it goes back a century before.  George Fitzhugh, author of the famous proslavery tract Cannibals All! wrote a letter to William Lloyd Garrison in 1856 declaring that “every theoretical abolitionist at the North is a Socialist or Communist.”  J. H. Thornwell, one of the most distinguished ministers of the antebellum South, delivered a sermon in 1850 on “The Rights and Duties of Masters,” in which he characterized the conflict over slavery as one in which slaveholders, Christians, and the “friends of order and regulated freedom” stood together against “abolitionists, atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, [and] jacobins” who were united on the other side.

This fact about the origins of one aspect of conservative rhetoric opens a window to the larger structure of American conservative thought.  Consider Romney’s notorious 47% speech:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president . . . who are dependent upon government . . . who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing . . . . These are people who pay no income tax . . . . I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

This was spoken by a presidential candidate who supported the Wall Street bailouts, who did not complain about massive state subsidies to wealthy farmers or the oil and coal industries, and who paid 14.1% of his income in federal taxes—less than the 15.3% effective payroll tax for Social Security and Medicare that falls on wage workers, over and above the income tax.  Counting state and local taxes, which are highly regressive, we have good reason to believe that the 47% he resents pay substantially higher total tax rates than the top 1%.

Romney, however, knew his audience. Tax breaks and subsidies for better-off whites are not what most conservatives oppose.  Their core objection is “free stuff” thought to disproportionately benefit blacks, Latinos, immigrants, and other traditionally subordinated groups.  As Lee Atwater explained, the Republican party’s “Southern Strategy” for winning white voters is all about opposing policies that disproportionately help blacks and promoting policies that disproportionately hurt them:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N-ger, n-ger, n-ger.” By 1968 you can’t say “n-ger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

While conservatives, even those belonging to or sympathetic to the Tea Party, support Social Security and Medicare, they condemn programs such as means-tested welfare, which are perceived as disproportionately benefiting blacks and Latinos, whom they see as undeserving.  A key driver of public opinion on domestic policy in the U.S. is racial resentment: in particular, the idea that blacks are too lazy to take responsibility for their lives but want to live off the hard-earned wealth of whites, either through crime or the public dole.

My current research on abolitionism and the struggle for free labor finds that this idea has been a deep theme of American conservative opinion since before the Civil War.  Although in the antebellum era, racists typically supposed that blacks were incapable of taking care of themselves, while today they are thought to be willfully refusing to do so, the complaints about black behavior are remarkably similar.  In response to an emancipation petition submitted to the Virginia legislature, hundreds of citizens submitted proslavery petitions in 1795.  Echoing other petitions, this one from the free whites of Lunenberg County worried that emancipation would bring

Want, Poverty, Distress and ruin to the free Citizen; the Horrors of all the rapes, Robberies, Murders, and Outrages, which an innumerable Host of unprincipled, unpropertied, vindictive and remorseless Banditte are capable of perpetrating; Neglect, famine and Death to the abandoned black Infant, and superannuated Parent; inevitable Bankruptcy to the revenue; Desperation and revolt to the disappointed, oppressed Citizen; and sure and final ruin to this once happy, free, and flourishing Country . . . .

Thomas Dew, in his 1832 article “Abolition of Negro Slavery,” predicted that abolition would lead blacks to idleness, drunkenness, destitution, and thence to crime.  William Harper predicted in Cotton is King, an 1860 compendium of proslavery thought, that emancipation would reduce blacks to paupers and lead them “from petty to greater crimes, until all life and property would be rendered insecure,” and that if they got the vote, they “would be used by unprincipled politicians” to advance dangerous schemes.

White conservatives saw their fears confirmed during Reconstruction.  This cartoon reveals their view of the Freedman’s Bureau, described as “an agency to keep the Negro in idleness at the expense of the white man:


Then it was the Freedman’s Bureau.  Today it is food stamps, Medicaid, and Obamacare.

Not only the content, but the style and emotional register of conservative politics have been constant.  The hysteria, apocalyptic sensibility, and intransigence of Tea Party conservatives on full display in the recent government shutdown crisis (complete with a confederate flag) mirrors that of the South in the run-up to the Civil War through the Reconstruction Era.  American conservatism continues to operate under the long shadow of slavery and its legacy.



Suppose a country had come to the brink of financial catastrophe because the two parties in its legislature were unable to find compromises in the public interest. Suppose further that the discourse in that country had evolved towards a highly toxic and hateful stream of anathemas by one party against the other. And suppose that one party projects an unprecedented amount of vitriol and hatred towards the leader of the other party, the president of the country. How would we describe this state of affairs? And what hypotheses might we consider to explain how this state of affairs came to be?

First, description. This seems like a society on the brink of political breakdown. It is riven by hard hatreds, with almost no strands of civility and shared values to hold it together. One side portrays the other in extreme terms, with few voices that insist on the basic decency of the other party. (There is one maverick voice, perhaps, who breaks ranks with the extremists of his party, and who expresses a decent respect for his political foes. He is accused of being too soft — perhaps a secret ally of the opposition.)

Here is how the point is put in a recent piece in the Washington Post:

Today there is a New Confederacy, an insurgent political force that has captured the Republican Party and is taking up where the Old Confederacy left off in its efforts to bring down the federal government. (link)

Consider this map of the distribution and density of slaveholding in the South that Abraham Lincoln found very useful in the run-up to the Civil War; link.

Compare this to a map presented by Richard Florida in the Atlantic (link):

There is a pretty strong alignment between the two maps.

So where does the extremism come from? There is a fairly direct hypothesis that comes to mind: racism and racial resentment. We are facing a real inversion of the white-black power relation that this country has so often embraced. Perhaps this is just very hard for the president’s opponents to accept. Perhaps it creates a curdling sense of resentment that is difficult to handle. This is certainly the impression created by the recent incident involving the waving of a confederate flag in front of the White House, an act not so different from a cross-burning in front of the home of a black family. And in fact, there is a pretty striking correlation between the heart of this anti-government activism and the distribution of slaveholding in the United States before the Civil War that is revealed in the two maps above.

Another possibility is that it’s really and truly about ideology. The right really hates the president because they think he advocates an extreme left set of policies. The problem with this idea is that the President is in fact quite moderate and centrist. The health care reforms he spearheaded were themselves advocated by conservative think tanks only a few years earlier; the President’s agenda has not given much attention to poverty; and the President has avoided serious efforts at redistribution through more progressive taxation. So in fact the President represents the center, not the left, on most economic policies.

So where do these trends seem to be taking us? I used the word “polarization” to describe the situation, but perhaps that is not quite accurate. The percentage of the electorate represented by the extremist faction is small — nothing like a plurality, let alone majority, of the population. So the extremism in our politics is being driven by a fairly small segment of our society. Because of the extreme degree of gerrymandering that exists in many Congressional districts, though, these legislators are secure in their home districts. So we can’t have a lot of hope in the idea that their own electorates will turn them out.

Maybe this society will cycle back to a more moderate set of voices and values. Maybe the public will express its displeasure with the extremist voices, and like good political entrepreneurs they will adapt. Maybe. But we don’t seem to see the signs of thaw yet.

Purposive social change


How can citizens strive to bring about significant social change?

So many of the changes we have witnessed in the past forty years have happened to us, not by us. Supreme Court decisions have changed the rules of voting and university admissions, blind economic forces have created new patterns of inequality and new distributions of opportunities, inner cities have gradually deteriorated as places to live and develop. Some of these changes have represented the efforts of a few powerful actors — Supreme Court justices, the Koch brothers, or CEOs of major companies. But few of these seem to be the product of social movements for change, where ordinary people have a common goal and succeed in bringing about a change in the conditions that they object to. So we are forced to ask the question: can social advocacy and mobilization bring about progressive social change?

We do have a few examples of enduring changes brought about by purposive social mobilization. Arguably it was activism and advocacy about gay rights that brought about the gradual changes of social values that have created new configurations of marriages and families in America and a few other countries. The demise of the Jim Crow system of the South resulted from the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of activists and ordinary people for racial justice. The Vietnam War probably came to an earlier end than it otherwise might have because of the militancy and activism of many college-age students.

But it is worth posing the question today: are there opportunities for social groups and mobilizations to help craft a better and more democratic society in our current circumstances?

Take Detroit, the metro region where I live. We face massive social ills: school systems that fail more than half the students they serve, large gaps in health status by race, persistent segregation, crushing levels of youth unemployment, and high rates of violence. And we have activist organizations that mobilize many strong people who are committed to helping the region progress in these areas. I think of ACCESS, Southwest Solutions, New Detroit, the NAACP, Focus:Hope, the Detroit Urban League, City Year Detroit, Youthville, and literally hundreds of other social justice organizations that are wholly committed to making a difference. These organizations want to attack the structural forms of injustice and inequality we face, and they want to improve the quality of life for the disadvantaged groups of the region, including especially children and young people. But let’s pose the question, how much effect can these organizations really have? And what are the strategies that can have the greatest effect?

What is most evident in examining these groups and their strategies is that they aim at gradual, incremental change at a local or regional level. And it is credible that each group may be somewhat successful in achieving its progressive goals. More kids will stay in high school, more adults will get job training, there will be a degree of improvement in the availability of free health clinics. The harder question is this: do these effects succeed in bending the arc of our city’s progress? Do they actually lay the ground for higher quality of life for the majority of our population? Or are they simply small successes in an overall worsening social reality?

It is possible that the social problems we face break into a couple of fairly different kinds of challenges that are more or less amenable to amelioration through citizen mobilization. There are social problems that are essentially the effect of entropy and neglect. A neighborhood may slowly slide into decline for a few random reasons, and its decline may be halted by a concerted effort by a group of concerned citizens. So the concerned citizens can push off the brownian motion of slow urban decay. But other social problems derive from something more intentional: a structural and strategic use of power by one group that disadvantages another group.

Perhaps fracking is a good example of the kind of process where powerful interests oppose change: energy companies have the resources needed to reach agreements with vulnerable land holders in an area, and before you know it, the county is fundamentally changed by polluted water, heavy trucks, small earthquakes, and irreversible property rights that make it impossible for others to limit the practice. Here again mobilization is possible. But the opponent has a great deal of power in politics, law, and media, and the challenge is a difficult one. The table is tilted towards the energy company.

So let’s consider a really hard problem: mobilizing a largescale social movement to reinstate the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Civil rights organizations around the country believe that the Supreme Court essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act when it invalidated Section 5 of the act that lists specific jurisdictions with a prior history of discrimination in voting regulations and requires them to gain approval from the courts in advance of any changes in their voting rules. The Congress is free to reestablish such a clause based on contemporary facts. But it is generally believed to be impossible to get such a bill through Congress. So what would it take to create a mass-based social movement that pressured the House and Senate to do so? And how decisive do we imagine the power of a few wealthy and conservative political foundations would be in blocking such an effort?

The obstacles facing largescale collective action by ordinary people are quite high: the difficulty and cost of creating national or state organizations to coordinate mobilization, the power possessed by elite interests committed to the status quo, and the tendency of social movements to fracture over goals and tactics, to name a few. And yet it would appear that only mass collective action will suffice to begin to change some of the structures of our society that are most damaging for the most disadvantaged groups in our society.

Why a war on poor people?

poverty illinois

American conservatives for the past several decades have shown a remarkable hostility to poor people in our country. The recent effort to slash the SNAP food stamp program in the House (link); the astounding refusal of 26 Republican governors to expand Medicaid coverage in their states — depriving millions of poor people from access to Medicaid health coverage (link); and the general legislative indifference to a rising poverty rate in the United States — all this suggests something beyond ideology or neglect.

The indifference to low-income and uninsured people in their states of conservative governors and legislators in Texas, Florida, and other states is almost incomprehensible. Here is a piece in Bustle that reviews some of the facts about expanding Medicaid coverage:

In total, 26 states have rejected the expansion, including the state of Mississippi, which has the highest rate of uninsured poor people in the country. Sixty-eight percent of uninsured single mothers live in the states that rejected the expansion, as do 60 percent of the nation’s uninsured working poor. (link)

These attitudes and legislative efforts didn’t begin yesterday. They extend back at least to the Reagan administration in the early 1980s. Here is Lou Cannon describing the Reagan years and the Reagan administration’s attitude towards poverty:

Despite the sea of happy children’s faces that graced the “feel-good” commercials, poverty exploded in the inner cities of America during the Reagan years, claiming children as its principal victims. The reason for this suffering was that programs targeted to low-income families, such as AFDC, were cut back far more than programs such as Social Security. As a result of cuts in such targeted programs-including school lunches and subsidized housing-federal benefit programs for households with incomes of less than $10,000 a year declined nearly 8% during the Reagan first term while federal aid for households with more than $40,000 income was almost unchanged. Source: The Role of a Lifetime, by Lou Cannon, p. 516-17, Jul 2, 1991

Most shameful, many would feel, is the attempt to reduce food assistance in a time of rising poverty and deprivation. It’s hard to see how a government or party could justify taking food assistance away from hungry adults and children, especially in a time of rising poverty. And yet this is precisely the effort we have witnessed in the past several months in revisions to the farm bill in the House of Representatives. In a recent post Dave Johnson debunks the myths and falsehoods underlying conservative attacks on the food stamp program in the House revision of the farm bill (link).

This tenor of our politics indicates an overt hostility and animus towards poor people. How is it possible to explain this part of contemporary politics on the right? What can account for this persistent and unblinking hostility towards poor people?

One piece of the puzzle seems to come down to ideology and a passionate and unquestioning faith in “the market”. If you are poor in a market system, this ideology implies you’ve done something wrong; you aren’t productive; you don’t deserve a better quality of life. You are probably a drug addict, a welfare queen, a slacker. (Remember “slackers” from the 2012 Presidential campaign?)

Another element here seems to have something to do with social distance. Segments of society with whom one has not contact may be easier to treat impersonally and cruelly. How many conservative legislators or governors have actually spent time with poor people, with the working poor, and with poor children? But without exposure to one’s fellow citizens in many different life circumstances, it is hard to acquire the inner qualities of compassion and caring that make one sensitive to the facts about poverty.

A crucial thread here seems to be a familiar American narrative around race. The language of welfare reform, abuse of food stamps, and the inner city is interwoven with racial assumptions and stereotypes. Joan Walsh’s recent column in Salon (link) does a good job of connecting the dots between conservative rhetoric in the past thirty years and racism.  She quotes a particularly prophetic passage from Lee Atwater in 1982 that basically lays out the transition from overtly racist language to coded language couched in terms of “big government”.

Finally, it seems unavoidable that some of this hostility derives from a fairly straightforward conflict of group interests. In order to create programs and economic opportunities that would significantly reduce poverty, it takes government spending — on income and food support, on education, on housing allowances, and on public amenities for low-income people. Government spending requires taxation; and taxation reduces the income and wealth of households at the top of the ladder. So there is a fairly obvious connection between an anti-poverty legislative agenda and the material interests of the privileged in our economy.

These are a few hypotheses about where the animus to the poor comes from. But there is an equally important puzzle about the political passivity of the poor. It is puzzling to consider why the millions of people who are the subject of this hostility do not create a potent electoral block that can force significant changes on our political discourse. Why are poor people in Texas, Florida, and other non-adopting states not voicing their opposition to the governors and legislators who are sacrificing their health to a political ideology in the current struggles over Medicaid expansion?

Two factors seem to be relevant in explaining the political powerlessness of the poor. One is the gerrymandering that has reached an exact science in many state legislatures in recent years, with unassailable majorities for the incumbent party. This means that poor people have little chance of defeating conservative candidates in congressional elections. And second are the resurgent efforts that the Supreme Court enabled last summer to create ever-more onerous voting requirements, once again giving every appearance of serving the purpose of limiting voter participation by poor and minority groups. So conservative incumbents feel largely immune from the political interests that they dis-serve.

This topic hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves in studies of American politics. One exception is the work of Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward. In Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Failthey offer a powerful interpretation of the challenge of bringing poverty into politics.

Most poor people are “working poor” and are not homeless. But there are hundreds of thousands of homeless people in the United States, and their living conditions are horrible. Here is a powerful and humanizing album that captures some of the situation of homeless people in America. Give US Your Poor is worth listening to.

Institutional design for democracies


How can we design practical, effective, and fair institutions for making the basic decisions that are needed within a democratic government? This is, of course, one of the oldest questions in democratic theory; but it is also a recent concern of Jon Elster’s. Under this rubric we can investigate, for example, the ways a legislature sets its agenda and votes or the ways constitutional principles function to secure citizens’ rights. Fundamentally we want to create institutions that reach good outcomes through a set of decision-making processes that minimize the workings of bias, self serving, and special interests.

Elster takes up these sorts of considerations in Securities Against Misrule: Juries, Assemblies, Elections. Here Elster concentrates on themes expressed by Jeremy Bentham, a philosopher whom Elster regards as being badly underrated. One part of Elster’s goal here is to recapture some of these overlooked insights. But he also wants to contribute to the substantive issue: what features of institutional design increase the likelihood of political outcomes that largely confirm to the best interests of society (whatever those are)?

Elster’s treatment of Bentham is focused on a small number of theoretical issues in public decision theory. Bentham’s core goal was to work out some features of institutional design that would make corruption and misuse of power least likely in an electroral democracy. “In Bentham’s view, the object of institutional design is security against misrule, or the prevention of mischief—the removal of obstacles that will thwart the realization of the greatest good for the greatest number” (1).

Elster endeavors to explicate Bentham’s ideas on this topic; but he is also interested in forwarding the argument in his own terms. “My purpose is to consider procedural accounts of good institutional design” (5). And further: “I shall be concerned with removing — or blocking the effect of — known obstacles to good decision making” (17). So we can look at this book as being both a contribution to the history of thought and a substantive, rigorous contribution to contemporary debates about institutional design. 

The obstacles that interfere with “good decision making” in the area of public choice are numerous: bad sheep in the process (domineering individuals or spoilers; 18); the effects of strategic behavior by participants; cyclical voting outcomes (Arrow paradox); dictatorship (institutional arrangements that permit one actor to determine the outcome); sensitivity of the collective outcome to the order of the agenda; procedural indeterminacy; power differentials; capture of the process by special interests; deadlock through requirements of super majorities; and information asymmetries among participants.

One family of mechanisms that Elster considers in some detail involve ignorance, secrecy, and publicity (chapter 2). Consider an example. Suppose a hospital aims to increase patient health and reduce costs by pre-selecting preferred medications for a small group of diagnoses. And suppose it assigns this task to a formal committee of physicians and other health professionals. The rules that define membership, deliberation, and decision-making of this committee need to be established. The desiderata for the functioning of the committee are clear. We want members to deliberate impersonally and neutrally, and to favor or disfavor candidate medications based on efficacy and cost. It will help to prevent bias if we block committee members from having knowledge of how the choice of X or Y will influence their own incomes. And publicity about the questions being referred to the committee and the resolutions those questions have received can also induce more neutral behavior by committee members to decide the issue on the basis of objective costs and benefits (rather than private self-interest). This is the purpose of “sunshine laws” about public deliberations and contracts.
Elster looks in detail at alternative designs that have been implemented in the use of jury trials to assess guilt or innocence (chapter 2). How are jurors selected? What information is provided to the jury, and what information is withheld? Are the identities of jurors known to defendants? Choices that are made in each of these design areas are pertinent to a variety of sources of distortion of outcome: racial bias, self interest on the part of the juror, or intimidation of the jury by confederates of the defendant.
The fundamental point that Elster takes from Bentham is that institutions should not be considered in terms of their ideal functioning, but in terms of how they will function when populated by ordinary people subject to a range of bad motivations (self-interest, prejudice, bias in favor of certain groups, …). This is the point of “security against misrule” — to find mechanisms that obviate the workings of venality, bias, and self-interest on the part of the participants. In a sense, this is a return to problems of imperfect rationality that interested Elster early in his career; but this time these problems are raised in the context of collective rationality.

Total information awareness?

I’m finding myself increasingly distressed at this week’s revelations about government surveillance of citizens’ communications and Internet activity. First was the revelation in the Guardian of a wholesale FISA court order to Verizon to provide all customer “meta-data” for a three-month period — and the clarification that this order is simply a renewal of orders that have been in place since 2007. (One would certainly assume that there are similar orders for other communications providers.) And commentators are now spelling out how comprehensive this data is about each of us — who we call, who those people call, when, where, … This comprehensive data collection permits the mother of all social network analysis projects — to reconstruct the widening circles of persons with whom person X is associated. This is its value from an intelligence point of view; but it is also a dark, brooding risk to the constitutional rights and liberties of all of us.

Second is the even more shocking disclosure — also in the Guardian — of an NSA program called PRISM that claims (based on the secret powerpoint training document published by the Guardian) to have reached agreements with the major Internet companies to permit direct government access to their servers, without the intermediary of warrants and requests for specific information. (The companies have denied knowledge of such a program; but it’s hard to see how the Guardian document could be a simple fake.) And the document claims that the program gives the intelligence agencies direct access to users’ emails, videos, chats, search histories, and other forms of Internet activity.

Among the political rights that we hold most basic are the rights of political expression and association. It doesn’t matter much if a government agency is able to work out the network graph of people with whom I am associated around the project of youth soccer in my neighborhood. But if I were an Occupy Wall Street organizer, I would be VERY concerned about the fact that government is able to work out the full graph of my associates, their associates, and times and place of communication. At the least this fact has a chilling effect on political organization and protest — both of which are constitutionally protected rights of US citizens. At the worst it makes possible police intervention and suppression based on the “intelligence” that is gathered. And the activities of the FBI in the 1960s against legal Civil Rights organizations make it clear that agencies are fully capable of undertaking actions in excess of their legal mandate. For that matter, the rogue activities of an IRS office with respect to the tax-exempt status of conservative political organizations illustrates the same point in the same news cycle!

The whole point of a constitution is to express clearly and publicly what rights citizens have, and to place bright-line limits on the scope of government action. But the revelations of this week make one doubt whether a constitutional limitation has any meaning anymore. These data collection and surveillance programs are wrapped in tight secrecy — providers are not permitted to make public the requests that have been presented to them. So the public has no legitimate way of knowing what kind of information collection, surveillance, and intelligence activity is being undertaken with respect to their activities. In the name of homeland security, the evidence says that government is prepared to transgress what we thought of as “rights” with abandon, and with massive force. (The NSA data center under construction in Utah gives some sense of the massiveness of these data collection efforts.)

We are assured by government spokespersons that appropriate safeguards are in place to ensure and preserve the constitutional rights of all of us. But there are two problems with those assurances, both having to do with secrecy. Citizens are not provided with any account by government about how these programs are designed to work, and what safeguards are incorporated. And citizens are prevented from knowing what the exercise and effects of these programs are — by the prohibition against telecom providers of giving any public information about the nature of requests that are being made under these programs. So secrecy prevents the very possibility of citizen knowledge and believable judicial oversight. By design there is no transparency about these crucial new tools and data collection methods.

All of this makes one think that the science and technology of encryption is politically crucial in the Internet age, for preserving some of our most basic rights of legal political activity. Being able to securely encrypt one’s communications so only the intended recipients can gain access to them sounds like a crucial right of self-protection against the surveillance state. And being able to anonymize one’s location and IP address — through services like TOR router systems — also seems like an important ability that everyone ought to consider making use of. Voice services like Skype seem to be fully compromised — Microsoft, the owner of Skype, was the first company to accept the PRISM program, according to the secret powerpoint. But perhaps new Internet-based voice technologies using “trust no one” encryption and TOR routers will return the balance to the user.  Intelligence and law enforcement agencies sometimes suggest that only people with something to hide would use an anonymizer in their interactions on the Web. But given the MASSIVE personalized data collection that government is engaged in, it would seem that every citizen has an interest in preserving his or her privacy to whatever extent possible. Privacy is an important human value in general; and it is a crucial value when it comes to the exercise of our constitutional rights of expression and association.

Government has surely overstepped through creation of these programs of data collection and surveillance; and it is hard to see how to put the genie back in the bottle. One step would be the creation of much more stringent legal limits on the data collection capacity of agencies like NSA (and commercial agencies, for that matter). But how can we trust that those limits will be respected by agencies that are accustomed to working in the dark?

Pragmatist theory of democracy

Jack Knight and Jim Johnson engage in a particular kind of political theory in their recent The Priority of Democracy: Political Consequences of Pragmatism.  They want to consider “democracies” as existing social systems embodying particular instances of various kinds of institutions. They want to know how those institutions are likely to emerge, and they want to know how they function in real social settings. Their work falls within the general methodology of “comparative analysis of political-economic institutions.”

Here is how they describe the tasks of political theory:

The first analytical task requires that we identify the set of feasible social institutions, examine their respective features, and delineate the conditions necessary for the effective operation of different members of the set. (13)

The second task is explanatory: to account for how specific alternatives emerged over others to become the preponderant institutions in a given society.  And the third task is normative: to show how we can compare alternative institutions in terms of their contribution to the social good.

They offer a particularly succinct description of the situation of politics: diversity across a population and conflicts of interest within the population.

Politics, in large part, is a response to diversity. It reflects a seemingly incontrovertible condition — any imaginable human population is heterogeneous across multiple, overlapping dimensions, including material interests, moral and ethical commitments, and cultural attachments. The most important implication of this diversity is that disagreement and conflict are unavoidable. This is, in part, not only because the individuals and groups who constitute any population are diverse in the ways just suggested but because that diversity is irreducible. There simply is no neutral institutional arrangement that will accommodate their competing demands and projects without leaving some remainder over which they still disagree. (1)

The challenge of politics is to create institutions that permit decision making for a whole society in light of this irreducible diversity, and avoiding dictatorship and violence in the process.

So what is pragmatist about the theory of democracy they offer? One feature is fairly straightforward; it owes a lot to John Dewey’s ideas about democracy.  And Dewey thought that democracy should be justified on the pragmatic grounds that it created ways of resolving conflicts that were less costly than violence and coercion.  More fundamentally, a pragmatist justification for democracy is one that attempts to show that the effects of democratic institutions are overall better for society than those of any of the alternatives. “Pragmatists assess the value of their choices and actions in terms of the consequences of those choices and actions” (194). So the justification of an institution derives from its overall effectiveness (in conjunction with other institutions) in securing desirable outcomes.

We defend here a pragmatist justification of democracy. It is grounded in a set of claims about the fundamental importance of effective institutions for our ongoing social interactions. It rests on the vital role that democratic decision making plays in achieving and maintaining the effectiveness of those institutions. It attends to the different tasks of political theory — the analytical, the explanatory, and the normative. (93)

Another aspect of the authors’ view of pragmatism has to do with the anti-foundationalism that is associated with pragmatism.  Political theory cannot work on the assumption that there is a final truth about political institutions; rather, arguments and conclusions are fallible and contestable. But a steady point of reference is an assessment of how the institutions that a political philosophy advocates will actually work for the population governed by those institutions. We test the recipe by tasting the pudding.

A central part of their justification of the priority of democracy revolves around the idea of reflexivity.

What do we mean when we say that democratic institutions operate in a reflexive manner? The reflexivity of democratic arrangements derives from the fact that political argument — again, increasingly so to the extent that it transpires under the appropriate conditions — requires relevant parties to assert, defend, and revise their own views and to entertain, challenge, or accept those of others. It derives, in other words, from ongoing disagreement and conflict. (161)

This condition reflects the idea that debate functions at two levels: at a meta-level when political theorists consider the pro’s and con’s of various institutional arrangements; and at an object level, when parties within a democracy express their views and reasons about particular policies.

Knight and Johnson refer to a handful of types of institutions that seem to hang together in terms of the idea of governing and managing conflicts over resources and power in a modern society (7ff.). They refer to —

  • Economic exchange (markets)
  • Distribution of the franchise
  • Constitutional politics
  • Democratic decision making
  • Property rights and common pool resources

As they point out, each of these families of institutions encompasses a wide range of institutional alternatives; in fact, the constant fact of institutional diversity is one of their persistent themes.  A realized democratic society is one that has developed specific institutional arrangements in each of these areas. And it is their central argument that democratic institutions need to have priority in the process of choosing other institutional arrangements. 

In particular, when Knight and Johnson argue for the priority of democracy, they are centrally concerned to show that democratic institutions have priority over market institutions.  They concede that there are many tasks where decentralized markets are more efficient ways of handling social and economic conflicts; but they argue that we are nonetheless better off overall to give priority to the institutions of democratic decision-making. Democracy protects the equal voice of all citizens in collective decisions, and markets do not.

So what are the most important beneficial consequences that make democracy a good idea? Here is their summary:

We contend that relative to the other existing institutional alternatives, democracy is better at (1) facilitating experimentalism on institutional choice, (2) monitoring and maintaining institutional effectiveness (particularly in regard to appropriate conditions), and (3) reflexively monitoring its own effectiveness. The capacity of democracy to better satisfy these fundamental requirements of modern, socially diverse societies provides an important reason for endorsing democracy as the best means of collective governance. It grounds our pragmatist case for the priority of democracy. (261)

In reviewing the arguments advanced by Knight and Johnson, it is striking to notice the virtual absence of the normative arguments offered by democratic theorists from Rousseau to Amartya Sen: Democracy is good because it respects the moral equality of all, it embodies the broadest realization of human freedom, and it conduces to greater human fulfillment and sociality.  By putting their eggs in the pragmatist and consequentialist basket, Knight and Johnson seem to have forsaken the reasons some theorists have found democratic principles most convincing — their connection to a fully realized and socialized human life. How would we respond to their argument if the calculation had led to a different outcome: a benevolent all-powerful bureaucracy does a slightly better job than democracy at securing the social goods they are interested in counting? Would we then be forced to conclude that benevolent bureaucratic dictatorship is the better system after all?  Probably not, for most of us. And perhaps this casts some doubt on the pragmatist method in this instance.

Deliberation for activists

What is involved in deliberating within an activist group? This isn’t quite as simple a question as it might appear. Deliberation has to do with a discussion among a number of people aimed at arriving at a degree of consensus about facts, policies, and strategies. But it grades off into several other collective activities: contention over power and influence, efforts to deceive or manipulate, efforts to mobilize people over emotional issues.

I am led to think about these questions by a very stimulating seminar by a colleague, Lara Rusch, in which she presented some of her current research on the specific features of collective decision-making by activist groups in Detroit. (Here is an article of Lara’s on one aspect of the issue, the challenge of creating trust within a group of activists; link.)

What I’m interested in examining here is grassroots activist deliberation — the kinds of decision-making and action that are associated with movements like the anti-globalization movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and a variety of grassroots environmentalist movements. This kind of deliberation seems to be structurally different from those that are often highlighted within the literature of deliberative democracy. (Erik Olin Wright and Archon Fong’s Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance (The Real Utopias Project) (v. 4) is a great statement of current thinking about deliberative democracy. Here is an earlier post on deliberative democracy and here is another post on the Real Utopias project.)

Most examples in the deliberative democracy literature involve processes in which the task is simply to arrive at a majority recommendation about a fairly well defined issue, with the process increasing in persuasive force according to the strength of the majority. But a process like this doesn’t have to cope with the issue of maintaining the coalition after this one action. Activist groups, by contrast, are not regulated by formal rules of voting leading to a single adopted resolution, they are not bound by majority vote, and they are not concerned about simply coming to a decision about a single resolution.

So let’s consider one aspect of activist debate: the communicative effort by members of a group to sort out what they should do collectively, given the framing goals and values they share. The individuals and groups have come together because they share commitment to some purpose or goal. (Though there is always the possibility of uncommitted visitors and even provocateurs whose goals involve side-tracking the purposes of the rest of the group.) So how can individuals and sub-groups engage in a process that leads to a degree of consensus about future actions?

Here I take it for granted that activists share goals and values. But this is not wholly true. They may share a high-level concern — ending racism, pushing for sustainability — but may disagree sharply about finer details. So reaching consensus about action is often made more difficult by the fact of disagreement about important goals and values. For example, an environmental activist group may disagree about the scope of their collective efforts — global sustainability or improvement of their own region’s environmental quality.

Another important source of disagreement arises a step closer to action, deriving from differing theories of how social change works. One segment may think that the primary tactics should involve getting effective messages to the broader public through media coverage, whereas another group may think that it is essential to get the attention of policy makers through consequential and visible direct action. With broad disagreement about efficacy of various possible strategies, it is difficult to achieve consensus.

One option that exists in this case is for each camp to make an empirical or historical argument supporting its claims of efficacy; to the extent that opponents are open to rational assessment of evidence at this level, it is possible to narrow disagreement about efficacy.  In other words, rational persuasion based on evidence and inference is one possible avenue of communicative interaction within a group of similar-minded activists. But often partisan groups are as committed to their models of social action as they are to the ultimate outcomes.

The whole situation of activist deliberation is complicated by the fact that a social movement at any level of scale depends on the willing participation of individuals and sub-groups. So a degree of consensus is a practical necessity, if the movement is to maintain itself as an active and activist conglomeration capable of any form of collective action. To the extent that a proposed plan of action diverges substantially from the preferences and interests of a sub-group, there is the likelihood of defection of that group.

There are a couple of features of collective action that seem to make the problem of factions somewhat more manageable than it first appears. First,there is a degree of solidarity involved in almost every social movement; and a widespread feeling of solidarity provides some degree of motivation for each individual to join the collective action even if it is not one’s first choice.  In other words, activists often have a degree of willingness to support the decisions of the group even if they are on the losing side — unless the differences are sufficiently fundamental! Second, individuals and groups are capable of compromising: they can agree to an action plan in which Group A gets most of what it wants, but it promises to pursue part of what Group B wants as well.  And if there is a degree of inter-group trust, this may be sufficient to get both A and B to work together on the agree-upon plan.

David Graeber’s Direct Action: An Ethnography is a fascinating ethnography of anti-globalization activists preparing for a complex series of actions at the 2001 Summit of the Americas meeting in Quebec. As Graeber makes clear, these loosely affiliated anarchist groups were effective at planning and coordinating action. Here is an earlier discussion of Graeber’s book (link).

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