Teaching students to become good citizens is in-style learning objective at many universities (mine included).   It is a personal drive of mine, particularly in courses that are comprised of mostly non-majors who will not go on to become political-junkies (sniffle, sniffle).  But as a political scientist, I’ve seldom made my classroom a truly participatory space.  Sure they get to “speak their mind” but they have had no input into the construction of the course (readings, assignments, rules etc.)

Part of me things this is as it should be.  I am the expert.  I convinced a committee of scholars to give me a piece of paper with the words “Doctor of Philosophy” on it.  I know what they need to know about politics.  They do not know what they do not know.

But there is this other part of me that believes that what I know about political science is secondary to their learning.  What matters is how they access what I know.   What I don’t “know” is the quickly evolving student culture.  What my students bring to the table  is local knowledge or the unique particulars of a community that affect norms and behavior.

As such, I approached this year from a participatory framework.  I use Archon Fung’s great book on Chicago’s participatory processes Empowered Participation when I teach my policy courses.  The great insight of this book is that citizen involvement works best when it is tempered by expert feedback and oversight.  This article details efforts at participatory budgeting in New York city.

There are countless examples of citizens taking their civic responsibility seriously when given real decision making opportunities, or even when placed in a structure that engages them in deliberation.   The purpose isn’t to let the “inmates run the asylum” but rather to help those entrusted with civic leadership in arriving at better solutions.  An additional benefit is letting citizens into the process of public decision-making.

So I decided to enact a form of participatory budgeting in my two courses this year.  I opened up the syllabus and asked them to think carefully about what types of assignments they wanted to produce, what subjects they cared most about and how they wanted to classroom to be run.  The result was a productive dialogue with my students on the use of laptops in class, the best pedagogical strategies, the utility of in-class exams and mandatory attendance policies.   I incorporated their feedback and completely revamped my syllabus for the year.

This approach is fraught with dangers.  It’s easy with this paradigm to present higher education as another service-based, market institution.  I stressed to them that I was not a Walmart greeter.  I wasn’t trying to figure out how to “serve the customer” but instead I was asking them to be part of a process of co-creation where together we figured out how to structure the course in the most optimal way for their learning needs.

This might still go horrible wrong.  We’re in week two of my semester and the syllabus isn’t finalized.  I am incorporating new technology without the requisite summer “beta testing” period — here’s a tip: the Google+ “communities” feature is a breeze to create but a nightmare to populate.  I’m letting students in one class create their own experiential learning portfolios but I haven’t figured out the rubrics or how to assess this yet.  I might get overwhelmed and find myself in the position on having a bunch of portfolios with no criteria on which to grade them.

But for now, I’m willing to put up with this uncertainty (however terrifying).  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Dylan Matthews on Ezra Klein’s blog offers up this great visual from his Washington Post on changes in tax rates in the US over the last century and leads us into a fascinating discussion on what “optimal” tax rates should be (I suggest you read it for the details).

What these wild shifts in tax policy suggest is that our determination of how much we should tax our wealthiest is not based on any pragmatic assessment of what would result in the best policy outcome, but is rather guided by foundational assumptions about what is fair. If you begin with premise that one has an ethical claim to their “property” if earned legally, then a lower rate seems appropriate. If instead you see taxation as a mechanism for calibrating the distribution of “property” in a way that is optimal for society as a whole, then you can argue, as these economists do, for a much higher rate. These economists disagree.  It reflects how ideas matter in policy making.  The drift in the last three decades towards neo-liberal assumptions has guided a lower rate, not any inherent sense that our current rate is “better” or “worse” in any tangible sense than it was in the 1950’s.

What do you think is a fair number for the top income bracket? 31%? 39? 73%?

Hey y’all.  While you’re waiting for the election results to come in, check out this podcast I recorded with Thick Culture Guru Professor Jose Marichal immediately after the third debate (sorry, it’s dated but I just figured this technology out)

Times Square, NYC, 31 October 2012-Romney & Obama electoral prediction—Kenneth M. Kambara

Greetings from NYC, post Sandy, but pre-election. I have been really busy this election season, so I haven’t had the time to cover this election or do as much reading as I would like. I have C-SPAN on now watching the last minute speeches by Romney, Obama, Ryan, and Biden and seeing a bit on punditry. I didn’t compile predictions like I did for 2008, but this time I’ll go into some detail on my swing state picks. Here’s a compilation I saw on my Twitter feed.

Here’s the electoral map that I started with. The 146 electorals in the swing states are beige, while Romney’s states are red and Obama’s are blue. The breakdown is 201 [Obama], 191 [Romney], 146 in play, and with 270 needed to win.

Florida [29] The polls show the momentum shifting towards Romney in the state. I think the post-mortems will find that the I-4 corridor decided the election and the Democratic hopes of winning the state hinge upon keeping it close here. I don’t know the “house effects” for Mason-Dixon, but their poll of the area for the Tampa Bay Times has Romney leading.

North Carolina [15] I don’t think North Carolina is in play. Obama wasn’t appearing there himself and while Bill Clinton was pitching for the cause with the likes of Mariah Carey, I think his campaign has conceded it to Romney. Romney’s campaign has signalled its confidence since mid-October. Unemployment is high in the state and it was a narrow Obama victory in 2008 which tends to vote Republican in Presidential races.

Pennsylvania [20] Romney made a recent push in Pennsylvania, including a $12M adspend, which may have raised some eyebrows. I think it’s “too big to ignore” and his people felt it was worth the stretch. Michael Barone of The National Review went out on a limb with Pennsylvania, citing Romney’s appeal specifically in the western part of the Keystone state and the Philadelphia suburbs. It could be close, as this article on Philly.com notes.

Michigan [16] Another bellwether and a must-win for Obama was a beneficiary of the 2009 auto bailouts. Democrats are expecting Debbie Stabenow to hold her US Senate seat and are hoping to pick up some House seats, including MI-1 in the upper peninsula (Bart Stupak’s [D] old seat). The tea party candidate, Dan Benishek, is facing a tough race in a district that benefits greatly from federal monies. I see blue as trending in the state.

Nevada [6] I don’t see Nevada as being in play, despite the sky high unemployment of 11.8%. Obama has focused on courting Hispanics and the union vote, while Romney has worked a ground game strategy in the Las Vegas suburbs.

Colorado [9] NBC has this at a dead heat and early voting is trending for Romney. Colorado tends to vote Republican and didn’t go for Clinton in 1996. I see the closeness of the race at this time being bad news for Obama’s fortunes in the state.

Iowa [6] I think Obama’s rhetoric in Iowa might be a tipoff. Unlike in Ohio, where he characterized Romney as “not one of us”, his messaging in Iowa was more hope & change. The northwest has Evangelical Christians who aren’t too excited about Mitt Romney so turnout is key there. Obama will need to do well in the cities along I-80 to pull off Iowa.

Wisconsin [10] I see Wisconsin as a schizophrenic state. The trend has been towards Democrats in the presidency, but Republicans are a force at the state level and one of the US Senate seats and 5 of 8 House seats. The polls have Obama in the lead and my take is that despite Ryan on the ticket, this will hold.

This brings us to a 259 to 244 tally with Obama leading Romney with 35 electorals in play.

I see the following states as the swingingest of the swing states. These are varying shades of “purple” in my book (between red & blue) and as of 2:18AM EST, I think they will go Obama. I don’t feel very solid about this and I think there’s a good chance that if Virginia and Ohio don’t show clear trends early, it’s going to be a long election night.

I don’t like not having a definitive prediction, so I’ll go on the record with a 294-244 Obama win. The caveat being that much of this is based on polling data.

Ohio [18] Bellwether Ohio has been trending towards Obama, buoyed by a recovery and relatively low unemployment. The populist vote indebted to the auto bailout. The rural vote may make things close for Mitt Romney if turnout in Cleveland and the urban manufacturing centers falters.

New Hampshire [4] I think New Hampshire might be really close, but I think it’s leaning Obama. Romney was making headway in October, but it looks like his momentum has stalled. My concerns after following Canadian politics is the polls being off, particularly in constituencies with a rural composition. I wouldn’t be surprised if Romney pulls this out.

Virginia [13] I think this is a true toss-up. I think the fate of the Commonwealth electorals resides in three northern swing counties. I think Romney’s protectionist stance on China might hurt him with selected educated suburbanites. I think if turnout is high in northern Virginia, Obama gets a slight edge, but I think it will be very close.

At the risk of sounding like I’m hedging, I see the opposite as a definite possibility, i.e., Romney sweeping these three. Although the data might support my above prediction, there is the danger that the polls are off. While Nate Silver correctly predicted 49 of 50 states in 2008, he missed Indiana. I called Indiana for Obama based on Karl Rove’s observation that Barack was doing well in the northwestern corner of the state near Hammond & Gary. That’s why I’m thinking the following 279-259 Romney win could happen. It would be something, but not likely, if there was a 269-269 tie. This could happen with Obama getting Colorado and an electoral in Nebraska, while losing New Hampshire, Virginia, and Ohio. The likely result of a tie: President Mitt with Joe as Veep.

Romney winning Virginia, New Hampshire, & Ohio.
269-all tie with Obama getting Colorado and Nebraska’s 2nd. District.

Note: Thanks to Fred Strauss for pointing me to this National Review post and several other sources that informed my opinion.

Great piece in the New York Review of Books by Kwame Appiah reviewing two books on the Obama administration, the latter of which Michael Grunwald’s The New New Deal makes a spirited defense of the Obama stimulus bill. Here’s a passage where Grunwald lays out how the simiulus bill delivered on Obama’s promise to invest in a wide range of necessary and far reaching infrastructure projects.

the bill laid the groundwork for many important programs that made good on the “new foundation for growth” promised in the president’s inaugural address:

We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its costs. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.

As Grunwald points out, every item on this list appeared in the Recovery Act:

roads and bridges (Title XII), transmission lines (Secs. 301, 401, 1705), and broadband lines (Titles I, II), scientific research (Titles II, III, IV, VIII), electronic medical records (Title XIII), solar and wind power (over a dozen provisions), biofuel refineries (Title IV), electric cars (Sec. 1141), green manufacturing (Sec. 1302), and education reform (Sec. 14005).

As someone sympathetic to the president’s politics, I’m puzzled by his inability to cogently defend what he’s done in office. Malik says it better than I could when he compares Obama’s to Romney’s alleged tendency to “run away from his record”:

But something similar could be said of Obama, whose opponents have made the Recovery Act, as well as the Affordable Care Act, into a political tar baby. When Mitt Romney scoffed in the first debate that half of the green energy companies supported by the federal government had failed, anyone who had read The New New Deal would have wondered where the governor was getting his facts from. They might have been less surprised that the president did not rise to the program’s defense. Something in the president’s personality may be getting in the way of his persuading the people, inside and outside Washington, whom it’s his job to persuade. That, at least, is one reading of the inkblots.

My suspicion is that the campaign has field tested these messages and not liked what they have heard. Fair enough. But when you opponent is pummeling you at least have to hit back with something. it would seem that the campaign has decided that rather than try to defend a “long game” investment approach to economic stimulus, they’ll wait out the clock and run against their opponent. That might work. Conceivably, it is better to keep a necessarily pork-laden stimulus out of the public discussion in the hopes that the opposition won’t nit pick it to death. But if the Romney-surge, to the extent it exists, is based on a view that the president has “done nothing” in office, the president should have had a better “elevator pitch” for why his has been a very productive four years (at least as far as progressives are concerned). If he loses, I think it will be because he didn’t/couldn’t do this. Maybe Appiah is right that the president has a quirk in his personality wherein he eschews back-slapping. If so, he may be looking for a different line of work soon.

In a previous post, I lament the abject laziness of the pundit class this election cycle. As ThickCulture contributor Ken Kambara noted in a comment to my post “I think there’s an irony in our culture that sports get better analyses than the Presidential debates.”

He’s absolutely right! Any football fan is accustomed to serious, detailed analysis of personnel decisions, lineups, formations, etc. Ron Jaworrski’s detailing of how the Saints played a “cover-two” defense against the Rams is standard parlance for an NFL football fan. If a quarterback gets sacked 15 times in a game, pundits don’t blame the quarterback along for the failings of the offensive line. Good football analysts, of which there are many, don’t only talk about the in-the-moment game but they talk about the broader context that informs what is driving performance on the field.

Which brings me to the shameful flabbiness of modern political punditry (elite media included). The choices that the parties and branches are making today is based upon years of tactical maneuvering on the part of both sides that should be make clear to those watching and listening to political shows. If the president isn’t defending his stimulus bill, analysis as to why should be provided.

The Democrats and Republicans are engaged in a longstanding game of chess. Republicans confident that they have the party discipline in the Senate embarked upon an unprecedented, clever and seemingly very effective Congressional obstructionism strategy. This is a longstanding tactic in American politics and as Megan McCardle writes in the Atlantic, a tactic Democrats were able to use to block Herbert Hoover’s agenda.

Obstructionism seldom works as a tactic however because parties are seldom disciplined enough to enforce a complete “blockage” strategy. Individual members are pulled by the dynamics within their own districts to peel-away from their party. In addition, Senators have had a long standing reverence for the institution and its norms. But when you have institutions as polarized as those we currently have (these McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal chart illustrates this well), you can hold a 40+ member coalition together to block any and all efforts at legislation.

With no ideological overlap between Republicans and Democrats, the possibility of getting anything done is remote.

This chart highlights the almost complete uniformity among Republicans in both actual votes and percieved ideology. This is what has allowed this Republican Congress to take the historically sporadic use of the filibuster and make it a permanent practice.

If you read no other article this year before the election, make sure you check out this Romano and Klaidman piece in the Daily Beast. They detail the tactical maneuvering between the Congress and the Executive that set the context for the current election. On one hand, the Republicans have implemented their effective “bunker-strategy.” To wit:

In the last three sessions of Congress, Republicans have threatened to filibuster on 385 separate occasions—equaling, in five short years, the total number of filibuster threats to seize the Senate during the seven decades from the start of World War I until the end of Reagan administration. A recent study showed that post-2007, with Republicans in the minority, threatened or actual filibusters have affected 70 percent of major legislation. In the 1980s, that number was 27 percent. In the 1960s, it was 8 percent. “This level of obstruction is extremely unusual,” says Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “And the core of the problem is the GOP.”

In response, the President made a tactical shift in 2011 after the decline of the apparent debt negotiation deal between he and Speaker Boehner. From 2011 forward, the President decided to engage on a unilateral domestic strategy that has stretched the role of the executive. On issues like the Dream Act, the Defense of Marriage Act, and Greenhouse Gas Emissions, the President has moved forward using the executive’s administrative rule make and enforcement powers to implement a progressive agenda. This passage notes the President’s shift in strategy:

By Oct. 24, Obama was standing beneath a “We Can’t Wait” banner outside the Bonilla family’s home in Las Vegas—the president’s spontaneous remark had become the White House’s new slogan—and announcing a new, unilateral program designed to help homeowners refinance their underwater mortgages. Two days later, the president was flying to Denver and unveiling a multipart plan to ease terms on student loans. Over the next few months, the president became even bolder, issuing the controversial welfare waivers and making a handful of recess appointments while the Senate was still technically in session. In truth, Obama had been bypassing Congress, on occasion, ever since Republicans took over the House in January. But these isolated gambits—which included the president’s decision to take military action in Libya without congressional authorization—now seemed united under the umbrella of his new governing (and messaging) strategy: if a legislative proposal fails, find an executive order or administrative directive to replace it.

This is the lens through which the President should be evaluated. Either he is an impatient ideologue engaged in an executive power grab or he is a shrewd, tactical politician who responded to unprecedented obstructionism with an unprecedented expansion of executive power. But the media who can’t be bothered to care about actual governing is much more content with having the campaigns spoon feed them messages and are more comfortable talking about dumb affect issues “why was the president asleep”? “Mitt Romney looked presidential”!

This is the biggest disservice to the nation. Politicians are going to seek access to power. That is what they do. It is up to the press and the citizenry to deconstruct what they are doing. So kudos to Romano and Klaidman for letting me know that there are at least a few folks out there who are actually doing their jobs!

Regardless of the outcome, this campaign has dimmed my enthusiasm for the presidential election. Not because of the campaign itself, which is pretty much how campaigns go. My political dyspepsia comes from the across the board laziness of the commentary I usually rely on to better understand the issues surrounding elections. My expectations that news media will actually use the airwaves to inform and educate has gotten even lower. I’ve come to expect that the three cable news networks will present me with nothing of value after debates. What I am discouraged and frustrated about is the absolute lack of Presidential debate contextualization provided by what has traditionally been my “go to” content for news and analysis.

NPR shows like On Point and the Diane Rheem show have stood out for me as good solid sources of information about policy and politics. But their debate wrap-up shows have evidenced a spread of “horse-raceism” from the cable news networks to what have been more substantive sources. On both shows, the analysis was restricted to how effective messages sounded and who candidates were trying to appeal to rather than examining whether the claims made during the debate were accurate or providing a context for the numbers bandied about.

What’s even worse that lazy “punditry” is self-righteous, lazy punditry. I listened to the Slate Political Gabfest after the second debate to hear the panelists lamenting that “the candidates didn’t say anything substantive” without providing any context or analysis as why they might have been calculating in their answers. In none of these podcasts did I hear anyone mention Congress, the Euro Zone or any other institution which might help listeners frame the presidential debates.

As far as I can tell from listening to these “elite media” sources, here is what I’ve “learned”

1) the president is King of the world and his ability to affect world events is completely dependent upon his own demeanor which should be aggressive but not too aggressive because that “turns off swing voters.”

2) Congress and political parties in the United States have apparently been abolished and have no impact on the president’s ability to realize an agenda or any impact on how candidates shape messages.

3) Political polarization and the minority party’s ability to maintain complete discipline within its ranks that allows it to use tools like the filibuster to block the president at every turn has no effect on policy outcomes.

4) Longstanding historical trends in the global economy or current global economic conditions have no impact on decision making. Our economy is entirely self contained.

5) The information that is pertinent to citizens in determining the best course of action for the future is which candidate engaged in the most “zingers” or which candidate flubbed by akwardly referencing “binders.”

6) Politicians are naturally evasive and fail to answer questions because of their own personal lack of character.

I love thinking about maps, and I love thinking about religions.  So it totally blows my mind to see mapping of aspects of American religiosity done by credible polling institutions.

Looking at religion from this 30,000 foot level, we need to ask: is religiosity in America on the declinine as in other indstrialized nations?  Or is it thriving, as an upcoming book by Gallup pollster Frank Newport will be arguing?  From the blurb:

Popular books such as The God Delusion have dismissed religion as a delusional artifact of evolution and ancient superstitions. But should millions of Americans’ statements of belief and their behavior be dismissed that quickly? The pattern of religious influence in American society suggests mass consequence rather than mass delusion. In God Is Alive and Well, Frank Newport, Gallup’s Editor-in-Chief, provides a new evidence-based analysis of Americans’ religious beliefs and practices — and bold predictions about religion’s future in the U.S.

Reading about this upcoming book reminded me of a recent article in the Economist that atheism in America is on the rise.

How could both trends be true?

It’s interesting to note that Harvard University has a Humanist chaplaincy program.    What this provides secular or atheist students is a community and all of the other stuff that comes with religion, sans belief.  Is Harvard leading a new trend that other universities will follow?   Could we see institutions like hospitals adopting this trend?  Will Christians or Hindus be okay with being approached by a Muslim Chaplain at a hospital?  What about a Humanist one?



TED talks have revolutionized our expectations for how information should be delivered. As college faculty, the straight lecture will not do. Ideas have to be packaged in more convenient boxes.

Here are the top 20 most viewed TED talks of all time. Sir Ken Robinson’s talk has over 13 million views. If you haven’t already, watch one of these talks and tell me why it is so compelling (at least why millions of people have watched them).

Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, it’s useful to read Freidrich A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, even if only to know where the libertarian impulses of Republican party thought leaders emerge. But lots of people discuss the idea of freedom without much thought to what Hayek actually said. here’s a passage:

Everybody desires, of course, that we should handle our common problems with as much foresight as possible. Hence the popularity of “planning.” The dispute between the modern planners and the liberals is not on whether we ought to employ systematic thinking in planning our affairs. It is a dispute whether we should create conditions under which the knowledge and initiative of individuals are given the best scope so that they can plan most successfully; or whether all economic activities should conform to a “blue-print” written by powerful planners.

It is important not to confuse opposition against centralist planning with a dogmatic laissez faire attitude. The liberal argument is based on the conviction that, where effective competition can be created, it is a better way of guiding individual efforts than any other. It emphasizes that in order to make competition work beneficially a carefully thought-out legal framework is required. Competition is not only the most efficient method known, it is also the only method which does not require the coercive or arbitrary intervention of authority. It dispenses with social control and gives individuals a chance to decide whether the prospects of a particular occupation are sufficient to compensate for the disadvantages connected with it.

The successful use of competition does not preclude some types of government interference. For instance, to limit working hours or to require certain sanitary arrangements. There are, too, certain fields where the system of competition is impracticable. An extensive system of social services is fully compatible with the preservation of competition. For example, the harmful effects of deforestation or of the smoke of factories cannot be confined to the owner of the property in question. But a few exceptions do not prove that we should suppress competition where it can be made to function. To create conditions in which competition will be as effective as possible, to prevent fraud and deception, to break up monopolies – these tasks provide a wide and unquestioned field for state activity.

I put the social services bit in bold, because it strikes me that we can have a conversation about policies like the Affordable Care Act within these parameters. Is “centralizing” health care like the ACA does part of the “extensive system of social services” that enhances competition, or is it part of the “central planning” that Hayek associated with the path to Facism and Nazism. You can argue either side. On one hand, the demand for health care is inelastic. When you need that surgery, you need it and will pay whatever you can for it. You aren’t going to comparison shop. So perhaps competition in the marketplace isn’t really going to produce the best delivery of care. On the other hand, mandating to employers with over 50 employees that they need to provide coverage to their workers might be the “socialist planning” that Hayek warned about.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could actually debate these things rather than focus on gaffes and polls. I’d give $20 for a question in one of the upcoming debates where the moderator started with… In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek said… Well, one can dream 🙂