On Thursday, I produced a graph and some older papers in economics that made the case that there is a pretty clear trend in campaign spending that was completely unaffected by the 2002 BCRA. However, I’m a philosopher, not an econometrician, so I left off the most important part: comparing growth in campaign spending to growth in inflation and GDP. The numbers I used were absolute totals, and there didn’t seem to have been any effect from the BCRA or Citizens United. Today I sat down to expand on the earlier point, and produced the following chart:
This graph tells a different story than the last one: we can see a clear “bend” after 2002, and another after 2008. Thus, it’s plausible to suppose that BCRA did bend the cost curve: we spent less of our GDP on elections while its important provisions were in effect.
My point yesterday was to offer some predictions and beliefs about the effects of BCRA that militated in favor of overturning it. I maintain that norms are engaged in a reflective equilibrium with our beliefs about the facts of the matter, and that sometimes inaccurate predictions can masquerade as principles. I still think this is true, and I’d only expand that claim: visual representations of facts can and do make arguments. Thursday I made a bad graph, and thus a bad argument. Today I retract it.
These new facts must still be interpreted in light of principles: perhaps the effect size is too small to justify the criminalization of partisan political speech. Perhaps the Rent Seeking Model still applies, and politicians were able to extract fewer rents from businesses during the reign of BCRA. (Perhaps, too, we owe it to shareholders to protect them from the unwanted expenditures of the companies they own.) For now I just want to point out that this does give us evidence against the “no effect” hypothesis.
I’ve just returned from two weeks at the Tufts Summer Institute of Civic Studies, which culminated in a conference attended by 117 researchers, practitioners, philanthropists, and public officials interested in expanding the role of citizens in our democracy. Peter Levine summed up the conference here:
The Frontiers conference was modeled on No Better Time, a meeting held in 2009 at University of New Hampshire. The atmosphere then was optimistic, to say the least. Even the participants who had not voted for Barack Obama were encouraged by the outpouring of civic activism in 2008 and the expansion of relevant federal programs such as AmeriCorps. We talked then about how we would flourish as soon as the recession ended.
Now is not “no better time.” During our conference itself, the headlines screamed that a murderous racist had hunted and killed more than 90 children in one of the world’s safest and strongest democracies; the Speaker of the House walked out on the President of the United States during negotiations to save the full faith and credit of the Republic while the economy continues to sag; and the whole country baked in heat that seemed to portend the climate we will leave to our children. We conference organizers had hoped to engender optimism, hope, and confidence in our field. I am not sure we succeeded, or if that goal was possible.
He goes on to point out that many of us have a clear bias towards deliberative forms of participation, but that we are increasingly discovering evidence for a role for citizens in governance. Elinor Ostrom’s work (for which she won a Nobel Prize) is one example of this, and indeed during the two-week institute we frequently returned to the role her research could play. I’m struck in particular by an essay she wrote for Scandanvian Political Studies, “Crowding Out Citizenship.” She argues that current public policy is based on a theory of collective inaction, which assumes that most citizens are rational actors unable to sacrifice their individual self-interest in pursuit of the public good. Moreover, collective inaction theories assume that citizens lack sufficient knowledge to design appropriate institutions on their own, so this work must be left up to experts.
The title alone captures many of my own concerns with the current emphasis on steering the bureaucracy to justly and efficiently manage our political economy: there’s too little room for citizens in the public sphere because we have too much evidence of the ways their prejudices and self-interest can hamper effective governance. As she puts it:
Citizens are effectively told that they should be passive observers in the process of design and implementation of effective public policy. The role of citizenship is reduced to voting every few years between competing teams of political leaders. Citizens are then supposed to sit back and leave the driving of the political system to the experts hired by these political leaders.
Indeed, this is such a problem that we frequently see politicians from both parties rallying around slogans like “elections should have consequences” as they struggle to redirect entrenched and largely autonomous agencies in their efforts to change the status quo. By centralizing institutional design and reserving meaningful contributions for experts, we will tend to “crowd out” the motivations that make it possible for citizens to act in pro-social and collaborative ways:
External interventions crowd out intrinsic motivation if the individuals affected perceive them to be controlling. In that case, both self-determination and self-esteem suffer, and the individuals react by reducing their intrinsic motivation in the activity controlled.
Policies enacted on the basis of rational choice thus have a tendency to produce the kinds of self-interested and and ignorant actors that they assume, a self-fulfilling prophecy that disables citizens and de-democratizes communities. But Ostrom’s research makes two carefully researched and specific interventions into current public debates:
Collective inaction theories are at odds with contemporary empirical social science. Pro-social and cooperative attitudes are rampant, while “rule-following punishers” internalize norms and police compliance from others with their own resources.
Local communities around the world manage common pool resources using polycentric systems of semiautonomous governance rather than centralized planning and control.
The study of civic agency aims to reverse the “crowding out” effect. Instead, local self-managed communities arrange to “crowd in” pro-social attitudes and expertise. Our knowledge and power as citizens is weakest when external interventions render us irrelevant. Unsurprisingly, the opposite is also true: when we are forced to manage our affairs together, we develop the wisdom and the strength to do so.
Paying attention to the effects of small-group politics seems naive, since big, impersonal social forces probably have more impact on outcomes. Academic “realism” marginalizes human agency. But small-group politics is morally important–it’s what we should do. It’s also more significant than the “realists” believe, although less powerful than Margaret Mead implied.
I have an irrational fondness for this sentence of Mann’s:
The First World War distracted governments from the task of monitoring insect movements.
The sentence from Charles C. Mann is quite good, but Cowen’s sentence is better: it encapsulates his exuberance for the written word and for heterodox points of view. (And of course, it includes Mann’s sentence, so it’s kind of a twofer. Like Tom Townsend’s callow claim in Metropolitan: “I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking.”)
I begin, a sentence lover. I’m forever delighted, then delighted all over, at the things sentences can trip and trick you into saying, into seeing. I’m astonished—just plain tickled!—at the sharp turns and tiny tremors they can whip your thoughts across. I’m entranced by their lollop and flow, their prickles and points. Poetry is made of words, Mallarmé told us a hundred years back. But I write prose. And prose is made of sentences.
“Women are often deprived of their due, thanks to illiteracy. Not being able to read or write is a significant barrier for underprivileged women, since this can lead to their failure to make use even of the rather limited rights they may legally have (say, to own land, or other property, or to appeal against unfair judgment and unjust treatment). There are often legal rights in rulebooks that are not used because the aggrieved parties cannot read those rulebooks. Gaps in schooling can, thus, directly lead to insecurity by distancing the deprived from the ways and means of fighting against that deprivation.”
In his book The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen notes (on the basis of investigations by Pratichi Trust carried out in West Bengal and Jharkhand) that absenteeism of comparatively well-paid teachers, particularly where bulk of the students come from scheduled castes and tribes, poses a major problem. Students are forced to pay tutors which causes families to make cost-benefit choices and frequently to prefer their sons to their daughters, eliminating the benefits of universal provision of education. He concludes:
“Sometimes the very institutions that were created to overcome disparities and barriers have tended to act as reactionary influences in reinforcing inequality… The teachers’ unions, which have a very positive role to play in protecting the interests of teachers and have played that part well in the past, are often turning into an influence that reinforces the neglect of the interests of children from desperately underprivileged families. There is evidence of hardening of class barriers that separate the newly affluent teachers from the impoverished rural poor.” (via)
Sometimes the entrenched interests of the rent-seeking middle-class are hard to recognize domestically but spring into focus when presented in a distant place. In this, we seem to suffer from a curious kind of far-sighted astigmatism. Of course, Sen would be the first to admit that many of the rich are rent-seekers, too: this is what it means to be a capitalist, to seek rent on capital. But then who is blameless of rent-seeking? Should we turn our attention to “The Political Economy of the Rent-Seeking Society“?
Following Nietzsche, Arendt speaks of the Christian publicity without politics as world-destruction and ultimately as ‘desertification’: “the withering away of everything between us, can also be described as the spread of the desert.” (Arendt “Introduction into Politics,” 201) As with the growing belief that the purpose of political action is the preservation of life rather than the practice of freedom, this limited government renders the public realm a veritable desert. On the one hand, the totalitarian temptation to marry matters of life and labor with the political subordinates freedom forever to the necessities of survival. On the other hand, the dangerous forces unleashed by warfare render political instability potentially cataclysmic for publicity as the risk of action become unpalatable. These twin attacks on the preconditions of politics threaten to destroy the world we share, about which we deliberate and for which we act. Continue reading Publicity Without Politics