What can small groups do?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Inspired in part by Peter Levine’s post here:

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.

Walmart Coming to DC

walmart-movie-posters.jpgWalmart is planning to open several new “urban” stores in the District, and I’m pretty excited about it. (viaOne of them will be just two blocks away from me, and I plan to shop there. Right now, I do most of my shopping at the rundown, overpriced Safeway or at the Costco off the 495 Beltway: Walmart will give me and my neighbors more options.

DC has a major “food desert” problem, and Walmart will close these gaps. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have scored a Trader Joe’s or a Wegman’s, but this part of the city is predominantly middle-class public employees and retirees, so I don’t think we quite fit the yuppie/hipster grocery demographic.

Of course, I’ve long been a [cautious, caveated] Walmart booster, just check out “Walmart: A sufficiently advanced capitalism is indistinguishable from socialism.” I’d change a few things I wrote back then, but the point basically stands. Most people who shop at Target and Whole Foods are participating in the same supply-chain and wage decisions that plague Walmart, but they justify it to themselves because of the status bump that Target borrows from designers. Whereas there’s ample evidence that cheaper food is beneficial to the urban poor.

My [cautious, caveated] celebration of Walmart is all about Kaldor-Hicks optimality: let’s say you can lower the cost of an item by $20/year for 100,000 people but 90 people will lose their jobs paying $20,000/year. The job losers lose* $1,800,000/year, while the purchasers gain $2,000,000. This is what we call a good move: in aggregate, we’ve gained $200,000. Of course, the gains are small per family, and the losses are large for the few who suffer them, but as a society, we’re better off, and we can take our gains and spend them on job retraining and unemployment insurance and there’s still some left over.

The idea is that the economy is better in aggregate and we worry about distributional problems at the state level through taxation, transfer payments, and welfare institutions. It hasn’t always worked out that way, but that’s the theory and it can be very effective if executed correctly. Our experience over the last three decades shows that it works out more often than not: while income inequality is at an all-time high, the standard of living for the poorest is significantly higher. We’ve decreased the rates of domestic childhood undernutrition, to the point that we’re worried about childhood obesity! At the margins, all those different decisions that add $20/year to a family’s budget make the difference between poor people breaking even or failing to put food on the table, and now we can start working on the malnutrition attributable to food deserts.

*(It also helps that those jobs don’t just disappear, they move to China, where they help people who had been living on less than the local equivalent of a dollar a day move up to the middle class, making the local equivalent of five or ten dollars a day and avoiding poverty-related mortality from easily preventable diseases like diarrhea, asthma, or malaria. Many of Walmart’s detractors seem to genuinely favor protectionism, but to my mind that’s a grossly irresponsible, jingoistic, and just plain selfish position to take.)

The Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear

GOODSIGNWinMcNamee:GettyIt was a policy wonk’s rally. People who know too much to think activism can be effective in the current media environment. People who spent the last decade protesting the war or Gauntanamo to no avail, only to watch the Tea Party become a major force with minuscule numbers because of a television network’s support.

I think some are confusing the image of the rally described in the news, a hipster’s ironic send-up of political activism, with the event itself. Even the organizers knew that would happen. Perhaps they’ve even made that mistake themselves, because they were on stage. But it is a mistake.

For one thing, most attendees couldn’t even hear or see the stage or the various jumbotrons. So most people who were there ended up spending the rally interacting with the people around them. We’ve grown used to political movements aligning themselves with a visionary voice: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Barack Obama. But Jon Stewart isn’t that, and the people who attended the rally were not there primarily to hear his jokes or to listen to the musical acts he booked.

The vast majority of the signs were anti-extremist signs, mostly lampooning the Tea Party. Just as the vast majority of the Tea Party’s signs were against Democrats. I saw one sign I found offensive: “I masturbate to Christine O’Donnell.” Other than that, people with signs were generally proclaiming that they value tolerance and civility. It may have been buried in several layers of irony, but these people were for and against things. Civility *can* be a cause of its own.

It wasn’t all Democrats, though there were quite a number of “Legalize Marijuana” signs. It was a polarized group, though. There were Republicans, but they were Mike Castle Republicans, not Sarah Palin Republicans. (Many still wearing their campaign apparel.) There weren’t any anarchists, at least not in their characteristic “garb” or up to their anti-corporate vandalizing antics.

The one thing a rally can do (that a policy paper or late-night comedy show can’t) is remind people that they’re not alone. Gatherings give us a palpable insight into the power of our ideas, their support among strangers, and the thronging multitudes of others who want what we want.

In my paranoid moments, I sometimes worry that the rise of overly sentimental anti-intellectual demagoguery presages some form of fascism. (I don’t really believe this, any more than Juan Williams believes that all “garbed” Muslims are terrorists. But the gut fears what the gut fears.) After the Rally on Saturday, I can say with greater confidence that the moderates outnumbered the extremists.

It is tempting to reject moderation when one is frustrated by politics, and there is a long tradition of lampooning moderates for being unprincipled or quietist. But I’m with Cass Sunstein, and Halifax, on this one:

Why, after we have played the foole with throwing Whig and Tory at one another, as boys do snowballs, doe we grow angry at a new name, which by its true signification might do as much to put us into our witts, as the others have been to put us out of them? The Innocent Word Trimmer signifieth no more than this, that if men are together in a Boat, and one part of the Company would weigh it down on one side, another would make it lean as much to the contrary, it happneth there is a third Opinion, of those who conceave it would do as well, if the Boat went even, without endangering the Passengers.. . . [T]rue Vertue hath ever been thought a Trimmer, and to have its dwelling in the middle, between the two extreams. — Lord Halifax

A New Way Forward on DC Voting Rights?

If you’ve ever been to my home city, Washington, DC, you’ve probably noticed that the license plates say “Taxation without Representation.” That’s because DC residents (like Puerto Ricans and inhabitants of the US territories and “overseas possessions”) are not represented in Congress by voting members. Instead, we have a non-voting delegate, much like the American Colonies had “virtual representation” in the British Parliament. Congress is supposed to have our interests at heart when they legislate, even though they are not accountable to us. In practice, this means they generally vote with their home districts and states in mind, so DC’s autonomy takes a backseat to the politics of places far away. The fact that the majority of the disenfranchised are African-American is also worth considering.

Many people in the District of Columbia were dismayed by the failure of the 2009 DC House Voting Rights Act. This act would have granted the District a single vote in the House of Representatives, but the price was too high: Congressional Republicans demanded that DC take a strong pro-gun rights stance in a city that was only recently the “Murder Capital.” Beyond the practical objections, John Ensign’s amendment violated the principles of autonomy that the Voting Rights Act itself was designed to further. Of course, only a few months later we lost the same battle in the Supreme Court when SCOTUS ruled that DC’s gun regulations were an unconstitutional violation of the 2nd Amendment, in light of which the objections to the Republicans’ plans look quite unfortunate.

But consider this: the DC House Voting Rights Act would have granted us only a single vote in the House of Representatives, where we would have been one of 437 others (because Utah would have been granted a corresponding vote) and no votes at all in the Senate. That’s a very dilute power. Yet another plan could give us two Senators and vote in the House of Representatives.

All we’d have to do is rejoin Maryland:

In Chaffetz’s idea, most of what we now call Washington, D.C., could become Washington, Maryland.

“It’s our nation’s capital and the Constitution deals with it in a unique way,” Chaffetz says. “Washington, D.C., is not a state. My proposal is stronger than Eleanor Holmes Norton’s proposal, because I’d like to see it retroceded back into a state.”

What’s wrong with this plan? (Other than the fact that it’s being proposed by a Republican?)

Of course, this would shake up Maryland politics quite a bit. Like the conflict between New York City and New York State, “downstate interests” would more frequently come into conflict with the interests of Baltimore and Annapolis. To my mind this is one of its strengths.

Whereas now rule is divided between local mayoral control and the District Council, as a part of Maryland we would gain a say in both Federal and Maryland politics. No one can deny that Maryland’s decisions affect DC, so participation in Annapolis might be almost as valuable as participation in the Senate! It would double the number of layers of control between us and national politics, and multiply the avenues of recourse  and counter-power. Though it seems strange, I believe we’d have more power by sharing it with Marylanders than we have now “going it alone.” Sovereignty and power increase the more they are divided and set in competition: that’s why we have a divided Federal government (and “checks and balances” between them) and the same principle ought to guide us in our pursuit of true “Home Rule.”

Policing Theory

This Is Your God In a recent report on British policing, Denis O’Connor criticized the growing use of paramilitary policing in the UK:

“British police risk losing the battle for the public’s consent if they win public order through tactics that appear to be unfair, aggressive and inconsistent,” he said. “This harms not just the reputation of the individual officers concerned but the police service as a whole.”

The UK has always had a very different view of the role of the police than both the US and Europe, based in part on the principles embodied by Sir Robert Peel‘s account of ethical policing, the most famous of which is:

“the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

I find these developments especially notable in the context of our perpetual failure in the US to reign in the paramilitarization of police forces. On the one hand, the existence and apparent efficacy of this report makes me wonder whether Peelian principles are only propaganda or whether their adoption can significantly alter the course of a state’s use of coercive force. On the other hand, these principles may simply have delayed the onset of this kind of paramilitary-style policing, and the O’Connor report may merely be the British version of NYC’s Mollen Commision.

I’m reminded of the recent arrests around G-20 protests in Pittsburgh, especially the arrest of Elliot Madison. Madison had been listening to a police scanner and ‘tweeting’ police movements to protesters. Madison was accused of helping protesters to avoid a lawful dispersal order, and my reading of the facts bears this out.

The basic distinction still seems to hold: ‘rightist radicals attack people, leftist radicals attack property.’ Some (an unpopular minority) of the G20 protesters went after local businesses and that kind of vandalism can get pretty bad if the protesters get control of an area. Police departments have a right to prevent and prosecute crimes, even vandalism. So knowingly helping vandals (along with mostly non-vandals) escape arrest would count as misdemeanor “hindering apprehension or prosecution.” As I understand it, however, Madison was targeted as much for his general radicalism as for anything he did specifically using Twitter and a police scanner on that day. The charges have since been dropped.

As the police grow increasingly sophisticated in undermining radical protests, protesters have developed increasing organization to deal with it. In general, the whole tactical element of radical protests really rubs me the wrong way: if you spend most of your time looking for an excuse to get in fights with the police, you’re not an activist, you’re a hooligan. “Capitalist exploitation” is just your excuse, not much different from “Eagles fans rule, Steelers fans drool.” If your goal is really to ameliorate capitalist exploitation, then spending six months planning and preparing for a two day protest at the G20 is the worst possible use of your time. Go to law school or get a degree in economics.

I’ve been on both sides of this: I’ve been a protester and I’ve worked with the police. But when I was a protester, the goal that folks like The Ruckus Society espoused was to protest in such a way as to provoke police action using non-violent means. That meant evading dispersal orders, using crowd-sourcing to find points of contestation, and forcing the police to drag us away or use other graphically offensive actions like tear gas. It was all about the images of violence, forcing the police into a position to choose between ceding the space or using physical coercion. Most of the activists I spent time with justified this using some combination of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Walter Benjamin’s On Violence, sometimes with some Baudrillard or Zizek thrown in. In other words, the idea was to confront the folks watching at home with the ideological basis for the state’s illegitimate monopoly on violence. Truncheon-wracked bodies and stopped traffic was just the scrim upon which we projected our counter-hegemonic narrative.

It was a point of pride to get tear gassed with those people, and a point of pride to be arrested, especially on film while using maximally non-compliant techniques to provoke the use of force. Ultimately, though the methods were non-violent, the goal was the same: to control the area and force the police to withdraw, as they did in Seattle ten years ago. There were fantasies of the Paris Commune forming willy-nilly or some kind of May ’68 style actions, but it was just that: a fantasy. It definitely had little to do with the ostensible goals of the organizations involved, things like reducing global poverty or preventing genocide. Eventually, I figured that out and got busy working on those issues in less exciting ways.

However, there’s been renewed interest in ‘policing theory’ in the US since Jacques Rancière published his 11 Theses on Politics whereby he ontologized policing as the suppression of dissent as such:

1. Politics is not the exercise of power. Politics must be defined by itself, as a specific way of acting put into practice by a particular kind of subject and deriving from a particular kind of rationality. It is the political relationship which makes it possible to conceive of the political subject, not the reverse.

2. What is peculiar to politics is the existence of a subject defined by its participation in opposites. Politics is a paradoxical type of action.

3. Politics is a specific rupture of the logic of the arkhe. For it does not simply presuppose the rupture of the “normal” distribution of positions between the one who exercises a power and the one who undergoes it, but also a rupture in the idea of dispositions that make people “suitable” for these positions.

4. Democracy is not a political regime. Insofar as it is a rupture of the logic of the arkhe, in other words, of the anticipation of rule in the disposition for it, it is the regime of politics as a form of relationship defining a specific subject.

5. The people which is the subject of democracy, and so the matricial subject of politics, is not the collection of members of the community or the labouring class of the population. It is the supplementary part in relation to any counting of the parts of the population which makes it possible to identify the count of the uncounted with the whole of the community.

6. The essence of politics is the action of supplementary subjects inscribed as surplus in relation to any count of the parts of a society.

7. If politics is the outline of a vanishing difference with the distribution of social parts and shares, then it follows that its existence is in no way necessary, but that it happens as an always provisional accident in the history of forms of domination. It follows from this also that the essential object of political litigation is the very existence of politics.

8. Politics is specifically opposed to the police. The police is a partition (partage) of the perceptible whose principle is the absence of void and of supplement.

9. The essential work of politics is the configuration of its own space. It is to get the world of its subjects and its operations to be seen. The essence of politics is the manifestation of dissensus, as the presence of two worlds in a single one.

10. Inasmuch as it is characteristic of political philosophy to ground political action in a specific mode of being, so it is characteristic of political philosophy to efface the litigation which is constitutive of politics. It is in the very description of the world of politics that philosophy effects this effacement. Moreover, its effectiveness is perpetuated right down to non philosophical or anti-philosophical descriptions of this world.

11. The “end of politics” and the “return of politics” are two complementary ways of cancelling out politics in the simple relationship between a state of the social and a state of state apparatuses. Consensus is the vulgar name for this cancellation.

Rancière’s cynicism seems more world-wise, but what dissensus is suppressed by asking each citizen to identify with the goal of public order in exchange for legitimate reductions in the violent capacities of the thin blue line? Obviously, the image of public order itself is a kind of enforced consensus, and the truest form of community policing is the one in which community members police themselve not just for legal infractions but also for social and cultural infractions like refusals to accept traditional hierarchies or participate in the enforcement of in-group/out-group distinctions. But if there were a way to undermine the prejudice enforcement of the public without undermining the public’s role in safety, I’d think that would involve precisely this dual-recognition: we are the police, and the police are us.

It seems that the British ideal might well trump our American and European model in which protest must be increasingly organized and paramilitarized in order to confront an ever more bureaucratic and militaristic police force. That’s a conflict where the odds favor the police, unfortunately. In contrast, the pseudo-Hegelian goal of police recognizing themselves as the public and vice-versa strikes me as superior if only because it seems like ordinary folk stand a better chance in that recognition than in the violent disagreement that now seems to be the only alternative.