Can Accountants Succeed on Climate Where Others Have Failed?

Reprinted from The Energy Collective - February 21, 2013

The Government Accountability Office, the federal government’s independent auditor and watchdog agency, added climate change to its list of “high-risk” threats to the nation’s fiscal health.

“Climate change creates significant financial risks for the federal government,” the GAO report said. “The federal government is not well positioned to address the fiscal exposure presented by climate change, and needs a government wide strategic approach with strong leadership to manage related risks.”

And for anyone concerned about getting the government to act on climate change, that raises a tantalizing question: Can accountants succeed where scientists and the environmental movement haven’t?

Fiscally speaking, the GAO said there are three major areas where the government is vulnerable:

  • The government is a huge property owner. The government owns thousands of buildings, from post offices to the Pentagon, and many are at risk of being damaged or destroyed by severe weather and other climate changes. Indeed, the GAO said there were at least 30 military bases already at risk from rising sea levels. And that’s not counting the impact on the 650 million acres of federally managed lands.
  • The government is on the hook as an insurance provider. The National Flood Insurance Program and the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation are already more exposed to weather-related costs than in the past, and could both face significant claims in the future if droughts, floods and severe weather develop as expected.
  • Disaster relief costs could rise. Disaster declarations have increased in recent years, with 98 declarations in 2011 compared to 65 in 2004. In 2004-11, the GAO said FEMA obligated about $80 billion in disaster aid. Superstorm Sandy alone required $60 billion in federal aid.


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The Sequester

Each week, Public Agenda explores how we can find sustainable solutions to one of the many complex challenges our nation faces.

At the end of this week, the sequester is due to take effect, meaning an automatic $85 million in federal spending cuts. The sequester is a drastic attempt to address our federal deficit, and a solution that pretty much no one supports.

Reducing the deficit, and balancing our nation's budget, will be complicated. Can we find a bipartisan solution better than the sequester? What are our choices and the tradeoffs we will need to grapple with before we can agree on a pathway forward?

We invite you to explore our surveys, reports, discussion guides, blogs and commentary to learn more about this complex issue.

You can also read more facts about the sequester specifically at the Washington Post's Wonk Blog.



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Varieties of Inequality

I can think of at least six kinds of inequality:

Clothes are seen hanging outside a bus which has been converted into a dwelling for Lu Changshan and his wife near newly-constructed residential buildings in Hefei, Anhui province in China on November 12, 2012 (Jianan Lu/Courtesy Reuters).

Hefei, Anhui province in China  (Photo by Jianan Lu.)

  1. Inequality of income: different people receive different wages, either for different jobs or for the same job, as profits from capital investments, or as government subsidies, transfer payments, or private charity.
  2. Inequality of consumption: different people consume different products (i.e. the generic widget) in differing amounts and of varying quality. Some people have cell phones, computers, and tablet computers; some have just a cell phone; some people own no electronics. Some people have two homes, some are homeless, etc.
  3. Inequality of liberty: some people are subjected to more threats and interference than others. Some people can break the law, for instance by using illegal drugs, without consequence, while others are imprisoned and subjected to the whims and demands of institutional forces and individuals with strength or authority.
  4. Inequality of security: some people live more precarious lives than others. Some people are systematically subject to more frequent risks of loss, or have less assistance or fewer resources to fall back on should things go badly.
  5. Inequality of status: some people get more respect than others. Some people are treated with disdain and denied the prerequisites of basic human dignity. Some people are ignored and invisible, while others get more attention than they want from paparazzi and news media.
  6. Inequality of capabilities: some people have more beings and doings than others. Rather than more widgets and gadgets, some people have better access to the things that make a life go well: work, play, love, health, safety, an opportunity to be heard and make a difference, etc.

Now, potentially all of these inequalities might be troublesome, but when I think about political economy, I tend to think that inequalities grow in importance (and injustice) as they move away from nominal measures like “income” and towards real measures like liberty, security, status, and ultimately capabilities. Of course, the varieties of inequality are interrelated, but not always in a clear way. For instance, some people have high incomes but low security, like military contractors, some fishermen, and oil rig roughnecks who can all make six figure salaries by taking on inordinate risk of death or crippling injury. A wealthy person suffering from crippling depression might be consumption-rich but capability-poor. And we’ve probably all met or worked with angry low-level bureaucrats whose low status is combined with high liberty and security, which allows them to act capriciously and lazily without consequences.

In the famous aphorism of the “rising tide which lifts all boats,” John F. Kennedy suggested that it was possible that as the US progresses, the rich, middle-class, and poor states might all be better off in absolute terms even if they maintained their respective places. Subsequent use of the aphorism has generally added “even if they do not improve equally.” In the “rising tide” case championed by Kennedy, “relative” inequality would increase as the gap between rich and poor increased, while “absolute” inequality (i.e. poverty) decreased, as the poor became wealthier. But this suggests a seventh kind of inequality:

7. Inequality of growth: when a company or a country grows, some people get a larger share of the growth than others, either as a share of income, consumption, status, liberty, capabilities, or security.

Americans currently confront a situation domestically where the rich have made disproportionate gains in income and consumption compared to other classes, while the very poor experience severe losses in every category due to absurdly high rates of incarceration, lost life expectancy, increaased labor contingency, loss of meaningful participation in the political process, and many other factors. Yet while this inequality grows domestically, other inequalities are shrinking: Africa is growing again, and the the number of children who die each day from easily-treated poverty-related diseases has shrunk to half what it was a decade earlier. Some of the same factors that increased relative domestic inequality have reduced absolute global poverty. So this suggests that there are (at least) three different ways to measure inequality:

  1. The scope of the inequality: there is a difference between local inequalities and global inequalities, and on some measures and inequalities (for instance, status) the local matters more than the global, while sometimes it’s the domination or colonization of one place or group  by another that creates the problematic element in inequality.
  2. Inequality over time: for most of the world, each generation has been able to boast improved lives over the generation before. But there are times and places when this is not the case, and it may well not be the case in the future.
  3. Relative Inequality v. Absolute Poverty: Another important issue is that inequalities can be measured in relative or absolute terms: the “relative” measure is based on the difference between the most-advantaged and least-advantaged, or in some metrics between the extremes and the median. The “absolute” measure focuses on the actual levels of income, consumption, security, liberty, etc. which can rise independently or orthogonally to the difference between the best and worst.

In the literature, the last kind of inequality is often just referred to as “relative v. absolute inequality” but what really ought to concern us is when folks at the bottom face profound and multiple disadvantages. So when I think in terms of absolutes, here, I think we generally share the Rawlsian maximin intuition that we should confront and work to raise whatever the lowest-level of experience is, the floor or “bottom” that has become known as the situation of the “least-advantaged group.”

Civil-rights-leaders-want-Obama-to-talk-more-about-racial-inequalityAs for temporal and spatial inequalities, these are difficult issues indeed. Certainly there are Chinese cities where the environmental degradation is so bad that previous eras of lower consumption were actually better off; much the same may be true of European and American cities during our industrial growth spurts. We can think of the the inequality of growth as a problem that is primarily measured in terms of differences over time, but we also have to confront the profound differences between the growth levels in the US, Europe, and Japan, and the growth levels in Africa, South America, and Asia. There is growing confidence that these differences must be laid at the feet of poor institutional designs (hampered by colonial meddling) and cannot simply be explained by some form of exploitative expropriation of the developing world by the developed world.

There are broad measurement and aggregation problems with the more important kinds of inequality: it’s much harder to figure out how capabilities increase and decrease over time and populations than it is to measure income and consumption, even though measuring those is a very hard problem all on its own. Still, some theme have emerged. While there are some theorists who would not be ready to agree to the hierarchy of inequalities I’ve listed above, many justifications for libertarianism and classical liberalism rest on the assumption that the policies they advocate are best-able to achieve the maximization of the most important capabilities, securities, and liberties that I mention. After the work of Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, there may well be disagreements about measurements and priorities, but there really are fewer folks who doggedly hold to the view that consumption alone is the key to the good life and ought to be maximized. Strangely, even as more people pay lip service to pluralism, there is more and more agreement on matters of fundamental metaethical goals. I take that to be a good sign.

But various versions of the problem of inequality that circulate strike me as potentially mistaken. For instance, it’s true that, in terms of wealth and income, the very rich lost more in absolute terms than the very poor: individual investors lost billions of dollars. But they did not lose a corresponding amount of consumption, security, status, or capability. Those losses play an important role in suggesting that the very rich were as surprised as the middle-class and poor by the structural problems in the shadow banking system and mortgage-market, however: after all, you expect a fraud or a crook to have enriched himself, not immiserated himself. On the other hand, differential inequalities of growth and security suggest that a very rich investor might be willing to make a bet that will double or halve her income even if it will do the same thing the very poor for simply because of the way one calculates gains and losses when you are very rich. (This goes back to Charles Karelis’s work on the differential rationality of wealth and poverty.)

Success Strategies from High-Poverty, High-Achieving Schools

How do some schools in high-poverty communities produce remarkable stories of success while others fail? How can we implement strategies that enabled their success in other schools across the country?

In this webinar, Public Agenda’s President Will Friedman, Ph.D., and Director of Research Carolin Hagelskamp, Ph.D., share findings from our 2013 report “Failure Is Not an Option.” They explore some of the characteristics and practices of nine schools that beat the odds and overcame tight budgets, restrictive labor agreements and poverty to earn distinctions of excellence from the state of Ohio.

The webinar also includes information about the Success for All program, a whole-school reform strategy that uses data to inform instruction. Cofounder and Chairman of the Success for All Foundation Robert Slavin, Ph.D., and Cofounder, President and CEO of the Success for All Foundation Nancy Madden, Ph.D., discuss how education leaders can implement Success for All in their own schools and districts.

The webinar concludes with a story from Marjorie Radakovich, the principal of East Garfield Elementary School in Steubenville, Ohio, one of the schools featured in "Failure Is Not an Option." East Garfield has spent 5 years as a School of Promise. Eighty-seven percent of the student body comes from an economically disadvantaged background and a quarter of students have a disability.


Opportunities for Further Research and Engagement

Public Agenda can help you tell the story of what success looks like in your district or state. While additional research may not reveal groundbreaking new information, we have found that exploring and describing these stories of success can give your community something to celebrate and rejuvenate the reform dialogue.

Research on unexpectedly high-achieving schools also opens up additional questions to explore: What are the varied pathways to success? How are these principles implemented? And, most importantly, how are they sustained? We can help explore these questions in your community.

Furthermore, through decades of work, Public Agenda has found that school transformation is best addressed by including all of the many stakeholders in planning and decision making. If you’d like to speak about how to engage principals, teachers, students, parents and concerned community members in meaningful dialogue about school reform, contact us.

If you have additional questions about Public Agenda or are interested in exploring ways to address questions on the varied pathways to success, please contact:

Allison Rizzolo, Communications Director
arizzolo@publicagenda.org
212-686-6610 ext 148

If you have additional questions about the Success for All program or would like more information on grant opportunities at your school, please contact: sfainfo@successforall.org.

Will It Be on the Test?

For the past 15 years, federal, state, and local officials have pursued a broad range of reforms to ensure that the nation’s public school system is more accountable. They hope this culture of accountability can improve and restore trust and confidence in our nation's public schools.

Most parents, and most Americans more generally, applaud the goals of the education accountability movement and support some of what it has accomplished. Still, they also see it as profoundly incomplete.

"Will It Be on the Test?" summarizes research from Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation and explores

  • where education leaders and parents see eye to eye on accountability
  • where they part company
  • whether it's possible to find common ground on these competing views
  • additional questions for further research

Research for "Will It Be on the Test" includes focus groups with parents and principals held in Washington, DC; Detroit; New Orleans; Westchester County, NY; Birmingham, AL; and Denver. We also reviewed the large storehouse of survey data on parents' and principals' views on public education and the writing and statements of leaders and reformers on accountability.

This report is an outgrowth of a 2011 Kettering Foundation/Public Agenda report that revealed a potentially corrosive gap between the way that leaders and the public define accountability. "Don’t Count Us Out: How an Overreliance on Accountability Could Undermine the Public’s Confidence in Schools, Business, Government, and More" describes how contrasting visions of accountability can feed public distrust of institutions rather than reducing it.

Political Economy of Consent (Notes Toward a)

Migrant Workers and Cucumbers, Blackwater VA - via Bread for the World

Migrant Workers and Cucumbers, Blackwater VA – via Bread for the World

This is the germ of an idea, and it’s going to be a bit choppy since it’s not fully formed. Imma pull a Maimonides and ask you to assume that anywhere I seem to be clearly talking out of my ass it’s just because I totally have splendid ideas but I’m not putting them across well. Point them out and I will steal your views and claim that’s what I meant all along.

I know, I know, I’m aiming for that very prestigious publication in Radical Philosophy. I’m sure I’m also rehashing things people besides me have already said; I’m just starting to mull this stuff over, and I haven’t done a proper lit review yet. Take me to task for that when it’s a peer-reviewed paper.

Also, I should probably put a trigger warning here – nothing graphic, but stuff that may be unpleasant for folks to read may come up.  And if you’re my parents or something (hi Dad) you may not want to read more because there’s going to be an ill-considered detour into sex work and stuff.

Here are the basics, what “everyone knows.” Bear with me, I’m being pedantic because I’m trying to find my footholds.

There are plenty of things that, normally, I can’t do to you. Kill you, have sex with you, take your stuff, cut into your body with scalpels, inject you with chemicals.

But I can do all of those things if you consent.  At least arguably. We might quibble about euthanasia, for instance, but your consent at least morally sanitizes – on the standard theory – lots of things that would otherwise be wrong for me to do to you.

I’ve been thinking about the adequacy of this picture a bunch lately, and this morning my thoughts on it were pricked by reading Hedges’ and Sacco’s account of the conditions for migrant farm workers in Imokalee FL in their Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.  Workers in Imokalee are subject to all sorts of indignities and abuses – low pay, crummy living conditions, sexual harassment, etc.

Some of the stories they tell are of people who are simply not consenting to their treatment. They tell of a few egregious cases in which people were literally chained up, locked in, kidnapped and coerced to work. But even leaving those aside, there are plenty of folks in conditions that are at least pretty grim and undesirable.

One sort of story about those folks would be: but they consented. They work jobs for very low pay, some of them below minimum wage, OK – but no one put a gun to their heads and made them take those jobs, and no one owes them a job. They consented to take a job that someone consented to give to them. They are charged very high rates for sub-standard housing, but that’s what the market will bear. If it’s not worth $50/week for them to live in a shabby trailer with a bunch of other migrant workers, they should find another job.

Etc.

The standard reply would seem to be something like: but they didn’t really consent. Sure, migrant workers aren’t subject to gun-to-the-head coercion, but the are subject to all sorts of, let’s say, pressures on their decisions that undermine our notion that they’ve consented. Florida is pretty hostile to collective bargaining. Many of the workers are undocumented, and so (reasonably) worry that if they bargained hard they’d just be turned in to INS and deported. Even aside from that, there’re more workers than there is work, which will drive things down to a pretty raw level, in accord with the iron law of wages. Maybe even worse, as Hedges and Sacco point out, because dead workers can be replaced. If you’re desperate enough to be grasping a job that only maybe will give you enough to live on, other things are probably going badly in your life that people can exploit.

I’m becoming less sure that this standard reply is the right one, though.  For one thing, it’s subject to a slippery-slope-style response from the other side. OK, the libertarianish person may say, but where do we draw the line? Given their druthers, everyone would spend their days perfecting the pastimes that they have harbored based solely on the fact that they make them smile and sound dope. And then we’d take whatever they wanted from everyone else. Everyone does plenty of things all day only because of some outside pressure to do so, and where do you draw the line between the migrant worker in Imokalee and the office drone working a 9-5 and the professor writing a paper that he doesn’t really care about because he needs to pad his tenure file? COMMUNIST.

For the other thing, well, let’s consider one of the worse things about Imokalee. According to Hedges and Sacco’s informants, sexual harassment is pretty common for migrant worker women. They heard stories that women were routinely asked to give sexual favors to managers in return for continuing to be chosen for work.

Blech, but what about consent? I’m a farm manager, I don’t owe anyone a job, right? I can not pick up a migrant to work just because I don’t like the way s/he looks. Why is it more wrong for me not to pick her up just because she won’t sleep with me?  And if she does sleep with me, isn’t it consensual?  How is it less consensual than the woman who works long hours in the backbreaking sun so that she’ll get called in again tomorrow?

Blech. I don’t even like working through this position in devil’s advocate mode, but bear with me another minute. Let me bear with myself another minute.

The problem is not that I’m trying to say, “OK, it’s cool beans that women are pushed into doing this.” The problem is that I’m saying it’s not clear that consent lets us make the cut. Consent is usually understood in terms of the presence or absence of pressure, and ex hypothesi the external pressures on the sexual-favor-granting and the backbreaking-labor-doing are the same. If one’s consensual, it looks like the other is (and vice versa, COMMUNIST).

Let me be as clear as I can be once again. I absolutely think that things like asking someone to exchange sexual favors for the privilege of continuing to work is awful and wrong. My concern with consent is that it does not adequately capture the wrongness, and the concept threatens to hide other wrong things. If you read this as “oh, consent doesn’t matter, let me go abuse people” you are getting the message very very wrong.

One way to go would be to infer additional pressure from the nature of the act supposedly consented to. This is, e.g., one way that you might argue against prostitution (or suicide). Even if we cannot point to some external factor that differs between, e.g., the situation of a woman (or man) who goes into prostitution and a seemingly-similarly-situated woman who chooses to do something else, we might think that the mere fact that one has chosen (or “chosen”) to go into prostitution demonstrates that she is suffering from some additional external pressure that invalidates her consent.

Fuck yeah, mostly.

Fuck yeah, mostly.

This is a bit of a caricature of the actual argument in the feminist literature, which tends to be able to point to particular structures that provide at least a plausible explanation for why prostitution might be “special,” instead of resting all the weight on the presumed badness of the profession itself. But my sense is that the context of discovery is not too far off from this story – even when we’re looking at issues specific to women, women are subject to all sorts of patriarchial pressures that distort their context of choices that have nothing to do with sex or prostitution. While feminist thinkers rightly decry many of those other things, sex and pornography tend to get special attention.* And it’s hard to avoid it seeming like the deep intuition that prostitution is wrong comes first and theory is built to try to explain and justify that intuition.

If the intuition is correct, this is not in any way an unreasonable thing to do – it’s just part of the standard reflective equilibrium approach to doing ethics.

But it’s also clear that there are theoretical and practical dangers lurking. Practically, it’s easy to not do the hard work of reflective equilibrium and just turn it into rationalization. In this particular case, I worry a bit that if we get too differentially horrified by the sexual favors, we’ll blunt our horror at the other stuff.

On a theoretical level, it’s not clear that consent is doing any interesting work here any more (this is a result that would probably be welcomed by a number of feminist theorists, mind you). We can just skip straight to the badness of giving sexual favors you don’t enjoy.

But now this opens up new and terrible vistas to our gaze.

Importantly, “sexual favors you don’t enjoy” underplays what’s going on here. As Brison puts it, theft isn’t gift-giving minus consent and rape isn’t just sex minus consent. Or, if you prefer something a bit less academic, someone who talks about how cool it would be to have a pill that would make a woman forget that you raped her is probably (culpably) forgetting to include the part of the fantasy where his target is “crying in terror, not to mention resisting.” If we imagine that the women Hedges and Sacco were told about were giving blow-jobs that are exactly like the ones you might get from a woman who’s into you except inside her brain she’s kvetching about it, we’re leaving something out. Even if there’s no overt force, we’re leaving out the look on her face, the act of intimidation to get her to do it, the trauma she may suffer afterwards, lots of really shitty stuff.

But, if we include all of that stuff, two things. First, would consent make it OK? I mean, if we try to imagine the opposite case – sexual harassment plus consent, I’m not sure I can even imagine something coherent. I can imagine things that are sort of like it, like “let’s role-play that I’m a migrant worker…” but that’s different. I’m not being facetious about it being coherent – there’s not clearly any magical moment of “consent” that is distinct from all the stuff that’s different between the overt act of rape or sexual coercion vs. sex. That’s what strikes many people as a bit too rigid about the infamous Antioch College sexual offense policy.** If you talk to a woman (or man), get to know her a bit, invite her to come back to your place, put on some music, talk feminist theory, eventually start making out, she’s enthusiastic about it, etc. etc. the normal “read” of that situation is that consent has been given, even if there is no act of saying “I consent to this.” You can’t have that surrounding pleasant activity and the surrounding awful activity of rape.

Second, why are we even talking about consent? What does “she didn’t consent” add to the badness of what happened?

This brings me back to all the non-sexual stuff about Imokalee workers. I don’t think consent sheds much light on the badness of many of the things that we’re inclined to say are bad because they’re non-consensual. It doesn’t have to be sex. Murdering someone and euthanizing them are typically pretty different things, even if we don’t focus on the moment of saying, “please kill me.”

And I worry that consent is a way of setting up an Agamben-style “state of exception.” We invoke consent precisely when we are talking about evils and abuses of the person. I don’t say that I have “consensual sex” with my wife. I mean, I do, but I just say that I have sex with her. I insist on its consensual nature only if there is some reason I am concerned to prove to you that it isn’t rape. And if that’s the concern, you should probably make your judgments based on something other than my protestations of consent.

Invocations of consent are a sort of ticket into a zone of suspension of the normal rules for dealing with human beings – consent is a “get out of jail free” card for doing things that would normally be wrong. In the case of workers (sex- or otherwise) it is a way of saying, “these horrors are beyond your judgment.” No one invokes consent when talking about my job as a professor. We invoke consent when we’re talking about people with jobs we can’t imagine anyone would want to do, when they are in situations that make us recoil and wonder how we can extricate them. Invocations of consent are aimed at anesthetizing this response.***

BUT BUT BUT BUT FREE WILL!

So far, I’m assuming that there is no important inner act of will. I’ve tried to at least sketch why I don’t think it’s necessary for the important arguments and why it can’t really find a place in them.

I’m influenced here by Brandom’s famous paper, Freedom and Constraint by Norms (sorry for the JStor link, I didn’t find a freely available copy). In a nutshell, Brandom argues that calling something “free willed” is a purely practical judgment. There’s no metaphysical will that you have or you don’t, and we don’t really discover that, e.g., humans have free will but rocks don’t.  Rather, we don’t treat rocks as having free will because the most successful practices we have don’t involve free-willed rocks. Ask some stones to build a house versus mortar them together yourself and see which works better.

This applies to people, too. Treat drug addicts as evil-doers who need to be punished and oops, you’ll end up with an endless drug war and prisons groaning under the weight.

As Brandom anti-pithily puts it,

The force of the claim that the difference between the social [the realm of the free willed] and the objective [the realm of the causal explanation] is a difference in how they are treated by some community (by us) rather than an objective matter about which we could be right or wrong is that differences in convenience of one kind or another are the only differences to be accommodated here. (193)

This provides an answer to the “slippery slope” worry about recognizing constraints on consent that I discussed above. There’s no place on the slope between the pressures on professors and the pressures on slaves that we have to stop. It’s just that our social practices become more and more strained as we try to either treat professors as coerced or slaves as free.

But wait. Wait.

Who’s “us?” Convenient for whom?

I think we think we’ve climbed the slippery slope here when we’ve slid to the bottom (maybe it’s an Escher slope?).

The doctrine of consent is a social practice that creates sacrifice zones full of people we want to exploit. If they were full and equal participants in our social practices, we wouldn’t feel strain and we wouldn’t invoke consent. We invoke consent because otherwise our moral practices threaten to inconvenience us – people like me, relatively affluent, male, white, educated, powerful, comfortable – with nausea and horror. Granting that someone can give consent is often taken to be a way of treating them as human, but I don’t think it is. Treating someone as human is how to treat them as human – invoking their consent too often looks like an excuse for not doing that.

This is why I talk about this being some thoughts/notes toward a “political economy” of consent. I suspect that the ways in which we talk about consent and non-consent are generated by and reinforce a particular distribution of power, economic and otherwise. Framing work as inherently consensual lets me eat cheap tomatoes and enlists some of the very people who make do with crappy conditions so I can have inexpensive consumer goods in the defense of my privilege. If we mark out a zone of sex that is not “work” it has as at least a side effect the impact of making clear that the rules of work that brutalize all non-genital areas of the body are beyond reproach.

NOTES BECAUSE OH FUCK THIS IS A 3000 WORD BLOG POST WITH FUCKING NOTES AND IT’S NOT LIKE IT MAKES ANY SENSE ANYWAY.

* It bears noting that the conviction that sex work is (overwhelmingly/necessarily) bad for the sex workers is only one strand of feminist critique on the issue. For MacKinnon, e.g., the problem is just as much that pornography and sex work communicates and normalizes a misogynistic image of women, and thereby harms other women than the sex workers. For many feminist critics of sex work, it would be an evil even if all sex workers themselves were treated well, enjoyed the work, were not subject to any kind of coercion, etc. I’m only ignoring this line of argument because I’m focusing on a different aspect.

** I don’t agree with people who think the Antioch policy is ridiculous. Lots of things that fly in the context of, say, my relationship with my wife are dangerous to rely on with someone you know less well. Antioch’s policy may err on the side of the cautious, and I suspect it was often violated in letter by committed couples, but seem like a reasonable set of rules for a context in which stakes are high, people are prone to pressure, and communication can be difficult. I’d certainly rather be able to appeal to “the rules” to force communication than have people, as we know people do, go along with something they don’t really approve of because they feel awkward standing up for themselves. And that’s even leaving aside things like extreme drunkenness, etc. that the policy would help blunt the impact of.

*** I don’t want to imply that the response is always appropriate, particularly in the case of sex work. If my points here apply to sex work, as opposed to just being partly inspired by reflection on the ways in which it has come under critique and been defended, it would be in a more limited way. I think the question of whether sex work is consensual (as I am arguing it is for all work) is tangential to the question of whether it’s right or wrong. The argument should be over what life is like for the sex workers (and possibly whatever knock-on impacts it has on other men and women). Most people, myself included, don’t have a very clear picture about what life is like for actual sex workers. All I’m saying is a) if we’re going to pass judgment one way or the other, we should do it by starting with looking in detail at what life is like, and it’s probably going to be very different for different sex workers; we can’t short-cut that investigation by making any sort of transcendental argument about the nature of sex. Once we’ve done that, b) let’s not cheat by invoking consent on behalf of people who look like their sex work is miserable for them or invoking secret non-consent on people who look like it’s a good profession for them. I don’t have settled views on how many people are likely to be in either of those categories, and I think it’d be irresponsible for me to have them.

Publish Your Work in a Special Issue of the FACTS Reports

English

The FACTS Initiative and CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation have announced a call for proposals on local democratic innovations for publication in a special issue of the FACTS Reports, on the 2013 website of the journal, and on the CIVICUS website.

Higher Education and the Movement for Citizen-Centered Democracy

President Obama's State of the Union, on February 12, challenged the country to think big. "As Americans, we all share the same proud title," Obama said. "We are citizens." Higher education can build foundations for the idea -- and the politics -- of citizenship, if we recognize that the fate of our colleges is inextricably tied to our communities and our country. This involves a shift from the moralized and polarizing stance that its key figures often take to a practical politics of problem solving and alliance-building.

A sense of mutual interconnectedness animated Obama's address. "Citizen," in his view, "captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations... it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be authors of the next great chapter in our American story."

Obama's view of citizens as the foundational agents of democracy was widespread in the civil rights movement which I participated in a half century ago as a college student. As Septima Clark, an architect of the citizenship schools across the South put it, their purpose was "to broaden the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepen the concept to include every relationship." Citizenship schools not only taught skills but shifted identities from victim to agent of change, described in Dorothy Cotton's book, If Your Back's Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement. "People who had lived for generations with anger and victimization, now knew in no uncertain terms that if things were going to change, they themselves had to change them." Cotton calls citizenship education "people empowering."

The politics of the movement sought to win over the broad majority for democratic change, far more than the "50% + 1" mindset of most election and issue campaigns today. Thus Thelma Craig, whose organization in Southern Alabama, the Citizens League, elected more black candidates to local office than anywhere else in the South, argued that transforming a racist society requires winning more than 80 percent. "There will be opponents, hold-outs, die-hards. But real change in culture takes place when the overwhelming majority of the population learns to see it as in their own interests."

Obama's vision is similarly broad, challenging the good versus evil, hyper-moralized political scripts which dominate today on both right and left. In contrast, today higher education leaders often contribute to the latter.

For instance, Cornel West, former Harvard and Princeton professor now at Union Theological Seminary, illustrates a moralizing, polarizing approach. He used Martin Luther King's outcries against the Vietnam war, materialism, and racism as the basis for a searing critique of Obama in a New York Times opinion piece, August 25, 2011. He charges that

"The age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling King's prophetic legacy. Instead of articulating a radical democratic vision and fighting for homeowners, workers and poor people in the form of mortgage relief, jobs and investment in education, infrastructure and housing, the administration gave us bailouts for banks, record profits for Wall Street and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable."


After the Inauguration, West told C-Span that Obama's use of King's Bible "makes my blood boil... Martin Luther King Jr. [is] a brother of such high decency and dignity that you don't use his prophetic fire as just a moment in presidential pageantry."

But Martin Luther King is best understood as a co-worker with others like Thelma Craig and Septima Clark in building a movement, not as a heroic moral critic. King well understood the importance of strategic alliance, where possible, with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Highlighting King as a co-worker does not diminish the force of his or West's trenchant criticisms of America's shortcomings. But it shifts the emphasis to what we have to do together -- as academics and as government. Rather than asking Obama to solve our problems, the president is best seen as a partner.

A majoritarian political perspective, aiming at far more than 50 percent, is urgent for higher education to develop in a time of enormous change and mounting threats. A recent story from Inside Higher Education dramatizes these.

"North Carolina governor joins chorus of Republicans critical of liberal arts," read the headline. The story continued: "Governor McCrory's comments on higher education echo statements made by a number of Republican governors...Those criticisms have started to coalesce into a potential Republican agenda on higher education, emphasizing reduced state funding, low tuition prices, vocational training, performance funding for faculty members, state funding tied to job placement in 'high demand' fields and taking on flagship institutions."

Such developments threaten wholesale re-engineering of higher education from the outside. They also create openings. In a time when "outcome measures" are narrower and narrower, from K-12 schools to HMOs in health, professionals of all kinds find themselves in positions analogous to black and white farmers in the populist movement of the 1890s. They "contested the loss of control over the means of their work and the intellectual and physical products of that work," as the community organizer and public intellectual Gerald Taylor has put it in a recent piece on the parallels.

Faculty and others are faced with the prospect that they will either be the architects of change or it will happen to them. There is urgent need for a democratic, majoritarian politics different than the ideological warfare that often characterizes campus cultures. We need to change the largely moral higher education movement for democratic engagement and civic learning into a cross-partisan political movement based on self-interests and shared interests.

Higher education must get in the game, recognizing that the administration is an ally, if we are to navigate the dramatic changes in our environment. And we need to see ourselves as co-workers in the movement for a citizen-centered democracy.

Harry C. Boyte is Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. In 2012, he directed the American Commonwealth Partnership of educational groups, a partnership with the White House Office of Public Engagement and the Department of Education to strengthen higher education as a public good.

Deliberative democracy and the media

Deliberative democracy is based on the principle that politics should be inclusive, deliberative and consequential. This means that there need to be mechanisms to ensure that all those affected by collective decisions should be able to influence the outcome and that this should involve a process of reason and reflection.

Reflection on important issues cannot occur in an information vacuum. We need inputs into our decision making and the better the quality of that information, the better the capacity for us to reflect on what outcomes we think should be aimed for. Certainly there is a tendency to overplay the role of information alone in considering our positions. The common refrain from those concerned about inaction on climate change, for example, is that the public needs to be better informed. But information alone isn’t enough. There is plenty of that out there already. The problem lies in the way that it is put together, the context in which it is presented, and the level of trust in sources of information that reflect the complexity and nuances of the issue, while still being accessible.

In other words, we also need to consider the need for information to be provided in ways that enable us to side-step fallibility in modes of reasoning, such as the tendency to only seek information the reinforces our pre-existing positions (referred to as motivated reasoning, or commitment bias) or to draw intuitive conclusions that sometimes poorly reflect the substance of the issue (referred to as type 1 reasoning, or peripheral processing; as opposed to type 2 reasoning or cognitive processing). These are motivational issues that I’ll write about another time.

But no matter how well intentioned the motivations behind our political reasoning, it will be fallible to the extent that the information available is poor either in the way it is synthesised, balanced or if it attempts to misdirect or deceive. Not all forms of information are equal, nor trustworthy, if the intention of those providing the information is strategic (i.e. seeks to achieve a particular outcome beyond providing information, especially one that is in their direct interest) as opposed to communicative. Indeed, when it comes to climate change there are many sources of information that are provided strategically, but working out who to trust is difficult, especially when the issue, such as climate change, is so complex. Trust in scientists themselves has been undermined from some sectors. Some scholars, such as Ainslie Kellow (a former mentor of mine) argue that, no matter how well founded climate change is per se, the science has been over-egged in some instances — a perception that has not been helped by the famous ‘climate-gate’ emails. In a world where everybody communicates strategically, no matter how well intentioned, the overall effect is a decrease in trust.

So the question becomes, who can we trust to provide trustworthy information? It is well established that the news media (or fourth estate) has traditionally been important to the functioning of a healthy democratic system. Quality journalism (ideally) identifies issues and synthesises information for public consumption, providing a range of views that permit members of the public to develop well-informed positions, which are, in turn, ideally expressed through the political system via formal and informal mechanisms such as voting, public opinion etc. Ideally there is a kind of self-regulation in operation where there is an incentive for news media to provide considered and trustworthy information to consumers, who should be in a position to judge the quality of the information and whether they are willing to pay for it, or simply spend the time to digest it.

However, this assumption appears to be increasingly challenged, with traditional modes of journalism apparently under threat — both for better and for worse. There are a number of reasons why this appears to be happening, not least in the face of technological innovations delivering vast amounts of freely accessible information, undermining the ability of news outlets to fund what we refer to as ‘quality journalism’ — an issue that is identified by Michelle Grattan in her piece in the Conversation. This is a kind of supply side problem where the cost structure is affecting the ability to afford good quality journalism. Another supply side problem involves the concentration of media ownership (partly due to cost pressures) and the potential for the strategic use information going hand in hand with increasing political power, should the motivations of media proprietors switch from mere information provision and profit to activism — a charge that has been levelled a more than one proprietor in recent times.

But there is also related a demand side problem in which information overload and freely available information at that, undermines the appetite of citizens, as consumers of that information, to seek out and fund quality journalism, or to make discerning judgements about what they are reading. And there are longer-term effects that appear to in play as well. The news companies, who are under such tight constraints, need to find ways to attract readers. And in some cases there is a tendency to ‘dumb’ down content, seeking to titillate rather than inform. Or there can be increasing Balkanisation of news outlets who increasingly cater to the specific beliefs of their audience, stroking their sensitivities for profit. The effect is to entrench perspectives even further and produce information enclaves where whole sections of society get their information from entirely different sources, each supporting different conclusions. The result is a spiral into partisanship, and refusal to take into account competing perspectives, with the market catering for the demand for information that provides a firewall against any perspective that doesn’t accord with a consumers’ worldview. The same thing occurs in online groups, who can more easily find others with their own, sometimes extreme views, facilitated by technology.

Good democratic process requires that we, the citizens open our minds to competing perspectives, even if we ultimately reject opposing arguments. We need sources of information that digest these views and present them in ways that are trustworthy. It is the ultimate expression of freedom of choice, to actively choose among alternative, rather than blindly ignore them.

The ideal model of journalism that seeks to illuminate these alternatives seems increasingly under threat. Although there are alternative models to traditional media that do seem to provide ‘quality journalism’, they seem to be outcompeted by fragmented, biased information sources or even outright propaganda.