Tag Archives: social infrastructure

Remember The Common Good?

Later this morning, I will speak–via Zoom–to the Danville Unitarians on the  subject of freedom. Here’s a  lightly edited version  of that talk–a bit long, so my apologies.

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There’s an inevitable tension between Americans’ love of freedom—understood as our freedom from government rules dictating our behaviors—and the obligation citizens have  to contribute appropriately to the common good. That tension has manifested itself most recently in a series of conflicts in which self-styled “freedom fighters” have challenged government mandates to wear masks and observe social distancing, but we have seen similar conflicts when government has required  us to wear seatbelts or to refrain from smoking in restaurants and bars.

That tension also motivates our continuing political arguments about tax rates and social welfare programs.

Where do we draw the line between our right to personal autonomy and the government-enforced duties we owe to others? What are those duties, who gets to prescribe them, and how important is our willingness to discharge them? What is our duty to contribute to what academics call social solidarity, and most of us would call a sense of community?

The most basic question of political philosophy is: what should government do? The U.S. Bill of Rights is our list of things that government should not do—censor speech, favor religion, search citizens without probable cause or infringe their liberty interests or property rights without due process, among other things—but America hasn’t revisited (or, really, visited) an equally fundamental question: what is government for? To put it another way, what elements of our social and physical infrastructure should we expect government in the 21st Century to provide—and what are our obligations in return?

We recognize physical infrastructure: roads, bridges, sidewalks, sewers, the national electrical grid. Even then, even with physical infrastructure, there is less recognition of the importance of other elements of the built environment: parks, libraries, public transportation, utilities, street lighting and other elements that collectively produce a community’s “quality of life.” What’s worse, despite almost universal agreement about the importance of physical infrastructure, America’s roads and bridges are in serious disrepair, our electrical grid is vulnerable to hacking, and sewer overflows continue to pollute rivers and streams. Aging pipes are contaminating drinking water in numerous cities and towns;  problems with lead in the water are not limited to the widely-publicized situation in Flint, Michigan.

The problems with America’s physical infrastructure are visible, widely acknowledged and await only a rebirth of political will to fix. The defects in our social infrastructure, however, are much less clear-cut, and because they are highly contested, they resist repair.

By “social infrastructure,” I mean programs that help citizens and build community, including access to economic security, health, education, and the right to equal participation in democratic decision-making, most definitely including the right to vote.

Aristotle thought that social infrastructure should facilitate human flourishing– create an environment within which each individual can live, grow and pursue his or her own particular telos, or life goals.

Americans currently face considerable challenges: a rapidly morphing information environment that facilitates spin, disinformation and outright propaganda, an increasingly overt tribalism, deepening economic inequality, widespread civic ignorance, and the accelerating corruption of America’s legal and political structures. All of these elements of contemporary reality, plus the existential threats posed by climate change and a global pandemic, challenge America’s future.

What comes next? Where does America go from here? Do we fix our problems, or relinquish our place on the world stage and terminate our historically uneven efforts to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights?

Clearly, we’re at a turning point. We could continue the Trumpian withdrawal from global alliances and our own historic civic aspirations. We could enter a period of extreme social unrest, with escalating protests and accelerating social factionalism, leading to a very uncertain future. Or we could revisit America’s existing social contract and evaluate the current utility of our governing assumptions—reaffirming    those that have stood the test of time, and modifying those that no longer serve us.

America has always defined freedom in  the negative–as the individual’s right to be free of government constraint unless she is harming the person or property of someone else. That view of freedom has generated significant conflict: what constitutes a harm sufficient to justify government intervention? How much deference to the rights of others is required? Which others? Is the obligation of government limited to non-interference, or do citizens have the right to demand that government pursue positive actions? If so, what are those actions?

Defining liberty has become even more complicated as America’s population and diversity have increased, as equality (another contested term) has become an equally important value, and as society has become more global and more complex. At a minimum, genuine liberty, genuine freedom, requires more than enforcing limits on the reach of government, important as those limits remain. True liberty– allowing individuals to determine and pursue their individual aspirations– requires ensuring that all citizens have both the means to exercise choice, and sufficient information to inform those choices.

Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen argues that freedom is the ability to exercise individual agency, and that personal agency is inescapably limited, inescapably constrained by available social, political and economic opportunities.  Individual agency—the ability of each person to formulate and pursue his or her life goals– is dependent upon what Sen calls “social arrangements”–what I’m call ing“social infrastructure.”

I hate to argue with my libertarian friends, but in today’s complex and inter-dependent society, government’s responsibility cannot simply be to get out of the way.

Anti-government attitudes that permeate contemporary American culture have been profoundly influenced by a Protestant Ethic that exaggerated the ability of  individuals to rise above social and structural impediments, and minimized the extent to which the social infrastructure in which we are all inevitably embedded contributes to, enables—or hinders—individual achievement.

In addition to older, traditional functions, today’s governments must provide citizens with at least a basic social safety net that supports human freedom and allows citizens to reach their potential. That safety net can be constructed in ways that unify or further divide us.

Here’s an example of what I mean: Look at the widespread, negative attitudes toward welfare programs, and then consider the massive support that exists for Social Security and Medicare. Why the difference? Social Security and Medicare are universal programs; virtually everyone contributes to them and everyone who lives long enough participates in their benefits. Just as we don’t generally hear accusations about lazy poor people who are “driving on roads paid for by my taxes,” beneficiaries of programs that include everyone (or almost everyone) are much more likely to escape stigma and much less likely to arouse resentment. In addition to the usual questions of efficacy and cost-effectiveness, policymakers in a diverse polity should evaluate proposed programs and other government actions by considering whether they are likely to unify or further divide Americans. Universal policies are far more likely to create unity, an important and often overlooked argument favoring programs like single-payer health insurance or a Universal Basic Income.

A workable social contract must respect individual rights and subgroup affiliations, but must also connect citizens to an overarching community in which they have equal membership and from which they receive equal support. The challenge is to achieve a healthy balance—to create a society that genuinely respects individual autonomy within a renewed emphasis on community and the common good, a society that both rewards individual effort and talent, and nurtures the equal expression of those talents irrespective of tribal identity.

That society would have the right to expect its members to pay their dues—taxes, of course, but also a stint of military or public service, and discharge of civic duties like voting and jury service.

How do we get there?  How do we turn our cantankerous and tribal society into a cohesive community? There’s a Native American parable that I think is instructive: One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves that are inside all of us. One is evil. The other is good.” The grandson asked, “Which wolf wins?” and the grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”

America needs a social and political infrastructure that feeds—encourages, promotes and rewards—prosocial, pro-democratic, humane behaviors and norms. Assuming we emerge from the angry and difficult period we are going through—assuming that we vote decisively for democracy and decency on November 3d, it will be time to come together and figure out how government can “feed” the good wolf.

It is past time to honor America’s original motto: e pluribus unum, out of the many, one.

Let’s Talk Social Infrastructure

Let’s abandon doom, gloom and Coronavirus, and talk instead about the brave new world we might be able to construct when the current crisis has wreaked havoc on the one we have.

The most basic question of political philosophy is: what should government do? The U.S. Bill of Rights is a list of things that government should not do—censor speech, favor religion, search citizens without probable cause or infringe their liberty interests or property rights without due process, among other things—but America hasn’t revisited (or, really, visited) the fundamental question: what is government for? What are the elements of the social and physical infrastructure that government in the 21st Century should provide?

And how should we define infrastructure?

We recognize physical infrastructure: roads, bridges, sidewalks, sewers, the national electrical grid. There is less recognition of the importance of other elements of the built environment: parks, libraries, public transportation, utilities, street lighting and other taken-for-granted elements that collectively produce a community’s “quality of life.” Despite almost universal agreement about the importance of physical infrastructure, America’s roads and bridges are in serious disrepair, the electrical grid is vulnerable to hacking, and sewer overflows continue to pollute rivers and streams. Aging pipes are contaminating drinking water in numerous cities and towns; the problem with lead in the water is not limited to the widely-publicized situation in Flint, Michigan.

The problems with America’s physical infrastructure are visible, widely acknowledged and await only a rebirth of political will to fix. The defects in our social infrastructure, however, are less clear-cut, and because they are highly contested, resist repair. “Social infrastructure” includes programs that help needy citizens and build community, including access to economic security, health, education, and the right to equal participation in democratic decision-making.

Aristotle taught us that social infrastructure should facilitate human flourishing.

I tend to harp on the challenges we face: a rapidly morphing information environment, overt tribalism, deepening economic inequality, widespread civic ignorance, and the corruption of America’s current legal and political structures. All of these elements of contemporary reality, plus the existential threats posed by climate change and a global pandemic, challenge America’s future.

What comes next?

We could continue the Trumpian withdrawal from global alliances and our historic civic aspirations, or we could enter a period of extreme social unrest, with escalating protests and accelerating social factionalism, leading to a very uncertain future. Or we could revisit the nation’s existing social contract, evaluate the current utility of our governing assumptions, reaffirm those that have stood the test of time, and modify structures that no longer serve us.

America’s definition of liberty as negative–the individual’s right to be free of government constraint unless s/he is harming the person or property of another– has generated significant conflict: what constitutes a harm sufficient to justify government intervention? How much deference to the rights of others is required? Which others? Is the obligation of government limited to non-interference, or do citizens have the right to demand that government pursue positive actions? If so, what are those actions?

Defining liberty has become even more complicated as America’s population has increased, as equality (another contested term) has become an equally important value, and as society has become more complex. At a minimum, genuine liberty requires more than enforcing limits on the reach of government, important as those limits remain. True liberty– allowing individuals to determine and pursue their individual aspirations– requires ensuring that those individuals have the means to exercise choice, and sufficient information upon which to base consideration of those choices.

Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen argued that freedom is the ability to exercise individual agency, and that personal agency is inescapably qualified and constrained by available social, political and economic opportunities. In other words, individual agency is dependent upon what Sen calls “social arrangements”–what I am calling “social infrastructure.”

In today’s complex and inter-dependent society, government’s responsibility cannot simply be to get out of the way.

Anti-government attitudes that permeate contemporary American culture have been profoundly influenced by a Protestant Ethic that exaggerated the agency of the individual and minimized the extent to which the social infrastructure contributes to, enables—or hinders—individual achievement. In addition to older, traditional functions, today’s governments must provide citizens with a social safety net that affirmatively supports human liberty by allowing citizens to reach their potential.

That safety net can be constructed in ways that unify or further divide us.

A Native American parable is instructive: One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves that are inside all of us. One is evil. The other is good.” The grandson asked, “Which wolf wins?” and the grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”

America needs a social and political infrastructure that feeds—encourages, promotes and rewards—prosocial and pro-democratic behaviors and norms.

It is time to rethink how government should “feed” the good wolf.

Another Assault Begins…

The Hill reports that Trump has rolled back the Obama Administration’s education measures intended to ensure adequate teacher preparation and assess school performance.

The teacher preparation regulations included training requirements for educators, and the school accountability rules were meant to gauge schools’ effectiveness.

The rules drew sharp criticism from Republicans, who argued states should have more control over the classroom. This falls in line with the philosophy of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Republicans lawmakers earlier this month voted to strike down the two rules through the Congressional Review Act, which gives them the power to roll back certain regulations. In the Senate, the special procedure prevents the use of the filibuster.

Trump signed the bills Monday, not only eliminating the Obama-era education rules, but also prohibiting future presidents from issuing similar rules.

Repealing these rules will “encourage freedom in our schools,” Trump said.

Yes indeed. States like Indiana should be free to bleed resources from public schools without having to comply with pesky rules from Washington requiring that they actually evaluate the performance of the (primarily religious) schools that are receiving those resources.

Parents should be free to use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools without some bureaucrat requiring confirmation that the people teaching in those schools actually know anything about subject-matter or pedagogy.

Evidently, the respect for “freedom” shown by Trump and DeVos doesn’t extend to the freedom of taxpayers to demand accountability for enterprises being supported by our tax dollars.

In fact, a discussion about what elements of our social and physical infrastructure should properly be provided by citizens’ tax dollars is long overdue.

We have bridges failing and roads that look like those of third-world countries. We barely–and grudgingly– support public transit. Our tattered and insufficient social safety net is under unremitting assault by politicians who demean Americans who rely on any aspect of it, while ignoring their own dependence on the public purse. (Yes, Paul Ryan, I’m looking at you–but you have a lot of company.)

The public school system is a key element of our social infrastructure. At its best, it provides skills enabling children to escape poverty, a “street corner” through which diverse citizens come to know and understand each other, and an introduction to civic competency.

Do all public schools meet that standard? No. But we have an obligation to fix those that don’t–just as we have an obligation to fix our decaying bridges. Instead, the Republican response is to privatize education and let private interests build–and toll–our roads and bridges. That approach is a rejection of the very definition of an infrastructure–utilities that serve all citizens.

Trump and the GOP don’t want to fix either our schools or our bridges; their definition of “freedom” is enriching private interests at the expense of the public good.

 

Countdown

Warning: if you are in a good mood, skip this post, because I’m finding it very hard not to be depressed by the constant reminders of of American institutional dysfunction.

Everywhere you look, there are people who should know better engaging in self-defeating behaviors and magical thinking, fiddling while America burns. I’ve tried to examine the unease I’ve been feeling–the growing anxiety that I’ve been experiencing. Until yesterday, however, I couldn’t put my finger on it–couldn’t find an analogy that fit.

Yesterday, it came to me: we’re on the self-destruct countdown.

Those of you who are Star Trek fans will understand the reference. Spaceships in science fiction always come equipped with a self-destruct sequence, to be used as a last resort to keep the ship from falling into enemy hands. Typically, the captain and first officer will enter their codes into the computer, signaling their agreement to begin the countdown; the dramatic tension comes as the computer’s disembodied voice counts down the minutes until the ship will explode and kill all the crew and passengers.

On television, of course, the bad guys are thwarted in the nick of time, and the destruct sequence is aborted (usually with mere seconds to spare).

We’re not on television, however, and a real countdown clock is ticking. Unless we do something pretty soon to change our trajectory, we stand a good chance of destroying the America we’ve known–the America with a robust middle class, a functioning government and a belief in its ability to meet daunting challenges like those posed by climate change, technology and globalization.

Yesterday’s post was a pretty graphic demonstration of the way in which wealth is currently distributed in the U.S. There’s ample evidence that disparities of this magnitude are profoundly destabilizing–that left unaddressed, they are inconsistent with a functioning democracy. Too many lawmakers in Washington and state capitols around the country are partisan, inept, or lightly tethered to reality–and the result is government that is so broken that no one trusts it anymore.

This paralysis–this inability of American government to act on behalf of the common good–is our self-destruct countdown.

It’s maddening, because there are so many positive elements of American society. I look at my students, and I’d be proud to turn the country over to them; they are thoughtful, inclusive, determined to contribute to their communities. I look at what science and technology have accomplished, and I marvel at the human ingenuity that has made life better for millions of people. Our arts communities are vibrant. Our universities are adding to the sum of human knowledge.

The thing is, all of those social goods require a functional infrastructure: government. And ours is on self-destruct.

“Individual” Achievement

Today’s New York Times had a story about a Long Island teenager named Samantha who made a scientific breakthrough important enough to land her on the list of semi-finalists of the Intel Science Talent Search. The young woman is impressive–very bright, very hard-working, exactly the sort of youngster most parents want to produce. It is likely that she will grow up to contribute significantly to the store of public knowledge on which civilizations build and advance.

But that wasn’t why the Times ran the article.

What made this one young woman’s achievement so noteworthy was the fact that she and her family had been hit hard during the recession. Her parents had also been badly injured in an automobile accident, and the family even experienced a period of homelessness. Until then, hers had been a pretty typical middle-class family, and what happened to them, unfortunately, could (and did) happen to other hard-working, self-sufficient families. Their story, and their daughter’s, is thus a cautionary tale on a number of levels.

America is a land that lauds individual achievement. And so we should–we all benefit from their contributions. But it is also important to recognize that no individual achieves in the absence of at least minimal social support. As the saying goes, we all stand on the shoulders of others. Usually, that bromide is taken to mean that each breakthrough in human understanding builds on discoveries that have come before–that science builds on previous scientific knowledge, for example. But it also expresses a deeper truth.

Congressman Steven Isaacs, who represents Long Island, took his high-achieving constituent to the State of the Union; according to the Times,  he wanted his Republican colleagues to pay attention, “since they are so determined to starve government programs, weaken the safety net and shun public investment in education and science, all while slashing rich people’s taxes. ‘How does a middle-class family with a daughter who’s a genius find themselves in a homeless shelter through no fault of their own?’ Mr. Israel said. ‘This isn’t just about a celebration of her tenacity.’”

One of the most damaging consequences of the rhetoric of the Right flows from the dogmatic insistence that achievement is a solitary activity, and that the social safety net is a “giveaway” to “them”–“them” being the assorted slackers eager to live off the largesse of “us” hardworking, productive folks. Conservative pundits constantly lecture that “they” need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, seemingly oblivious to the social supports, privileges and plain good luck that have enabled their own comfortable lives.

Here’s the deal: Without government support — public schools, state research institutions and the county shelter that kept her family safe — there is no way that Samantha, brilliant as she is, could have accomplished what she did. Her scientific discoveries will eventually benefit all of us. Those benefits are a return on our investment of tax dollars.

When America is no longer willing to invest in the infrastructure that makes achievement possible, Americans will no longer achieve.