Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Rights and our common life

Courts know this and nothing more
Now it's my rights versus yours

I know my rights!
As we come to realize that space, resources and opportunities aren't limitless we come to realize our interdependence with other people as well as the natural world. That interdependence can be a good thing (community support in a time of grief, vibrant and interesting places) or a bad thing (taxation, noisy neighbors), but it's real. And unavoidable. The American dream might still be a fast car on an empty road to a big well-accessorized house, but in our waking hours in the real world we are constantly confronted with others. We could try to isolate ourselves, to the extent possible. But if we're realistic, and clever, we look for the upside in cooperation for common goals, while doing what we can to mitigate the nuisances.

And that requires conversation.

Each of the problems of our common life in the 21st century--economic opportunity, environmental sustainability, accommodation of diversity, and so forth--require sustained and ongoing conversation, with everyone involved and contributing. This is hardly a new idea; in the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by the vigor of American political discussion.
In certain countries, the inhabitant only accepts with a sort of repugnance the political rights which the law grants him; it seems that occupying him with common interests takes his time away from him, and he likes to shut himself up in a narrow egoism whose exact limit is formed by four ditches topped off by a hedgerow.
From the moment, on the contrary, that the American was reduced to being occupied only with his own affairs, half of his life would be taken from him; he would feel as if there were an immense emptiness in his life, and he would become incredibly unhappy. (Vol. I, Pt. 2, Ch. 6, from the 2000 Hackett abridged edition translated by Stephen D. Grant, p. 99)
Individual rights are part of the conversation, but they exist and are exercised in a context that is a community. In her 1991 book, Rights Talk, Mary Ann Glendon argues that America's strong tradition of individual rights has mutated into a political speech that is predominantly self-regarding. Our legitimate concerns with individual autonomy and limiting the power of government has begotten a people that can only talk in terms of "the lone rights-bearer" (p. 47), without regard to any mutual responsibility, the social nature of human life, or "the sorts of broad-based, free-ranging, reasoned processes of deliberation that our constitutional order both invites and requires" (p. 179). The capacity to negotiate among diverse interests to achieve "win-win" solutions is destroyed when those interests are stated as absolute rights.
By indulging in excessively simple forms of rights talk in our pluralistic society, we needlessly multiply occasions for civil discord. We make it difficult for persons and groups with conflicting interests and views to build coalitions and achieve compromise, or even to acquire that minimal degree of mutual forbearance and understanding that promotes  peaceful coexistence and keeps the door open to further communication. Our simplistic rights talk regularly promotes the short-term over the long-term, sporadic crisis intervention over systemic preventive measures, and particular interests over the common good. It is just not up to the job of dealing with the types of problems that presently confront liberal, pluralistic, modern societies. (p. 15)
Glendon provides a number of examples of the problem, including abortion, where we struggle with an unsatisfying (if opinion polls are to be believed) dialogue that pits the non-negotiable right of the unborn child to life against the non-negotiable right of the pregnant woman to decide the use of her own body. To this I might add the very successful efforts of the National Rifle Association to forestall discussion of gun violence by asserting a non-negotiable right to be armed; the widespread rights of property owners to build regardless of compatibility with the surrounding context; and the power of the states to give energy interests (fracking, pipelines) absolute rights over affected property owners. All this serves to create a winner-take-all political arena that increases anger and probably alienation.

I think it's helpful to distinguish between types of rights. First and foremost on my list is the right to participate in the conversation. That would certainly include voting rights, but also non-discrimination: No religious tests for office, no poll tax, everyone gets to get married, join the military, and so forth. There can't be an open conversation or a common life at all if we have first- and second-class citizens. These rights are so fundamental to our common life that I wouldn't accept any limitations on them, except where they impact the ability of others to participate. (I think of our current campaign financing rubric which allows a few rich people to out-shout the rest of us.)

A second category is the rights essential to quality of life. The U.S. Constitution doesn't address these, but some state constitutions do, and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the rights to education (Art. 26), rest and leisure (Art. 24), "just and favorable" pay for work (Art. 23) and, in Art. 25, the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. Without getting into the weeds of what level of material comfort is adequate, I think extreme poverty blocks the access to economic opportunity which is fundamental to a functional society. Health care, as envisioned by the Affordable Care Act of 2010, is one element of that opportunity.

Another important category would be protections against governmental power (which John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty (1861), would extend to protections against majority power however it is exercised). The Bill of Rights explicitly protects religious conscience, the right to bear arms (however understood), property, the rights of criminal suspects and the jurisdiction of state governments, and by implication personal privacy as well. None of these has historically been understood to be inflexible. I see them as important protections for individuality that should be part of any conversation, but not so absolute as to shut off that conversation. Accommodations to religious employers under the Affordable Care Act seem to me not only appropriate, but important. The assertion currently before the federal courts by the Little Sisters of the Poor that even requiring a religious employer to certify to the government that they're claiming a religious exemption is an infringement of religious liberty, on the other hand, seems to be claiming a privilege to cut off conversation altogether.

Finally, there are assertions of right to some benefit, often but not exclusively material in nature, which I would I would term privileges. Pretty much this means the right to do or have what I want to do or have, against some real or proposed restriction. A number of European countries provide a "right to roam" for walkers on private land. Most American metropolitan areas have considerable areas devoted to free public parking, which might not be stated as a right but certainly has become an expectation. This weekend's Go Topless Day asserts the right of women not to cover their breasts in public. I would include calls for public school prayer in this category, being the desire for some religious tradition to get official blessing or recognition. Some of these ideas might be beneficial, but they strike me as clearly part of the collective conversation rather than precedent to it.

This has been an awfully abstract post, but I think this needs to be set out prior to discussion of other, specific issues that affect (or afflict) our common life. In short, I follow Glendon in arguing that "rights talk" is way overused in American politics, often with the effect of precluding rather than participating in conversation about our common life. That is a luxury we no longer have.

SOURCE: Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (Free Press, 1991). On joint gains or "win-win" solutions, see Paul J. Quirk, "The Cooperative Resolution of Policy Conflict," American Political Science Review 83:3 (September 1989), 905-921. More generally see Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In (Penguin, 3rd ed, 2011); Dean G. Pruitt, Negotiation Behavior (Academic Press, 1981); and probably bunches of books that have come out since I encountered this concept back in the day.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Starting a conversation about education

Garfield School in Cedar Rapids, where my boys attended and where I still volunteer, will have a new librarian on staff this fall. As was the case with several of her predecessors, she will spend only part of her week at Garfield; however, for the first time, Garfield will share a librarian with two other schools, not just one. Surely this is driven by a search for savings by the school district. Having one-third of a school librarian is particularly awkward for schools like Garfield, where 67.6 percent come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced lunch. But why should even upper middle class students be shorted?

This led me to a series of questions about American education, because I am guessing, although confidently, that such staffing exigencies are not unique to Cedar Rapids.

The education system's ongoing struggle for funds sends me back to the question with which Strong Towns begins its Curbside Chat: Why, despite all the growth America has experienced, do our cities struggle financially just doing the basics? The same question can be asked about our public school systems. So... I'm asking it. I understand this is inviting frustration: there's no standard for how much education spending is "enough," or what specific mix of expenditures is optimal, and public education has become fraught with ideology in a way that it was not when I was growing up. To make matters even more frustrating, there surely is a complex set of causes.

And there are the longstanding issues of educational outcomes, as well as a recently emerging shortage of teachers. These are also complicated, and may be related to budgets. My question here is not why schools don't "perform" better, or even whether more resources would improve performance, but why schools have such difficulty mobilizing resources at all.

Today my ambition is limited to articulating what is known about education in the United States, as well as the questions that I'm currently stuck on. After that I'll be keeping my antennae up for usable information, while I hope that accessing and sharing a variety of perspectives will be somehow productive.
Whittier School, Wheaton, Illinois, where I attended 4th-6th grade

What We Know

Education in America, unlike health care or the macro-economy, has a long history as a government responsibility. Public schools predate American independence, though the rationales for positive externalities have changed over time. Democratic governance was seen to rest on a certain level of citizen competence, which made education a public problem, and in the predominantly Calvinist-Protestant culture being able to read the Bible was seen as essential to a sound understanding of God. As waves of immigration in the 19th century brought more ethnic and religious diversity, public schools came to be seen as a bulwark of American culture: whatever bad thinking their parents brought with them from the old country, children could be properly socialized through the school system. (Roman Catholics understandably bristled at these assumptions, and by the mid-19th century had evolved an extensive set of parochial schools.) Eventually, and particularly as the economy transitioned from a local basis in agriculture to a global basis in services, education was seen as essential to develop the skills individuals needed to support themselves and the country needed to stay ahead of international competition. Throughout this period, what remained consistent throughout this period was the view that there were positive externalities, so education was a societal responsibility.
Today's educational environment is different in many ways from the one I grew up in 40-50 years ago. Most if not all of these complicate the financing of today's schools:
  1. Overall costs have exceeded inflation: per-pupil expenditures in 2011-12 were about 2.5 times what they were in 1969-70 (in constant dollars, of course... what do you take me for?). Like health care, education is a labor-intensive industry, and professional labor to boot, while consumers are not price-sensitive and may even consider costs and amenities as markers of quality. Education remains a distinctively un-remunerative professional degree, but at the same time schools no longer can take advantage of a large pool of women with few other career options. The average teacher salary roughly doubled between 1950 and 1990, and even then relatively low starting salaries were highlighted by Derek Bok in The Cost of Talent (Simon and Schuster, 1993).. Average salaries have been about constant since.
  2. Instructional technology now exists, and at a non-trivial cost. When I was in elementary school, instructional technology was projectors, screens and blackboards.
  3. Education was considered a local concern when most people worked and died in the same town where they were born. In today's highly mobile, global society, it's less clear what are the stakes to residents of a specific community in the education of individual students who happen to live there.
  4. The acceleration of suburban sprawl through the mid-2000s has created some districts with relatively enormous tax bases, while leaving areas of concentrated urban poverty where needs have overwhelmed neighborhood schools, as well as new developments so spread out that neighborhood schools were no longer possible. (On the latter point, see Strong Towns posts by Ben Oleson (2011) and Nathaniel M. Hood (2014).) More than half of students are transported to school at public expense--this has been the case since 1973-74--with transportation expenditures more than tripling since 1970.
  5. The consensus on the basis skills that needed to be taught ("readin', ritin' and 'rithmetic," and such) has broken down. The ability to memorize large number of facts turns out not to be very valuable in the real world, which I say with some wistfulness because I used to be exceptionally good at it. Even so, assessment of students, teachers and schools by multiple-choice testing has exploded since passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002.
  6. Important changes in the 1960s undercut political support for public education. I say this wistfully, too, because I support all of them : creation of a means of national government funding through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, a series of Supreme Court decisions barring school sponsorship of religious indoctrination, and mandates for racial desegregation. While increasing public expenditures for public education was supported by 61.7 percent of respondents in the 2012 American National Election study, the proportions were only 48.6 percent of white born again Christians, 42.7 percent of white conservatives and 43.8 percent of Republicans. Perhaps that emboldened Iowa governor Terry Branstad to item-veto the legislature's bipartisan education budget compromise? Or accounts for more aggressive budget-cutting in states like Kansas, North Carolina and Wisconsin?
  7. Private schools and home schooling have emerged as alternatives to public schools. About 3 1/2 percent of K-12 students are home-schooled. Even so, public school enrollment as a proportion of the total hasn't varied much over the last few decades.
  8. Potshots at teachers' unions and "government schools" have become de rigeur for conservative politicians. Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, who wants to punch unions in the face, might use the most incendiary rhetoric, but he is hardly alone in his sentiments.
What I Don't Know

Since 1970, spending on public schools (as reported by the NCES) by all governments has consistently been between 3.5 and 3.75 percent of GDP. This is about the average of OECD countries. What do the countries that spend significantly more on public education--including Britain, Finland, and the Scandinavian countries--spend less on to compensate?

While American public education spending has been stable overall, transportation costs have increased, and surely health insurance coverage and instructional technology as well. At the same time, average student-teacher ratios have dropped, from 22.3:1 in 1970 to 16.0 in 2012. Does this mean actual class sizes have dropped, or does this reflect additional personnel for students who need special help (because of severe autism, for example)? This suggests there have been reallocations within a relatively fixed education budget. Are there potential additional reallocations, either within the education budget, or from other areas of spending by governments (which total has been fairly constant at 30-35 percent of GDP)?

In other words, what would we have to trade to get a full-time school librarian?
SOURCES: The National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Education, is an excellent one-stop shop for data, whether at the national, state, district or individual school level. Data on the overall economy and government spending come from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. Department of Commerce, and from the Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2015, and are reported in The World Almanac and Book of Facts. James W. Fraser's book Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America (St. Martin's Griffin, 1999) covers the cultural history of American public education.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Transportation, again: Can dysfunctionality be functional?

Following up on last week's post on the Federal Highway Fund, I want to comment on a post this week on the Brookings Institution website (originally published in Politico). The authors, both policy experts, recommend that Congress quit their five-year-old practice of passing last-minute extensions of the Federal Highway Fund, and seriously address our nation's crumbling transportation infrastructure. They recommend an ad hoc Special Joint Committee on Infrastructure, modeled after recent budget summits, composed of Senators and Representatives from both parties and all relevant committees. The committee would be charged with writing a long-term authorization for the Highway Fund, including identification of funding sources, by a stated deadline. "Action to preserve our nation's infrastructure," they hope, "could be proof that Congress is not totally broken."

Their argument assumes, in a semi-stated way, there exists a cross-partisan consensus that: [a] our transportation infrastructure is in desperate straits; [b] infrastructure in bad repair should be repaired; [c] money could be mobilized on behalf of this cause once there is the political will; and [d] once the money is mobilized governments will dedicate it to repairing infrastructure. While 'a' may be beyond argument, and 'c' has a lot of truth to it, the other two should be questioned.

The main problem with 'c' is Congress's prudent pay-as-you-go spending rules. In a universe where new spending could be covered by borrowing in a more or less unlimited way, "PAYGO" forces tough choices. The American Society of Civil Engineers' 2013 report calls for an additional $170 billion annually on roads alone through 2028. (OK, the ASCE is not unbiased, and this amount is certainly exaggerated, but I like the shock factor.) Throw in bridges, rail, ports, inland waterways and aviation and you have a huge backlog of costly projects that would overwhelm federal and state budgets. This isn't something that can be covered by raising the gasoline tax and selling some federal assets. (See Strong Towns' analysis of the 2009-10 transportation effort here.) No wonder members of Congress are balking.

As a result, it is, or should be, becoming increasingly obvious that we have too much infrastructure. According to Strong Towns, state officials in Iowa and Tennessee have acknowledged as much, and Illinois governor Bruce Rauner recently nixed a huge new Chicagoland highway. That this reality has not been more widely acknowledged may be that it's not seen as politically advantageous to acknowledge limits. (Here in Iowa, the presidential campaign is well underway, and candidates only advocates limits on groups they don't like, like teachers' unions for Republicans or the 1 percent for Democrats.) Or maybe we're not that good at math. But really, some of our roads, bridges and so forth need to be abandoned so we can keep up the rest. This is something Gotbaum and Rivlin's ad hoc committee may well be able to coordinate, but could they possibly get it through the whole chambers?

Finally, there's the matter of how the money is spent. Gotbaum and Rivlin lament, "What was once a must-pass national transportation program has for some become 'pork'..." Well, of course it has! Iowa passed a 10 percent increase in the gasoline tax last spring, sold as an infrastructure repair fix, then immediately set about building new highways. This experience has been repeated all over the country, and that's with the states spending their own money. Federal grants tend to be treated by states and localities as windfalls; sure, some of that money will find its way to crumbling infrastructure, but much if not most winds up getting diverted to new construction (which, of course, increases maintenance obligations over time).

I share the authors' concerns, both with our national transportation infrastructure and our dysfunctional Congress. Nevertheless, as Paul J. Quirk and I argued a long time ago, stalemate is often better than ill-advised action (in "Explaining Deadlock: Domestic Policymaking in the Bush Presidency," in Lawrence C. Dodd and Calvin Jillson (eds), New Perspectives on American Politics, CQ Press, 1994). Let's by all means have a national conversation about infrastructure, but let's not rush to pass something, and when we do pass something let it be rational.

SOURCE: Joshua Gotbaum and Alice M. Rivlin, "So Congress Wants to Get Serious about Highways?" Brookings, 5 August 2015

Monday, August 3, 2015

Cedar Rapids' protected bike lanes experiment

Cedar Rapids multimodal transportation planner Brandon G. Whyte led a demonstration Sunday afternoon of the protected cycle lane that will be part of the reconstruction of 3rd Avenue when it is completed in October. The lane will run from 6th Street SW to 3rd Street SE, at which point it will connect to the traditional-style bike lane that continues to 10th Street SE.

The temporary striping was completed with the help of what Red Green would call the Multimodal Transportation Planner's Secret Weapon:

A protected bike lane is one that is separated from car traffic by some sort of physical barrier, such as a curb, bollards, or, as in this case, parked cars.

Sunday's demonstration took place in the 200 block of 3rd Avenue SE. Whyte explained the protected-lane concept as well as the city's plans, and volunteers illustrated by riding through the demo section and around the block.

3rd Avenue and 3rd Street SE
A key feature is the left turn box at the end of the block, which is where the riders are stationed in the picture above. In the presence of traffic, as there would be on a typical weekday downtown, a rider intending to turn left would be (from the perspective of auto drivers) suddenly emerging from behind parked cars. The left turn box... located across the street onto which the rider plans to turn (in this case, 3rd Street). One scoots across with the green light to the box, then waits for the light for 3rd Street to turn green.

I can see the advantage over the current difficulty of making a left turn in traffic while riding on the right side of the road...
3rd Street SE approaching 2nd Avenue, no left-turn box
...but fear it will tax the patience of riders (see below), while auto drivers lose the ability to turn right on red onto 3rd Avenue, currently a popular maneuver.

The protected lanes on 3rd Avenue will be Iowa's first when they are completed in October. They will be followed in 2016 by a pair of protected lanes on 1st Street SW. After that... we'll see. The promise is that the city's considerable effort to improve cycling infrastructure will encourage more people to cycle, particularly those who currently find riding in car traffic off-putting. That means more people getting exercise, fewer cars using the streets and gasoline, and more activity supporting a vibrant downtown, not to mention a critical presence of cyclists that will in itself make cycling safer.

In a post today on the Strong Towns blog, activist Daniel Herriges suggests another positive outcome. Even if protected bike lanes remain rare and weird in our state, the creation of even these few shifts the center of conversational gravity on this issue--what he calls the "Overton window"--making other types of cycling and pedestrian infrastructure more politically possible.

Finally, I hope that, by incorporating cyclists into traffic design, the city has created a structure into which cyclists can comfortably fit. You don't have to be a die-hard bike hater to notice the crazy things some people will do on bicycles. Lori Hasselbeck of Brownsburg, Indiana asked on the CBS2 website:
Will these wonderful new bike lanes keep people from riding on the sidewalks? Going the wrong way on one-way streets? Riding through stop signs and stop lights? Weaving in and out of traffic?
As we spent time hanging out Sunday in the 200 block, I was astounded at the number of cyclists who came down the sidewalk, ignoring the demo lane, us standing there (there was at least one near-collision), and these handsome signs:

I attribute this behavior to long-standing practice in traffic design that has favored cars to the exclusion of bikes, leading to a sort of outlaw behavior--not among BikeCR folk, of course, but among a lot of other people. In the case of sidewalk riding, it's also due to the streets that resulted from this design practice being (or at least feeling) unsafe for cyclists. Bike lanes on heavily-trafficked streets, particularly lanes that are protected or buffered, give cyclists space to behave as part of a community instead of being radical individualists. I hope they will. It won't help our cause if they don't.

NEWS VIDEO: Steffi Lee, "Cedar Rapids Unveils Protected Bike Lanes," CBS2 Iowa, 2 August 2015,

Your faithful blogger rides the demo lane; photo by Ben Kaplan

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Groundbreaking at Indian Creek's "Amazing Space"

Indian Creek Nature Center gathered a healthy crowd on a sunny afternoon last Thursday as they broke ground on their new 12000 square foot facility, which they call Amazing Space. The Nature Center's headquarters and classrooms will move to the new building, out of the 1932 barn they currently call home. The building will produce all of its energy, and then some, with an array of 350 solar cells on the roof, continuing the Nature Center's tradition of pushing the envelope on our thinking about sustainability. The project will unfold in the midst of a restored prairie on Otis Road, about 1/2 mile west of the current facility.
The prairie location; woodlands in the background are also open to the public
The construction is the largest part of a $6.9 million capital campaign, most expected to come from individual and corporate donations. They received a $400,000 grant from the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. [UPDATE 8/3/15: Nature Center staff say construction is expected to take about a year, meaning it will be ready to open summer 2016.]
Executive Director John Myers hosts the program

City officials unveil the newly-named City of Cedar Rapids Prairie

Snacks were "cups of dirt," prepared by Nature Center staff
Model of the proposed facility
Rendering of the building
Project site scheme, including entry off Otis Road, parking area and wetlands

Do bicycle boulevards need a purpose?

I was surprised last weekend to find the place where we were staying was on a bicycle boulevard. A bicycle boulevard is "a street ...