Jason Brennan: The right to vote should be restricted to those with knowledge

BrennanWho should hold power: the few or the many? Concentrating power in the hands of a few – in monarchy, dictatorship or oligarchy – tends to result in power for personal benefit at the expense of others. Yet in spreading power among the many – as in a democracy – individual votes no longer matter, and so most voters remain ignorant, biased and misinformed.

We have a dilemma.

Republican, representative democracy tries to split the difference. Checks and balances, judicial reviews, bills of rights and elected representatives are all designed to hold leaders accountable to the people while also constraining the foolishness of the ignorant masses. Overall, these institutions work well: in general, people in democracies have the highest standards of living. But what if we could do better?

Consider an alternative political system called epistocracy. Epistocracies retain the same institutions as representative democracies, including imposing liberal constitutional limits on power, bills of rights, checks and balances, elected representatives and judicial review. But while democracies give every citizen an equal right to vote, epistocracies apportion political power, by law, according to knowledge or competence.

The idea here is not that knowledgeable people deserve to rule – of course they don’t – but that the rest of us deserve not to be subjected to incompetently made political decisions. Political decisions are high stakes, and democracies entrust some of these high-stakes decisions to the ignorant and incompetent. Democracies tend to pass laws and policies that appeal to the median voter, yet the median voter would fail Econ, History, Sociology, and Poli Sci 101. Empirical work generally shows that voters would support different policies if they were better informed.

Voters tend to mean well, but voting well takes more than a kind heart. It requires tremendous social scientific knowledge: knowledge that most citizens lack. Most voters know nothing, but some know a great deal, and some know less than nothing. The goal of liberal republican epistocracy is to protect against democracy’s downsides, by reducing the power of the least-informed voters, or increasing the power of better-informed ones.

There are many ways of instituting epistocracy, some of which would work better than others. For instance, an epistocracy might deny citizens the franchise unless they can pass a test of basic political knowledge. They might give every citizen one vote, but grant additional votes to citizens who pass certain tests or obtain certain credentials. They might pass all laws through normal democratic means, but then permit bands of experts to veto badly designed legislation. For instance, a board of economic advisors might have the right to veto rent-control laws, just as the Supreme Court can veto laws that violate the Constitution.

Or, an epistocracy might allow every citizen to vote at the same time as requiring them to take a test of basic political knowledge and submit their demographic information. With such data, any statistician could calculate the public’s ‘enlightened preferences’, that is, what a demographically identical voting population would support if only it were better informed. An epistocracy might then instantiate the public’s enlightened preferences rather than their actual, unenlightened preferences.

A major question is what counts (and who decides what counts) as political competence, or basic political knowledge. We don’t want self-interested politicians rigging a political competence exam in their own favour. One might use widely accepted pre-existing tests; the Unites States citizenship test, for example, or the same questions that the American National Election Studies have used for 60 years. These questions – who is the current president? Which item is the largest part of the federal budget? – are easily verifiable and uncontroversial, plus an ability to answer them correctly is strongly correlated with the kind of political knowledge that does matter in an election.

One common objection to epistocracy – at least among political philosophers – is that democracy is essential to expressing the idea that everyone is equal. On its face, this is a strange claim. Democracy is a political system, not a poem or a painting. Yet people treat the right to vote like a certificate of commendation, meant to show that society regards you as a full member of the national club. (That’s one reason we disenfranchise felons.) But we could instead view the franchise as no more significant than a plumbing or medical licence. The US government denies me such licences, but I don’t regard that as expressing I’m inferior, all things considered, to others.

Others object that the equal right to vote is essential to make government respond to our interests. But the math doesn’t check out. In most major elections, I have as much chance of making a difference as I do of winning the lottery. How we vote matters, but how any one of us votes, or even whether one votes, makes no difference. It might be a disaster if Donald Trump wins the presidency, but it’s not a disaster for me to vote for him. As the political theorist Ben Saunders says: in a democracy, each person’s power is so small that insisting on equality is like arguing over the crumbs of a cake rather than an equal slice.

On the other hand, it’s true (at least right now) that certain demographic groups (such as rich white men) are more likely to pass a basic political knowledge test than others (such as poor black women). Hence the worry that epistocracies will favour the interests of some groups over others. But this worry might be overstated. Political scientists routinely find that so long as individual voters have a low chance of being decisive, they vote for what they perceive to be the common good rather than their self-interest. Further, it might well be that excluding or reducing the power of the least knowledgeable 75 per cent of white people produces better results for poor black women than democracy does.

Of course, any epistocratic system would face abuse. It’s easy to imagine all the things that might go wrong. But that’s also true of democracy. The more interesting question is which system, warts and all, would work best. In the end, it’s a mistake to picture epistocracy as being the rule of an elite band of technocrats or ‘philosopher kings’. Rather, the idea is: do what democracy does, but better. Democracy and epistocracy both spread power among the many, but epistocracy tries to make sure the informed many are not drowned out by the ignorant or misinformed many.Aeon counter – do not remove

Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of The Ethics of Voting (Princeton), Why Not Capitalism?, Libertarianism and most recently, Against Democracy. He is the coauthor of Markets without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. He writes regularly for Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a blog.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Luke Mayville: Is money-making an art or a mania?

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by Luke Mayville

“I don’t do it for the money,” reads the opening line of Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal. “I’ve got enough, much more than I’ll ever need. I do it to do it. Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully…or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals.”

Contrary to the efforts of Elizabeth Warren and others to castigate Trump as a money-grubber—someone monomaniacally obsessed with accumulating wealth—the Trump campaign has sought to present him less as a money-maker than as an artisan and a master-builder whose greatness lies not in his wealth but in the structures he has built.

“In our business,” proclaimed Ivanka Trump in her speech at the RNC, “you’re not a builder unless you’ve got a building to show for it, or in my father’s case, city skylines.” Donald Trump’s ruling desire, the story goes, is not merely to accumulate but to build and create—jobs, skylines, deals.

This persona is in keeping with a story that Americans have long told about private ambition and the desire to get rich. Consider Ayn Rand, a writer who is idolized by Fortune 500 CEOs and who may be peerless in her influence on American culture. The heroes of Rand’s novels are not maniacal money-grubbers but rather inventors and architects. Howard Roark, the heroic protagonist of The Fountainhead (and a character whom, by the way, Donald Trump strives to emulate), is described by Rand not as a greedy egoist but as a man who “struggles for the integrity of his creative work against every form of social opposition.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke for an American tradition when he insisted that the pursuit of wealth was driven by something much nobler than greed, ostentation, or a lust for power. “Men of sense,” wrote Emerson, “esteem wealth to be the assimilation of nature to themselves, the converting of the sap and juices of the planet to the incarnation and nutriment of their design.”

Emerson’s suggestion is that the Donald Trumps of the world should be recognized as master craftsman who repurpose the raw stuff of nature into ingenious works of art.

But as we learned in July, Trump’s Art of the Deal was ghostwritten. The real Trump, according to ghostwriter Tony Schwartz, is motivated not by the passion of the craftsman but by an insatiable desire for “money, praise, and celebrity.” What Schwartz revealed is that the career of Donald Trump does not fit the mold of America’s romantic ideal of money-making. Instead, Trump’s character and motives are better explained by an alternative strain of American commentary.

John Adams, who was the second President of the United States and also a shrewd critic of America’s emerging commercial culture, believed that the pursuit of wealth was driven by a raging passion for social distinction. The desire for riches was akin to political ambition, which Adams described as a motive that “strengthens at every advance, and at last takes possession of the whole soul so absolutely, that a man seeks nothing in the world of importance to others or himself, but in his object.” The desire for riches, which was merely one variety of the desire for praise and distinction, was maniacal because it was ultimately insatiable. “The love of gold,” wrote Adams, “grows faster than the heap of acquisition; the love of praise increases by every gratification, till it stings like an adder, and bites like a serpent; till the man is miserable every moment when he does not snuff the incense.”

Martin Luther King Jr. echoed Adams when he described Americans’ love of money as a variety of the “drum-major instinct,” a desire “to be out front … to lead the parade … to be first.” The desire to stand out was not a bad thing in itself. In fact, King believed that the instinct should be harnessed to motivate service to humanity. But much more common was the case of the avaricious man who, moved by the drum major instinct, buys a fancier car and builds a bigger house than the next man, all in an effort to out-do the Joneses.

Among the revelations of Trump’s ghostwriter was that the depiction of Trump as a passionate artisan—someone who crafts real estate deals in the same way that a poet writes poetry—was merely a cover-up used to hide his true ruling passion: to get rich and, beyond that, to prove “I’m richer than you”—to be distinguished and celebrated for his wealth.

Surely, not all money-making is driven by such self-absorption. Riches have often been the reward of the bourgeois virtues of thrift, saving, timeliness, and industriousness. Much of America’s wealth can in fact be traced to extraordinary feats of invention and ingenuity. But the phenomenon of Donald Trump reminds us that the idea of money-making as craftsmanship—even if it contains a substantial part of the truth—is also readily deployable as a self-serving myth. And the problem is not just that the myth excuses the greed of those billionaire politicians who wish to govern us. It also flatters the pervasive yearning for riches among the broader public, the same yearning that motivated droves of Americans to buy The Art of the Deal.

MayvilleLuke Mayville is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for American Studies at Columbia University. He is a contributor to Commonweal and the author of John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy.

Christopher Loss: Will higher education be free?

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By Christopher P. Loss

Higher education will figure more than ever in the coming presidential battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Once a political afterthought, higher education has become a major policy problem of great consequence in recent elections. This one will be no different.

The candidates have their choice of issues from which to choose, from state disinvestment and affordability to access and free speech. But the only one that’s going to matter come November will be Clinton’s vow to make public college free for families who earn less than $125,000 and Trump’s determined opposition to it.

The idea of “free college” is not new. In 1947 President Truman favored it. The recent discussion of it, however, was sparked by President Obama in 2015 when he proposed America’s College Promise—at $60 billion plan modeled on Tennessee’s free community college program of the same name. Late in his second term, Obama’s proposal flamed out in Congress but became a touchstone of Senator Bernie Sanders’ upstart presidential bid and, ultimately, part of the Democratic Party’s platform.

The “free college” issue will be central to both campaigns. Trump, who has yet to put forth a higher education platform, has the easier task. He will do what he can to portray Clinton’s plan as just another big ticket, big government giveaway that the country cannot possibly afford—a wasteful bailout for the under-performing, outmoded higher education sector. Among fiscal conservatives and the “poorly educated” whom Trump has actively courted, this will be all they need to hear.

For her part, Clinton will press hard on the Trump University debacle for as long as she can, though at some point she will have to make her case for government action in what would be a colossally complicated and hugely expensive undertaking. The specter of Clinton’s failed effort at healthcare reform in the 1990s also looms large. For years that failure was used by her opponents as exhibit A of big government run amuck.

In the aftermath, if not afterglow, of the Affordable Care Act, however, Clinton has been partially redeemed as a politician ahead of her time. Will the American people get behind Clinton on the free college issue? Is she a sage or just another political opportunist willing to say and do anything to win over the college-educated voters who abandoned her in the spring but that she needs in the fall? This is the question heading into November.

Which begs a series of other related questions: First, is the college cost crunch the big issue that Clinton and others in the media have made it out to be?

The answer to this question is a qualified yes: the cost of college is a daunting burden for many students, but especially for poor students. Yet it’s also true that there is an enormous amount of misinformation about the “real” cost of college, as William Bowen and Michael S. McPherson detail well in their new book, Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education (Princeton University Press, 2016). Using data from the College Board, they put college costs in perspective, noting that 61 percent of college students graduate with some debt and that the average debt per graduate is around $26,000. They dig deeper to make sense of exactly what it means, since 39 percent of indebted graduates owe less than $10,000 and another 28 percent owe between $10,000 and $25,000. Only four percent of students owe more than $100,000. These data may surprise readers who have relied on anecdotal news articles and misleading documentaries for their information; for Bowen and McPherson, these data suggest that the affordability problem might well be “overblown” and that there are bigger issues like college completion that need to be addressed.

For the sake of argument, let’s agree that rising tuition and fees and associated debt represents a problem of some magnitude. This leads to the second question: if Clinton is elected—and most prognosticators seem to think she will be—is the wholesale reconstruction of the federal-higher education student aid model politically feasible? I wouldn’t count on it. Although it is clear that we long ago entered an era where a college diploma is necessary for upward mobility and global competitiveness—when the social and economic benefits of education beyond high school are beyond doubt—a total overhaul the federal aid model seems farfetched. Not only are there real issues with the associated costs and administrative challenges of implementation, as Kevin Carey noted recently in the New York Times, the likelihood of continued Republican control of the House as well as the Senate would make it difficult if not impossible to pass such a law.

Where does this leave us? More than likely it leaves the higher education system in exactly the place that it is today, with students left to navigate the existing aid system in order to go to school.

LossChristopher P. Loss is associate professor of public policy and Higher Education and associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Between Citizens and State: The Politics of of American Higher Education in the 20th Century (Princeton University Press, 2012), which won the  2013 American Educational Research Association Outstanding Book Award.

Leah Wright Rigueur: Black conservatives do not speak for the black majority

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By Leah Wright Rigueur

Published in association with Aeon Magazine, a Princeton University Press partner.

When black voices rally to validate and defend extremist ideas, political observers should watch with heavy skepticism. In April, the National Diversity Coalition for Donald Trump launched a campaign in support of the controversial presidential candidate. ‘This man is no more racist than Mickey Mouse is on the Moon!’ Bruce LeVell, the coalition’s co-founder and a businessman from Georgia, told The Washington Post. Better yet, what are we to make of the former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s puzzling endorsement of Trump?

At a moment when black Americans, of all ideological persuasions, are deeply concerned with a status quo in the United States that allows racial inequality (and discrimination) to fester, black boosters for the party’s right wing have insisted that the ‘race issue’ is a distraction. Some even claim that black America will benefit from a Trump presidency. This kind of posturing might seem mystifying to some degree, but it is not new; there have always been black people willing to endorse the nation’s most extreme figures. The civil rights activist James Meredith worked for the Republican senator Jesse Helms in 1989, after all.

Employing black ‘surrogates’ or spokespeople for extremist candidates has become a way of validating non-traditional ideas as ‘authentic’, while at the same time invalidating accusations of racism. While the Democratic Party also has employed black voices in this manner (much to the distaste of its critics), the Republican Party’s use of conservative black voices is all the more fascinating because black conservatives’ beliefs are generally at odds with mainstream black opinion.

Egregious contemporary and historical examples abound. Consider the National Black Silent Majority Committee (BSMC), a black conservative organisation launched on 4 July 1970. Founded by Clay Claiborne (a former Republican National Committee staffer acquitted of defrauding black voters in the 1964 presidential election), the BSMC professed a faith in free-market enterprise and two-party competition, and adhered to a strict anti-communist, anti-welfare, anti-busing, pro-‘law and order’ agenda. Unlike other black Republican groups of the era, the BSMC articulated neither public nor private complaints about race and the Republican Party. Instead, the organisation exclusively blamed black people for the country’s problems with race. Upon the group’s founding, the civil rights activist Julian Bond called the BSMC a ‘trick’ to ‘subvert black political hopes on the altar of white supremacy and political expediency’.

The BMSC used Richard Nixon’s rhetoric of a forgotten class of Americans, claiming to speak for a majority of silent black Americans, ‘sick and tired of the agitation, shouting, burning and subversion carried out in their name by self-styled militant groups’. The organisation assembled a high-profile group of black men and women willing to endorse conservative values, including the national president of the Negro Elks fraternal order, the founders and publishers of the black newspapers the Atlanta Daily World and the Arizona Tribune (now The Informant), and dozens of black ministers from around the country. Black women also took on prominent roles as BSMC surrogates – an unusual occurrence, as black women were, and still are, the least likely of any demographic to support the Republican Party.

In 1972, for example, Mary Parrish was the star speaker of the BSMC’s 52-city ‘Black Youth Voter Crusade’. Parrish, a black Democrat-turned-Republican (who started her career campaigning for Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm) used her pulpit to claim that liberals had ‘politically enslaved’ black people, especially black women; the Republican Party, she insisted, without providing tangible examples, represented the best hope for the ‘continued advancement of black people’. Parrish’s unusual turn as the ‘face’ of the BSMC is not an isolated event. Today, black women are among the most high-profile of the Trump campaign’s spokespeople.

But such minority endorsements are sporadic, and rarely translate into partisan support. When the BSMC launched in 1970, more than 72 per cent of black Americans held unfavourable views of President Nixon. Currently, about 80 per cent of black people hold unfavourable views of Trump. For both the BSMC and Trump’s black surrogates, this disconnect is consistent with their resolute dismissal of issues related to racial and social inequality, and their harsh criticism of black people who reject the Republican nominee.

Back in the 1970s, the BSMC readily admitted that the vast majority of its supporters were white. As the historian Matt Lassiter has suggested, the Nixon White House ‘orchestrated’ the creation of the BSMC to provide a counter-narrative to black moderate, and militant, voices, which also appealed to ‘white voters who believed that the civil rights and antiwar movements had gone too far’.

My own research shows that the all-white National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) was also a heavy financial backer of the BSMC from the start, providing start-up funds, financing the group’s cross-country ‘Patriotism’ and ‘Anti-Busing’ crusades, regularly highlighting the BSMC’s adventures to the public, and arranging private meetings with influential white officials.

In an unintentionally ironic moment in 1970, the then South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, a vocal cheerleader for the BSMC, declared that the organisation’s existence proved that plenty of black radicals were attempting to ‘speak for groups which they do not actually represent’. Indeed, by the mid-1970s, politicians actively used the BSMC to elicit broader political support for right-wing agendas largely rejected by black audiences, by suggesting that the group spoke for a black majority. The BSMC also provided a buffer against charges of racism, with white politicians arguing that their own policies couldn’t possibly be racist or discriminatory, since the BSMC endorsed them. In this way, the BSMC reassured white conservative voters uncomfortable with the social taboo of racism.

The BSMC is just one example of many organisations (and individuals) to emerge in the past few decades in support of ideas on the fringes of black political thought. As a result, black Republicans critical of their party’s position on race saw their influence within the party dwindle, as groups such as the BSMC saw their stock rise among the Republican Party’s right wing. New quantitative research suggests that little has changed; Republican politicians are more interested in championing right-wing black Republicans whose views on race fall outside mainstream black political thought than those whose race-conscious messages are more closely aligned with the attitudes of black people at large. For most black Republicans within the party, this sends a clear and troubling message – power for the party’s minorities often comes by way of endorsing right-wing extremism.

Thus Trump’s turn to minority (especially black) spokespeople should come as little surprise. But while race lends an air of legitimacy to extremist candidates, it rarely presents an accurate picture of black political opinion. If anything, when the extremists play the ‘race card’, genuine concern for racial issues are likely to be buried.

Leah Wright Rigueur The Loneliness of the Black Republicanis an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (2015).

Highlights from the Election 2016 Blog: What’s next?


This election season, Princeton University Press has been featuring discussion from a variety of authors on the candidates and issues. Here is an overview of the fantastic posts we’ve featured to date. Is there something you’d like to see discussed here? Tweet your suggestions to @PrincetonUPress


Paula S. Fass wrote on Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Get the Youth Vote as well as why she thinks that Young Americans need required national service.

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Amy Binder addresses the surprisingly inciting tactics of Republicans in the past in The Provocative Politics of the Republican Party.

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George C. Edwards III explicates the important traits and knowledge necessary to any candidate in What do We Really Want in a President?


Thomas Knock lists major books about presidents and politics in his article, Classic Presidential Reads.


Lynn Vavreck examines John Kasich’s campaign and the power of television ads in Can Kasich Accentuate the Positive?

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Wendy Schiller talks about how other elected positions will affect the winning candidate in her article, The Supreme Court and the battle for the U.S. Senate.

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Jason Stanley discusses how Clinton has accused Sanders of being A Single Issue Candidate and in another article speaks on Donald Trump and Mass Incarceration.

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Simon Reich looks at each of the major candidates and their experience on foreign policy in his article, Does it matter who wins the election when it comes to the Middle East?

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Jonathan Zimmerman contrasts the secrecy and unreliability that follow Hillary Clinton against the undeniable authenticity of Bernie Sanders in his article on Hillary Clinton and the Perils of Authenticity.

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Zoltan L. Hajnal discusses how despite creating controversy and outrage over his racist and sexist remarks, Trump has only gained popularity, in his article on how Trump’s strategy is nothing new for the GOP.

The Loneliness of the Black Republican

Leah Wright Rigueur discusses the disappointing suspension of Rand Paul’s campaign in Rand Paul’s failed appeal to black voters.

When Movements Anchor Parties

Daniel Schlozman questions why all of the Democratic party’s support has gone to Hillary Clinton in Why Bernie Sanders is getting movements’ cold shoulder.

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Jason Brennan insists that our notions about democracy are completely unreliable in his article, Our relationship to democracy is nonconsensual.

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Ellen Wu on the issue of a ‘model minority’ and Nikki Haley’s current position in that political stereotyping in her post, Nikki Haley and the American Dream.

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Nancy Woloch speaks about women’s healthcare and the laws currently being considered that may negatively affect women nationwide in The Explosive Potential of the Whole Women’s Health Case.

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Nicholas Bloom discusses poverty housing programs and how presidential candidates have recently been addressing these areas in The Perilous Politics of Housing Poor People.

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Chirstopher Kutz points out how loudly the silence of candidates’ speaks on drone strikes and taking responsibility for them in his article Drone warfare: The real moral debate.


Peter Lindert & Jeffrey Williamson: Will the rise in inequality ever stop?


By Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson

Could the steep rise in the share of income gains falling into the hands of the top one percent of Americans since the 1970s have been stopped, and will the rise stop in the near future? A newly revealed history of American growth and inequality suggests the answer is yes to both questions.* What is exceptional about recent American experience is that inequality has risen faster than in other rich countries. Furthermore, it has happened twice in our history – before the Civil War, and again since the 1970s. Without some exogenous crisis like revolution, war, and great depressions, does America have the political will to stop the widening of income gaps between the very rich and the rest?

How hard would it be to stop, or even reverse, the trend? The economics is easy. The politics may be harder. However, to make the policies politically acceptable, just follow a simple equality-growth rule: Make life chances more equal in a pro-growth manner. Prioritize those economic policies that have been shown to equalize people’s opportunities without doing any damage to the growth of our average incomes.

$100 bills lying on the sidewalk

Finding such win-win policies is easy. To see why it’s so easy, just remind yourself: Has our political system seized all the chances to make us richer and more equal at the same time? Of course not. Throughout American history politicians have failed to cash in on equitable growth opportunities, even though they are all around us like so many $100 bills left lying on the sidewalk.

Four easy win-win choices stand out when we compare our experience with that of other countries – and yes, the United States can learn positive lessons from other countries.

Early and basic education for all. The United States has slipped down the rankings in its delivery of early education since the 1960s. At the primary and secondary levels, other countries have caught up with us in years of school completed, and we rank about 27th among all tested countries in the quality of the math, science, and reading skills that students actually learn by age 15.

We are also below the OECD average in the enrollment of three- and four-year olds in early education-plus-care institutions, mainly because we are also below average in our commitment to both public and private funds in pre-primary education. A growing body of evidence shows high returns to early education. Providing it to all serves both equality and growth.

Investing in the careers of young parents with newborns. Our country lags behind all other developed countries in public support for parental work leave. We are failing to invest in both child development and mothers’ career continuity. All of society gains from the better nurturing of our children and the extra career continuity of their mothers, and all of society should help pay for parental leave, not shoving the whole burden onto the young parents or their employers. Other countries figured this out long ago.

Equal opportunity and the inheritance tax. We should return to the higher federal tax rates on top inheritances that we had in the past. This would force rich children receiving bequests to work harder, make Americans more equal, and, by leveling the playing field for new generations a bit, even promote economic growth. A return to a policy which dominated the twentieth century would deliver on the American claim that “in our country, individuals make their own way, with their own hard work and abilities.” To honor that claim, we should make sure that the top economic slots are not reserved for those born very rich. We have done it before. Our top rate of inheritance taxation was 77 percent from 1942 to 1977, years when American incomes grew at the fastest rate this country has ever attained. We haven’t achieved that growth performance since the policy was changed in the 1970s.

Taxing high inheritances is not anti-growth. Instead, it promotes productive work by those who would have inherited the top fortunes. Statistical studies have demonstrated the strength of the “Carnegie effect”. Carnegie was right: passing on huge inheritances undermines the heirs’ work incentives. We also need to stress that bigger inheritance taxes do not take income away from any living rich citizen who has earned it.

Riding herd on the financial sector. Since our Independence, the United States has been above average in its history of financial meltdowns. One could even say that America has been “exceptional” in that regard. Frequent bubbles, booms, and crashes have done great damage to our growth and our equality. The danger of future meltdowns remains, because the Dodd-Frank reforms of 2010 are weaker than the tougher regulatory reforms of the 1930s, which served us so well until the ill-advised de-regulation of the 1980s. More regulatory vigilance, government liquidation authority, and capital requirements are needed to prevent financial breakdowns that tax the non-rich to bail out the rich, and make the poor also pay by losing their jobs.

History is also clear on the inequality connection. When the financial sector was closely regulated in response to the Great Depression disaster, the incomes of the rich in the financial sector fell to more moderate levels. After de-regulation in the 1980s, incomes of the rich in the financial sector soared.

Picking up the easy money takes time – and votes

Implementing just these four win-win policies may or may not be enough to stop any trend toward more inequality, or to raise growth rates from their now-modest levels. We will have to push against a strong headwind coming from competition with poorer countries. Lower-skill jobs in this country will continue to suffer from the competition produced by the long-overdue catching up rise in Asian economies since the 1970s, and from Africa in the future. This new global competition is to be welcomed. There is no reason to wish that poor countries remain hobbled by the bad institutions that have impoverished them for so long. Yet the rising competition challenges the United States to continue to upgrade its own skills to keep ahead. All the more reason to upgrade our human capital.

It will take some time to do these things. Politicians and voters hate to wait for good results that are more than two years away. And such policies may face opposition from those who would not directly gain from such win-win policies.

Still, our democracy can achieve reforms that promote both growth and equality. We’ve done it before. We can do it again. That’s what elections are for.

* The findings reported here are substantiated in Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson, Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality since 1700 (Princeton University Press, 2016).

unequal gains lindert jacketPeter H. Lindert is Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of California, Davis. His books include Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century. He lives in Davis, California.

Jeffrey G. Williamson is the Laird Bell Professor of Economics, emeritus, at Harvard University. His books include Trade and Poverty: When the Third World Fell Behind. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Both are research associates at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Together they have written Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality Since 1700.

Jason Stanley: How free market ideology perverts the vocabulary of democracy

Election_Blog_Series_Banner2[1]By Jason Stanley

This essay appears simultaneously in Aeon Magazine and is republished with permission in our Election 2016 series

Citizens of the United States are quite taken with the vocabulary of liberal democracy, with words such as ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, which conjure key democratic values and distance the nation from the Old World taint of oligarchy and aristocracy. It is much less clear, however, that Americans are guided by democratic ideals. Or that ideology and propaganda play a crucial role in concealing the large gap between rhetoric and reality.

In truth, the Old World systems have proved extremely difficult to shrug off. In their 2014 paper, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page argue that, as in an oligarchy, ordinary US citizens have no ‘substantial power over policy decisions [and] little or no independent influence on policy at all’.

Moreover, the US regularly subscribes to a form of managerial aristocracy. In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder successfully replaced the mayors and city councils of several cities with ‘emergency managers’ supposedly able to negotiate financial emergencies better than elected officials. In the current presidential race, Hillary Clinton advertises her managerial expertise via the language of policy, while Donald Trump parades his via the language of business. Neither language is democratic. Neither invites self-governance.

Why is there no outcry about these oligarchical and aristocratic methods? Is it because plutocrats have power over the mechanisms of representation and repression? Is it, in short, about power? In my view, power can’t explain why voters are so enthusiastically voting for the very people who promise the least democratic outcomes. Nor are Americans knowingly rejecting democratic ideals. Instead, I see an anti-democratic ideology at work, inverting the meaning of democratic vocabulary and transforming it into propaganda.

Consider the example of mass incarceration in the US. Black Americans make up around 13 per cent of the population, but around 40 per cent of country’s ballooning prison population. Even if we assume, falsely, that black American crime rates justify this disparity, why is the state so punitive? Shouldn’t citizens instead be motivated to address the underlying socio-economic conditions that lead to such dramatic differences in behaviour between equals?

In The New Jim Crow (2010), Michelle Alexander argues that a national rhetoric of law and order has long justified mass incarceration. President Richard Nixon used it to crack down on black Americans under the cover of an epidemic of heroin use; this continued in the 1980s, as a merciless ‘war on drugs’ whose victims were all too often black men. In the US, the ideology of anti-black racism takes the view that blacks are violent and lazy, thereby masking the misapplication of the ideals of law and order.

Compare the ‘war on drugs’ to the current heroin crisis among middle-class white Americans, which has led to a national discussion of the socio-economic distress facing this class. Law and order doesn’t come into it. ‘The new face of heroin’ is new because, unlike the old face, it calls out for an empathetic response, rather than a punitive one. Now that heroin is ravaging white communities not black ones, the language of law and order (deemed appropriate to keep blacks in their place) has been retired. More significant still is that while the ideals of law and order preclude their unequal application, the propaganda of law and order does not: Americans were thus prevented from seeing the disguised gradient of law and order by racist ideology.

But what is the flawed ideology masking the misapplication of democratic ideals? Let’s bring it out by exploring the most cherished US democratic ideal, the ideal of freedom – popularly embodied in attacks on ‘big government’. Voters are repeatedly told that ‘big government’ is the primary source of coercion that limits freedom, which it certainly sometimes does, as the Patriot Act reminds us. But corporations also limit civic freedom in significant ways.

For example, corporations are leading direct attacks on the freedom to collectively bargain. Via outsourcing, free trade agreements allow corporations to move jobs to countries where labour is cheap; meanwhile, as a result of pressure from the conservative non-profit Citizens United, corporations can fund political candidates, thereby increasing corporate control of government. The weaker a government is, the more power corporations have over it. Across the political spectrum, there is anger that government is too influenced by industry lobbyists.

Voters concerned about government – as opposed to corporate – constraints on freedom are under the grip of what I will call a free market ideology. According to that ideology, the world of capital is by its nature free. All other substantial freedoms, including political freedom and personal freedom, are made possible by the freedom of markets.

Why do citizens who cherish freedom as an ideal vote to constrain their own freedoms by increasing the power of corporations? It’s because free market ideology masks the ways in which corporations deploy undemocratic modes of coercion. When a corporation bans employees from expressing, outside of work, opinions it disapproves of, this is seen as a legitimate protection of its economic interests. If workers have to sign non-disclosure contracts that silence them after they are employed elsewhere, it’s accepted as the cost of doing business.

The contradictions here are telling. If our most basic freedoms are self-expression and choiceful action, then corporations frequently limit our most basic freedoms. In liberal democratic theory, it is government that is regarded as the protector of such rights. But it’s precisely because government is attacked in the name of freedom that corporations have vastly greater power to constrain and shape it.

Free market ideology uses democratic vocabulary as propaganda, obscuring a non-democratic reality. Take education. In a liberal democracy, education equips citizens with the tools and confidence to weigh in on policy decisions and play a role in their own self-governance. Hence, democratic education is at the very centre of democratic political philosophy, as the philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, W E B Du Bois, John Dewey and Elizabeth Cady Stanton attest. But the US rhetoric surrounding education is explicitly anti-democratic. Citizens prefer ‘efficient’ education systems that train children to perform vocational tasks, rather than education that fosters community, autonomy and civic participation.

The rhetoric politicians use when running for office is usually explicitly anti-democratic. Managerial culture is paradigmatically undemocratic: a CEO is like a feudal lord. But if markets are zones of freedom, then CEOs ought to be its representatives. Free market ideology also explains why, when politicians with great wealth run for office, voters are not put off by the threat of oligarchy: wealth is acquired in markets – which are the source of freedom. Finally, free market ideology explains why voters so easily give up their right to hold institutions accountable to experts who promise ‘efficiency’. Efficiency is the ideal of business, and business is the engine of the market – again the source of freedom.

Free market ideology has perverted democratic vocabulary, transforming it into propaganda that, in turn, obscures an anti-democratic reality. Yet there’s hope that voters have wised up to this and begun to challenge party elites. Such moments of awareness feel dangerous but offer great opportunities. Voters are using the proper tool – elections – to make their concerns heard. Will anyone listen?

Stanley jacketJason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. He is the author of Knowledge and Practical Interests, Language in Context, and Know How. His latest book is How Propaganda Works, recently released by Princeton University Press.

Nicholas Dagen Bloom: The Perilous Politics of Housing Poor People


By Nicholas Dagen Bloom

The rolling disaster of America’s urban poverty housing programs is evident in the packed homeless shelters, tent encampments, high rent burdens, lead poisoning, frequent evictions, and public housing disinvestment featured widely in American newspapers, books, and television shows. The differences in housing conditions that once separated big American cities (such as New York from Los Angeles) are much less important than they were a decade or two past.

To shore up their urban base, the Democratic presidential candidates even made quick visits to public housing developments in New York City, an acknowledgement of a new urban housing crisis in both the quantity and quality of housing. The candidates showed genuine concern, looked earnestly at the damage caused by decades of federal disinvestment, and reminded voters of their generous housing platforms.

Both candidates know that it won’t be easy. Liberals with national ambitions and power who support housing programs have wrestled with the issue of housing poor people for decades. They want to help, but they understand that most Americans distrust direct federal housing programs for the poor. And housing the poor, on its own merits, comes with many liabilities.

President Franklin Roosevelt, under intense pressure from his New York base, may have created the first permanent public housing multifamily program in the United States (the Housing Act of 1937) for the third of the population that was “ill housed”, but he also believed most “families should have individual homes . . . however modest.” His public housing program, attacked by conservatives as “creeping socialism,” thus remained comparatively small and stingy. Roosevelt’s Federal Housing Administration proved, in time, nationally popular as it made single-family homes more affordable, operated in an indirect manner on the housing market (mortgage insurance), left private builders and owners almost entirely to their own devices (redlining), and focused almost exclusively on the lower/middle class rather than the urban poor. The success of the FHA in helping build suburbia in the 1940s and 1950s undermined the mass support for public housing because most of the middle-class got their dream homes.

Roosevelt’s successor, President Harry Truman, made public housing a national priority in the context of a temporary postwar housing shortage, winning the Housing Act of 1949 that called for 800,000 public housing units. Yet the Korean War emergency, which slashed public housing subsides dramatically, stretched those targets out over a decade. As the postwar housing shortage eased in the 1950s, as private builders created miles of affordably priced suburban single-family homes, it was primarily in big cities where residual support for public housing remained, often for purposes related more to commercial redevelopment than humanitarianism.

Even many dedicated liberals wavered in their faith as the public housing towers rose in the 1950s and 1960s. Liberal Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller (R-NY), in an address to the NAACP in 1962, admitted that subsidized housing “has been building up social and economic problems even more serious that the problems it was expected to solve” including racial and social segregation. And while Rockefeller himself remained committed to big government housing programs, building more housing than any New York Governor then or since, subsidized housing figured very little in his national appeal. Most of his state housing programs, even for the poor, also relied on public/private partnerships.

By the 1960s, the “projects” had taken on their full range of negative connotations even though in cities like New York they provided a necessary form of permanent low-cost housing for the urban poor and working class (and still do today). Most American politicians of both political parties ran from programs like public housing, substituting a complicated mix of subsidies for private interests in the low-income housing field.

Many of these new public/private programs proved, in many respects, quite successful. Richard Nixon ended new public housing in 1973 and introduced vouchers (Section 8) in private housing to de-concentrate poverty concentration. Ronald Reagan slashed direct housing programs but signed off on the new Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) which gave tax breaks to corporations who invested in new affordable housing serving income levels generally higher than public housing. The 1990s and Bill Clinton will best be remembered for the Hope VI program which paid for the knocking down and redeveloping public housing as privately run, mixed-income communities.

Even the meltdown of the private housing market during subprime financial crisis in 2007 did not lead to a new era of direct government housing despite the fact the poor, or those just above the poverty line, were far more likely to be victims of predatory schemes and evictions. Presidents Bush and Obama secured trillions to stabilize the big private or semi-private players in housing market (the FHA, Freddie Mac, Citibank, Bank of America, etc.) so that the private market could continue as the primary housing provider for all American households.

Americans on the whole today thus remain well served by the private housing market, but the poor, and those living in expensive cities in particular, face a bleak housing future in the privatized affordable housing system.

Hillary Clinton, now the presumptive Democratic nominee and the only liberal likely running this fall, has endorsed a mix of portable Section 8 vouchers, additional tax credits for affordable housing, home ownership subsidies, and renovation of urban housing. These notable initiatives share in a well-worn path of minimizing direct federal involvement. And tested programs like these are likely to improve the lives of many poor people, particularly those lucky enough to use these programs to find housing in higher-income neighborhoods. But American politicians, even liberals, have yet to face the hard truth that to do right by the poor may take a lot more than more subsidies of private interests.

There is a large and growing population in and around cities that needs permanent, basic housing as a prerequisite to getting their lives in order. Existing large-scale low-cost government run housing for the poor such as public housing (or supportive housing with social services on site) is complicated to manage, a public relations quagmire, and often very expensive to build right and preserve. Yet we are already paying embarrassing amount to house the homeless and poor in “temporary” institutional settings such jails, hospitals, and shelters. Preserving what public housing is left (such as the 178,000 units of public housing in New York) and building more decent, very low-cost housing remains a standing invitation for federal officials—should they accept the responsibility.

BloomLasnerNicholas Dagen Bloom is associate professor of social science and director of the Urban Administration program at New York Institute of Technology. His books include Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century. His most recent book is from Princeton University Press is Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City.

Christopher Kutz on drone warfare: The real moral debate


By Christopher Kutz

Despite all the sound and fury of the Presidential primary campaign, the candidates have been effectively silent on one issue: our use of drone strikes as the central tool of security policy. Perhaps they could watch Eye on the Sky, by director Gavin Hood. The film vividly imagines two nations’ officials confronting a classic military dilemma, whether to kill an enemy at the risk of civilian life. In the movie, British officials, using drone-based cameras, have identified the home of two al-Shabbab terrorist leaders (one of whom is a British woman) in Kenya as they prepare young militants for a suicide terrorist mission. Given al-Shabbab’s history, which includes the attack on a Tanzanian shopping mall, the British officials have good reason to suspect an attack against large numbers of civilians. Because local forces are unable to storm the compound, the officials request support from an American drone with a Reaper missile.

The movie’s theme is that while drone technology appears to make war ethically easier, by reducing risks to civilians and soldiers, it mainly shifts the scene of responsibility, from the battlefield to the conference room and control center. The movie gains its dramatic power by reintroducing the dilemma, in the form of a little girl who comes to sell bread outside the compound during the crucial moments. The British and American officials and drone operators must now decide how to weigh the likely death of this concrete and identified girl against the unidentifiable civilians who might be killed in a terrorist attack. The film very effectively personalizes this debate by foregrounding a few of the officials and soldiers with clear views, for and against the strike, against the majority of officials who seek only to refer judgment to other layers and departments in government. (The movie indulges in a – perhaps accurate – stereotype of Americans as callously decisive and Brits as hand-wringingly nuanced and unsure.)

Eye on the Sky is right to remind us that the ethical dilemmas of war survive the shift to drone warfare. But I believe it makes a dangerous mistake about the real ethical problem with drones. The real problem is not that officials are too rarely courageous or principled. The problem is that we citizens have given up our own responsibility for the choices of war. What ought to be a wrenching decision for a democracy, about when to kill foreigners in pursuit of its interests, has been confined within the consciences of a few.

Few doubt that a state can use lethal force in the classic circumstances of national self-defense, with an invader at the border or missiles and bombs raining in. But drone campaigns are not like this: they involve decisions made through national security bureaucracies about killing people (or categories of people) identified through disparate intelligence as members of hostile networks, whose hostilities are often directed not at the US but at local and temporary allies of US security policy. According to public information, far from strapping suicide vests onto would-be martyrs or assembling dirty bombs, most of the targets identified in intelligence or surveillance reports are, essentially, young men with rifles. What used to be a strategic decision to go to war, with Congress involved and citizens rallied, has become a matter of executive decision making at the tactical level, made by the President and his security team, and the director of the CIA.

The personalization of the decision to kill is not unique to the drone program: special forces killing teams have been part of US security policy for decades. But the emergence of drone warfare has both let the policy of secret killing come out of the shadows on the one hand, while keeping it even more deeply in the shadows in another respect, placing it largely within the confines of the CIA, with White House oversight. While even former CIA Director Michael Hayden acknowledges the myth of the surgical strike, since inevitably non-combatants, including women and children are killed, the lesson we citizens are asked to accept is that these are difficult but reasonable choices for the President, not for us.

We should fear the loss of our accountability as citizens more than the myth of the surgical strike. Presidents and CIA advisors, not to mention drone operators, may well agonize over the potential deaths of innocents. But I fear our own complacency, in wanting these dilemmas to be theirs, and theirs alone. The deaths of civilians and militants alike belong to us as citizens, and we must be prepared as citizens to deliberate about our killing policy, and accept its consequences. Instead, the complicity of the media in personalizing drone warfare keeps us citizens in a fraudulent innocence.

How can we stop the fraud we are perpetrating on ourselves? We must put ourselves in the imaginary position of the drone warriors, and come to think of ourselves as making the decision when to kill. President Obama has done little to make good on his promises of greater transparency in the drone program. To the extent the primary candidates have addressed the issue at all, Bernie Sanders has said only that he would seek to use drone strikes rarely, while Hillary Clinton has praised drone strikes as a critically effective counter-terrorism tool. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, on “carpet bombing” and killing terrorist families, does not suggest much reticence on their parts. Only John Kasich has offered a specific position that moves in the right direction: to effectuate the transfer of the drone program from the CIA to the Pentagon — a shift that was promised two years ago by President Obama but later abandoned. Such a move would work to increase accountability for drone killings, and to locate decisions within an institution historically better suited to considering legal and ethical limitations on the use of force. (Recall that the use of torture in interrogation was much more firmly resisted by military than CIA officials.)

We need to force our candidates, and our media, to do better than this, to discuss what we citizens must know if we are to take honest responsibility for the deaths of the children and other bystanders in our security policy. While Eye on the Sky does a terrific job of provoking a debate on the way out of the movie theatre, we need a debate that extends all the way to the voting booth.

kutz on war and democracy jacketChristopher Kutz is the C. William Maxeiner Distinguished Professor of Law and director of the Kadish Center for Morality, Law, and Public Affairs at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Complicity: Ethics and Law for a Collective Age.

Paula S. Fass: Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Get the Youth Vote


by Paula S. Fass

Paula FassWith her long history of engagement in matters relating to children and families, Hillary Clinton’s failure to inspire young people is notable and, at least initially, puzzling. Compared to Bernie Sanders, who is a youth magnet, she has failed to speak to the Millennial Generation or even the Generation Xers. A little probing, however, may suggest why this is the case.

Hillary Clinton – successful career woman, wife of a young governor and a young president and mother of a dynamic daughter —doesn’t feel their pain. She seems incapable of understanding and sympathizing with the problems of several generations of post 1980s young adults for whom success in careers and in family formation has become extremely challenging. For these people, the global competition for talent and a sexual revolution that Hillary’s generation initiated have complicated career choices and confounded expectations about childbearing and childrearing.

Careers first. Hillary’s generation of women (those who graduated from college in the 1960s and 1970s) which is also my own generation, were challenged to break down barriers in law, medicine, the academy, the police, government, business, etc. We feel very strongly that our careers have been hard fought for and that we won. Young women today do not face the same challenges of breaking through barriers and ceilings, nor do they experience the same sense of victory. Instead, both young women and young men face intense competitive pressures in careers that have been changed profoundly by technology and the fact that their competitors do not always sit alongside them at colleges and professional schools. Doctors fear losing the benefit of their skills to new computer programs and apps, professors to MOOCs, young lawyers and accountants to Indian workshops where poorly paid apprentices can do their work at a much lower price. Women’s growing equality in the acquisition of professional degrees had already intensified competition for highly sought-after positions (in schools and at the work place) in the United States even before the consequences of new technologies kicked in. In a newly globalized economy, the sense of competition has become brutal as has the vision of looming threat to expensively acquired competence.

It is not clear that Hillary, with all her smarts and her experience as a professional woman, understands this. Neither does Bernie Sanders, except that he, at least, offers two possible responses: stop the hemorrhaging of jobs that has resulted from free trade agreements and control Wall Street and the banks which underwrite global competition. While neither of these are likely to solve all the problems they face, young Americans respond to Sander’s firm confidence that something is very wrong with late stage global capitalism and that we need to get a grip on the process which has moved from industrial production initially to highly compensated, well-schooled cognitive-based professional areas today. If high-powered computers can successfully compete with the world’s best chess and “go” players, merely graduating from college is not going to solve the problems faced by most young Americans who can’t get an effective perch in the new economy– and all those young people supporting Sanders know it.

Home life and children. The enormous increase in out-of-wedlock birth over the past two generations in the United States (almost 40% of all children in the U. S. today are born outside of marriage) is not simply a product of the sexual revolution that Hillary Clinton’s generation initiated. Although greater sexual freedom removed the terrible shame once attached to unwed pregnancy, other things also helped to create this phenomenon. For those with less than a college education and minimally marketable skills, an important factor is the loss of regular decent wages. For blue collar families in the past, family life was supported by wages earned by male breadwinners, often supplemented by their wives’ earnings. Those wages have disappeared, at least in part because of the off-shoring of factory work that was given a huge boost during the Bill Clinton presidency. Men who do not have regular jobs often do not marry and their girlfriends do not consider them good marriage prospects. The erosion of once stable family lives has left millions of working women, whose clerical jobs have not as fully evaporated (yet), with children to take care of by themselves, either because they never married or because they are divorced. Their lives are defined by struggling to make-do as they try to find safe and inexpensive childcare, and negotiate more than one job at random hours, while precariously trying to fit together being a good mother and making a living.

Professional women, who have husbands or ex’s, also have it tough but their access to money (and credit) eases some of the worst aspects of this situation. They hire nannies and send their children to excellent daycare and preschools. They can more readily pay for services to make sure that their children receive the preparation they need to succeed in school. College women today and those who have recently graduated from college have observed this process with trepidation. Trained to succeed, accustomed to being evaluated, they are anxious to do it all well, both in their careers and in their childrearing. They have seen the difficulties and costs of this balancing in the working women around them, and in the lives of their mothers and their teachers. They are fully aware that delaying having children can be costly in declining fertility after age 35. They know that new reproductive technologies can be both helpful and disappointing. Young women are puzzled by how to combine fulfilling careers with satisfying home lives; they would like to do both well. But the sense of a noble undertaking, that Hillary’s generation experienced and kept women struggling to succeed, is now faded. The hard work and the frustration remain. Today’s hovering, anxiety-driven mothers are one result of the striving for a completely successful life. Another is the fact that there is a growing tendency for professional women to drop out of their careers in order to devote themselves to raising successful children.

Does successful Hillary, whose daughter was raised in the White House and moved smoothly into Stanford and then on to McKinsey, understand this generation of women’s anxiety about their own careers, their desires to succeed as mothers, and their worries about their children’s futures? I think that she simply does not get it. She does not feel their pain and has no solution for their dilemmas, either in her own experience or in her policies, except for parental leave. And even here she does not see how our society can afford to have this leave paid for. Hillary is very practical and pushes her realism, but in this area she is neither practical nor realistic.

Bernie Sanders may not have solutions either, but he gets the squeeze that young Americans are feeling. His answers may be too pat and repetitive, but at least he makes young people believe that he wants to respond to their very real problems.

FassPaula S. Fass is professor of the Graduate School and the Margaret Byrne Professor of History Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. The author of Kidnapped and Children of a New World, she recently edited The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World. Fass lives in Berkeley, California. Her latest book is The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child.

What do We Really Want in a President?


by George C. Edwards III

It is only natural that citizens focus on the traits of candidates during a presidential election. After all, why do we hold an election if it does not matter who wins? One answer is that candidates support different policies. Presidents must do more than aspire to prosperity and peace, however. They also have to govern.

It is safe to stipulate that everyone wants the president to be honest, intelligent, strong, empathetic, and balanced. Most candidates claim to possess such traits, and, in truth, many of them do. What about political skills and knowledge, traits necessary for governing effectively? These dimensions of candidates receive much less attention than, say, integrity, but they are essential for successful leadership. Just what are the essential leadership traits and skills?

Understanding the Potential of Leadership

Successful leadership is not the result of the dominant chief executives of political folklore who reshape the contours of the political landscape, altering their strategic positions to pave the way for change. The evidence is clear that presidents rarely, if ever, mobilize the public behind their policies in order to pressure Congress to pass their initiatives. Nor do they convince many members of the legislature to switch from opposition to support of White House proposals.

Rather than creating the conditions for important shifts in public policy, effective leaders are facilitators who work at the margins of coalition building to recognize and exploit opportunities in their environments. When the various streams of political resources converge to create opportunities for major change, presidents can be critical facilitators in engendering significant alterations in public policy.

It follows that recognizing and exploiting opportunities for change—rather than creating opportunities through persuasion—are essential presidential leadership skills. To succeed, presidents have to have the analytical insight necessary to identify opportunities for change in their environments carefully and orchestrate existing and potential support skillfully. Successful leadership also requires that the president have the energy, perseverance, adaptability, and resiliency to take full advantage of opportunities that arise.

Knowledge and Temperament

We hear from some quarters that presidents do not require a mastery of the details of public policy. All they need is able and knowledgeable advisors. Although every chief executive certainly relies on such aides, expert advisors are not sufficient to produce quality decisions.

Presidents need to possess detailed knowledge of the issues with which they will deal. They require information about both public problems and policies, including tangible details, to construct a necessary frame of reference for decision making. How else can they effectively evaluate options and ask probing questions? How else can they sensibly choose among options?

It also matters whether the president has correctly identified a problem. If you think the Chinese are manipulating their currency to the detriment of American jobs, you may ask your advisors to formulate a policy to combat it. If you are wrong in your understanding of the Beijing’s actions, however, you will implement policy destined to fail. The devil is in the details.

In addition, presidents cannot assume that any person or advisory system will provide them with the options and information they require, and thus they must be actively involved in the decision-making process, setting the tone for other participants, maintaining the integrity of the advisory system, and reaching out widely for options and information.

President George W. Bush often described himself as an instinctual decision maker, a view shared by other close observers. Many of Bush’s predecessors shared his orientation to making decisions. A drawback to relying on instincts is acting impulsively rather than delving deeply into a range of possible options. Gut reactions also discourage investing time in soliciting and cultivating the views of others and asking probing questions of advisers.


Presidents and their aides bring to office sets of beliefs about politics, policy, human nature, and social causality—in other words, beliefs about how and why the world works as it does. These beliefs provide a frame of reference for evaluating policy options, for filtering information and giving it meaning, and for establishing potential boundaries of action. Beliefs also help busy officials cope with complex decisions to which they can devote limited time, and they predispose people to act in certain directions. Although sets of beliefs are inevitable and help to simplify the world, they can be dysfunctional as well.

There is a psychological bias toward continuity that results from the physiology of human cognitive processes that are reinforced from thinking a certain way and are difficult to reorganize. As a result, there is an unconscious tendency to see what we expect to see, which may distort our analytical handling of evidence and produces what is called a confirmation bias.

The George W. Bush administration operated on several basic premises regarding the aftermath of the war in Iraq: (1) Iraqis would greet Americans as liberators; (2) the Iraqi infrastructure would be in serviceable condition; (3) the army would remain in whole units capable of being used for reconstruction; (4) the police were trustworthy and professional and thus capable of securing the country;, and (5) there would be a smooth transition to creating a democratic nation. Each of these premises was faulty, but the administration made no systematic evaluation of them before the war and was slow to challenge them, even in the wake of widespread violence.

At other times, worldviews may encourage policy makers to assume problems rather than subject their premises to rigorous analysis. Because after 9/11 the Bush White House was highly risk adverse and because it was certain that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to the United States, the administration never organized a systematic internal debate within the administration on the fundamental questions of whether Iraq actually possessed WMD, whether the Iraqi threat was imminent, whether it was necessary to overthrow Saddam and, if so, the likely consequences of such an action. Instead, it focused on the question of how to invade successfully.

It is not surprising, then, that the weakness of the data on Iraq never called into question the quality of basic assumptions. Intelligent, hard-working, and patriotic public officials who wished to protect American saw what they expected to see. We are still paying the price for their faulty analysis.

Policy preferences aside, it matters whom we elect as president. The winner’s understanding of the potential of leadership, skills to recognize and exploit opportunities, policy knowledge and temperament, and worldviews will strongly influence the good the nation will enjoy or the harm it will suffer during his or her tenure.

George C. Edwards III is University Distinguished Professor of Political Science and the Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University. His many books include Overreach: Leadership in the Obama Presidency and The Strategic President: Persuasion and Opportunity in Presidential Leadership (both Princeton). His most recent book is Predicting the Presidency: The Potential of Persuasive Leadership.

Paula S. Fass: Young Americans need required national service


Hillary Clinton has advertised her concerns for children and has a long track record of supporting policies on their behalf, and almost all Democratic candidates as well as President Obama have urged that college be made more affordable. But no candidate has addressed a critical question: What do young Americans between 18 and 21 need? Indeed, the absence of the problems of youth from the campaign is notable. But youth’s increasing frustration with business as usual has emerged in this long campaign season in a variety of ways, not least in their unhappiness with establishment candidates. Candidates who are even semi-conscious of the problems faced by America’s youth have all put their emphasis on more schooling (President Obama), free tuition at public colleges (Bernie Sanders) or more generous Pell Grants (Hillary Clinton). I want to propose that this presidential election cycle is missing the point and seriously out of touch with the problems of youth.

Schooling is not the solution and while the current proposals may create slightly more opportunity, it is still the same game – a schooling game that is in many ways the basis of the problem. Most young people today see schooling as rigged; something to be manipulated by them or against them; something that often leads nowhere. Schooling goes on forever and makes them dependent on their parents for a long time. It does not necessarily lead to jobs they value.

Young people – let’s call them young adults—are eager for meaning, for something to help define them as mature. They are eager for work. Yes, work. Only in the last one hundred years have we assumed that work is bad for young people. And certainly for seven or eight year olds or even fourteen year olds, to work in factories or sweat shops is very bad. But work that brings a sense of personal reward, camaraderie, and a means to cut through what many young people see as the boredom of school-based abstraction, is just what most American young people need.

Of course, it has to be the right kind of work that will result in more equality, not less, the kind that gives its participants a sense of genuine achievement. So I am proposing that our presidential candidates consider two years of required national service for all young Americans between 18 and 21 years of age. Some of these youth will elect to go into the armed forces, some could help to preserve and enrich the natural environment (as they did during the New Deal); others could serve as tutors in schools and community centers. Some might even feel that their time and energy might best be served by building houses for the poor or good water pipes in communities whose infrastructure is crumbling (think Flint). Others could help old people learn how to use the web. We know that we as a society need these services. I would argue that young Americans would be given a sense of maturity and competence by providing them. Instead of sending high school students out to do community service to pad their resumes, or juvenile prisoners out to clean the highways, let’s give young people a sense of common purpose.

This service should, of course, be paid. Young people like to earn money and this would provide them with a means to gain a certain measure of independence from their parents. They could then use the money to pay for tuition, invest in a business, save for a down payment on a house or apartment – all things that will give them independence. But the monetary benefit is only one of its many results. Young people would meet others from very different class, racial and ethnic backgrounds. National service would help to level the field (away from advantages provided by parents) and make the young much more aware of what they share with those who are not privileged. This was one of the objectives behind the development of common schools. Today’s young inherit too much from their parents – both advantages and disadvantages. National service would serve as a leveler of parental advantages and a liberator from dependence on parents.

There is another type of equality that national service would provide too often overlooked: It would allow non-academically inclined students to shine in ways that today’s emphasis on schooled skills has completely obscured. Many young people have real talents though they are not good at sitting still. No amount of Ritalin can deal with the differences of temperament and inclination that are common to youth. Active work in which building a house is seen as quite as valuable as tutoring math or writing would allow for talents of all kinds to be acknowledged as a social good, and rewarded at a point in life when this can be an extraordinary boost to personal growth.

I know that many people will contend that there are all kinds of obstacles to this plan, but I think it is so important to address the many serious problems of today’s young people – some of them the result of the way we have organized schooling—that these can be overcome with enough imagination and skill. National service will benefit young people, our society, and our future.

FassPaula S. Fass is professor of the Graduate School and the Margaret Byrne Professor of History Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. The author of Kidnapped and Children of a New World, she recently edited The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World. Her most recent book is The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child. Fass lives in Berkeley, California.