Thursday, October 30, 2008

Malaysia's ethnic authoritarianism

Malaysia's constitution and legal system give full preference to members of the Malay majority. Article 153 of the current Malaysian constitution reads:

  1. It shall be the responsibility of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities in accordance with the provisions of this Article.
  2. Notwithstanding anything in this Constitution, but subject to the provisions of Article 40 and of this Article, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong shall exercise his functions under this Constitution and federal law in such manner as may be necessary to safeguard the special provision of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and to ensure the reservation for Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak of such proportion as he may deem reasonable of positions in the public service (other than the public service of a State) and of scholarships, exhibitions and other similar educational or training privileges or special facilities given or accorded by the Federal Government and, when any permit or licence for the operation of any trade or business is required by federal law, then, subject to the provisions of that law and this Article, of such permits and licences.
  3. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong may, in order to ensure in accordance with Clause (2) the reservation to Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak of positions in the public service and of scholarships, exhibitions and other educational or training privileges or special facilities, give such general directions as may be required for that purpose to any Commission to which Part X applies or to any authority charged with responsibility for the grant of such scholarships, exhibitions or other educational or training privileges or special facilities; and the Commission or authority shall duly comply with the directions.
This means that the Malay majority (about 55% of the population) has distinctive legal status and preferential economic status -- to the disadvantage of the Chinese, Indian, Christian, and "other" populations. And the non-Malay sub-populations are characterized as "immigrant" groups with home countries elsewhere -- even though they may have been resident in Malaysian territory for three generations or more. The Federal legislature is strongly dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the lead Malay party and dominant voice within the governing Barisan Nasional coalition.

There appears to be rising minority group discontent with the Malay-first nature of the constitution and the government. Street demonstrations by Indian Malaysians in 2007 brought this discontent into clear public view, and the demonstrations were suppressed with the use of force -- tear gas, truncheons, and water hoses.

What seems most disheartening about Malaysia's history since independence and its current political scene, is the fact that there is no public commitment to the principles of equal citizenship and equal rights for all Malaysians. The American Civil Rights movement had at least a broad moral consensus to which it could appeal -- the foundational idea of the inherent equality of rights for all citizens -- and then could consistently take effective political and collective actions aimed at broadening the effective scope of these rights for African-Americans. The Malay majority and its party, the UMNO, are determined to preserve the privileged status of the Malay population; so it is difficult to see how gradual processes of adjustment and rights-claiming within civil society can lead to a society based on civic equality.

Here is a link to an independent Malaysian news source that many Malaysians have confidence in.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Spreading the wealth around?

So Joe the Plumber thinks Obama may be a socialist, and that he wants to spread the wealth around. And this all seems to come from Obama's proposed tax policies -- higher taxes for individuals and businesses with income more than $250,000 and lower taxes for everyone else. So why does that count as "spreading the wealth around", and why exactly should the 95% think it's a bad idea?

To the first point, this sounds like a different kind of redistribution than Joe is calling it -- not a redistribution of income or wealth, but a redistribution of tax burdens towards the wealthiest citizens. And what is the moral justification for such a shift? Surely it's based on the principle of placing the tax burdens our society creates disproportionally on those individuals with the greatest ability to pay and who derive the greatest benefits from our society. And there's a moral justification for this principle: higher income individuals are gaining more from the extended system of social cooperation our economy consists of, and it's only fair that they should pay more of the total costs created by that social cooperation. Someone has to pay these costs -- so the fundamental issue is simply how they should be divided. And the principle of "higher rates for higher gains" has a lot going for it.

But is it socialism? Certainly not, except in the over-the-top sense in which downstate Illinois Republicans denounced FDR for being a socialist in the 1930s. There's no collective ownership (except of banks, thanks to a $700 billion bailout). There's not even much of a social safety net -- especially when it comes to healthcare or extended unemployment benefits. And workers and other citizens have only the most limited role imaginable in making decisions about the management of the private companies they work for. So it's not socialism in any meaningful sense.

But the bigger question is this: why would any middle- or low-income American object to the principle that the most affluent should assume slightly more of the burden? Is it that they imagine (fictionally) that this is where they will wind up eventually, and they won't want the bigger tax burden when they get there? Do they give credence to the trickle-down theory that got this whole slide towards greater income inequality going in the first place in 1980? Plainly most people are deeply offended by the excesses of executive compensation that are now so visible; is that an impulse towards socialism? Or is it simply that they're alienated by the label that is being thrown at this fairly ordinary tax proposal -- which certainly gives a lot of credence to the irrational power of negative image marketing?

But there is another possibility that maybe the current spin meisters haven't thought through well enough: that the obfuscations aren't going to work any longer; that the majority of Americans will recognize that they have a basic interest in a society that assures a decent social minimum; that paying taxes is an important act of citizenship -- and therefore "patriotic"; and that the costs of sustaining social cooperation ought to be tilted moderately in favor of the non-wealthy in our society. Maybe they will begin to demand more of their government, in the form of a meaningful social safety net and assured healthcare. And maybe the old saws about having to fear "socialism" are nothing but a tired marketing campaign that just won't work anymore.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Improving urban high schools

Almost everyone interested in improving social justice and opportunity in America's cities agrees that schooling is crucial. Urban high schools have high dropout rates and low levels of academic achievement, and the likelihood of an urban student's continuing to college is much lower than his or her suburban counterpart. Is it possible for cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles to take steps that successfully change these outcomes on a measurable scale? Or are these results determined by the larger context of urban poverty and culture within which these schools exist? Can local institutional change in the schools and their administrative settings sucessfully improve outcomes, or are the social factors of poverty and race overwhelming?

One thing we know to be true is this: there are high-performing high-poverty schools in virtually every urban community. Consider for example the University Preparatory Academy in Detroit. The school opened only a few years ago as a result of major gifts by a Michigan donor. It draws from a cross section of Detroit children. And it has achieved graduation rates and college attendance rates that exceed 90%. This shows that it can be done.

Further, there appear to be some characteristics that these schools often have in common: they tend to be smaller than traditional high schools (around 500 students); they manage to achieve a fair amount of adult presence for each student; they have high academic expectations; they often involve a system of teacher assignment that involves mutual choice; they often have counselors who stay with the student at every grade; and they involve a fair amount of autonomy for the principal.

So what are the obstacles? Why isn't every urban school system working as hard and as fast as it can manage to create these new school environments and institutions?

The plain truth is that there is a great deal of unavoidable inertia in a large urban school system. Take the buildings and physical plant themselves: school buildings are often in a bad state of repair; but more importantly, they've been build according to a very different model of high school education. They are substantially larger than the size now recommended, and there is a very substantial capital cost associated with retrofitting or replacing them. Second is the existing core of teachers and principals. There is a "culture" associated with a school system -- a set of attitudes about what is involved in teaching, what the expectations are for students, teachers, and administrators, and what the level of trust is between the various parties. Changing culture is difficult for any institution, and this has proven to be true for school systems no less than other major organizations. Third is the set of bureaucratic and management practices that are built into most large urban school systems. Innovation is difficult to introduce at the school level because of the need for approval extending all the way up to the superintendant's office. Fourth, in many communities the work rules and personnel processes that are embodied in union contracts have proven to be an obstacle to fundamental reform of the public schools. For example, the model of mutual choice in which teachers and principals must agree about the placement of a teacher in a classroom runs into the seniority procedures that most contracts stipulate. And, finally, there is the question of money. Many city school systems have suffered enrollment decline, leading to a continually shrinking financial base when public funds are tied to headcount. So public school systems in large cities are often in a perpetual financial crisis, without the ability to undertake the costs that a substantial reorganization of high schools would require.

So the obstacles to innovative reform of high schools are high, even when there is a relatively promising suite of changes that could make a difference. How can an urban community break through this quagmire? Several strategies have been used: experimental or pilot schools within the existing structure; the creation of new publicly financed charter schools that are independent from the strictures of the existing school bureaucracy; and charter schools that are created through private-public partnerships between foundations and philanthropists, on the one hand, and public educational authorities, on the other.

A particularly important philanthropic player in this arena is the Gates Foundation, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the effort to improve schooling in poor neighborhoods. Similarly, foundations such as the Skillman Foundation and the Spencer Foundation have placed high priority on finding ways of having measurable impact on improving public schools, often with a tight neighborhood focus. And, finally, there is the mechanism of community "brokers" such as the United Way, that have come forward to help to bring schools, donors, and other interested parties together to help to create the schools that will really work for the students that they serve.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Low income, strong community

We seem to work on the basis of a couple of basic assumptions about income, lifestyle, and community in this country that need to be questioned. One group of these clusters around the idea that a high quality of life requires high and rising income. High income is needed for high consumption, and high consumption produces happiness and life satisfaction. Neighborhoods of families with high income are better able to sustain community and civic values. And symmetrically, we assume that it is more or less inevitable that poor communities have low levels of community values and low levels of the experience of life satisfaction.

All these assumptions need to be questioned. As any social service agency can document, there are ample signs of social pathology in the affluent suburbs of American cities. These suburban places aren't paragons of successful, happy human communities in any of the ways Robert Bellah talks about (Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Good Society). And there is little reason to believe that the consumption-based lifestyles that define an American ideal of affluence really contribute consistently to life satisfaction and successful community.

But here I want to focus on the other end of this set of assumptions: the idea that non-affluent people and communities are necessarily less happy, less satisfied, and less integrated around a set of civic and spiritual values. So here is the central point: people can build lives within the context of low income that are deeply satisfying and rewarding. And communities of low-income people can be highly successful in achieving a substantial degree of civic and spiritual interconnection and mutual support. It doesn't require "affluence" to have a deeply satisfying human life and a thriving community.

There are many reasons for thinking these observations are likely to be true. One is the example of other societies. Consider village life in Spain or Italy, for example, where many families still live on incomes that are a fraction of American affluence, who incorporate gardens into their regular lifestyle and household economy, and who enjoy admirable levels of personal and social satisfaction. Or think of stable farming communities in India or Africa that have successfully achieved a balance of farm productivity, a degree of social equality, and a strong sense of community. Or consider examples of communities in the United States that have deliberately put together lives and communities that reject "affluence" as a social and personal ideal.

Of course it's true that extreme poverty is pretty much incompatible with satisfaction and community. Malnutrition, illiteracy, and untreated disease are counterparts of extrme poverty and destroy happiness and community. But "non-affluence" isn't the same as extreme poverty.

What everyone needs, at every level of income, is decent access to the components of a happy life: healthcare, nutrition, shelter, education, dignity, and security. These are what an earlier generation of development thinkers called basic needs. And it is self-evident how these fit into the possibility of a decent and satisfying life. But access to these goods isn't equivalent to the American dream of affluence.

So here is a fairly profound question: what steps can be taken to promote the features of personal wellbeing and robust community relations that can make "non-affluence" a sustainable social ideal? And how can we help poor communities to strengthen their ability to nurture these positive values according to their own best instincts?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Demogoguery and the politics of cultural despair

The language that the McCain-Palin pair are using in their attempts to whip up end-game support for their party is genuinely abhorrent and even down-right scary. It's based on vilification of their rival, character assassination, and endless repetition of false or misleading allegations. But even worse, it's pretty clearly founded on an attempt to whip up the potent emotions of hatred and anger in their followers -- portraying Obama as "other", disloyal, and unworthy. (See this story in the Washington Post on the politics of anger that the campaign is relying on, and here's a report from the New York Times on one of Palin's rallies in Forida.) And it's not too hard to see an appeal to an underlying racism in these efforts -- for example, in the reactions of crowds in Clearwater and Fort Myers, Florida, to inflamed remarks by Sarah Palin.

This is genuinely disreputable and fundamentally anti-democratic. In my opinion, anyway, a democracy depends upon a genuine commitment to the bounds of civility in political rhetoric; and this campaign by Palin and McCain has broken those bounds fundamentally. Where is the McCain who has so often claimed to be "above" these sorts of scurrilous attacks on an opponent? Why does McCain tolerate this dangerous and anti-democratic language? Presumably, because winning an election at whatever cost is more important than any sense of moral outrage or limit.

So why is this turn in the campaign -- this self-avowed plan to "take the gloves off" -- why is this desperate attempt to whip up "core" support through appeal to the basest of political emotions "scary"? Because it sounds an awful lot like the prelude to some pretty terrible and violent episodes in world history. We've heard this kind of language and strategy before -- in Germany, in Italy, in Serbia, and in Kenya. Playing to the base emotions of hatred and racial mistrust has been the strategy of opportunistic politicians in many countries, including Rwanda. It often works to some degree -- it is possible to mobilize an intense following using this kind of appeal. And it is truly despicable within a democracy.

Enough, Mr. McCain! None of us in America wants this kind of hatred and divisiveness in our politics. Let's debate the issues -- and not base your campaign on demeaning, disrespectful, and hateful slurs against your opponent.

(The caption here refers to a classic book by Fritz Stern on the rise of German fascism, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology.)