Tag Archives: lew feldstein

An ardent plea to our better political angels

Lew Feldstein gave a terrific “Thanksgiving Breakfast” talk touching on themes of the common weal, politics, and the need to find common ground.  This talk was given November 22, 2011 to the New Horizons for New Hampshire (a Manchester non-profit that helps the homeless).  With his permission, I’m posting it.

148 years ago, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery  in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was four and a half months after the devastating battle, and it was a foggy, cold morning. Lincoln arrived about 10 a.m. Around noon, the sun came out as the crowds gathered on a hill overlooking the battlefield. 15,000 people.  A military band played, a local preacher offered a long prayer, and the headlining orator, Edward Everett, spoke for more than two hours. Everett described the Battle of Gettysburg in great detail, and he brought the audience to tears more than once. When Everett finished, Lincoln spoke .

The Gettysburg Address ran for just over two minutes, fewer than 300 words.   Only 10 sentences.

Among the first lines are these, familiar to us all:

‘Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

‘Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war….’

And so we are, now, in the late Fall of 2011.    Here,  in Manchester, soldiers may not be killing one another, bullets are not flying, but can any of us doubt that, at least metaphorically,  this country is at war, that armies are arrayed against one another,  that…as President Lincoln put it:  ‘we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated,  can long endure.’

‘We are’, as President Lincoln said, ‘met on a a great battle field of that war.’   As we meet today, a war that tests our county is being fought out across this land in its most disheartening, and discouraging form, by our elected reps in Washington, but also here, in Manchester, right now, and in every town and city, in every state in the nation,  as competing sides gird themselves for the coming elections.

As surely as tanks and cannons can destroy a nation, so can a nation  be destroyed from within, by the unwillingness or inability  to resolve structural problems that, left unresolved, will destroy  the economy and the nation with every bit as much destructive power and finality as bombs and bullets.   Obstinance, adherence to the certitude that I am right and you are wrong, the inability of our leaders to resolve differences, to find common ground, can all be fatal.

We don’t have to look any further than the daily news to see the impact on other nations of their failures to change their ways.

Or, to bring it home, today’s lead story: the failure of “the Super Committee.”

That we reach this point at this season, at Thanksgiving and the Holidays, is especially painful.   That I make this the subject of my Thanksgiving Breakfast talk may feel inappropriate, or uncomfortable, or just plain bad manners.

It is uncomfortable.

But to gather at this time, to mark the eve of  Thanksgiving and  not speak of this, not acknowledge it, would be far worse than uncomfortable.

It would be  criminal.

It is not enough for us, as citizens, to just listen to the news,  curse the enemies, wring our hands,  and then retreat to the cocoons of our daily lives.

We need to be heard.  We need to tell those we elect that they must change how they represent us.

What hubris!  What arrogance!  To believe that your side is so right,  that you have all the wisdom.

We say to them: Will you destroy this nation in the name of saving it?

It is not acceptable to lay all the blame and responsibility on the other side.

We must tell our leaders that they must move.

They must find common ground.

This morning is not the time nor the place to work thorough the competing sides, to assign rights and wrongs.

Thanksgiving starkly juxtaposes the threat that this ugly, unyielding, and unnecessary stalemate  poses to all that we have to be thankful for.

We can do it. We can get through this terrible logjam. We can find our way to a better future.

What could be better evidence of the promise of the American people, the innate goodness and willingness to row together , than this extraordinary institution, New Horizons, which brings 1,000 of us together this morning.

Here we are in the state that:

  • For the past five years has been rated “the most livable state,”
  • For the fourth straight year has been rated the best state in which to raise a child;
  • Has the lowest poverty rate in the country;
  • Has the least amount of income inequality;
  • Has the lowest tax burden; and
  • Has the highest average income.

And yet where one out of four Manchester children are growing up in poverty.

Where scores of families are without shelter every night.

And hundreds of our neighbors cannot feed themselves throughout the year.

As a community we have come together to meet these needs: to house, to  feed , to shelter, to care for our neighbors.

This community takes care of one another.  This is no mean feat in these times.  This is a city infused with high social capital — you know I would work this in — high trust in one another, strong norms of reciprocity,  where helping out is the most natural of things.

And thus it has always been in Manchester going back more than a century.  The city has changed, the business base has changed, the countries of origin of the immigrant and refugee groups that have moved through it have changed, but the strong ties of mutual support, the underlying social capital has remained, strong and enduring.

No small feat.

This trust, this social capital, is the core of why this city is special.  It speaks volumes about the city’s capacity to prosper in good times, and to work through the kinds of big ripping changes in the industrial base, as the very economy of this city has morphed.

I end with thanks, and a prayer.

Thanks  for all who step up to help their neighbors, who put aside differences of  politics and religion and race, even differences between Sox fans and this lonely Yankee fan [Feldstein speaking of himself],  to give of themselves for the common weal, who have built this great agency as testimony to what we can be, what we can do.

And the Prayer that we find common ground.

That our leaders  – on all sides – step away from their certitude, look inward to acknowledge the limits of man, to be far more modest about our individual wisdom, to see for what it is the weakness that compels blind adherence to a single point of view, and look outward to acknowledge that the public that elects them is  far more nuanced  – and far more conciliatory –  then the extremes held up by our elected reps, who through their acts and our own have driven our nation to this terrible impasse.

Please please find common  ground.

Abandon your certitude that only you are right, that only you know the answers.  Don’t destroy our nation.  But take us  together to a better place.

We have done it before.

Get us there again.”

No foreclosure from gift debt


Thomas Meaney, recently reviewed David Graeber’s DEBT: The First 5,000 Years for the NYT Book Review.  [Graeber helped inspire the Occupy Wallstreet movement.]

Meaney writes:

In 1925 the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss published his classic essay “The Gift,” which argued that contrary to the textbook account of primitive man merrily trading beaver pelts for wampum, no society was ever based on barter. The dominant practice for thousands of years was instead voluntary gift-giving, which created a binding sense of obligation between potentially hostile groups. To give a gift was not an act based on calculation, but on the refusal to calculate. In the societies Mauss studied most closely — the Maori of New Zealand, the Haida of the Pacific Northwest — people rejected the principles of economic self-interest in favor of arrangements where everyone was perpetually indebted to someone else.

Picking up where Mauss left off, Graeber argues that once-prevalent relationships based on an incalculable sense of duty deteriorated as buying and selling became the basis of society and as money, previously a marker of favors owed, became valuable in its own right….

So what, then, is to be done? Graeber finds reasons for hope in some unexpected places: corporations where elite management teams often operate more communistically than communes; in the possibility of a Babylonian-style Jubilee for Third World nations and students saddled with government loans; and from his own study of the Malagasy people of Madagascar, who he claims were adept at evading the snares of consumer debt encouraged by the state. But there is a sizable gulf between Graeber’s anthropological insights and his utopian political prescriptions. “Debt” ends with a paean to the “non-industrious poor.” “Insofar as the time they are taking off from work is being spent . . . enjoying and caring for those they love,” Graeber writes, they are the “pioneers of a new economic order that would not share our current one’s penchant for self-destruction.”

It’s an old dream among anthropologists — one that goes back to Rousseau. In 1968, Graeber’s own teacher, Marshall Sahlins, wrote an essay, “The Original Affluent Society,” which maintained that the hunters and gatherers of the Paleolithic period rejected the “Neolithic Great Leap Forward” because they correctly saw that the advancements it promised in tool-making and agriculture would reduce their leisure time. Graeber approves. He thinks it’s a mistake when unions ask for higher wages when they should go back to picketing for fewer working hours.

Michael from the Front Porch Forum (FPF) in Burlington, VT writes in response to Meaney’s quote that he loves that others in his FPF community in Burlington have undertaken a voluntary life of ‘favor debt’ (owing someone a favor) in place of monetary debt:

“Perpetually indebted to someone else”… this sums up so much of what I love about my community life in Burlington, VT right now….

I was raised to value making my contribution to others while taking great pains to avoid accepting the same from others.  So were lots of folks here.  But that’s a recipe for setting yourself apart, for isolation.  As my family has learned to accept favors from those around us, it’s made our contributions to others that much more meaningful and personal.

Now, through Front Porch Forum, MealTrain, our church, school, neighborhood and other means, we ask and offer favors daily from hundreds of friends, neighbors and acquaintances.  Each request works against isolation and lays down another thread in the web of community that supports our life.  This is a crucial asset… as much as our house, my job, the kids’ college savings.

My brother and his family are planning a holiday visit to see us in Vermont this month.  We could all jam into our house, but I know they would sleep better if we had more space for the two families.  Hotels are expensive and distant… B&Bs too.  So, I put the word out to neighbors and got several offers of empty houses that we could use on our block.  These neighbors are traveling out of state and are glad to share their home while they’re away.  We’ve done this a dozen times over the past few years… offering or asking for empty-house guest lodging.  Make that hundreds of times if we include other favors… meals, rides, tools, advice, kids stuff, labor, baby/pet sitting, on and on.

This is incredibly generous and trusting of all involved… but it’s also keeping each of us “perpetually indebted to our neighbors” in a way that makes our community stronger with each exchange.

It’s a wonderful description of generalized reciprocity of the sort that undergirds social capital as discussed in Bowling Alone.

See somewhat related earlier post “Economists ignore a critical third of economy: the social economy

Hat tip to Lew Feldstein for spotting the FPF post.

Mayor Daley building libraries and social capital

Mayor Daley speaking in a Chicago library

James Warren describes in the NY Times the social impact of Mayor Daley’s reading efforts (20 OneBook, One Chicago picks) and his legacy of community building through libraries.  Excerpt:

So far, he [Mayor Daley] has built or renovated 55 libraries…..

“Through the scores of libraries he’s built, like the Near North Branch, at the juncture of diverse neighborhoods, he’s encouraged us to develop social bridges across our differences,” said Thomas H. Sander, an expert on social and civic engagement at the Harvard Kennedy School at Harvard University. “That’s all the more important in an era of rampant inequality and heightened segregation.”

Libraries are still about serving people, but book circulation is not the primary goal. The trick is enlarging the transactions, especially electronic ones, and measuring the number of people coming in the door, not just books going out the door, said Lew Feldstein, co-author with Robert Putnam of “Better Together,” a study in community-building amid the well-chronicled decline in civic engagement.

“Libraries like Chicago’s, which have been in the lead in the country, have become strong community centers — helping new immigrants become citizens, acquire language skills, get advice on filling out city forms,” Mr. Feldstein said. “Kids come after school to study and schmooze and hang with their buddies.”

Read, “Daley’s Legacy of Libraries, Culture and Literacy” (NY Times, James Warren, March 5, 2011)

Location location location

Location-tracking services on the Internet (like Loopt or Foursquare) offer internet users the opportunity to find other friends or would-be friends who are nearby.  They are a technologically more sophisticated version of the Craigslist post that my colleagues Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein featured in Better Together (“I’ll be washing clothes shortly at 25th and Clement….[A]nyone like to join me for a game of backgammon while the clothes spin?”).

But one Achilles’ Heel of such efforts is users inadvertently disclosing private information that perhaps they shouldn’t. One site, PleaseRobMe.com trawls live Twitter posts (tweets) to share publicly which users are away from home, in a tongue-in-cheek effort to get users to be more circumspect.  [PleaseRobMe notifies the careless tweeters as well.]

Please Rob Me: The Dangers Of Location Based Services

Analysts expect that use of such mobile social applications will rise. With the ubiquity of smart phones and users’ rising comfort with applications that use location-based awareness, to recommend local restaurants, to automatically purchase an item displayed in a window by pointing one’s phone at it and clicking (application is in development), they will also become more comfortable using their location for social applications.

As the Economist notes: “Foursquare, which celebrates its first birthday on March 13th and now covers most big cities around the world, rewards people who register their presence at (or check in to) a particular café or restaurant most often with the title of Mayor. That, in turn, can sometimes entitle them to, say, a free coffee or pizza. On Gowalla, another start-up, users are encouraged to collect as many digital souvenirs as possible by visiting various venues in a city.

“Corporate behemoths also have designs on the location-based market. Last year Google launched a service called Latitude that allows friends to track one another’s movements. The search giant’s recently unveiled (and much-criticised) social-networking service, Buzz, also allows users to tag messages with information about their location. Nokia has bought online-mapping and mobile-networking businesses in recent years to reinforce its offerings. Many observers think Apple has plans to offer geo-targeted advertising on its iPhone. In January the firm snapped up Quattro Wireless, which specialises in advertising on mobile handsets.”

In many of these applications, the act of “checking in” doesn’t involve much of any social capital.  I can announce that I am at the Starbucks at 95th and Broadway, but unless it spurs other acquaintances or friends to come join me, there is no social capital built from checking in.  If we simply monitor where our friends have been frequenting, but this could spur mere voyeurism.  Foursquare tries to encourage interaction by having users get pings when friends or strangers are nearby; in this sense Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley said it enables one to “see through walls” and “around corners.”  Crowley learned from his Dodgeball effort that “not everyone wants to meet strangers”.  They are now allowing developers to create APIs that use the Foursquare for a dating tool or just to meet their good friends or to create Mashups that map their friends’ social patterns.

Regardless of its social capital promise, there is still lots of potential for mining this private information, not just to advertise new products to consumers.  The Center for Democracy & Technology, a privacy think tank, criticized corporate  privacy policies of many such providers and said that the U.S. government needs to play a role.  Some industry self-regulation is occurring: for example, Loopt reminds users that their location is shared with others, permits posting of fake locations, and trolls its postings for any suspect signs that private information is being abused.  In many cases, the younger generation — the “Net Generation” that Jonathan Palfrey describes in Born Digital — have very different conceptions of privacy and use the Internet much more seamlessly, for example creating a custom video where older generations would have written a note or an essay.

Despite these concerns about privacy, innovation in this area surges ahead.  See for example “Wearable Sensor Connects Would-be Strangers” or “Hyperlocal Communication“.  We’ll keep you notified of interesting developments in this space as they evolve.

See a video interview of Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley (1/27/10) and the genesis of mobile social applications.

Read the Economist’s “Follow Me” (3/4/10) and “The Net Generation, Unplugged” (3/4/10), the latter of which cites a Pew Center report to suggest that the NetGeneration may be as interested in “broadcast[ing] their activism to their peers” as getting involved politically themselves via this digital medium.