My friend Peter Levine is, in my estimation, the gold standard when it comes to blogging about civic engagement in general and youth civic engagement in particular. His content stream includes a terrific combination of big-think ideas, small observations, and off-topic seasoning to make sure it all holds our interest. When I started blogging in 2003, I viewed him as an icon that I hoped to try to emulate (I still do).
Occasionally Peter writes a piece that wraps up a number of thoughts into one clear statement. I treasure these. Today’s article is one of those sorts of pieces.
In pulling together his thoughts to make a presentation to a number of Boston high school students who are part of a program focused on engagement.
He outlines a handful of the key issues facing our society today, and he does so in a clear, compelling, non-ideological way:
We have put 2.3 million of our own people in prison, far more than any other nation in the world. (China comes second with only 1.5 million incarcerated people.) That is incredibly expensive, and it represents millions of tragedies for all those convicts and their victims. Yet imprisoning all those Americans doesn’t make us safe. Our homicide rate remains at least three times as high as the rate in any other wealthy nation in the world.
We spend more per kid on education than almost any other country, yet one third of our young people drop out before they complete high school. Considering that almost all stable and well-paying jobs today require more than a high-school diplomat, the dropout crisis is a human disaster.
We spend far more on health care per citizen than any other country in the world, yet unlike any other wealthy nation, we provide no health insurance at all for many of our people. Something like 45,000 Americans die every year for lack of medical care. Even if Congress passes a reform bill this year, we will still have the most expensive system in the world, with some of the worst outcomes for poorer people.
Most scientists believe that humans are causing the atmosphere to warm by taking stored carbon out of the earth in the form of oil, gas, and coal and burning it. The consequences of global warming may range from intense human suffering in the poorest parts of the globe, plus the extinction of animal and plant species, to a worldwide catastrophe. The United States burns more carbon per person by far than any country in the world except the tiny kingdoms of the Persian Gulf.
Plainly, our institutions do not work. Their failure is not just wasteful; it is deadly. They are not just broken; they are corrupt–making some people rich and comfortable while failing the rest of us. These are the institutions that we older people are handing over to you.
While it is tempting, for each of these problems, to want to throw money at it or to write a new law to fix it, Peter points out that this response is insufficient. “To make schools and neighborhoods and hospitals work better, you have to get inside them and change people’s hearts and minds–not reform just the rules or provide more cash,” he says.
In general, our politics is governments-centered. Liberals want the government to accept new tasks, such as health insurance; whereas conservatives believe that problems would be mitigated if the state were shrunk. . . . [A] state-centered view of politics leaves citizens little to do but inform themselves and vote. Generation Citizen [the program these youth are a part of] is an example of citizen-centered politics, in which people form relationships with peers, express their interests and listen to others, and then use a range of strategies, some having little to do with the state. . . .
Programs like Generation Citizen model open-ended politics. . . . We give [citizens] opportunities to deliberate and reflect and then act in ways that seem best to them. In a time of increasingly sophisticated manipulative politics, these opportunities are precious.
I do not normally quote at such length, and I hope Peter will not mind. You should read the whole piece, as he makes many more important points than the few I excerpt here.
Thank you, Peter, for an important addition to my day.