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  • A Quick Look At U.S. Voter Turnout In International Perspective

    Written on June 9, 2015

    At quick glance, voter turnout in the United States seems quite low. Over the past 30 years, the turnout rate among eligible voters has fluctuated between 50 and 60 percent, whereas barely two in five eligible voters turn out in midterm elections. And this is not getting better. Turnout in the 2014 election was just under 36 percent, the lowest since the Second World War (these national percentages, of course, vary considerably between states).

    It is important, however, to put these figures in context, and one way to do that is to compare U.S. turnout with that in other nations. The Pew Research Center compiled data from recent elections in 34 OECD nations, and the graph below presents those data. The election to which the data apply is noted in parentheses. There are two rates for each nation: One is turnout as a percentage of the voting age population; and the other as a percentage of registered voters (i.e., the proportion of people registered to vote who actually cast a ballot).

    The first major takeaway from the graph is that turnout among those old enough to vote is relatively low in the U.S. Of course, the sorting in the graph may obscure the fact that several countries, including Spain and the U.K., are ranked considerably higher than the U.S. but the actual differences in rates aren’t massive (and the U.S. would have ranked much higher in 2008, or if turnout was expressed as a share of the voting eligible population, which, due mostly to felon disenfranchisement and non-citizen residents, is a few percentage points higher). Nevertheless, U.S. electoral participation doesn't look too good vis-a-vis these nations.

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  • In Defense Of The Public Square

    Written on April 30, 2015

    A robust and vibrant public square is an essential foundation of democracy. It is the place where the important public issues of the day are subject to free and open debate, and where our ideas of what is in the public interest take shape. It is the ground upon which communities and associations are organized to advocate for policies that promote that public interest. It is the site for the provision of essential public goods, from education and healthcare to safety and mass transportation. It is the terrain upon which the centralizing and homogenizing power of both the state and the market are checked and balanced. It is the economic arena with the means to control the market’s tendencies toward polarizing economic inequality and cycles of boom and bust. It is the site of economic opportunity for historically excluded groups such as African-Americans and Latinos.

    And yet in America today, the public square is under extraordinary attack. A flood of unregulated, unaccountable money in our politics and media threatens to drown public debate and ravage our civic life, overwhelming authentic conceptions of the public interest. Decades of growing economic inequality menaces the very public institutions with the capacity to promote greater economic and social equality. Unprecedented efforts to privatize essential public goods and public services are underway. Teachers, nurses and other public servants who deliver those public goods are the object of vilification from the political right, and their rights in the workplace are in danger. Legislative and judicial efforts designed to eviscerate public sector unions are ongoing.

    In response to these developments, a consortium of seven organizations—the Albert Shanker Institute; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; the American Prospect; Dissent; Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor; and the Service Employees International Union—has organized a to bring together prominent elected officials, public intellectuals, and union, business and civil rights leaders “in defense of the public square.”

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  • Do Attitudes Toward Taxation Change When Economic Situations Change?: Evidence from Poland

    Written on December 1, 2014

    The following is written by Kinga Wysieńska-Di Carlo and Matthew Di Carlo. Wysieńska-Di Carlo is an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

    In general, people tend to support expanding many of the programs funded by their taxes, but they don’t like paying taxes. In the U.S., for example, most people think the government should spend more on programs such as education, health care and urban renewal, but only a tiny fraction believes their own taxes, especially their federal taxes, are too low.

    One of the possible explanations for these seemingly contradictory attitudes might be that people think tax systems should be more progressive – that is, they believe that tax revenue should increase, but that the increase should come from higher tax rates on higher earners. Poland is an interesting example in this context (if for no other reason than the fact that there were no taxes in Poland during the communist period). Today, when asked a generic question about whether the government should play a role in reducing income differences between the rich and the poor, Polish people tend to respond in the affirmative in larger proportions than their counterparts in virtually any other advanced nation. Yet responses to these types of questions can be quite different when they ask about specific issues, such as tax rates (Roberts et al. 1994).

    Let’s take a quick look at some very tentative analyses that we (and our colleague Zbigniew Karpiński) have performed on this issue, with a specific focus on the question of whether people’s attitudes toward taxation change as their circumstances (e.g., income, employment) change.

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  • Attitudes Toward Education And Hard Work In Post-Communist Poland

    Written on October 3, 2014

    The following is written by Kinga Wysieńska-Di Carlo and Matthew Di Carlo. Wysieńska-Di Carlo is an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

    Economic returns to education -- that is, the value of investment in education, principally in terms of better jobs, earnings, etc. -- rightly receives a great deal of attention in the U.S., as well as in other nations. But it is also useful to examine what people believe about the value and importance of education, as these perceptions influence, among other outcomes, individuals’ decisions to pursue additional schooling.

    When it comes to beliefs regarding whether education and other factors contribute to success, economic or otherwise, Poland is a particularly interesting nation. Poland underwent a dramatic economic transformation during and after the collapse of Communism (you can read about Al Shanker’s role here). An aggressive program of reform, sometimes described as “shock therapy," dismantled the planned socialist economy and built a market economy in its place. Needless to say, actual conditions in a nation can influence and reflect attitudes about those conditions (see, for example, Kunovich and Słomczyński 2007 for a cross-national analysis of pro-meritocratic beliefs).

    This transition in Poland fundamentally reshaped the relationships between education, employment and material success. In addition, it is likely to have influenced Poles’ perception of these dynamics. Let’s take a look at Polish survey data since the transformation, focusing first on Poles’ perceptions of the importance of education for one’s success.

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  • Where Al Shanker Stood: Democracy In Public Education

    Written on July 21, 2014

    There is an ongoing debate in the U.S. about the role of democracy in public education. In March 1997, in his final “Where We Stand” column in the New York Times, Al Shanker addressed this issue directly. The piece, published posthumously, was an excerpt from a larger essay entitled "40 Years in the Profession," which was included in a collection published by the Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.

    Why do I continue when so much of what I’ve worked for seems threatened? To a large extent, because I believe that public education is the glue that has held this country together. Critics now say that the common school never really existed, that it’s time to abandon this ideal in favor of schools that are designed to appeal to groups based on ethnicity, race, religion, class, or common interests of various kinds. But schools like these would foster divisions in our society; they would be like setting a time bomb.

    A Martian who happened to be visiting Earth soon after the United States was founded would not have given this country much chance of surviving. He would have predicted that this new nation, whose inhabitants were of different races, who spoke different languages, and who followed different religions, wouldn’t remain one nation for long. They would end up fighting and killing each other. Then, what was left of each group would set up its own country, just as has happened many other times and in many other places. But that didn’t happen. Instead, we became a wealthy and powerful nation—the freest the world has ever known. Millions of people from around the world have risked their lives to come here, and they continue to do so today.

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  • Tiananmen Anniversary Reflections

    Written on June 4, 2014

    Our guest author today is Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University

    On the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, it is worth reflecting on the effect that tragic event had on labor conditions in China.

    Tiananmen is generally thought of as a student movement, but there was also a great deal of worker participation. A group called the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation took shape during the movement under the leadership of Han Dongfang, then a young railway worker. Today he leads an important worker rights organization, China Labour Bulletin, that works on Chinese labor rights issues from its office in Hong Kong.  Outside of Beijing, demonstrations occurred in more than 300 other cities, also with worker participation. Some of the harshest penalties after the crackdown were imposed on workers, rather than students.

    But workers, students, and other participants had the same goals in the spring of 1989. They all wanted the ruling Chinese Communist Party to open itself up to dialogue with society over issues of corruption, reform, rule of law, and citizens’ rights. One faction in the leadership, headed by Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, advocated that the Party accept this demand. He said that the demonstrators were patriotic and shared the Party’s goals for the nation, and that the Party could work with them. The other faction, headed by Premier Li Peng, argued that if the Party gave in to demands for dialogue, it would lose its monopoly of power and risk being overthrown. In the end, senior Party leaders headed by Deng Xiaoping sided with Li and used military force to end the demonstrations. In doing so, they reaffirmed the basic principle of authoritarian rule: the people have no right to interfere in politics.

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  • "Show Me What Democracy Looks Like"

    Written on April 29, 2014

    Our guest author today is John McCrann, a Math teacher and experiential educator at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City. John is a member of the America Achieves Fellowship, Youth Opportunities Program, and Teacher Leader Study Group. He tweets at @JohnTroutMcCran.

    New York City’s third through eighth graders are in the middle of state tests, and many of our city’s citizens have taken strong positions on the value (or lack thereof) of these assessments.  The protests, arguments and activism surrounding these tests remind me of a day when I was a substitute civics teacher during summer school.  “I need help," Charlotte said as she approached my desk, “what is democracy?"

    On that day, my mind flashed to a scene I witnessed outside the White House in the spring of 2003.  On one side of the fence, protestors shouted: “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”  On the other side worked an administration who had invaded another country in an effort to “expand democracy." Passionate, bright people on both sides of that fence believed in the idea that Charlotte was asking about, but came to very different conclusions about how to enact the concept. 

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  • In China, Democracy Must Begin On The Factory Floor

    Written on February 20, 2014

    Our guest author today is Han Dongfang, director of China Labor Bulletin. You can follow him on Weibo in Chinese and on Twitter in English and Chinese. This article originally appeared on The World Post, and has been reprinted with permission of the author.

    After 35 years of economic reform and development, China's Communist leaders once again find themselves on the edge of a cliff. With social inequality and official corruption at an all-time high, China's new leaders urgently need to find some way of putting on the brakes and changing direction.

    The last time they were here was in 1978 when, after the disaster of the Cultural Revolution, the then leadership under Deng Xiaoping had no option but to sacrifice Maoist ideology and relax economic control in order to kickstart the economy again.

    Unfortunately, the party relaxed economic control so much that it ceded just about all power in the workplace to the bosses. Workers at China's state-owned enterprises used to have an exalted social status; they had an "iron rice bowl" that guaranteed a job and welfare benefits for life. Some three decades later, that "iron rice bowl" has been completely smashed and the majority of workers are struggling to survive while the bosses and corrupt government officials are getting richer and richer.

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  • Democracy’s Champion: Albert Shanker

    Written on February 3, 2014

    Our guest author today is Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy (Columbia University Press, 20007). 

    Freedom House recently released the significant – and sobering -- results of its report, “Freedom in the World 2014."  The survey is the latest in an annual assessment of political and civil liberties around the globe.  For the eighth year in a row, the overall level of freedom declined, as 54 nations saw erosion of political and civil rights, including Egypt, Turkey and Russia.  (A smaller number, 40, saw gains.)  Despite the early hopes of the Arab Spring, democracy promotion has proven a long and difficult fight.

    None of this would surprise Albert Shanker, who devoted his life to championing democracy, yet always recognized the considerable difficulty of doing so.  Around 1989, when the world was celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, Shanker took the long view:  “What we’ve seen are the beginnings of democracy.  We haven’t really seen democracy yet.  We’ve seen the overthrow of dictatorship.  Democracy is going to take generations to build and we have to be a part of that building because they won’t be able to do it alone."

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  • An Attempt To Decapitate: Turkey's Trade Unions On Trial

    Written on January 29, 2014

    Our guest today is Eric Lee, founding editor of LabourStart, the international labor news and campaigning site.

    On a chilly Thursday morning in late January I found myself standing at the entrance to an ultra-modern building that looked exactly like a shopping center or hotel.  An immense atrium, mirror-like glass everywhere, it was certainly designed by architects with ambitions.  The building was the main courthouse in downtown Istanbul — the largest courthouse, we were told, in all of Europe.

    I was there in order to attend the opening of the trial of 56 members of KESK, the Turkish trade union for public sector workers.  The KESK members are accused of membership in an illegal organization, and making propaganda for that organization.  A handful of them were accused of being leaders of the organization.

    The organization they are accused of joining is the Devrimci Halk Kurtuluş Partisi-Cephesi (DHKP-C) — the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party–Front — which for more than three decades has conducted an armed struggle against the Turkish state.  The DHKP-C is considered a terrorist organization not only by the Turkish government but also by the European Union and the United States.

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