Burning Down the Village to Roast a Pig

One of my favorite lines from a Supreme Court decision was delivered in the opinion striking down the mis-named “Internet Decency Act.” The Court compared the measure to burning down a village to roast a pig.

The “pig” this time is the budget deficit, which is unquestionably a very significant problem. Unfortunately, Congress is attacking America, not the problem.

Any credible economist will confirm that even if we zeroed out all discretionary spending–that is, if we spent only on the military and entitlements, and absolutely nothing else–we would not erase the deficit for twenty-plus years. (Actually, we would never erase it, because that would destroy the economy and lose billions in tax revenues.) If we are to get the budget balanced, we must couple responsible, judicious spending cuts (including military cuts) with measures to grow the economy and increase tax revenues. We might begin with rolling back the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest 2% of Americans.

Instead, Congress is merrily proceeding to destroy civil society.

There has been a lot written about the effect of defunding Planned Parenthood on the health of poor women, and about the effort to kill public broadcasting. Those proposals are in the news. But another proposed cut that has been less discussed would defund the single most successful civic education program we have. The “savings” wouldn’t pay for a single fighter jet, but the cost would be incalculable.

The program is “We the People.” In a 2010 study conducted for the Center for Civic Education, students who completed We the People were far and away more knowledgeable about the country’s democratic principles and institutions compared to their peers.

We the People national finalists also were:

* More likely to register to vote, write to a public official, investigate compelling political issues, participate in lawful demonstrations, and boycott certain products or stores.

* More likely to agree that keeping up with political affairs, influencing the political structure, developing a meaningful philosophy of life, becoming a community leader, and helping others in need are of strong to absolute importance.

* More likely to agree that people should be able to express unpopular opinions and that newspapers should be able to publish freely, without government interaction.

As a graduate student who has worked with the program put it in an email to me:

“It’s mind boggling to me that right now, when we need it most, the best program in the country on educating citizens would be eliminated. This is very real, as the Center for Civic Education had to cancel the We the People – Frontiers partnership. Frontiers is a 70+ year old organization providing civic engagement opportunities to the African American community. Four years ago, we teamed up with them to provide We The People to their inner-city and urban club students on nights and weekends, since their schools are no longer teaching civics. These kids traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, competed in We the People competition and experienced the civil rights movement first-hand, learning from Foot Soldiers who marched when they were their age. That event was scheduled to take place in July and has been cut. 600+ inner-city and urban youth from around the country have already been hurt by this, not to mention the millions more in the future who may never know We the People.”

I wonder what those who are stoking the fire will do when our civic village is gone.

1 Comment

  1. Well said Professor Kennedy, and thank you for drawing attention to this issue! Congress should be working to give meaningful civic education to every student in the country, not eliminating it. Let’s hope cooler heads will prevail…

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