tl;dr: we need a new kind of political instruction that reliably produces citizens who can operate their government well, including its surrounding civic structure. Maximum New York is building just that, beginning with The Foundations of New York. Cohorts 1 and 2 have concluded well, but for cohorts 3+ I need a classroom upgrade. If you know anyone with a space in NYC for 10-15 people with teleconference ability, let me know. (Twitter DM or email is wonderful)
Imagine a society that runs out of people who can operate its technical industrial systems—the ones that deliver reliable electricity to your home, maintain transportation and delivery infrastructure that stocks your stores, and build almost everything. You know what they say: infrastructure is whatever you don’t notice until it breaks.
And now imagine another society that runs out of people who can think clearly about politics and operate the social technologic1 systems that effectively amend law and maintain ordered liberty—the ones that enforce contracts, guarantee equal protection under the law, spin up new civic organizations rapidly to address issues, and give people a common arbiter to settle all their disputes.
But I repeat myself, because these societies are the same in the end.
Just as the United States faces the difficult task of reshoring our industrial capacity for the twenty-first century, so we face the difficult task of jumpstarting our social technologic base. In the case of industry, we outsourced to another country. In the case of social tech, most people outsourced to management, government, and nonprofits.2 This works fine in the short term, but when your surrogate stops working correctly, you’ll realize that outsourcing an activity also outsources the ability to do it at all.
The real effect of this outsourcing was a radical reduction in the amount of citizens who can actually do anything3: run industrial systems, or start effective civic groups and solve social problems. And the less ability you have, the more you outsource, even if outsourcing isn’t the prudent move–it’s all you can easily do. That means we don’t get regenerated cities, new housing, or anything else that requires competent individuals in the social technologic realm. Less capacity breeds even less capacity, unless this process is deliberately interrupted. (And mercifully, it runs the other way too.)
This deliberate interruption requires recruiting new talent, which often also means motivating and training it first. And in the case of social technology, specifically within the realm of politics, that means developing a new pedagogy of politics and a set of instructors to go with it.
This essay is a brief outline of the task of developing the new pedagogy of politics I’ve been working on through Maximum New York, for New York City, and I welcome new collaborators in the endeavor. We need to create a reliable education system that motivates and trains citizens on the nature of their government, and the political strategy around it. That will give us the skilled culture we need to achieve a politics of abundance, and a city government that does more than tinker at the margins with inherited, harmful mechanisms.
And you, reader, can learn how to be an efficient and competent actor in civics and politics. You can help change New York City for the better, and quickly. People like you used to do it, and you can take that mantel up again. It is worth your time to figure out, and you should demand excellent instructors to help you get there.
What generally prevails instead of political instruction
Today, New Yorkers are not taught politics properly, because they are not taught at all.4 They are treated as, or operate as, mindless pawns in a game usually optimizing for one of two local maxima.
First: With regard to voting, that means campaign staff and their candidates5 appeal to voters on the basis of simplistic policy ideas, and try to get them to vote on the basis of civic guilt, tribal affiliation, or by making it a social activity (the “I voted” social-status stickers are related to this). Nonetheless most voters—and in NYC that is almost no one anyway—walk into the booth not knowing what many of the offices on the ballot even do.6
Second: With regard to political bullshitting in conversation, people strive for status by having good retorts, fashionable opinions, great social media metrics, etc.7 Their ultimate goal is to come out on top in conversation, not to actually know anything.
Because most people only interface with politics when voting or bullshitting with friends and enemies (they lack the knowledge to do much else), these are the two local maxima that political information disseminators have optimized for, trapping our culture at these globally suboptimal points in the process.
Notice that, in all of this, what we are not getting is a superior political citizenry who can wield their government and civic society in excellent fashion. We are getting, when we get anything at all, a city of people who can take some marching orders without enough context to understand what they’re obeying most of the time. Not even increasingly adversarial material conditions, usually the direct result of social technologic deterioration, can move people to operate differently:
“This overbearing incuriosity in the face of crumbling capacities resembles a civilization that has lost the ability to understand and build its own advanced technology.
The inertia of the past allows them to keep using their tech as long as it lasts, but when it breaks it just disappears, unable to be fixed. People steadily adjust to their monotonically decreasing baseline of well-being as their technology fades, returning them to more expensive and labor-intensive modes of existence. After a generation, no one would lament the state of things, because they’d have no experience of a better way of life. They probably wouldn’t demand the return of their advanced tech, and would even start to doubt it had existed, quite simply because they wouldn’t understand it. They’d be unaware of what exactly it could do, and so they wouldn’t know what they were missing out on.”8
To all of this I say: but of course. You get what you optimize for, even if you don’t realize you were optimizing for it. The means you select affect the ends available to you.
To cut through this terrible equilibrium and restock our city with a politically sharp citizenry, we need a new pedagogy of politics.
What good political instruction requires
There is a whole science of teaching and how best to do it. I’m not going to restate what I know of it here, just outline four expectations and psychological tripwires that I have to keep in mind for myself as I build out a curriculum and school for New York City politics.9 I know they’ll be relevant for others as well.
- Charisma and inspiration: how exactly are you going to get people to be interested enough in politics to engage in formal instruction, especially adults in the modern era? This is an exercise at the intersection of marketing, teaching, and self-presentation. Prospective students’ current impression of politics, which is correct, is that it is filled with insufferable bores and moral scolds operating in an impenetrable haze. How are you different? What do you have to offer that is nice? Your instruction should be a pleasant exertion done together with motivated friends, not crawling over broken glass. If you find that people are not interested in learning about politics, that is mostly your problem—you need to be more interesting, meet your prospective students where they are, and pitch them better. Don’t blame your audience for your own poor showing!
- Proper motivation: the political instructor should have their own political points of view, but their instruction should not be aimed at creating clones. Are you teaching, or just tacking on incidental gestures at it in the primary attempt to get someone to take a marching order? The instructor’s motivation should not be either of the two local maxima identified above (getting votes, winning bullshitting matches), but rather the production of good politicians for an abundant society.
- Don’t dumb it down: In their hearts, people will admit to themselves that they don’t know things. If you don’t teach them where and how to find the actual mechanisms of government and politics themselves, their agency will be capped. They will not operate independently. They must know that they can touch and understand the government directly, no intermediary needed. Don’t give them an overly simplistic simulacrum of government like you’d find in most civics classes—teach the real thing as it is. Not only is this the only useful path for your students, but it is the only path that respects their time and intelligence.
- You’re in the business of freeing minds and unleashing agency: For a variety of reasons, the smartest, kindest, most ambitious people know nothing about politics and government, giving the reins by default to a black-box system they hope doesn’t hurt them too much.10 They do not deserve to be ruled by a black box.
One of the fundamental ideas at the heart of Maximum New York is that if you and I can’t create a reliable stream of new, highly educated political actors, then we can’t solve the city’s many problems. At best, we’ll be stuck with our current form of broken incrementalism. And since I don’t want that, I’ve gone into the business of political instruction. I’ve been the thankful beneficiary of excellent teaching in other domains, and I’m happy to apply that now in politics. Further, I would like to thank the students in cohorts 1 and 2 of The Foundations of New York—through your own excellence, you’ve helped MNY immensely.
If you’d like to join me, my DMs and email are always open.
From Samo Burja’s Great Founder Theory manuscript, “Social Technology,” p. 22: “It’s important to note that all except the simplest social technologies are designed. Though many of our crucial social technologies seem like natural parts of reality today, this was not always so. At some point they required intentional construction and adoption. Many social technologies we take for granted, including the very idea of having such critical systems as currency, law, and government, were born from concerted human agency. It is for this reason that we call it social technology, rather than social “norms”, or take a broader anthropological or philosophical approach. Much like material technology, social technology is designed, adopted, and scaled. It is proceduralized and documentable. Social technology is a tool that directs people to knowingly or unknowingly take certain actions, and in so doing it has the ability to shape an extremely broad range of human action. It can be used to reduce coordination costs between people, causing them to work together more effectively towards a goal, but it can also be used to restrict collaboration and action.” ↩
This means running for office, supporting good elected officials, helming new civic initiatives as a member of private enterprise, or rejuvenating your neighborhood—and doing these things expeditiously. Where people do things civically today at all, they are too expensive and too slow. Take the example of the Union Square Partnership’s plan to redo Union Square in Manhattan. If you look in the FAQ section under the “What is the Union Square-14th Street District Vision Plan?” menu, you’ll see that their timeline is 10-20 years. That reflects a profound failure at all levels of civic society. On some level I’m sure some people involved are aware of that, because they hide their timeline in a non-obvious spot that isn’t susceptible to a control+F search.
Some things have always taken a long time; the Empire State Building famously took two years to build, but the Brooklyn Bridge took 13 (the bridge was also built about 60 years prior). But the literal construction of New York City, its subways, and other huge improvements used to be achieved at what are now impossible speeds, with inferior material technology—but superior social technology (better government in some respects, better property right regimes, better land use laws, etc.) and superior culture (more people on net who have “getting things done quickly” as a personal goal, etc).
We are running low on Citizens Who Build, the baseline constituent piece of any larger civic and political system that builds. See that essay, and especially footnote 3, for a detailed overview of what Americans used to be able to do with social technology.
Not be belabor this footnote, but it’s my essay: a lot of people in NYC are simply too distracted optimizing for the wrong things to realize they’re neglecting the larger society. See Here’s the Problem with New York’s Young Professionals. ↩
By “teach,” I mean something like “a person creating the proper opportunity and context for a student to integrate new knowledge themselves through effort.” I don’t mean “spoonfeed.” ↩
These people don’t really understand how the law or government works either. ↩
The sheer magnitude of political pedagogical forfeiture is on display during campaign season. There are no educated citizens, and most activists are unable to teach anyone, so they blame voters for their lack of work or understanding. You cannot morally harangue a culture of civic-mindedness into existence just like you cannot hector and scold a literate or numerate one. If there is a deficit, it is likely on the side of teaching, motivating, supporting agency, and respect for the value of work. ↩
You can talk about anything if you don’t know what you’re talking about! This is done in many ways, but the most common (and often unconsciously deployed) is succumbing to the anti-concreteness meme. Never be specific about government and how it works, or you’ll realize you don’t know how. ↩
I’ve written elsewhere about the nature of this problem and its causes. The anti-politics meme; treating politics as simple; not taking politics seriously; defaulting to a sports mentality; thinking “we, but not me” (see also footnote 5); most people are so ignorant they don’t even know how to begin learning about government. ↩