How citizen disaffection can drive changes in government | Interview with Dr. Margaret Levi

How citizen disaffection can drive changes in government | Interview with Dr. Margaret Levi

We met with University of Stanford’s notable political scientist, Dr. Margaret Levi to talk about the rise of citizen disaffection, the application of economic thinking to political science and so much more. Enjoy!

Notable political scientist Dr. Margaret Levi offers insights into applying economic thinking to political science, citizen compliance with government demands and taxation, the rise of citizen disaffection, and quality declines in government delivery of services, especially post-COVID-19. Professor of political science, the Sara Miller McCune Director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, and Jere L. Bacharach Professor Emerita of International Studies for the department of political science at the University of Washington, Dr. Levi talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

So, part of what we need to do to deal with that disaffection is to recognize that there's... In redoing our educational system and re-doing our police system, which needs clearly a lot of change, we have to think about what's problematic, yes, but also what's good? But we can't be knee-jerk about either. We have to really use our capacity for critical assessment.” – Dr. Margaret Levi

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Interview with Political Scientist
Dr. Margaret Levi

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:32The road to political science

Jed Macosko: Hi, I’m Dr. Jed Macosko at and Wake Forest University. And today we have another wonderful guest visiting us. This is Professor Margaret Levi, and she’s gonna tell us a little bit about how she found her way in life and how she ended up in her career.

So Professor Levi, can you tell us a little bit about that?

Margaret Levi: Well, I’ve always been deeply interested in politics. I feel like I’m gonna be telling a Kamala Harris story here. I wasn’t in the struggle, I was actually walking during the Civil Rights... Beginning of the Civil Rights Movement with a very activist mother. And at 16, I was already a member of Students for a Democratic Society, even though I was still in high school. But I was also involved with a group, the Northern Student Movement, which was tutoring kids in ghettos, in the north. And I, through my mother, ended up, who was in the legal room voters, ended up being in charge of the high school students who were helping to tutor in the Baltimore version in the Northern Student Movement project. And that was the summer of 1963. So, we went off to Washington DC, not very far away from Baltimore to the March on Jobs and Freedom. And heard Martin Luther King and John Lewis speak from Lincoln Memorial. So, by the time I got to college, I already... And I was also involved with the United Nation Youth. I was a very politicized being. [chuckle]

Jed: Where did you go after college then?

Margaret: Debating about China and whether it should be part of the UN. As I was in high school. I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. And, in fact, the house where we met for the United Nations Youth was the house that Sandy Jencks, Christopher Jencks grew up in.

Jed: Wow.

Margaret: He had left Baltimore by then, of course, and his family had... But it was his house, that he’d grown up in. So, by the time I got to college, I thought I wanted to be a psychologist ’cause I really wanted to understand human behavior, and I went to a preliminary meeting with a psychologist at Bryn Mawr College, where I went to college. And he started talking about rats and things like that, and I thought, "But I don’t know if I really wanna study rats. I think I wanna... " So I ended up back in political science. We’re in political science and I multiple times tried to leave it, but I always floated back into political science.

Jed: You say it was in your blood from an early age and it’s just stayed there. [chuckle]

Margaret: Well, the other thing that was in my blood was the study of history, which my father was a civil rights buff. And so the kind of... And he always made the... One, he was really interested in the history itself, but he also was always making the argument that there was an economic story here that was part of how you understood the civil war and how you understood many movements. And so not surprisingly, I became a very historically-oriented political economist.

Jed: [chuckle] Wow. Well, there’s so much there that I wanna ask you about, but let’s keep going on your career.

After you left Bryn Mawr, did you go straight to grad school in Political Science, or what did you do next?

Margaret: I went to straight to graduate school, but I went in Urban and Regional Planning, ’cause I thought I wanted to be an Urban Planner. I wanted to do something that was policy-oriented since I was involved in all the movements. So, I wanted to take... And everybody kept saying, "Oh, you should go to law school, we assume you’ll go to law school." I never ever had an interest in going to law school. So, the choices for me were really, do something that was policy-oriented or become more of an academic. And I spent a year in the Urban Regional Planning Program at... It was a PhD Program at Harvard. So, connected to both the Graduate School of Design there as well as to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

And in that year, which was also the year of the Harvard Strike. I realized that what I really wanted to do was be an academic who thought about real political problems, but was doing it as an academic. And so I shifted to political science and government department as was called and got my PhD from the Harvard Government department.

Jed: And was it hard to go to the other department? Did you have to apply all over again and start as a first-year student?

Margaret: I didn’t have to start as a first year student because I had been taking a lot of political science classes as part of my Urban and Regional Planning Program.

I did have to convince them that I wasn’t trying to get into political science at Harvard through the back door and when they looked at my record and seeing that I’d gotten into major universities in political science, I’d been a Woodrow Wilson Fellow in Political Science, and I had done very well in the political science courses I’d taken, they agreed to let me in, to transfer.

05:52Next move

Jed: Perfect. Oh, that’s great. So then you’re minted with your PhD, you’re out there in the job market.

What do you do? What’s your next move?

Margaret: Well, I had been to a private college. Elite, first rate, but private college. And then gone to arguably one of the elitist of the elite private universities. And I thought I really wanna go to a public university to teach and I’d really prefer to go to the West Coast. And I’d like to explore other parts of the country being an East Coast kid. I figured I’d do that for a couple of years and come back, and there was a job at the University of Washington and I got it.

Jed: Wow.

Margaret: And so there I went. And when I arrived in Seattle in 1974, there were still billboards up saying, because of the Boeing recession, "Will the last person who leave Seattle, please turn out the lights." So it was a rather depressed... It certainly is not a depressed area now, except for the COVID, but while I was at the University of Washington, where I was for more than 40 years, I worked for 40 years, Amazon blossomed, Costco developed, Starbucks began, [laughter] Boeing was...

Jed: Maybe it was all due to you. [chuckle]

Margaret: Zillow was here.

Jed: Yeah, so much is there. Oh gosh, that’s great. So for 40 years, you lived up in the Pacific Northwest.

Margaret: I still live, I am in the Pacific Northwest right now. So I now am at Stanford for my job but I live in Seattle.

Jed: That’s really cool.

So have you ever lived down at Stanford as part of your job or did they always have you telecommute this way?

Margaret: I haven’t been telecommuting. I actually have a place down there that I stay at and I’m very glad not to be there right now given that the air is about the worst in the world or around Palo Alto right now with the fires and...

08:00Economic connection to the civil rights movement

Jed: We were just talking to Nancy Scheper-Hughes yesterday and we were wondering if she was gonna be okay when the fires broke out but she said she was fine. She’s an anthropologist, actually, at UC Berkeley. She was delightful.

But going back to some of the things you said earlier. Your dad was interested in the history of civil rights and the connection with economics and finances. We were talking to Rogers Smith the other day about how connected it is, the economic and political situations external to United States and the times at which United States has made forward progress in the areas of civil rights.

Is that something you’ve come across too, that is the outside pressure or the pressure of the economic situation that allows things like the civil rights movement to move forward?

Margaret: So by outside, you don’t mean international, you mean that the internal...

Jed: Well, I was surprised that Rogers Smith said that it was partly due to communism taking over different countries in Africa and spreading the idea that America was a bad place to be allied with ’cause look at how they treat people of color, look at what they’re doing, that that put pressure on the US government to open up to some of the ideas of civil rights. I was surprised. I don’t know what you think about that but...

Margaret: I’ll be interested in reading his argument about that. [chuckle]

Jed: Yeah, I don’t know if where he’s written it, he just told it to us in this format, in this interview, but what was the connection you saw? You said that that became part of your research, is looking at the economic connection to some of these political things. Tell us a little bit more about that.

Margaret: Well I’m what is called a comparative political economist, and in fact, along with a few other people, Adam Przeworski , Robert Bates , those are the primary ones but there were others as well, really started... Helped to generate the field of comparative political economy back in the late ’70s, early ’80s. Really taking economic reasoning, not necessarily narrow rational choice but economic reasoning, into thinking about political problems.

So applying an economic framework but bringing politics very much into it. And so the book that really made my career, in a way, was my second book. My first, believe it or not, was on police unions, an issue that’s become very important lately.

Jed: You should revive it, republish it. [chuckle]

Margaret: Well, I’m writing something based on it right now, but, no I don’t think anybody needs to read that book. I can summarize it very quickly. [chuckle] My real passion became... It was after I came to the University of Washington and I started teaching with, and then thinking with someone who won the Nobel Prize in Economics, Douglass North . It really was very transformative of my thinking and I wanted to apply economic history in the way economic historians thought and the use of economic models to really important problems about the ways in which governments and citizens interact with each other and the way that states form and develop.

And so a book called Of Rule and Revenue was the outcome of my teaching with Doug and then getting engaged in conversations with people like Bob Bates and Adam Przeworski who were thinking along the same lines about using models that came from economics to think hard about serious political and institutional, and social problems.

Of Rule and Revenue traces the history of income-generating systems for state’s taxes from... It uses a series of case studies but starting in ancient republican Rome and the last full cases of relatively contemporary Australia...

Jed: Interesting.

And it turns out the big cost of extraction was a political transaction cost, which is really, will citizens comply with the taxation or will they engage in revolt?” – Dr. Margaret Levi

Margaret: Still going through different modes of production as it were and looking at cases and how the organization of revenue extraction developed over time. And my big finding in that book, I started by thinking that what was gonna determine the variation over time and across place would really have to do with economic transaction cost, how hard it was to extract the taxes if you don’t have incomes, if people aren’t employed, if they’re producing on the land only, you can’t have an income tax, for example. If you don’t have a port, you can’t have a port tax. So I thought it would be those kinds of variables on the cost of extraction that were simple, economic and physical cost of extraction.

And it turns out the big cost of extraction was a political transaction cost, which is really, will citizens comply with the taxation or will they engage in revolt? Or as some of the French did when they were confronted and some of the Roman Republican empire did when they were confronted with tax collectors, they killed them rather than pay taxes. So that’s a form of strong non-compliance.

Jed: I would say so. [chuckle]

Margaret: So I was interested in... Really then became interested in what accounted for the variation in citizen responses as opposed to the physical determinants and that led to another book. But out of that first book I developed the notion of quasi-voluntary compliance. The conditions under which citizens or subjects might be willing to comply with government extractions when they’re required, but they still need a cooperative or voluntary element to them.

Jed: Interesting.

Margaret: And that led me to really thinking about what are the components of a trustworthy government and when does it deliver on its promises and how the citizens know that, and when is it being relatively fair in the way in which it’s treating people? So those kinds of issues came to the fore. So there were always normative questions tied into my empirical explorations.

14:30Mondern day compliance

Jed: Interesting. Well, you probably have a lot to say about where we’re at right now in the United States. We have a lot of people that are fairly upset, and were in 2016, about the way things were being run. Bernie Sanders , Donald Trump both gained a lot of support from the Populist Movement and people were upset, not so much about taxes, but more about globalization it seems. So tell us a little bit about how you see the modern day compliance with the government.

Is it about taxes or is it about other things now?

Margaret: Well, as I said, that book on taxes was the first of a long series of studies that really looked at trustworthy government, and taxes were not the major focus. There are all kinds of ways in which government succeeds or fails to deliver what its citizens or subjects expect of them, and the extent to which it does that in a way that meet the standards of fairness of the time and the place.

There’s another element of what makes for a trustworthy government in my view, which is that it has the capacity and competence to actually enforce its laws. So I may be willing to comply because I think what the government is doing is okay or reasonable and that it’s doing it relatively fairly, more or less getting what I think I should be getting from it, but if I think it’s letting other people get away with non-compliance I am less likely to comply myself. So one of the important roles of government is not to enforce the rules against those of us who are voluntarily willing to go along with them, but to be able to locate the free riders and ensure the rest of us that they will get punished and that therefore we’re not being suckers in being willing to comply.

Jed: Yes.

Margaret: So when you apply that... When you think about that reasoning then it affects all kinds of dimensions, it’s hardly just taxes. So it’s all kinds of places where there might be a policy.

My husband talks about how when he grew up in Seattle and nobody jaywalked and now people jaywalk all the time. And for him that’s a sign of a real breakdown in social order and the relationship with government. That’s a minor example but you can imagine that there are all kinds of cases, taxation or military service being among them but so many other things where if you see that people are not obeying the rules or you see that the rules are being enforced for some people and not for others, or that the rules are being punitively enforced against certain people and not others as the Black Lives Matter appropriately sees, that would undermine trust in government.

And so there are several elements of what makes a trustworthy government. One is it's demonstrated competence in actually delivering what it's supposed to deliver and delivering it of a reasonably high quality.” – Dr. Margaret Levi

And so there are several elements of what makes a trustworthy government. One is it’s demonstrated competence in actually delivering what it’s supposed to deliver and delivering it of a reasonably high quality. And one of the things we’ve seen happen in the last four years, whether you’re a populist or not a populist, is that there’s been a real decline, of which the post office is the most recent example, but a real decline in the quality of government delivery. And that seems to, for some people, that seems to suggest that government can’t deliver, which is part of a purpose of some of the created decline. And for others it says government should be delivering, let’s get a new government that can actually deliver and will provide the services at the level and quality, and to all of us who should be getting them.

Jed: Interesting, so that, what you were talking about was a fascinating response to the question about how did the populist movements take root that we saw in 2016, and in some ways you were answering more like well, what has happened since 2016 which is that...

Margaret: No, but it’s also in 2016 ’cause there were lots of people who felt like they were no longer getting what they needed from government or from the society.

Jed: Ah, I see what you’re saying. And that’s why they went with some of the populist leaders like Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump because they wanted a change. They’re like we’re not getting what we should be getting, let’s go with somebody new.

Is that what you’re saying?

Margaret: Yeah.

19:122020 and COVID

Jed: Okay, I get it. Okay, so how does that bode for 2020? We’re all waiting with bated breath for what’s gonna happen. How do you see it as a political scientist who sees things in this dimension of are people getting what they think they’re getting and most importantly, are other people getting things that they ought not to get and that are not fair? So how do you see that playing out in 2020?

Margaret: Well, the way it should play out, I don’t know how it will play out, the way it should play out is that there should be a really strong reaction to the, in our case, the US government for its clear failure to deliver even... I mean part of what was saving that government face, until the COVID crisis was it was a really fairly... What seemed like a fairly healthy economy and relatively good employment and stuff. Of course, if you got sick, if you lost your job, the social insurance system is pretty poor in this country relative to other advanced, many other advanced...

Jed: Sure.

Margaret: Developed countries, so there were loads of people who were feeling that they were getting the short end of the stick even prior to COVID. But COVID has revealed and the economic crisis that COVID has created has really revealed, not only the shortcomings of what our government already had on the books to do, but the shortcoming of those who are staffing, the government at the top.

So because they are not... I mean Donald Trump just does not seem alert to the science or the needs that are clearly out there for, whether it be PPE or for certain kinds of economic protections and for healthcare that’s more generous and available and more accessible to many more.

So what should happen is a reaction to that. What will happen is very hard to tell because there’s another piece of this story from a social scientist’s perspective, which has to be brought in there, so it’s not just government doesn’t deliver or the president is considered incompetent, there’s another piece to the story is what the people believe is going on. And those beliefs... For a long time, we believed, we thought, as social scientists, that beliefs were susceptible to information and to forms of rational persuasion and education.

If people got more educated, if they got access to higher quality information, if they had the facts, that their beliefs would change about the way the world works, and I can give lots of instances where that is, in fact, the case. But we also see that there’s a group of people, we don’t know how many of them there are, but we know that they’re a strong minority and they may have a contagion effect who seem to be impervious to information. Dana Bash , the reporter was telling the story the other day and I guess it was probably during the Democratic Convention that when McCain told this woman who came up to him during his campaign that in fact Barack Obama was not a Muslim and he was born in the United States. Dana Bash followed the woman afterward and started talking to her and the woman was totally impervious to any kind of information that Dana could provide, and we know there are people like that and that changes the calculation because then you’re not looking at what the government is actually doing relatively objectively how it’s delivering to you.

You’ve got a whole perspective that’s covering that, that makes you see things a certain way and so I think the next big frontier, and this is a long-winded answer to your question about why I can’t give you the answer, not only are we not very good at prediction, but I think there’s something we haven’t studied well enough that gets in the way of some of our predictions.

Jed: Interesting, fascinating. Well, that’s an area of study that young people should take up...

Margaret: Absolutely, absolutely.

23:51Disaffection and populism

Jed: The mantle and carry the torch further on that. Wonderful. I believe it was Don Green at Columbia that we were just interviewing who... Who talked about populist movements and that basically, if more people voted then the populist movements would never carry the day. I got the impression that there is a group of people, like the ones you were just describing for whom information does not change their beliefs that can be swayed by a populist leader on one side or on the other.

Is that sort of how you see it, too, that if populist movements get a foothold, it’s because the greater population is not voting to their full extent? Is that...

Margaret: No, I think they get a foothold because there’s really disaffection in the society, deep disaffection and it’s not... The populists, they’re different... I mean populism is this term that people are throwing around right now, and it means really different things in different places and for different groups so I wouldn’t characterize the supporters of both Trump and Sanders as being cut from the same cloth in any sense. It’s not like one big populist movement. In fact, they have very different views about what... I mean Bernie Sanders is arguing for a lot of government, right? Donald Trump is arguing for very little government.

So, I mean they have really different policy stances but what they’re both tapping into is a kind of disaffection that is coming forward and each of them has taken a slice of that disaffection and then played with it.

In both cases they probably do have some of their supporters who are these people who have beliefs that are not penetrable to information and other things, but in a lot of cases, like we could see during the Democratic Convention that one of the things Sanders was trying very hard to do, and may or may not succeed in doing, is moving his supporters to understand that there’s these larger issues that he deeply cares about and that in fact the Democratic ticket could actually respond to many of these things and a Congress reconstituted could respond to many of these things. So I think what your calling populism is a deep form of disaffection because people...

Jed: Yeah, I think I am calling it...

Margaret: People are not getting what they think they should be getting and they’re seeing others benefiting, and I think the anti-globalization movement is part of that, that there are certain elites that benefit very well from the form of globalization that has been prevalent for the last 20 or 30 years, and others who are big losers and nobody seems to care about the losers.

So they’re looking for people who can speak for them, who can represent their voices but it can come from many different kinds of political perspectives. So there’s right wing and there’s left wing and they’re not all populists, some of them are simply disaffected. You know how the Civil Rights Movement are populist movement. You don’t mean it that you’re using populist in a...

Jed: I’m using it clearly, I’m a physicist, so I just hear what these other people I’ve interviewed say and I put it through my filter. Tell us what populism really means. Please do.

Margaret: What I’m hearing you say is that populism is a bad thing, and it’s problematic, that it creates this problematic politics. There can be... That’s why I don’t like the word because I think we have lots of different kinds of movements. Some are engaged in good trouble, as John Lewis liked to say.

Jed: Good trouble.

Margaret: And some are engaged in some of the white nationalists, I would not call that good trouble or some of the weird anarchists on the far left. I wouldn’t call that good trouble either, they’re just trying to make trouble and they’re trying to break down the system not find a way to make it better.

Jed: Right, so how would you define populism, just so we can get that word clear in our mind and separate it from some of the other words that we should use and concepts that I was applying populism to.

Margaret: I don’t use it.

Jed: You just avoid that term?


Margaret: I do really avoid that term and talk about a movement for this or a movement for that or a movement in this period or. ’Cause I have a lot of...

Jed: Okay, makes sense. That’s a safe thing to do.

Margaret: I’ve had a lot of people come through the system. Big fellows at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences who argue about populism and I’ve been convinced by their arguments and by what they’ve said that it’s too many things, so it’s a fault, it’s not the term.

28:56Feelings of being disenfranchised

Jed: Okay, well let’s talk now a little bit then, since we’ve got that clear we’re throwing out the word populism. We’re using words that are more specific like disaffected. The disaffected people in the United States are primarily disaffected because they are the losers of globalism.

Is that what you would say?

Margaret: No.

Jed: No? Okay tell us.

Margaret: I wouldn’t blame it on globalism. I mean that’s another word I wouldn’t particularly use in that way.

Jed: Okay.

Margaret: They are losers for multiple reasons. Globalism may be one of them, there are certain kinds of global trade that has shifted where certain kinds of production is being done and created a competition that lowers wages and standards of work in the United States in order to be competitive elsewhere, that would be something that might have to do with globalism.

But if you read something like Arlie Hochschild’s book, Strangers in Their Own Land, which is about the Louisiana bayou. These are people who are working for companies, maybe the global companies, but the problem is not that they’re global, the problem is that they are destroying the environment in order to extract things that we want.

What’s happening to the bayou is people are literally being poisoned by their water because chemicals have been dumped into the bayou and they’re getting cancer from the air as well as from the water. They’re working jobs that are just awful in many ways, and yet they are people who join the Tea Party and support Trump even though some of them are environmentalists or care about their environment in some way.

So we see very contradictory things going on but they feel like they have been neglected by a number of things. They see government policies. She has this wonderful metaphor in there where they’re these people, let’s say from the bayou, who’ve been standing in line for a long time waiting to get their share of the pie and because of the Civil Rights Movement they feel some black people get in front of them, who aren’t waiting in line, a terrible metaphor for that purpose. Some of the new immigrants come in, the disabled get recognized, whatever it is that they see they see that they’re not getting their fair share.

Jed: And that’s why they gravitate towards Trump, because his rhetoric supports their feelings of being disenfranchised in that particular way.

Margaret: Right. Which is not globalization.

Jed: Interesting.

Margaret: That has to do...

Jed: No, that could have happened, yeah, that could have happened if companies hadn’t gone overseas, they just stayed in the United States and destroyed the environment in the United States. So you’re right, it’s not really globalization. It’s this idea of being disaffected by people at the top, and that’s what drives this larger and larger group of disaffected people in the United States that’s really changing the political landscape.

Margaret: It’s people at the top of government, people at the top of companies, people, and it’s the indifference that a lot of people feel to their plights, to their needs, to what’s happening to them.

32:26What would you do?

Jed: So if you were in charge of the world what would you do to help people in the United States, focusing just on our country, who are disaffected, who are feeling left out? What would you do?You’ve been a part of this since you were marching in the...

Margaret: When I was seven, right.

Jed: [chuckle] When you’re seven years old, so you’ve been a part of this for a long time. So tell us what you would do to help people of all different kinds of disaffected-ness, people being disaffected in all different ways in the United States, what could you do?

Margaret: Can I, I’m gonna digress a minute again to get back to where...

Jed: Go for it.

Margaret: I can answer that question. So one of the things that I’m doing at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences that I direct is we now have multiple year projects or programs, and the one that I’m helping to run is called Generating A New Moral Political Economic Framework. A mouthful. So since Adam Smith , there has been this evolution of political economic framework, so as the technology changes, as industry changes, as work changes, as we recognize government and the need for various things like social insurance as wars come in as depressions, etcetera. So we had, we started with Smith. We got various other people in between and we’ve got Keynesianism, and now we’re into this world of what as I said, some people call neo-liberalism or supply-side economics, which started with Thatcher and Reagan, and which really emphasizes that governments should get out of the way of markets. And that the thing that will regulate the market as it were is competition, that if there’s no interference, there will be competition and that will regulate the market and give us everything we want, focusing on us as consumers and needers of things.

Well what we’re seeing is that that system, as all systems prior to it, all frameworks prior to it, is beginning to really fail, and it was failing well before Trump got elected. It may even been part of the reason he did get elected because it was enhancing this disaffection, because people weren’t getting what they needed from this kind of approach and the kind of regulatory apparatuses that got put into place. So that leads us to the question that you were asking about, what do we do? So what our project is part of a larger network of groups and people really thinking about what does that next framework look like? And that involves thinking hard about the role of government. That’s thinking hard about markets.

It’s thinking hard about the technology. Big technology companies are something that have developed post the kind of legal frameworks and political economic frameworks that we had in place and we haven’t caught up with them yet.

So I think in many cases, we need a reset. We need a new framework, yes, but one of the things that that framework should do is to help us, I think we need to go almost agency by agency and think about, there was something that was right as well as something that was very wrong in my view about the movement to limit government. What was wrong about it is that we absolutely are dependent on government for so many things. We can’t have any of the public goods and public works that we have a right to demand from a rich society like our own without government being part of that process.

We can’t have social insurance without that, but that doesn’t mean the government always does things well. So there is waste. I’m not sure there’s a lot of corruption though, there may be now, but there wasn’t. The IRS, we may not like the IRS, but we don’t worry that the agents are taking the money out of our pockets and putting it into theirs, [chuckle] right? I mean, that was a big concern in the 19th century.

Jed: Sure.

Margaret: It’s not a big concern, not the IRS ’cause it didn’t exist, but the taxers and others were. The police were taking bribes, right?

Jed: Yeah.

Margaret: So corruption is a problem with government always to be watched for, but wasteful-ness is a different kind of problem. Anybody who’s been involved in a construction project has to be going crazy because there are too many regulators who are contradicting each other and doing all kinds of things.

So part of what we need to do to deal with that disaffection is to recognize that there’s in re-doing our educational system and re-doing our police system, which needs clearly a lot of change we have to think about what’s problematic, yes, but also what’s good, but we can’t be knee-jerk about either. We have to really use our capacity for critical assessment to think about what the goals of these agencies are, who they’re supposed to serve, how do we ensure that they serve those people, and then rethink them a bit and do some serious reform effort.

And I think that’s what we have to do. And I hope we come up with a larger framework than that, but we can certainly start right now by going agency by agency, whatever order we wanna take them in. Police is clearly gonna be high on the, is high on everybody’s agenda in the United States right now, but to rethink them in constructive ways.

38:15COVID was the reset

Jed: Well that would be really good. And do you think maybe looking at this as sort of a silver lining or whatnot, but had we gone straight from Obama to Hillary Clinton , would there have been a reset? And maybe this is an opportunity here with a Trump administration in between, let’s say a Obama and then a Biden administration that that provides a reset. Or another silver lining, is COVID an opportunity for some of this kind of reset that wouldn’t have been present if we hadn’t had COVID?

Margaret: I think COVID and is the big reset.

Jed: Okay.

Margaret: I think we would have had a reset eventually. I’m not sure Hillary Clinton would have done it. I think she certainly would have improved things from my perspective relative to Trump, but it needed, just the Great Depression, these are awful. Great Wars, these are awful reasons. Crises like COVID, these are awful reasons for a reset, but they do make us really aware of where our system is failing us in a way that a government just operating slightly differently this way, slightly differently that way, even a lot differently this way doesn’t make us as alert to. Right now, people are starving. People are out of work. People are sick. People who are taking care of the sick are in danger.

Jed: Yes.

Margaret: People who are, we are, we’re suddenly calling people essential workers who we treated like dirt. We’ve ignored farmers. We’ve ignored grocery clerks. We’ve acted like our food supply is automatic, let alone our healthcare system, our education system. So suddenly, the delivery people are essential workers, and we’re becoming very aware, which is very momentary, so we have to take advantage of this moment if we want any real change. This is an alertness we have of the instant moment that they are underpaid and under-served and they’re doing really important work for us all right now.

So we, those of us who care about changing the world for the better, have to really take advantage of this moment and turn it into practices and policies that can be institutionalized and survive the particular awareness that comes with the crisis.” – Dr. Margaret Levi

So we, those of us who care about changing the world for the better, have to really take advantage of this moment and turn it into practices and policies that can be institutionalized and survive the particular awareness that comes with the crisis.

Jed: Wow, well that is a fascinating way to end this interview ’cause what you were saying right at the end does remind me a lot of what Rogers Smith said in his interview about how big momentous crisis can change things for the better. So that’s kind of an uplifting thought as we look towards the 2020 election.

Margaret: Not that I’d ask for a crisis.

41:13Sign off

Jed: No, no, no, nobody wants it, but as you said, if we could take advantage of the awareness that we have thanks to COVID, we might be able to make that reset happen in the way that you suggested. So thank you so much Margaret for your time. Professor Levi, it was just a true pleasure to have you on our little show.

Margaret: Oh, you’re welcome and thank you. It’s really been fun to talk to you.

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See our series of interviews with top experts and thought leaders in every field.

Or get valuable study tips, advice on adjusting to campus life, and much more at our student resource homepage.