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How Was Your Nap? It’s Time for Civics Self-Study

September 30, 2009

A Case for Civics Self-StudyHugo in garden

Civics is defined as the branch of social science dealing with government, citizens’ rights and duties, etc.  A common interpretation of civic responsibilities, or civic duties, includes such acts as paying taxes, voting, registering for military service, serving on a jury, and obeying the law. Not too high a bar at all.  In fact, I think it is pathetic that these things are widely purported as the main articles of civic responsibility.  My intent below is to provide a numerically-based rationale to determine what amount of time is reasonable to endeavor to civics self-study:  a weekly allotment of time dedicated to learn more about how your government works; where it spends your money; what policies are being discussed, influenced, and enacted.  And above all else … time to determine if the beliefs, standards, and ideals that you believe to be so critical, or fundamental, to you as an individual, your family, members of a society or nation, or to the world’s community are being promoted, threatened, or ignored?

A long time ago, people gathered in townhalls and discussed their government: its role, its purpose, its laws, what its objectives should be. They gathered in their community informally, discussed the problems they faced, and formed a united vision of what should be done. Back then, there were twenty-four hours in a day.  Today, information flows at light speed, many families have everyone employed in some fashion, and the interconnection of the world’s stages are highlighted daily. The threats are bigger and the consequences are greater, but you’re still little you up against the same twenty-four hour clock.  The former farmer-founder, citizen politician is now at work full-time with a staff the size of those old-timey towns whence their forebearers came and are equipped with annual budgets that dwarf what your family spends in a lifetime.  Also now, there are tens of thousands of others who work external to the government, but still full-time, as leaders of unions, advocacy groups, and other associations to see that their interests and objectives and those of whom they represent are advanced.  They work each day to see that legislation is written, proposed, and passed, and that the groundwork for future policy is laid.  And what do you have?  … Nothing.

You have no staff.  You have no authority. You have no funding.  … In fact, your are the funder.

You may read the papers and you may watch the news at night; but that only serves to reinforce your view that the world is complicated and vast, and the issues and actors are deeply engaged and intertwined, and you are but one meek and meager voice.  So you retreat to the comforts of your fantasy football league or your favorite fictional characters;  you monitor the ophelia crab season several months after it has ended or otherwise relax in front of the television in a self-guided phantasmagoria.

Consider some math.  Don’t run away. I’ll do the math;  you just consider it:

You work 8 hours a day.  Assume that you have an effective federal income tax rate of 25%, meaning that for every dollar you earn you end up paying 25 cents to Uncle Sam.  It follows that for every 8 hours you labor, 2 of them (25%) are labored to pay your federal income tax. That’s 10 hours per week assuming a 5 day work week. Over a full week’s awake time of 112 hours ({24 hours/ day – 8 hours sleep/ day} x 7 days/ week), those 10 hours of work-for-tax represents 9% of your total available yet unpromised hours.  Now factor in all of the other direct taxes you pay:  state income taxes, property taxes, school taxes, sales tax, gasoline tax, energy taxes, and the other taxes, surcharges, and governmental fees that show up on your household bills.  Easily you’ll find that over 10% of your waking hours are spent working to pay taxes.

The following is a fact in my opinion.  Any government action will have one or more effects on you over time:  it will help you, it will harm you, or it will do nothing for you.  Taxes are levied to fund the federal government’s operations and to encourage (as well as discourage) certain behaviors of its citizenry. Operational expenses are those salaries, insurances, and other costs and disbursements related to the people working within the branches of government and in the various agencies to fulfill the government’s purpose.  The broad classifications of its general purpose is found in the preamble to the Constitution: things like insuring domestic tranquility, providing a common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty.

Does any of this matter to you?  If you don’t instinctively know, then I’ll have to just tell you that it does. Does it warrant any of your time above and beyond those hours you freely give already to pay your taxes?

What percent of your time is reasonable to spend in Civics Self-Study?  Remember, at a minimum and strictly numerically speaking, you have a 10% interest in this.  Not a financial interest per se, but a time interest. In our example so far, more than 10% of your time is spent working to pay taxes. Consider also that your tax expenditures are used in countless ways to help, hinder, or do nothing for you in, arguably, nearly every dimension of your life.

Is it reasonable to match those hours you spend working to pay taxes with an equal amount of hours in civics participation?   No, probably not.  You have other responsibilities as well.  If not 10% then, is 5% too much?  What about 2%?

2% of your weekly waking hours is 2 hours and 15 minutes per week (0.02 x 112 waking hours/ week).

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Hugo in logs_cropped

Consider a soldier who served during World War II for 18 months.  Away from his family and friends, and with all other daily priorities on hold, he returns home blessedly safe to die peacefully at the age of 80. Over his 80 years, he spent 1 year and 6 months, in the honorable service of his country during wartime. Not considering any other ‘civic duty,’ those 18 months represent 2% of his entire lifetime (not even factoring rest time).  Is it unreasonable to expect 2% of your hours over the next year?

Consider a 19-year old soldier who heads off to serve in Afghanistan. One year later he is mortally wounded.  His contribution?  5.0% of his time. The last 5%.

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Is 2 hours and 15 minutes a week too much to ask from you?  Just 135 minutes a week to: rediscover some key American history that you always wanted to relearn since you left school;  learn about the key issues facing your community, your state, and your nation;  read what others think and do some thinking for yourself;  take a position on an issue;  know for what you will stand and for what you will fall.

Just 2% of your time over a year, distributed evenly over each weekly period, within the comfort of your home, near to family and friends.  A modest contribution.  And it certainly won’t kill you.

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5 Comments
  1. September 30, 2009 11:45 pm

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  2. Carol permalink
    October 9, 2009 9:13 pm

    I love your line at the end “know for what you will stand and for what you will fall.” People are so busy rushing around, buying this and that, attending this and that… No one takes time to just be alone with their thoughts and think any more.

  3. Spin Sir permalink
    October 10, 2009 2:30 pm

    Is any civics lesson good or are only certain topics allowed? http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/10192007/watch.html

    • October 11, 2009 9:04 am

      Well said as a social studies teacher I am all in favor of people digging into the constitution and history of our forefathers. In your essay you failed to mention that if a person exceeds 135 minutes of civics study the far-right will attach the ‘intellectual’ label. Basically an intellectual is the same thing as a liberal; at least that is the case here in the red south. Case-in-point- areas around universities are filled with ‘liberals.’ Fox news audiences are conservative and research shows they have less years of schooling. Be careful what you ask for when requesting people to become more educated.

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