Posts Tagged 'The Economist'

Civil Society at a Crossroads – Part 1

To quote from The Economist: “Civilization works only if those who enjoy its benefits are prepared to pay their share of the costs.” The above was the lede to an editorial about something like $20 trillion dollars stashed in off-shore accounts and other tax dodges used by wealthy individuals and corporations. A recent article in The New York Times reports it is estimated that there will be, by 2020, $900 trillion in such hidden assets. As of February 25, 2013, the big number in spending cuts caused by the failure to pass a national budget is a mere $85 billion, which those with hidden money could easily front us and have significant pocket change left over. But that is, of course, beside the point, the real point being the unfair, unproductive and socially destructive effects of this massive imbalance. And, as over the course of history, such dynamics place any society at a turning point in its history.

What our friends at The Economist did not discuss are the social costs of an economic system that disenfranchises more people than it elevates, that takes more from working class families than from the über rich. That this, in fact, is the fatal flaw of capitalism. To give it a name, it is greed, plain and simple. It is a much larger problem than merely the rich doing their utmost to avoid the social responsibility of paying their fair share of taxes while enjoying all of the benefits of what the rest of us without clever tax lawyers pay into the system. This has, after all, been going on for centuries, if not millennia, but most certainly never on this scale. According to a recent study reported in The New York Times, between 2009 and 2011 the income of the most wealthy of Americans grew on average by 11%,  while for those of us in the 99% it shrank by nearly a half percent.

Tax dodging with the help of loopholes provided by their friends in Congress is only one among many behaviors that have led to the enormous disparity between the wealthy and what used to be a middle class. It is a matter of unbridled greed, not unlike an image of someone stuffing his mouth with food until he vomits, except in this case it’s money being stuffed into hidden accounts, where it draws interest and contributes nothing to the common good. I’m reminded of the image of Donald Duck’s Uncle, Scrooge McDuck, diving into his swimming pool, full to the brim with money. It is about wealth that corrupts everything and everyone it touches. It’s about behavior that deprives and impoverishes the world at large. This is the real world tragedy of the commons: too few taking too much, and thus depriving the many of that most essential aspect of a viable social contract—opportunity.

It is not simply a matter of poverty of means anymore, so much as it has become poverty of opportunity. It is the latter which is the tectonic fault in the maintenance of civil society; it is that which will ultimately destroy civil society because of its intrinsic unfairness, in that it hollows out the future. It isn’t as though this has never happened before now, quite the opposite. It is, however, that the present scale is overwhelming in the sheer numbers of economically disenfranchised people vs. the minuscule number of those possessing wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. And not only is the majority disenfranchised by lack of economic opportunity but of political opportunity as well. As one writer has said of New Mexico, only a “select few” can afford to run and serve in the legislature. “In truth,” he says, “citizen Legislature is another version of bittersweet victory – an oxymoron of New Mexico politics.”

We have come the point where, realistically, the only people who can run for public office are those who can afford to, and many of those are willing to take money from interest groups like ALEC, private foundations such as the Walmart family’s, the Koch boys, and similar sources of funding. Of course, it’s like taking money from the Mafia, they expect pay-back, meaning that you have been bought; it means you have sold the public’s trust in you and in your office. What we end up with are legislatures composed of minions who have sold themselves and serve those whose money supports them. It’s a retelling of the story of Huey Long and his coterie, when he explained why they should accept the generous proceeds of a bribe to pass certain legislation. Huey told them, “Come on boys, we have nothing to lose but our honor.”

Creating a Corpse

Graph 2

As every bureaucrat knows, if you want to kill any public process or project the preferred method is to starve it, and starving public education they are. If you want make a corpse of public education simply starve it to death by underfunding it. Doing things this way kills your target softly, which avoids confrontation and rancorous public discussion. The by-word is stealth.

It is no coincidence that the two worst states in the US when it comes to cuts in per student spending are the two states where the most ambitious wanna-be Republican governors have declared war on public education and public school teachers; two governors who have overweaning national political ambitions. They are, of course, Scott Walker and Susana Martinez.

The accompanying chart, created by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, vividly tells the sad tale. Read it and weep, New Mexico – we are leading the country in starving public education out of existence. Wisconsin and New Mexico lead the country, with New Mexico taking first-place honors cutting per student spending by $707.00 from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2012. Yes, New Mexico leads the nation in something besides great enchiladas, and by a fair margin. Wisconsin is in the game with minus $625.00. West Virginia, on the other hand, spent $504.00 more per student during the same period. West Virginia!

“Civilization works only if those who enjoy its benefits are prepared to pay their share of the costs.” Thus begins a recent editorial in the Economist, “The Missing 20 trillion,” about the amount of non-taxed money generated by individuals and corporations through one dodge or another that are secured in various countries, off-shore shelters and the like. Essentially it is an article on sociopathy in the form of capitalism. The editors could have beneficially stopped with the above quotation but, ever the defenders of capitalist ways, went on to rationalize the underlying causes and ignore the moral issues.

This is not to say the editors didn’t suggest fair and honest ways to tax the money; what they failed to do was address the core problem. Where they dropped the ball, so to speak, was to not address first principles, their own assumptions about the social contract and the underlying causality. What is missing is a frank discussion of the missing moral commitment to a social contract that includes the rest of us. But this is both typical of these kinds of economic analysis, which ply the reader with platitudes about capitalism while they ignore its fundamental and deadly flaws.

Nowhere do we find a better and more telling example than the ongoing war on public education in the United States by the wealthy and the politicians they have purchased with campaign financing and generous PACs. The selling of America, indeed.

Despite Flaws, Public Education Shows Resilience

Public Education has long been a “soft” target for political opportunists on both sides of the aisle. Why? Because it is especially vulnerable, difficult if not impossible to properly quantify and defend. Anyone who thinks that test scores alone measure academic achievement is seriously misinformed.

Also, public attention to education manifests as either love or hate, bouncing between the two pillars usually in concert with the economy.

In a February 1980 article titled “Doomsday for Public Education,” political pundit James J. Kilpatrick cited yet another pundit (you could call this a “double dose” of punditry, I suppose), George Will, as predicting that, by 1990, “Public Education in the United States will have deteriorated beyond significant recovery.”

Kilpatrick went on to identify some of the causative factors contributing to the inevitable demise: the overblown structure of the “educational establishment,” the stifling influence of government (sound familiar?), and the U.S. Supreme Court. Both of the pundits identified incompetent teachers, teacher unions, court intervention in general and the educational bureaucracy.

Interestingly, The Economist of March 19, 2011 seems to echo most of the two pundits’ theses. So we can take it, I suppose, that in some peoples’ eyes, from 1980 to the present, public education has suffered the same ills, the same causative factors that should have led to its inevitable deterioration. On evidence, public education is remarkably resilient in spite of its pronounced shortcomings, evading one doomsday after another. The monster is such that society seems to have no choice but to complain while, at the same time, paying for it.

Considering for a moment the sheer number of “magic bullets” that have been proposed (and dodged) to save public education from itself, we must conclude the monster is bullet-proof.

Persistently gullible

Among the magic bullets proposed over the years are vouchers, magnet schools, charter schools, free schools, teacher and school grading, and so on – all of which (Yes! Just say it!) have failed to produce any significant long-term perceived or measurable “improvement” in the education of America’s children.

What has always amazed me has been the persistent gullibility of politicians and the public as they whip-saw one another from pillar to post trying to tame the beast. Can it be the case, really, that public education is impervious to politically satisfactory (that is to say, measurable) improvement?

I have to come to believe it is and, for as long as it exists, public education will remain a natural “soft” target for political demagogues of all stripes.

In fact, until public educators and teacher unions stop being their own worst enemies and own up to a few inconvenient truths (that are some bad teachers and bad schools) they will always remain in the crosshairs of political opportunists. Well, they probably will no matter what actually happens, but so it goes.

A question

Let me end this essay with a question. If you were a typical youngster in New Mexico, why would you believe disciplining yourself and getting a “good” education would lead you to a happy and prosperous life? Looking around at the world as you see it, hear it, and live in it on a daily basis, what out there would sufficiently motivate you to discipline yourself to study and to achieve in school?

I believe the foregoing may be unanswerable; nevertheless, it is a valid question, and one that must be confronted because it speaks to what is without doubt the most fundamental single force in education and instruction: motivation.

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