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Friday, September 30, 2011

The 411 on Cain's 999

Herman Cain is an asshole:

And not just because he wants loyalty oaths from Muslims and swore to protect the endangered zygote.   He's an asshole because he passes himself off as the voice of economic and business experience in the Republican field.

Even so, or maybe because of that, he's now the "it" clown in the car and we all should know a little more about him and his plan, the 9-9-9 plan that is the talk of the tea-town.

Herman Cain is known as the "GodFather's Pizza Guy" by the MSM.  They rarely mention that he was also president of the National Restaurant Association which played a key roll in killing the Clinton Health Reform.  Or that he was also the chief economic advisor to the Dole campaign in 1996.  Or that he was also the former chairman of the Tax Leadership Council, a fair/flat tax group.  Or that he was also a longtime AM radio talk show and Fox news host.

Herman Cain is connected.

The guy's been securing his position at the nexus of corporate and crazy in Republican circles since the early 1990's.  He's no newcomer and he is well known to both the "Get out of my pocket" and "Give me back my Tinfoil Hat" wings of his party so he has both a lot of money and a lot of ground support.

And now he has his 9 9 9 plan and it's bringing shivers of anticipation and delight to those who vote their boss's pocketbook.

9-9-9.  It's pithy and perfect for  a picket sign.  It has numbers in it so it's got to be solid economics, right?

So I read it -- as best I could, anyway.  It seems the Cain team, along with having only the slightest notions about basic economics, has only a passing acquaintance with basic English grammar, construction, and diction so it's quite hard to make real sense of it.  But I read it and to save the rest of you the pain and frustration, here's a primer:

Mr. Cain's 999 plan is premised on the following "Economic Guiding Principles"
  1. Production Drives Growth (this is a rationale for abolishing government regulations and corporate taxes)
  2. Risk Taking Drives Growth (this is a rationale for abolishing capital gains taxes)
  3. Measurements must be dependable.  (this is code for a return to the Gold standard)

Phase I (there is a Phase II, too, but it only tells us that once the economy is booming from Phase I, we will  have a "Fair Tax" plan. He doesn't tell us what it is but assures us that we will no longer need the IRS):
  • End Repatriation Taxes (taxes on corporate earnings from outside US)
  • End Capital Gains Tax
  • Create a 9% tax bracket that all earners must pay (he would also end the payroll tax on both sides, though he does not explain how he would pay for social security, implying that he would end it).
  • Create a 9% sales national sales tax
  • Create a 9% corporate tax rate for all corporations
  • End the inheritance tax
  • End Excise taxes
See?  9-9-9!  It's gonna be so much easier to figure our taxes without all those pesky progressive elements, right?   No more free ride for that 47% of parasitAmericans who pay nothing and get all that welfare and health care and public education.  They're finally gonna pay their fair share.

Yes.  9% on all earnings.  No bottom limit.

So here's the tax breakdown in real terms.  (Warning, current terms are oversimplified and based on loose averages):

A family of four with a net pre-tax income of $22,000, which is poverty level, would pay $1,980 in federal taxes, nothing in state taxes, and a 19% (combined federal, state and local sales taxes) premium on their purchases, leaving them with $16,216 in purchasing power.

Poverty Tax Rate (state, federal, and sales): 28% (19% increase from current)

A family of 4 that has a net pre-tax income of $42,000 would pay $3,780 in federal taxes.  They would also pay, here in California, $2,100 in state taxes.  If that family lived here in Los Angeles, they would pay an additional 19% tax premium on every purchase.  Cain makes no exemptions for unprepared food.  The actual purchasing power available for their $42,000 would be $29,257 after all taxes.

Actual Middle Class Tax Rate (state, federal and sales): 32% (approximately the same as now)

An individual who earns $1,000,000,000 each year in salary would pay $90,000 in federal taxes and $111,000 in state taxes (minus deductions).  They would also pay a 19% premium on purchases for another $190,000, leaving them with $609,000 in purchasing power after taxes.

Actual Upper Income Tax Rate (state, federal, and sales) 39% (A 15% reduction from current)

An individual who earned $1,000,000,000 in investments would pay nothing beyond sales tax.

A corporation that earns $1,000,000,000.00 will be taxed at 9%, too.  9% after deducting the cost of all investments, all purchases from other businesses and all dividends.  A smart corporation would be able to avoid taxation altogether as there are no repatriation, capital gains, or excise taxes.

Actual Corporate Tax Rate for a publicly traded corporation: 0% (17.2% drop from current)

Hermain Cain's plan is simple:  Make the poor pay.  Let the rich skate.

Herman Cain is an asshole.

So is anybody who thinks that 9-9-9 isn't stupid, insane, immoral, and just plain wrong.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

"As Long As It's Black" and the Industrial Undead

When Henry Ford told a newspaper reporter that his customers could have a Model T in any color they wished, "so long as it's black," he was speaking as the foremost authority on industrial production.  The entire industrial era was predicated on the belief that uniformity and interchangeability were the key to efficient design.

It was at the ascendancy of the industrial era that our public school system was born. The main thrust of public education through most of the early 20th century was to prepare their products for consumption by the industrial world.  The focus of education for most students was obedience, basic skills, and a willingness to work.  There were, of course, exceptions, but for the most part the Factory Model School system was just that -- a practice factory for pre-workers.

It was only after Sputnik in 1954 that significant effort was channeled into creating a crop of young Einsteins and Oppenheimers to help us compete with the USSR.  This white, middle-class,Talented Tenth were the recipients of greater funding, more support, and greater encouragement than the remaining 90% of students.  This was the birth of honors classes and public school tracking.  The Talented Tenth took Trigonometry instead of Woodshop, Physics instead of Autoshop.  Their educations were focused on college because they were the great hope for the future of capitalism.  The rest were still going to work in factories.

And then the industrial era ended.

And then the USSR collapsed.

But we didn't change the schools.  They are functioning zombies from a world long dead, and they are in fact eating our brains.

It's not that we don't know what we want from our schools in the post-industrial era.  If you aggregate the body of notions regarding what we should be doing in schools, it comes out like this:

We need our schools to create adaptable, versatile, knowledge workers who will have the capacity to move between careers as the market changes.  Our schools need to create graduates that have a strong foundation in basic skills that allow them to be competitive with workers in other post-industrial countries and they need to be able to do this with all students, regardless of race, class, color, gender, or religion.

We know what we want, but we sure as hell aren't doing it.


We say that the modern worker must be adaptable and versatile, willing and able to change careers 5-8 times in their lifetime.

But we require extensive schooling and certifications for even the most menial positions, making it difficult or impossible for anyone who is not wealthy or well supported to change careers once they are established.

We say that our schools need to produce knowledge workers who are resilient problem solvers with a strong set of basic skills.

But we hamstring our schools with extensive, highly specific, knowledge standards that become the basis for the entire assessment of the institution, limiting their ability and desire to let their kids explore and solve problems.

We say that every child needs to have access to a quality education.

But we define quality education so narrowly that only successful college-preparatory schools meet the standard, implying that the only acceptable future for any child is a college education -- a political, demographic, social, and intellectual impossibility -- and tell all other schools and children that they are failures.

We say we need our students to be able to compete with the rest of the world

But we insist on local control of schools and then watch the localities slash education funding and add ridiculous mandates to the curriculum.  This doesn't happen in Japan and elsewhere because they have national education systems.

And then we're surprised when we continually pump educational products into the marketplace that seem brainless and that certainly aren't what we ordered.  No shit.

Instead, why don't we try this:

Eliminate the specific standards.  Students don't really need to know all 14 points of Wilson's 14 point plan, and if they need it, they can look it up.  What students need is the ability to look things up, and we suck at teaching that.

Eliminate the high-stakes multiple choice assessment.  Replace it with a battery of research and problem solving situations where students must prove that they are capable of accessing, self-teaching, and demonstrating learning from multiple disciplines and then applying the result in a real-world situation.

Bring back high school vocational training.  All of it.  Incorporate much of what is done in for-profit career colleges in vocational curriculum in the high schools.

End the "as long as it's black," belief about how schools should be.  We allow very limited variation in methodology in public education and absolutely no variation in expected outcome.  How on earth are we going to produce workers who are resilient and adaptable if they've all been forced to do exactly the same things for the first 18 years of their lives?   Set a minimum bar for basic skills and then allow for a diverse marketplace of schools that offer a diverse set of outcomes.

Federalize school oversight.  Not through punitive benchmark-based rigid tests, but through the process already in place through the school accreditation agencies.    Have each school set their outcomes under the supervision of the agency and have each school, under the direction of the agency, develop a curriculum to meet their stated outcomes.

Define quality education more broadly.  We cannot sustain a situation where every student must go to college.  Not only do large numbers not want to go, the reason that a college education is meaningful is because not everybody is able to do it.   People who work in the trades are equally as valuable and have the same (and oftentimes greater) earning potential and we need them a hell of a lot more than we need another communications major.   As long as we spend the money and the energy necessary to ensure that every community has both options and quality, we will be better off.  We are no longer in the industrial age and we don't need 90% of our educational products to have the exact same skills.

But all that would take money and political will, so I don't hold out hope.  Not right now.

But the zombies are still eating our children's brains, so our nation needs to either pony up or lower our expectations.

Of course, if the modern Know-Nothings take over, it's all a moot point, anyway, so disregard this post under a Perry Administration.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Facebook and The Slaughterhouse Principle

Blogger's note:  I apologize in advance for torturing a metaphor.

Just so you know, Facebook isn't about to charge us.  The warnings of our well-meaning colleagues, friends, family, and long-lost classmates regarding the impending $9.95 per month calamity, which are cute in an "Oh my, I thought you knew..." sort of way, can be ignored.  But that doesn't mean they didn't appear.

When my news-feed filled up with the ALL-CAPS warnings I thought about responding, but I couldn't think of a way to do it that wasn't embarrassingly patronizing.  Then a friend posted this:

It's cute because it has pigs in it, it's meme'y enough to viralate its way through the FaceBook, and it's simple enough that it might even permeate the veil of subscription-inspired dread that perpetually cloaks the more distant regions of our friends lists and save us from future adrenaline-soaked updates from the ALL CAPS Cassandras who there reside.

But the underlying message is more important than just FaceBook.  The principle at work here is one of the foundational principles of market economics and it is also one of the least understood.

Resources have value because they hold the two traits necessary:  Scarcity and Demand.  Gold is valuable because people want it and there is a limited supply.  Air is free because even though people need it, there is plenty to go around (at least until the CAA is gutted), and Dog Shit is free because even though the supply is limited, the demand is nonexistent.

So all resources have value and therefore if a resource is being utilized, it is costing somebody something.  In the case of FaceBook, the true value is in the advertising and marketing knowledge and so the consumers of the marketing information are footing the bill.  The user interface of FaceBook is simply present so that we will voluntarily tell them who our friends are, where we live, where we work, and what we think of Justin Beiber.

So, remember:  Whenever we are receiving a valuable service or product at no charge to us, we are not the consumer, we are the product.  Cows eat free at the slaughterhouse.

Cows eat free at the slaughterhouse.

Whenever we mistake an enticement for a service, we are unwittingly participating in our own exploitation.  Sometimes, this is fine.  If we don't mind having ads tailored to our status updates (if you ever want to amuse yourself, make a status update that includes the words 'freedom,' 'government,' or 'economy' and watch the Ron Paul ads blanket your page), then the slaughterhouse principle is benign.  

But this principle is at work in places other than the international online cocktail party and its effects can be pernicious.  This is especially so in situations where the cow pays a nominal fee to participate in something, but is unaware that the true cost of the slaughterhouse is footed by somebody who wants their meat.  That nominal fee convinces us that we are the customers when, in reality, we are only a product that helps defray its own cost.

Public Schools are a fine example.

The average student is very aware that public schools are supported by tax dollars and they'll tell you so if they feel mistreated.   Parents are generally even more aware of this than the kids are.   They have paid their nominal fee and therefore believe that they are the client.  But they're wrong.

Here in California, each student is attached to $6,300 which, if the student attends school each day for 180 days, the state gives to the school.  When this money is combined with the other few small remaining shreds of site-directed school funding, the amount being spent per student hovers somewhere around $7,500 depending on where in the state you are and in what school.

In order for a family of a schoolchild to truly be a "client" of the school system, they would need a family income of approximately $85,000 each year in net income.  These families have the resources to ensure that, since they are the client, their little products receive services that will ensure their purchase. Very very few families are clients of the public school system in California.  Those who do not meet this bar... their children are products, too, but their parents aren't the clients, so...

Who is?

As a nation, we are quick to pull out the "Our Children Are Our Future" flag and ball it up in our fretting fists as we bewail the state of public education while gesturing frantically with our free hand at the latest survey that shows that even our high school graduates can't point out Iowa on a map or identify the purpose of the legislative branch, but we aren't the clients either.

We may purchase one or two of these products to work in our small business or to perform some form of contract work, but we're small potatoes.   We're retail.  Who's the wholesaler?

Wal-Mart? Amazon?  KB Homes? Microsoft? Google? The US Army? The California Penal System?

Each of these will purchase a chunk of the product, but even together they won't ever come close to clearing the shelves and that's the problem.

Nobody ordered these products and nobody gave specs for their manufacture and so nobody is purchasing them and nobody wants to foot the bill.

We have a huge number of cows in the slaughterhouse, but nobody wants to buy the meat so we complain about the cost and the smell.  We blame the cows and the slaughterhouse itself for the problem.

"If these cows were of higher quality, people might want to buy them."

"If they'd just cut the meat better, then people would want to buy it."

Another basic lesson in economics:  When demand falls, supply falls, but before it falls, product tends to rot on the shelves for a while.

There is a solution, but its political feasibility is tenuous at best because it is straight up socialism:  When the private sector falls short and a market collapses, it is up to the government to step in.  We did it for banks and for the auto industry.  We do it for defense contractors every budget debate.  Now is the time to do it for public schools.  

Here's what it would take:
  1. A massive public works and infrastructure investment along with a massive expansion of public sector jobs of all collar-colors.
  2. A massive reinvestment in public schools under the idea that the the nation as a whole is the consumer and that, therefore, public schools need to provide products for all elements of our society, not just low-wage service workers, soldiers, prisoners, and professionals.  This means a return of vocational and technical programs, a new investment in programs like home economics (yes, Home Ec., I'm serious)
  3. A massive shift away from uniformity in curriculum, delivery, methodology, and assessment.  Since we don't have a single dominant work setting, there should no longer be a single dominant aesthetic for schools.  
This would cost billions of dollars and it would swell the size of government back to where it was under Ronald Reagan and it would mean that our taxes would have to be raised, and raised on some elements of our society considerably.   It still wouldn't ensure that our precious products would find homes, but it would surely get more of them off the shelves than the current system.  It's no guarantee and it would cost us lots of money, but then again:

If we are receiving a useful service and we are not paying for it, then we are not the client.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

On Lost Cats and Right-Wing Anger

When we first moved to Los Angeles, our cat, Ajax (from whom my name is derived), disappeared.  He had always been an indoor cat, having spent his entire existence in 425 square feet on the second floor and having only seen birds and other cats from windows and doorways, and even though he was a bit of a bruiser (We stopped going to the bathroom at night because it was too dangerous.  He was panther-sized, black, and strong and would stalk us mercilessly at night, pouncing and then wapping us hard across the Achilles tendon as we  dashed for the safety of the bathroom), we worried about him going outside.  He was sleek, big, and aggressive, but he was also dumber than hair.

When he disappeared, we decided to put up signs around the neighborhood.  We did them in English and in Spanish, transliterated directly because neither of us remembered much from high school.  Perdido Gato from Lost Cat.  It had a picture of him on it and a phone number.  We posted them.   Then we were reminded by a passer-by that, in Spanish, the adjective follows the noun.  With what we had written, what we wanted was loss that took the form of a cat.  A cat that was, in effect, Loss embodied.

Fortunately, that was exactly correct because we found him three days later under the house.  He had been there for days, crying softly next to an open vent.   Aside from getting lost under the house for days on end, he also predated on pumpkin innards and spinach at every opportunity.  If there was ever a lost cat, it was Ajax.

I love language.  Like most great things, it is as fun as it is useful and when I find myself using it well, it makes me feel oogy inside like almost nothing else can.  I write novels.  I write blogs.  I write poetry (but that's a secret).  And I talk.  I talk a lot.  I'm sure the captive-audience aspect of the classroom was part of the appeal for me and why I didn't go on to become a lawyer like I intended.    Since I loved language, I was fascinated by the difference in how Spanish and English dealt with states of being.

In English, we say "I am hungry," which implies that while we are undernourished, the state becomes the entirety of our identity.  In Spanish, "Yo Tengo Hambre," translates directly as "I have hunger."  The speaker's identity remains constant and is not displaced by physical, emotional, or social need like in English.

English is a language which forces its user's very identities to be supplanted by their own desires.

When we are hungry, it is who we are.
When we are tired, it is who we are.
When we are happy, it is who we are.
When we are angry, too, it becomes our identity.

And this is the problem identified so well by Daily Kos diarist, Mark Sumner in his diary entitled "Why Solyndra Signifies a Ray of Hope."  His main point, though hopeful, isn't what fascinated me.  It was his introduction in which he describes scenes from the Rush Limbaugh television show.  He gives us a fine exemplar of how, in English, our identity is our state.  Anger, on the right, is not simply an emotion, it's an identity.

They are anger.

It is not something that they have, along with a nice wardrobe, hunger, and faith, it is something that they are.

And they are angry at us.

Being angry at "liberals" and progressives is not about issues, it's about identity.  This means that the efforts we make to try and ameliorate their anger, or to re-channel it, simply exacerbate it.  When we say, "this helps you,too" and when we say "you are arguing against your own interests," their only response will be, "If you want it, we are against it because we are angry at you."

So what do we do?

How do you get somebody to willingly change their identity?  How do we get somebody from "I am angry" to "I am an American who feels frustration?"

I don't know.  I really don't.  If I had an answer, other people much smarter and more connected than myself would also already have it and they would be doing it and I would simply be saying, "Yeah.  What they said."    But they're not saying it and so I'm just lost.

But what I do know is that when we call ourselves progressives, they hear us say that we think they aren't good enough.  When we say we are liberals, they are angered by the fact that we are proud libertines.  When we say we want what's best for America, they hear that they are not it.

We can't stop saying it but we also can't simply allow 20-30% of our citizenry to stew on the sidelines.  That would be just plain dangerous.  We also can't let them have their way because they don't have a way of their own, they simply have the opposite of whatever we say.

This is why 27% of people with pre-existing conditions believe that our new healthcare laws will make them worse off.

This is why working class people are screaming for deficit reduction and reigned in government spending.

This is why workers are anti-union even as they drop like flies in Amazon warehouses.

This is why your conservative relatives argue that black is white (unless you say it, too, and then it's purple).

It's not about the issue, it's about you.

It's personal.


What do we do?   Please tell me.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Create a Job, Gag an Economic Analyst

The economy sucks.  Huge unemployment is a reality, hunger and poverty are growing, and things don't seem to be getting better on Main Street, regardless of the rebounds on Wall Street.   The tide has risen for the master class, but for those of us stuck keel-deep in the big muddy, there isn't a salty drop in sight.  The master class isn't sharing.  They aren't hiring, they aren't lending, and they aren't spending.  Why not? 

Because somebody's scaring the bejeezus out of them.

We have thousands of people who are currently making their living by telling them things that make them (and all of us) afraid of what is to come.  

They're full of shit.

Imagine a group of people walking blindfolded down a curving path through a dark forest.   The leaders are in front.  They make the decisions about how fast and how slow the group will go, and they clear the path for those behind them.  The group moves.  Sometimes, it moves quickly and other times slowly.  The leaders clear the path as best they can.  They grow frustrated because they cannot see and they sometimes make mistakes.  One member of the group figures something out -- we can't see where we're going, but we might be able to see where we've been.  He drops to the back of the pack and then turns around, walking backwards.  He finds that if he lifts his head and peeks under the blindfold, he can just make out the biggest details on the path they've traveled.

"I can see!" He shouts excitedly and the rest of the group is immensely relieved that they now have a guide.

"What do you see?"  They clamor.

"We've been going down a small hill.  There are some large stones that we've walked past and there are trees to the left and the right."

"How does that help us?" One of the blind walkers asks?

"If we can know a little bit about where we've been, we can predict what's coming next!" The seer responds, "Based on what we've just passed, I can tell you that the path will be smooth and flat for a while."

The walkers are thrilled with the information and begin to walk faster.   The leaders clear the path with gusto.  They fall in to a rhythm where every fifteen minutes the seer explains where they've been and predicts the next part of the path.  Once an hour, he reviews the path in more detail.  When the path has been smooth, the small group feels confident.  When the path has been steep and rocky, they grow afraid of what is to come.  They slow down.   The leaders are very careful with how they clear the path.  They continue on the path like this for a long long time.

After a particularly tricky part of the path is reviewed, one of the walkers innocently asks the seer:

"Mr. Seer, I have a question.  Whenever you tell us where we walked was flat, we speed up.  Whenever you tell us the path has been difficult, we slow down.   This means that we often walk quickly into difficulty and slowly through easy passage.  Mr. Seer, how exactly are you helping us?"

The seer, who has been aware of this very problem and has been hoping it would never be asked is quiet for a long moment and then reassures the questioner.  "While I may not be able to tell you what is to come, I can certainly make a better guess about it than you because I know where we've been."

The seer, though, knows he's full of shit.  The problem we have right now is that we still listen to him.

Every time he shouts to the leaders that the path has been tricky and difficult, the people in the front of the pack respond by slowing down and being more careful.  In non-metaphorical terms, they stop spending.  They stop loaning, and they stop hiring.   The whole pack slows down and gets stuck.

"We're making no progress," the seer shouts excitedly, "we're exactly where we were and the path is still difficult.  Be very careful!"

So we stay where we are.  

The leaders of the pack have the tools to clear it, but they are afraid of hitting the rock we passed a while ago and breaking their tools, so they keep them in their satchels to protect them.  

"Use your tools to clear the path!" the followers yell.

"Not unless we're sure that we won't hit that rock the seer saw," the leaders respond.

Somebody needs to put a gag on the seer.

While there are many economists who are wise and who use their knowledge to help us decide what to do, the vast majority do nothing but shout out where we've been.  They're the ones that need to shut the hell up.  

"But it's a scientific analysis of the evidence!"  They tell us.

In most cases, Economics is as much a science as intelligent design.  Both are premised on an unquestioned and unquestionable TRUTH.  For most in economics, that truth is that people will act rationally.

Economists create irrational fear and then don't believe that it will effect the decision-making process and then when it does, because they cannot admit it's irrational, the rationalize the fear they created.

"Companies are afraid to hire because of the uncertain economy," they tell us.  Why is the economy that has not yet happened uncertain?  Because they told us it would be.

I love economics, by the way.  I teach it to high school seniors and I believe it to be one of the most valuable studies available to students.  But its value is in how we can use it to understand and frame our own choices.   We can't use it to predict the future any better than we can with any study of the past.

History can tell us where we've been and to where we really don't want to return.  I'm never going to invade Russia in the winter, and I'm never going to make an appearance in the Senate with my best friend on March 15th, but history can't tell us what will happen.  Neither can economics.  

A knowledge of both can lead to wiser choices.  A belief in the truth of either as a predictor will lead to disaster.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Fully Credulant Muse on Character Education

The article in the New York Times yesterday, entitled, "What if the Secret to Success is Failure," was a good read. In it, we are introduced to two schools, one private and highly competitive and one charter middle school that is filled to the tippy top with the types of students that historically have been doomed to failure by our current system.  Each school finds that success in life (and in college) isonly tangentially related to academic prowess and ismore likely to be indicated by character, which they define as set of 24 indicators that deal with ideas such as resilience, curiosity, love, and compassion.  The two schools change their foci to reflect a dual system of assessments that deal with both academic and character scores and discover what many educators already knew -- a dogged and curious student of moderate intellect will make it farther in school and in life than a bright student who cannot overcome obstacles and who doesn't feel any pull to investigate.

This is news in the same way that the wheel is news when it is discovered that the rectangles we've installed on the cart don't work very well.

What we are talking about are the honor codes that students from previous generations swore to uphold.

What we are talking about is the idea that creating a temporary bubble in a student's sense of self through inflated grades is destructive.

What we are talking about is the fact that an ability to do well on a test is not a testament to anything but test-taking skills.

We are talking about the idea that human beings are greater than the averaged sum of their grades.

What we are talking about is the citizenship score that was written next to the academic grade on my own report cards when I was a student.  Scores that were based on my willingness to try, my ability to work, my openness to my fellows, and my demonstrations of civic responsibility in the classroom and on the playground.

But it's not something we can just "bring back."  We are, I believe, too far gone to just walk it back up the line.  We are now generations removed from this idea and if we did manage to suddenly reset our educational system and produce a generation of ethically solid, hard-working, citizens, I'm pretty sure that the self-esteem generations that preceded them would not hire them.  Not unless they also had the proper credentials and certificates.

In the last thirty years, as character education and the attendant character that it instilled has disappeared from our society, we have replaced it with a new system that is now firmly ensconced and will be frustratingly difficult to dismantle.  We have replaced the individual assessment of character with the credential.  We actually do care more now about test scores and grades as a society than we do about the quality of the individual that produces them.

Character (as defined in the article) and diligence have become less and less of an expectation.   We have replaced a belief in the intrinsic qualities of our fellow citizens with credentials and certificates that, while not guaranteeing the quality of the employee, at least keep the HR department from taking the blame when some new hire turns out to be a shiftless and useless waste of a position.

We have become so risk-averse when it comes to our fellow citizens that we refuse to even look at them for jobs, no matter how good and how capable they are, unless they have a certification from an institute (we now trust institutions more than individuals, which is ironic in the face of the libertarian screaming in our current political scene) that states that the person is capable of the job and, if a person with a credential turns out to be completely incompetent, we shrug our collective shoulders and exclaim, "Well, they had a credential so we assumed they were competent."  And then it takes years of hard work to undo the damage.

This means that we are all, competent and not, spending many more dollars and many more hours proving our competence through coursework and tests and at the end, only the least competent have been weeded out, leaving all other players on an even field regardless of character.

We assess character through the ability pass a background check.

We assess character through loosely written recommendations from people we have never met.

And then we hire them based on their paperwork and an interview.

When I began teaching, my mentor teacher had been in the classroom for 25 years.  He had inspired generations of students, including my own self as a teenager, to do bigger and better things than we imagined we could.  He trained us how to think and how to reason and he was not alone.  There were other teachers, too, who inspired us to write and to think and to learn and not a single one of them had had to prove their subject matter competency through the CSET or the Praxis.  Not a single one of them had to pass the CBEST (The California version of the basic competency test for teachers, which is a ridiculously low bar by the way).  Not a single one of them had taken 60 units of post-baccalaureate coursework in education.  All but one of my best teachers in high school had stumbled into teaching on their way to other careers and stayed.  They were Mr. Hollands, each and every one.

Now, it is all but impossible to stumble in to teaching and we are worse off for it.  Character and ability alone don't cut it.

I was talking to a friend recently, who was considering making a switch from journalism to teaching.  She'd be a good one and she already works with a youth program and is successful there.  But she already has two masters degrees and is unlikely to want to go back to school again.  So she's probably not going to do it.  Our loss.

If we were still hiring on character and capability, she would be a teacher now.

Some will push back against this by arguing that, when hiring was a subjective process, employers substituted similarity to themselves for character.  It was true -- white men were more likely to think that other white men had character and competence so, since most employers where white men, white men ended up with most of the jobs.  White men.

This was certainly true and, without objective hiring standards, it might still be true, but I don't think it would be now.   And I don't think we're that much better off, anyways.  People on the outside of our proper society are no longer prevented access through simple racism and classism, but through the addition of multiple expensive and complicated hoops that must be navigated before one can even be granted an interview.

Many poor people are still prevented from becoming teachers.  They are more likely to become teachers' aides, instead; it's much less expensive and difficult to navigate the hoops.   My students set their sights on Medical Assistant, on X-Ray Tech, on Nurses' Assistant, on Legal Assistant, or on Lab Tech.  Each requires a certificate.  Each requires dedicated coursework, but none pay a living wage comparable to the profession they support.   Taking an entry-level job in a profession with the idea of  moving higher is impossible because one cannot simply "work their way up," anymore.  Not without further schooling.  Not without more and more expensive tests.  The fully competent worker who exudes resilience, curiosity, love, and compassion will forever be an assistant to somebody else so long as they cannot afford to buy access to the next hoop.

But if you're still worried about going back, you can stop.  We aren't going to collectively rip up or credentials and certificates.

But if we did manage to bring character back to schools, it's nice to imagine what we might be able to do with the rest of society.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Cuphineous Debate

It all started at a staff meeting several years ago.   Something was being discussed and somebody was getting upset about something that seemed very important to them at the time -- which is what happened in most of our staff meetings -- and my good friend slipped me a note (you would think we wouldn't do things like that since we spend our days trying to keep others from doing the same, but we do) that said: "There is not a word in existence that truly captures the uselessness of this meeting."   She was right.  

For those not in education, you must understand that the only group of people teachers dislike more than administrators is other teachers.  Putting us in a room together and letting us talk freely can bring about UN quality frustration and resentment.    We, as a species, tend to be petty and competitive (and the higher up the educational ranks you go the worse it gets.  At the university level, educator toxicity is the stuff of legend), and we can't stand hearing each other whine about things that we are sure wouldn't be an issue if they were just not them. 

My friend and I discussed it on the way home.  Sometimes, even with the 750,000 words that already exist in English and the millions of potential adoptees from other languages, we still need a new word and this was one of those times.  

The word: Cuphineous  [Kew-fin-ee-us] (adj): An idea or a concern that is peripheral to the real problem but is dressed up in fancy clothes and trotted out for discussion instead of the real issue in order to preserve the feelings, work, ideology. or hidden limitations of the participants.

It seemed to sum up so much of what we sat through every week.  We would spend an hour discussing why students were "out of control," when the real issue was that some teachers weren't in control.  We would spend an hour listening to colleagues explain why they couldn't possibly do lunch supervision or patrol the sidewalks after school while losing sight of the fact that our students were currently unsupervised and getting into all sorts of shenanigans.  We would spend days preparing the school so it would look good for a site inspection from the district overlords instead of finding ways to make our school functional every day.  

Our discussions were cuphineous and cuphineous discussions are intended to be unproductive.  They are alluring distractions designed to protect the frightened.  It's so much easier to talk about something that is cute, containable, and easily identified than it is to talk about the deeper, more personally threatening issue underneath, so in a room typified by a lack of trust, cuphineous conversations were the norm.

The word began to seep into my colleague and my outside lives, too.  Cuphineousness was present everywhere vital conversations were being held and nowhere was it more present than in our national dialogue.

It's been years and not a day goes by when I don't think to myself, "cuphineous," as I listen to a news broadcast or read the newspaper or sit through a staff meeting (They're better where I am now, but we still have a tendency to cuphineate when things get too sensitive or too big) 

Any broad discussion of our current economy in the media is bound to be a cuphineous one.  Nobody wants to talk about the real issue because to talk about the real issue is to hit up against the unresolveable and immovable flaw in market-driven capitalism and the attendant political economy it creates.

Which is easier to get huffy about:  Federal Deficits or the concept that a market driven economy must forever expand into new markets in order to keep from collapsing and, when no new markets are available, it will inevitably contract or create an unsustainable bubble?  Federal Deficits have a number attached and if enough people think they care about it, we can probably make it smaller.  The tragic flaw of capitalism has no such simple solution.  So we cuphineously discuss the dangers of Deficits.   

As a species, we drift towards the cuphineous because they are the discussions that allow us to feel like we are getting somewhere without actually moving.  They are the discussions that we can drag out forever so we don't have to change.  They are a valuable defense of the collective ego and they protect the status quo, often long enough to prevent any possibility of promethean response to the real problem, creating a crisis that can only be resolved with a patchwork of reactive action that is then passed off as a solution.  

TARP, the stimulus, and the debt compromise come to mind as examples on the national level.  At our small school, the crisis usually presented itself in a 911 call or a threat of charter revocation.  And in each case, the discussors of the cuphineous then held up the crisis response itself as an example of the flawed thinking of those who tried to discuss the real issue that spurred the cuphineous chaff.

It's really enough to make one's head explode.  It helps to have a word, though, so the next time you find yourself getting worked up in a discussion about something and then you think to yourself, "why in the hell are we talking about this?!"  Just say to them, "This is all cuphineous to the real issue at hand."  They won't know the word and in the moment of confusion you'll create, if you move quickly, you might be able to get back to the real issue before they regroup.

It's worked for me in staff meetings.

Though I haven't had much luck with anybody who is convinced that the real problem of our time is federal spending.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Poor is a second language

"Why we gotta learn a language we already know?" I was asked today by Marvin, a student of mine.  He's a quick and clever young man who has been told by every teacher he's ever had that he's bright and has potential.  He's also on house arrest and a major player in his gang.  He has a quick mind and a hair trigger -- and he has trouble reading, writing, and speaking formal English.

This doesn't mean that he can't communicate.  He's an excellent communicator so long as he's able to be street about it, but he's not going to be able to get a job in an office or work in customer service, or hold any position that requires written and oral communications with middle class people -- he doesn't know their language.

It's the same thing I see with many of my Spanish speaking students.  They speak Spanish -- it's their preferred language for communication -- to each other, but even if they were in a Spanish speaking country, they would have the same trouble that Marvin does -- they don't know formal Spanish so they wouldn't be able to function in most non-menial positions.

Poor is a second language.

In 1996, the Oakland school board caused a national uproar by doing the right thing.  Like with most good things that cause national uproars, the good decision was walked back and apologies were made.  Most people who remember the Ebonics controversy from 1996 mostly remember that it was mercilessly mocked by people as diverse as Maya Angelou and Rush Limbaugh and was used as an example of just how far down the wrong track public schools had gone.  Only, it wasn't.  It wasn't a sign of the urban apocalypse.  It wasn't a sign of the death of America.  It wasn't the steep step down into the ghettification of our children.  It was a simple and pragmatic solution to one of the great problems facing urban (and rural) schools today:

When a child who grows up speaking street English (or street Spanish) is taught English as if they already know it, they don't learn it as easily or as fluently as they would if they were taught it using the same techniques we use with all other second languages.

When we teach an English speaker English, we base it on the assumption that they are hearing and experiencing proper English outside of school.  We base it on the assumption that the language in the home reflects that of the textbook, so we don't teach them about code-switching and we don't use situational communication tools such as role-playing and dialogues -- tools that we automatically enlist when dealing with children whose first language is Spanish, Hmong, or Swahili.

Instead, we teach English through reading, writing, and memorization of patterns that we assume are being re-enforced elsewhere.  They are not, so our children do not learn formal English and they fall behind and they don't understand why they are failing classes that are in and about the very language that they think they are using every day.  

"There are two kinds of English, Marvin," I explained, "The kind that you use -- we call that vernacular or 'street' English -- and the kind that we teach in schools, which we call 'Formal English.  Formal English is the language of business, it's the language of money.  It's the language of White people (my students understand 'white people' to mean 'rich people,' which really means anybody in the middle class or above.  I'm 'ballin'' in their eyes because I'm a teacher and I earn 'bank') and White people have the money.  They also don't feel comfortable with people who don't speak their language and don't fit in to their world, so those who don't learn Formal English are locked out of most opportunities.  Learning Formal English is the single most effective way to make sure that you can succeed in business."

"White folk do got the money, though, blood -- that's why we rob them," (actual quote) Marvin asserted, agreeing with me.

"You rob them, you make a couple hundred and you've got a short career.  You learn formal English and learn to work with them, you'll get much more, Marvin, because you'll have a skill they need."

He looked at me, waiting for me to go on.

"You speak street.  40% of our country speaks and acts like you do.  White people (read: Middle Class), they only ever know Formal English.  They only know how to act in their culture.  You?  If you can learn Formal English, you'll be bilingual and you'll be able to be a bridge between cultures.  Urban culture drives the marketplace, man, and businesses need people like you to help them get at it."

I probably oversold the potential, but Marvin got my point -- he gets every one of my points -- like I said, he's bright and quick and clever.   He's also decided that English 10A might be worth it.  I think I'm going to begin doing role playing and dialogues with my students in Advisory, too.   They all want access to the big pie and it seems pretty fucking unfair not to help them get it.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Do Away with the EPA?

There must be something in the water in Texas.  And the air.  And the food.   Whatever it is, possibly lead, is leading to the election of imbeciles with the curse of ambition and total freedom from the shared delusion.

Rick Perry has topped himself.  It's not unexpected, really.  When you start with creationism and a plan to dismantle social security, we have to understand that you're probably not going to stop there.  Anyways, Gov'ner Perry, man of the people, today announced that the EPA's new air quality regulations were costing Texas 500 jobs!!!   Didja hear that correctly?  500 Jobs.  

We must stop this menace to our recovery RIGHT NOW!

The Environwacko Problem Adminsfascism has ordered Texas (along with 27 other states) to comply with new air quality standards and in reaction, one of Rick Perry's big donors is going to take his coal-fired power football and go home, depriving the energy impoverished state of 1,200 Megawatts and 500 jobs, thusly destroying quality of life and pursuit of happiness for Texans everywhere.

You can see why he's upset.

Perhaps I can calm him down a little bit.

Let's start with this capitalism and free enterprise thing that he talks a lot about.  You see, right here is where those things can help him feel better.  How?

1,200 Megawatts is a lot of power and my guess is that Texans, not historically the conserving or doin' without types, are still gonna want to watch tv and condition their air.  So...  my guess is that somebody is gonna step into the marketplace and provide for them.

"But the costs will be prohibitive because of the government regulations!" The Gov'ner-in-my-head replies.

Really?  Let's figure out what it'll cost.  

Let's say that too 600 Megawatt Clean energy plant costs oh... $2,000,000,000.00.  Now that's a lot of zeros and we're talking two of them, so $4,000,000,000.00.  That is, truly, a shitload of dollars.  But wait!

Business capital improvement and construction costs are generally amortized over a period of time because they are bond funded.  For something like this, probably 50 years.  What that means is that the cost of the plant will not have to be paid for all at once, but will have mortgage payments just like your home.  That works out, at 3% interest (which is very high for current municipal and state bonds -- unless we nearly default again), to about $140,000/month.  Now, in reality, state funding works very differently than this, Mr. Gov'ner, but you get the idea.

"That's $140,000 a month that's gonna get passed right on to consumers -- prices'll go up for power which'll kill jobs!"

Let's see, 1200 Megawatts is power for 360,000 homes.  If each of the cost is passed on directly, each home will pay -- $0.35 each month to pay for new capital costs -- that's a total of a little over $4.00 each year.  

"But the 500 jobs!"

Will be replaced by several thousand new jobs in construction and then level off to slightly more than 500 jobs when the plants are up and running.

Look, Gov'ner, you either believe in the marketplace or you don't.  It can't just work when you get your way.  It either works or it doesn't.  Crony Capitalism isn't an economic theory, it's corruption.  They're different things, so you really shouldn't get them confused.  And look what we get in return:

Improved Air Quality for 240 Million Americans
Prevention of 30,000 premature deaths
Prevention of 15,000 non-fatal heart attacks
Cleaner air
Fewer greenhouse gas emissions
Thousands of new (temporary) construction jobs

What do we lose?

One of Rick Perry's political supporters has to shut a coal plant.

Fuck you, Gov'ner.

Krugman is right and the right can't stand it.

I hate 9/11 remembrances.  Not those done by and for people who lost loved ones or who's lives were fundamentally changed by the initial event, but the ones that the rest of us take part in.  I've never said it out loud, though (except to my wife) for fear of the reaction.   Paul Krugman just forced my hand.

For those who don't know, Paul Krugman is a nobel prize winning economist and pundit who writes a blog for the New York Times.  Yesterday, he put words to my ambivalence about 9/11 and what happened to him is part of the reason I didn't say anything.

Today Paul Krugman is a coward (only click if you want to give Michelle Malkin a pageview) and vile.  He is Un-American and pathetic.

Here's what he said:

"The Years of Shame
What happened after 9/11 — and I think even people on the right know this, whether they admit it or not — was deeply shameful. The atrocity should have been a unifying event, but instead it became a wedge issue. Fake heroes like Bernie Kerik, Rudy Giuliani, and, yes, George W. Bush raced to cash in on the horror. And then the attack was used to justify an unrelated war the neocons wanted to fight, for all the wrong reasons.
A lot of other people behaved badly. How many of our professional pundits — people who should have understood very well what was happening — took the easy way out, turning a blind eye to the corruption and lending their support to the hijacking of the atrocity?
The memory of 9/11 has been irrevocably poisoned; it has become an occasion for shame. And in its heart, the nation knows it."

A single paragraph in which he details why we all should be a bit subdued on 9/11.  Not because of the direct losses which have profoundly effected millions of Americans and families worldwide but because of the indirect losses that have profoundly effected all of us.
I have friends who lost people on 9/11.  I didn't lose anybody directly.  I shepherded a day's worth of frightened teenagers through the mechanics of the event and it's possibilities, but I did not see the towers fall with my own eyes.  I have friends and former students who rose to the call to arms and joined the armed services to defend our country.  I watched them go and prayed for their safety.  I know that there are millions of people out there who have a profound personal connection to the date.  I also know that there are a couple hundred million Americans who don't, who's connection to the tragedy is abstract -- a loose recollection of fear and anger illuminated by fire and soundtracked by CNN.  It is to those people that Krugrman is addressing his comments and it is to those people that I address my own.
There can be no argument that the 9/11 tragedy was manipulated.   The historical record is already quite clear on this.  There was no connection between the events of 9/11 and Iraq.  The planning for the Iraq invasion had begun before 9/11/01.  The focus on Iraq destroyed our chances of success in Afghanistan.  Loyalties and Patriotism for those who spoke out the truth were questioned.  Reputations were ruined.  
These are simple facts.  They are not, in themselves, political.  They are just a listing of what happened.
Who did these things?
Dick Cheney, President George W. Bush, George Tenet, Donald Rumsfeld (who cancelled his subscription to the Times over Krugman's paragraph), Bernard Kerick, and others in political power at the time.  
What about Guiliani?  He ran for president on a platform of 9/11.  He used it in his ads, he used it in his speeches, and he tied patriotism to agreeing with him.  That's abuse.
I remember the late Senator Robert Byrd railing against the chicken-yellow PATRIOT act.  He called it an unnecessary power grab and the media called him old.

Michael Moore was pilloried.  People threatened his life.

Peace Activists were investigated by the FBI -- as terrorist organizations.

Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran who had lost limbs at war was called unpatriotic.

Valerie Plame.
Wedge issue?  NPR did a piece this morning on that very thing.  Worth listening to, but Paul Krugman isn't the one who is trying to separate us.  He's trying to remind us that we shouldn't be so fucking vile to each other and that we should have stayed united, loving, and strong.
So for all of you who are mad at Paul Krugman, who believe he is a coward, that he is vile, that he is insensitive, that he has tarnished the commemoration of 9/11, that he is un-American,  I have one simple statement that expresses my sentiments regarding both you and 9/11:  
Paul Krugman has simply pointed out the obvious out loud.  The problem isn't him, the problem isn't even you, the problem is the rest of us who think like he does and haven't said it yet.  So Here Goes:
Krugman believes that, deep down, we all know this and this is the reason why the commemorations were not larger.  I think he's right.
He disabled comments on his blog because he knew that those who were most in need of hearing it, would be deaf and angry.  This is, also, sad.
So, along with supporting him publicly, I am also going to replace Donald Rumsfeld's subscription to the Times.  I don't want the paper version, but I'm buying an online subscription.  If you agree with Krugman, you should, too.  Otherwise they'll fire him and we will have one fewer channel through which the truth can leak out.
Also, buy his books.  They're good.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Reality Gap

Reality isn't much, but if we're going to get shit done together it's pretty much all we have.  

We can't even prove that reality is real, it's simply a delusion which we've all agreed not to question.  Since we can't know how chicken tastes on somebody else's palate, or what green looks like to the guy who lives down the block, we just don't ask.

But the shared delusion is really all we have to go on, so we shouldn't fuck with it too much.

And so I've spent the last two days trying to digest the last republican primary debate. 

An entire hour in which reality was ignored by those on stage and off, as if our shared delusion was an opt-in program.

Over and over again, the parts of the fundamental rules of the human-understood universe were tossed aside in favor of... I don't know what because it didn't make any fucking sense.  Let's call it the reality gap.  

I've compiled some examples of the more memorable gappiness in the debate's connection to our reality to illustrate:

Here's the reality:
97 out of 100 people who make a living studying the particular aspects of our shared delusion that relate to climate say that Climate Change is real and that we are at least in part responsible.

Here's the reality gap:

You see -- what's real is different than what's being said and only a few voices are calling the man a liar and I want to know why.

Here's the reality:
Texas has executed 234 citizens under Rick Perry's leadership, including at least one verifiably innocent man.

Here's the reality gap:
Rick Perry, who refused to stay the execution and then fired the review team who was going to clear the prisoner posthumously, states that Texas' due process prevents the execution of the innocent so he doesn't lose sleep over the possibility.

Don't like the truth?  Just make it no longer true.  And if we don't keep it true, it won't be after a while and nobody will believe us when we say it.

Here's the reality:
Social Security is fine.  Yes, fine.  Social security is solvent through 2037 as it is right now.  We do not need to raise the retirement age.  We do not need to cut benefits.  If we want it to stay solvent longer, all we need to do is raise the payroll cap from it's current rate of $106,800 per year to $200,000 per year and it is solvent through the beginning of the 22nd century.

Here's the reality gap:

This one's a big one, folks.  This one has been repeated so much in various forms that the whole shared delusion has changed to incorporate it.  This is the danger of fucking with the shared delusion -- if you do it enough, you can change it and then people get hurt.  It's cool to say black is white occasionally, but when enough people say it, we all get flustered and start to paint things yellow to avoid confusion.

Here's the reality

Here's the reality gap:

See my comment on social security.

Here's the reality:
Tax cuts for the wealthy do not create jobs.  Period.  I've said it before, I'll say it again.  Tax. Cuts. Do. Not. Create. Jobs.  What?  No, they don't.  Shutup.

Here's the reality gap:

Yeah, I know this is nothing new, but it's gotten worse and, since it's not new, we've begun to incorporate into our reality as if it is just another fixture on the landscape like the taste of chicken.  It's not.  It can't be.  We can't let it.  If we do, we are as bad as they are.

Here's why:
Rick Perry, the worst offender of them all, and Mitt Romney, who just released an economic plan complete with totally fabricated evidence and illustrations, are currently beating our president in a head-to-head matchup.  A plurality of our population has already incorporated this shit into the delusion.  The rest won't be far behind if we don't work hard to keep reality real.

Our president isn't helping the case, though.  There is another way of treating reality which is almost as bad as ignoring it entirely.  Being too bound by the practical and the pragmatic is in many ways just as lousy and that's what our president is currently doing.  Instead of focusing on what needs to be done, he is focusing on what he can probably do.  He can probably get a $426 billion dollar package of tax cuts and infrastructure through congress, since most of it is shit that republicans thought of first.  He can probably create some jobs with it.  What it's not going to do is get us out of the deep shit we're in.  It may get our noses out of it, but our asses will still be buried deep and that's not good enough.

So, an open plea to all parties:

Treat the shared delusion carefully -- we need it.  Denying reality has the potential to hurt us all because reality is, in fact, real to us.

But don't treat it as the be all and end all -- it will suffocate us if we can't look beyond it occasionally at what should be.  

Seeing what should be and helping us get there -- that's leadership.  

Making shit up and convincing others that it's real -- that's evil.

Right now we have a lot of evil and very little leadership and that's why I'm so distressed.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day is a day to be pissed off

It's Labor Day.

All day long I heard on the radio about how there aren't enough jobs and that people can't find them and that Barack Obama needs to do something to save our economy.

Obama gave a speech to factory workers in Detroit with Jimmy Jr. on the podium with him and, after the President spoke, Mr. Hoffa told the crowd that they had to "take the sons of bitches out [of office]" so that the working people would be able to survive. The Teabaggers demanded an apology from the President for condoning Hoffa's "hate speech." Bastards.


There's really only one thing to fucking do. Economics isn't rocket science. It's hardly science at all. It's a shit-mix of common sense, hindsight, mathematics and self-interest. The basics of it aren't hard to understand at all and, frankly, most of the advanced stuff is just crap anyway since they create their models based on the premise that people will always act rationally and in their own self-interest which anybody who's ever known another human would tell you is a pretty ridiculous premise for anything.

So we'll stick to the basics and the basics are basic:

Supply and Demand.

Demand is when a consumer wants something and asks for it to be provided while having the resources to offer something in return. . When people want things, they will infuse their demand into the marketplace. If the value of the demand is high enough (ie. a lot of people willing to pay a little, or a few people willing to pay a lot), then somebody will step in to supply it.

Demand = Desire + Capital + Access

Supply is what happens when a demand is recognized by an individual or corporation and they decide that it is in their interest to meet it.

Demand creates supply

Supply does not create demand

Demand can be encouraged through advertising and marketing (just ask the deodorant companies), but demand still must come before the supply.

In order to place a demand on the marketplace, People need to want something, have money to spend on it, and an ability to get thieir money into the hands of the supplier. So... why isn't there enough demand right now?

People still want things.
People can transfer capital to anybody, anywhere in the world, at any time these days.
So the problem is: People don't have the money.

So the real question we should be asking right now is why the fuck is there so much talk about job creators and tax breaks for corporations?! They can't make a single fucking job unless people have enough money to buy their goddamned products!?

If the average consumer had more money in their pockets, they would spend more money and then the demand curve would rise and the supply curve would rise to meet it necessitating the employment of many more members of the demanding class, in turn creating more demand and the economy would expand.

It is a bit of a ponzi scheme, really, but in lieu of actual structural change to our political economy it's pretty much the only solution we have.

But instead of hearing a massive call for getting more money into the hands of the average consumer, through huge government spending (because government is the only entity that can spend right now -- and if you start talking to me about deficits, I'm gonna send you right back to Economics class because you obviously weren't paying attention the first time) the loudest voices in politics are all calling for putting more money at the top. It's fucking ridiculous. Stop it.

Here's why:

There are two things that are frustrating and embarrassing about this chart. The first is that it's accurate. The second is that the general populace doesn't have a clue about the actual situation, which explains why they're sheeping along with the idea that deficits and high corporate tax rates are the real problem. As far as why our president is also sheeping on this issue is somewhat less obvious, though I think I'm going to chalk it up to... ... something. I don't know.

But don't worry, y'all. We've been here before. This is eerily similar to where we were 100 years ago. The distribution of wealth at the time was almost exactly what it is today. In fact, since the dawn of industrialization, the only period in this country when the wealth distribution was close to what people actually want it to be was in the 1940's through the 1970's. Why? Because that's when people who worked were organized. That was the heyday of unions and when people were organized. They were within a generation or two of suffering through the same bullshit we are suffering through now, they understood how money, left unwatched, tended to float upwards and out of their pockets unless they fought to protect it.

But then their children and their grandchildren stopped understanding and they began to think that the quality of life that they grew up enjoying was due to their own efforts and so they voted for people who told them that, if unions weren't so powerful, if corporations were given more freedom, if tax rates were lower, then they could get rich. And they bought it. And they're still buying it.

So, all we can really hope for on this labor day is that their children won't be so fucking ignorant and that their children will have the energy and the will to do it all over again. If they don't, then all those dire predictions about the end of the American Dream will come true -- and it'll be our own damn fault.

And if you want to see how fucking hard our grands and great-grands fought to make things right, here's some good Labor Day reading and watching.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

An open letter to the president

Dear President Obama:

Did you ever watch Rocky III? I did. I didn't like it all that much and I was pretty young, but I do remember some things about it pretty well. I remember that when Rocky was fighting Mr. T in the first fight, Mr. T just kicked his ass, knocking him from one side of the ring to the other and back again before KO'ing him. Now Rocky was arrogant and unprepared and had had some pretty rough shit go down just before the fight so we all thought, 'Hey, It's Rocky. He'll get it together and the rematch will be quick justice.' When the rematch finally happened and Rocky was getting a true beatdown in the 2nd round,I remember closing my eyes and thinking to myself, 'Rocky's got to win, right? They wouldn't have made a movie where the hero loses to an asshole twice, would they?' I hadn't seen Raging Bull yet. But then the third round happens and Mr. T is tired and completely undone by the fact that he hadn't ko'd Rocky in the 2nd and Rocky wins and it's cool and we wanted to see it again.

So far, Mr. President, your presidency has been a lot like the bad parts of Rocky III, the parts where I closed my eyes and just had faith that the Hollywood screen-writers would do the right thing. Just like Rocky, you've gotten your ass kicked through multiple rounds and, frankly, it was your snot and blood on the mat after the debt ceiling debacle.

Now it's round 3 and I have to say it doesn't look like your opponents are getting conveniently tuckered out by your ability to absorb blows. It looks like they're feeling better than they've felt in a while and you? You look like shit, my friend. You're bruised and busted and when you say you're ready for the next round, it's sounding more and more like graveyard whistles.

You're looking like a loser. They're even saying you've lost fights that you weren't even in. They're saying you caved on the big jobs speech -- even though you had no say in it because you couldn't fucking speak without an invitation -- because everybody's gotten so used to watching you back into the ropes and take beats until the bell rings.

But even so, you've got a rematch now and, as your volunteer Apollo Creed, let me just offer you some advice. Yeah, you can take a beating better than most so go ahead and let some punches land, but man nobody ever won a fucking fight by getting beat! You've got to get off the ropes early and, if I may suggest, a left hook would be pretty damn unexpected by all parties at this point since you've been holding your left back and tapping with that weak right jab since the middle of the healthcare debate. Your Mr. T has a blind spot in his left periphery so fucking use it! Come out strong and lead with a massive infrastructure project and then follow up with a firm jab to the corporate interests -- that'll remind everybody that you were, at one time, the champion of the world.

You can't win your fights with one hand tied behind your back, Mr. President. Use your left -- it's your better hand. Go ahead and take some minor blows, but don't keep trying to absorb that hard right hook they keep pounding you with -- that's how you became a loser.

So, just like Rocky III, I'm gonna watch this fight between my fingers with my eyes squinched shut and if it looks like you're gonna lose it like you've lost the last ones, I'm gonna turn it off and go watch The Fighter or even Rocky IV. At least they were losers who knew they wouldn't become winners by falling down.


Constantine Singer
Proud Progressive
Political Fight Coordinator

Thursday, September 1, 2011

One Big Union

The second in a series on modern educational reform issues: The Teacher's Unions

We hear it over and over again to the point where it has become an accepted fact due solely to repetition: The biggest roadblock to educational improvement is the entrenched interests of the teacher's unions.

It's probably true.

But that doesn't mean that teachers don't need unions. We do. I've taught in non-union charter schools and, even though I am not a fan of the NEA or the CTA, I missed them terribly at times. One of my schools -- a school that I helped start and on whose planning board I sat -- unionized the year after I left because of the extensive difficulties that existed between faculty and administration. Teachers need to be organized. Teachers, like all front-line civil servants, need somebody in their corner when the public that they serve turns on them. They also need somebody on their side when administrations become vindictive or when administrative incompetence creates untenable working conditions.

The problem, though, is that unions as we understand them were built on a model to protect the interests of working groups who were essentially unskilled. Unions were an outgrowth, but also a rejection, of the old guild system that had ruled artisan crafts in pre-industrial days. The concept of a union was that, individually, unskilled labor is powerless but as a group, they wield enough power to improve their conditions and protect themselves. As the industrial era grew and the overwhelming majority of the working-class workforce realized their own replaceability, unions became the go-to solution for any group of workers who were being exploited. And by the late 1960's, this included teachers.

Teachers, though, are not an unskilled workforce. The days of walking out of a four-year teacher's college like LBJ and straight into the classroom, and the days when teaching was one of the two main professions open to women are long gone. Now, to become a teacher involves earning a BA and a credential and in many states it is nearly impossible to become fully credentialed without a master's degree. We have established teaching as a skilled profession (though it always was, even if we didn't recognize it as such) through our massive credentialing and continuing education requirements. Only doctors and lawyers have greater burdens than teachers when it comes to maintaining certification and unlike doctors and lawyers whose firms and hospitals often pay for their continuing education (and those in private practice often earn enough to cover it), teachers must do so out of their own meager pockets.

So why do we have unions that are modeled on the needs of factory workers? All other skilled trades and professions are guilded instead. Why aren't we?

The difference between a union and a guild is pretty specific. A union is open to any and all who enter a workforce regardless of skill, quality, disposition, or commitment. A guild is selective in its membership and guarantees the quality of those who have earned their place.

What if we had a teacher's guild? What if every person who wanted to be a professional teacher had to earn that title through an extensive internship, had to apprentice themselves to a guild master? What if, instead of hiring teachers randomly and then automatically enrolling them in the union, districts instead hired through the guild (much like other government contractors do when they hire plumbers, electricians, and finish carpenters)? What if we as teachers put ourselves in charge of ensuring teacher quality rather than suffering through the capricious and often ill-thought-out tribulations that politicians and district officials create for us so that they look like they are doing something to improve the quality of teachers? What if teachers themselves took on the training of new teachers instead of having for-profit universities who have lobbied for new and expensive teaching requirements mint money on our need to keep our job?

A guild.

Here's what I picture:

When a college graduate decides that they wish to become a teacher, they apply to the guild. The guild assesses their basic qualifications and then places them in a co-teaching internship with a master-teacher for two years. The novice teacher is paid a small stipend (enough to live on, say $20,000/year) and shares a classroom with their master. The master takes on the role of evaluator, mentor and guide. The novice splits their time between teaching and observation for the first year and, in the second year, takes over major teaching duties. After the second year, when the novice has gained real teaching experience, if the guild master agrees then the teacher becomes a journeyman teacher who earns a larger salary and is given a classroom of his/her own. During their three-year journeyman period they are monitored by the guild for their progress in areas such as student progress, management, discipline, parent/community relationships, and collegial relationships (a very important piece that is not ever really discussed these days). They would also be paid at a rate similar to the current starting teacher's salary. If satisfactory marks are achieved during the journeyman period, a teacher is able to become a master-teacher (who's pay would be much higher than the average teacher pay currently) who then is able to train others.

The guild would be primarily responsible for teacher quality and would relieve the district and administration of their currently overwhelming duties with respect to teacher training and assessment. The guild fees paid by journeyman and master teachers (novices would not pay into the guild save to cover the cost of their benefits) would cover benefits (taking this out of the hands of the schools), legal insurance, and continuing education. Pensions would remain as separate entities (in California, this means that CalSTRS, which teachers pay into instead of social security, would remain in place).

What recourse would districts and schools have if the guild's teachers were unsatisfactory? What's to keep the guild from simply throwing mediocre teachers into the mix? Districts would not be required to hire through the guild. If they believe they can get a better product outside of the guild for less money, then they would be free to do so -- but everyone would know that their teachers were not guild teachers and, if the guild works, that would translate directly into lower-quality classrooms.

What's in it for new teachers? Instead of forking over massive amounts of money to universities and teacher training programs, new teachers would instead earn money while learning. The training they receive would be on-the-job and real-world, ensuring that they had actual classroom experience and support before they fly solo. They would have the promise of much greater money than the can earn currently if they are able to produce a quality classroom, and they would also have the respect that comes to one who has earned their title through proving themselves in real tests of mettle and skill.

Unions have their place and I hope and pray every day that service workers in this country wake up and pick up the union mantle, but a union is ill-fitting armor for skilled professionals like teachers. I don't know that we could ever actually make this transition, but I think about it a lot and it makes me sad to think that it might never happen.Would it improve education? I believe so. It would certainly improve the lives of good teachers.

So, instead of talking about spending huge amounts of money on merit pay systems, why not trash the whole system and start over with a guild. Who's with me?