Category Archives: Education / Youth

Economic Straw Men

A friend recently sent me one of those irritating articles purporting to lecture “liberals” about economic realities. This one was unusually smug. It was written by a self-styled “economist” and published by Forbes; titled “Ten Economic Truths Liberals Need to Learn,”   it mostly rebutted “straw man” positions that no one–liberal or not–actually takes.

I won’t go through the whole list, because you can read it for yourselves, and because we’ve all heard these “truths” before.

“Government cannot create jobs” is an oldie but goodie. Like many of the others, it is “true” only in a very limited sense; obviously, government can and does create jobs for teachers, police officers, and other government workers, and when it invests properly in infrastructure, those investments also generate jobs.

What that flip formulation also misses is the essential role government plays in providing the infrastructures that make private enterprise and private job creation possible.

Several other “truths” on the list are equally wrongheaded: the author claims that low wages are not exploitative, for example–among other things, conveniently overlooking the fact that taxpayers are making up the (enormous) difference between low wages and living costs, and thus effectively subsidizing corporate profits.

I guess it depends upon what your definition of “exploitative” is.

But the “truth” that sent me over the edge was this one:

Education is not a public good. We provide publicly funded K-12 education to all (even to non-citizens), but the education provided produces human capital that is privately owned by each person. This human capital means more work skills, more developed talent, and more potential productivity. People with more human capital generally get paid more, collecting the returns from their education in the form of higher earnings. One common defense of education as a public good is worth refuting here. Yes, education helps people invent things that benefit society. However, they will expect to be paid for those inventions, not give them away for free in return for their education.

This betrays an appalling lack of understanding of both education and the public good.

READ MY LIPS: Education is not synonymous with job training. There is nothing wrong with job training–it’s essential–but a genuine education is far more than a skill set that makes someone marketable in the dystopic society idealized by the (presumably trained but clearly uneducated) twit who wrote this.

Job training produces people who produce things. Education produces people who create art and music and literature, who develop philosophies and political systems, who innovate and imagine and beautify cities and civic environments.

Job training allows people to be productive economic units. Education allows people to be responsible citizens.

If a polity consisting of thoughtful and informed and genuinely educated citizens isn’t a public good, I don’t know what is.

What We Know That Just Ain’t So

I forget the source of this old quote, but I’ve always liked it: “The problem ain’t what we don’t know, it’s what we know that just ain’t so.”

Recently, a regular reader sent me an article from “NeuroLogica Blog” (there’s obviously a blog for everything) that documented that hoary saying.

When asked what percentage of the population is Muslim the average answer was 15% when the reality is 1%. How many people are Christian: average answer 56%, reality 78%. How many people of working age are out of work and seeking a job: average answer 32%, reality 6% (at the time of the survey). That one seems strange. Did people really think the unemployment rate was 32% (that was average, which means some people thought it was higher)? During the great depression the unemployment rate peaked at 25%. What percentage of girls between 15 and 19 years old will give birth: average guess 24%, reality 3%.

As the author noted, the interesting (indeed, the pertinent) question is – why are so many people so misinformed about the facts? After all, these are verifiable and concrete data points, not “facts” that are really value judgments like “socialism is bad” or “religion is good.” And as the author also noted, the internet makes it incredibly easy to locate and verify these facts.

The article listed “the usual subjects”–education that doesn’t sufficiently teach critical thinking skills, a fragmented and frequently lazy media, politicians whose spin (and outright lies) are rewarded. All of these are implicated, but perhaps the best explanation is confirmation bias.

…the tendency to notice, accept, and remember information which confirms your existing narrative. The fact that we have narratives also is a huge factor. There is a tendency to latch onto themes and narratives, and then use facts to support those narratives, rather than to alter our narratives based on the facts. It is therefore no surprise that facts which have political implications have been so distorted to fit political narratives.

In other words, confirmation bias convinces us of things that we want to believe, but that “just ain’t so.”

And we wonder why Americans can’t find common ground.

Electing the Problems

I don’t know how many conversations I’ve had with people who couldn’t understand how the Indiana legislature could [fill in the blank with your choice of the biggest travesty]. During the just-concluded session, Republicans and Democrats alike posted highly critical messages to FB and Twitter, most of which involved some version of “what is the matter with these people?”

So– who elected these folks?

The Center for Civic Literacy recently worked with the Indiana Bar Foundation and others on the most recent iteration of the Civic Health Index, a periodic state by state measurement of civic engagement. In Indiana, the effort is co-chaired by Randy Shepard and Lee Hamilton, and the survey results may give us a clue about why so many elected officials in Indiana—not just in the legislature—are so disconnected from the attitudes and policy preferences of so many Hoosiers. That disconnect, as we saw with RFRA, leaves them susceptible to small but highly motivated interest group lobbyists.

Let me just share a few of the most pertinent metrics.

  • 6.5% of Hoosiers report working with neighbors to solve a community problem.  Indiana ranks 47th among the states.
  • 17.5% of us participate in associations or organizations. We rank 44th.
  • 69.2% of those who are eligible are registered to vote. We rank 37th.
  • In a presidential year, 69.2% of us vote. We rank 37th.
  • In the last off-year election, as you may have heard, 39.4% voted, ranking Indiana dead last among the states.
  • Only 11% of Hoosiers report ever contacting a public official. We rank 30th.

There is considerable evidence that higher levels of civic knowledge correlate with increased civic engagement. The statistics on civic knowledge are incredibly depressing: only 36% percent of Americans know that we have three branches of government, 58% cannot name a single federal Cabinet department—it goes on and on. People who don’t know how government works don’t participate in self-government.

The Center for Civic Literacy was formed to examine the causes and consequences of low civic literacy. Lack of participation is one of those consequences.

The question we can’t answer–at least, not yet–is: what would it take to get more people involved? What needs to happen in order to get more people out to vote? There are certainly reasons other than low civic literacy for low levels of civic participation—lack of competitive contests in gerrymandered districts, for example– but until we raise the level of citizens’ knowledge, we aren’t going to raise their levels of participation.

And without significantly higher levels of informed participation, we’ll just keep electing our problems.

We Don’t Care What the Evidence Says….

The Indiana General Assembly is finally going home, concluding a session which most sane Hoosiers couldn’t wait to see come to an end. There was plenty of bad policy to go around (RFRA, anyone?) but–as has become typical during the Pence Administration– city schools took the greatest hit. The final budget slashed funding for urban public schools in districts serving the poorest populations, while raising amounts for rural, charter and voucher schools.

Once again, the legislature took money from the state’s most strapped public schools to increase funding for Pence’s ill-considered voucher program–currently one of the most extensive in the nation. Indiana has close to 30,000 students receiving public funds to attend private schools, some 80% of which are religious.

To add insult to injury, lawmakers also took oversight of voucher schools away from Superintendent Glenda Ritz, and moved it to the Governor’s office. According to the Indianapolis Star

A proposal was slipped in the state’s new $31.5 billion budget without public debate, moving calculation of school voucher costs from Ritz’s Department of Education to Pence’s board and shifts control over which schools qualify to receive vouchers.

If anyone thinks Pence’s office is competent to do either job, I have a bridge to sell you…

Whatever one thinks of charter schools, at least they remain part of the public system. Vouchers are another thing altogether. There are plenty of reasons to object to the growth of the state’s voucher program–vouchers bleed money from the public schools, have been shown to re-segregate students, and give parents choices without providing them with the information they need in order to inform those choices. (In Louisiana, a significant percentage teach creationism and other “biblical truths.”) Most also fail to deliver.

Proponents defend vouchers as a means of escape from “failing” public schools; the obvious implication/promise is that students will receive a better education in the private schools to which they take those vouchers.

The evidence does not support that promise.

According to a report from the bipartisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability in Chicago, school choice in Indiana is “designed to funnel taxpayer money to private schools, with little evidence that demonstrates improved academic achievement for students who are most at risk.” The study compared Indiana’s program with those in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington, D.C. – some of the oldest voucher programs in the country – where they say they found similar results.

The study replicates several others that have been conducted since “school choice” programs became the easy answer to struggling schools.

Virtually all scholars who have examined the performance of voucher schools have concluded that academic gains range from none to minimal. The single improvement that has been documented is parental satisfaction; when parents feel they have had a choice, they are more empowered and exhibit more positive attitudes.

Hoosier taxpayers are paying a lot for that parental satisfaction.

The vast majority of Hoosier children, who remain in public schools being purposely drained of necessary resources in order to support private (mostly religious) education, are paying a lot more.

Watch This Video! That’s an Order!

Last week, I had the good fortune to talk to a gifted teacher at Brebeuf High School who teaches a course in digital literacy: not “how to” use or program a computer, but how to navigate the Internet–how to recognize “click bait,” how to understand and use social media, how to beware of confirmation bias….in short, critical thinking for a digital world.

During our discussion, he showed me this video. It’s a short four minutes. WATCH IT.