Tag Archives: third-world

I Hope This Is Hyperbole…

Generally, when partisans of one sort or another pursue policies that are likely to have negative side-effects, those side effects are unintended. (Hence the term “unintended consequences.”) A recent report generated by The Institute for New Economic Thinking–a source with which I am unfamiliar, and for which I cannot vouch–asserts that the attack on teachers (about which I recently blogged) is part of a deliberate effort to “Groom U.S. Kids for Servitude.”

At least three people forwarded the paper to me. It references research by Gordon Lafer, Associate Professor at the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon, and Peter Temin, Professor Emeritus of Economics at MIT.  It describes a movement that is said to have begun in the wake of Citizens United, a “highly coordinated campaign” to destroy unions, cut taxes for the wealthy, and cut public services for everyone else.

Lafer pored over the activities of business lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – funded by giant corporations including Walmart, Amazon.com, and Bank of America—that produces “model legislation” in areas its conservative members use to promote privatization. He studied the Koch network, a constellation of groups affiliated with billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. (Koch Industries is the country’s second-largest private company with business including crude oil supply and refining and chemical production). Again and again, he found that corporate-backed lobbyists were able to subvert the clear preferences of the public and their elected representatives in both parties. Of all the areas these lobbyists were able to influence, the policy campaign that netted the most laws passed, featured the most big players, and boasted the most effective organizations was public education. For these U.S. corporations, undermining the public school system was the Holy Grail.

The obvious question is: why? These organizations and businesses need an educated workforce; why would they intentionally subvert education? I understand–and mostly agree with– the argument that their preferred policies would have that effect, but why would that be the motivation?

While Lafer acknowledges that there are legitimate debates among people with different ideological positions or pedagogical views, he thinks big corporations are actually more worried about something far more pragmatic: how to protect themselves from the masses as they engineer rising economic inequality.

As Lafer sees it, we are headed for a new system in which the children of the wealthy will be “taught a broad, rich curriculum in small classes led by experienced teachers. The kind of thing everybody wants for kids.” The rest of America’s children will be trapped in large classes with a narrow curriculum taught by inexperienced staff —or through digital platforms with no teachers at all.

Most kids will be trained for a life that is more circumscribed, less vibrant, and, quite literally, shorter, than what past generations have known. (Research shows that the lifespan gap between haves and have-nots is large and rapidly growing). They will be groomed for insecure service jobs that dull their minds and depress their spirits…

In other words, dismantling the public schools is all about control.

The linked article develops these themes, and readers who want to explore them more fully are welcome to click through and do so.

I know that even paranoids have enemies, but this argument strains credulity. I don’t quarrel with the assertion that many of these “reforms” are wrongheaded and detrimental to the national interest. (Vouchers, for example, are supported mainly by people who think they can make a profit and religious zealots who want public money to support their parochial schools.) The unwillingness of so many “haves” to pay the taxes that support the social and physical infrastructure that enabled their good fortune is selfish and despicable, but the policies they are pursing can be debated–and their dangers exposed–on their own (dubious) merits.

The problem is, if the gap between the rich and the rest isn’t reduced soon, we are likely to see more overheated accusations along these lines–along with more class-and-race-based animosity.

We’re entering the social danger zone.


A Broken City

I am in Detroit. I came with a colleague to present a paper at an academic conference at Wayne State.

The last time I was in Detroit was at least 50 years ago, and even then I didn’t go downtown–I was visiting friends in a suburb. So I really had no idea what to expect as I drove to the Motor City Hotel and Casino, the venue designated as the conference attendee’s accomodations. The hotel/casino is a huge fortress-like structure, surrounded mostly by empty parcels. After circling it twice, we found the valet parking entrance.

Since we were too late to catch the shuttle to the University, we took a cab. The mile or so drive went through a landscape that reminded me of a third-world country; boarded structures, lots where nothing remained of a structure but rubble and trash. Here and there, we passed a new development–forlorn evidence of periodic efforts to resuscitate a dying city.

It had been easy enough to get a cab at the hotel, but when I decided not to wait for the return shuttle at 5:30, and tried to return from campus mid-afternoon, I struck out. I called every taxi company on the list. No luck. Most didn’t even answer the telephone; the two that did explained that today was a “very busy” day, and they’d get a cab to me as soon as possible. After an hour and a half with no taxi in sight, I went back to the conference and waited for the shuttle. (Ordinarily, I’d have walked, since the distance was only a couple of miles, but the weather was gusty, cold and snowy, and the conference staff made it very clear that walking was not considered safe.)

The hotel I’m in isn’t the sort of place I’d choose–I’m not much on gambling and glitz–but the rooms are really luxurious and the service has been exceptional. Anywhere else, a room of this sort would run 250+ per night. (More in New York or Chicago.) Here, it’s 129/night. Granted, that’s a conference rate–but I think what the price (and the presence of the Casino) really reflect is the fact that not many people want to come to Detroit just to visit Detroit.

When a city is broken, it depresses the economy of the whole state. Michigan’s travails have been widely reported, and it’s no surprise.

As yesterday’s post pointed out, keeping a city healthy requires constant attention and talented leadership. It requires attention to infrastructure and economic development, and the “care and feeding” of the service industry folks who are the first ambassadors seen by visitors. When I was serving in the Hudnut Administration, I remember special outreach programs to the cabdrivers and other service personnel who represented Indianapolis to visitors from elsewhere. Those efforts, among others, translated into a reputation that eventually brought us events like the SuperBowl, and the dollars those events pumped into the local economy.

When a city looks like Detroit looks now, it’s hard to believe anything will fix it. It should serve as a cautionary tale to those who take a vibrant city for granted. With enough disinvestment, enough abandonment and neglect, it can happen anywhere.