Monday, October 20, 2014

Teachers and Their Detractors

One of the most depressing aspects of K-12 education, along with its massively inequitable nature, is the cynical and contemptuous attacks on public school teachers, part of a destructive and duplicitous agenda not found in other OECD nations. 

Teaching has become an increasingly thankless profession; teachers are expected to solve all the problems of their charges, who often come to them poorly prepared, if they come at all. Teachers in poorly equipped schools can and do help those students, but not as much as is needed, and not as much as in richer districts. Hence, achievement gaps between rich and poor do not lessen, they grow ever wider.


Many college graduates enter teaching, in part, because jobs seem to open up with regularity. This should be a warning flag. The turnover rate among teachers is high; roughly half have moved on to other employment after five years. And that is in a tough economy where there are not many reasonable alternatives. 


So why would a caring and smart recent graduate consider teaching? Society says we need more and better teachers, but unfortunately, that's not all society is saying. The teaching profession has worked for years to upgrade and further professionalize teachers and curricula. There has been, or was, a great deal of pressure on those entering the field to be properly credentialed, meaning, generally, not only that one should have a college degree, but an advanced one as well, in the appropriate field, at least for those teaching beyond elementary level.


Now that's just the subject matter. The push, especially in response to the No Child Left Behind Act, has been for teachers to be knowledgable about pedagogy as well. Thus, a teacher's credential is called for. In some jurisdictions, that has meant successfully completing a course of instruction that might last one year. After passing a few qualifying exams, taking several courses in classroom management, learning theory, curriculum development and more, and after spending a few weeks as a student teacher, you were considered, in most school districts, a certified teacher, though not necessarily a most highly qualified one.

The trend within pedagogy, as with subject matter, was to further ratchet up the requirements. A mere teacher's certificate was not good enough. After NCLB the ambitious teacher, those who aspired to most highly qualified status, would be expected to obtain a master's degree, this one in education. That's in addition to the masters in the subject the teacher intends to teach.

And now, most recently, there are trends in the opposite direction threatening to undo recent gains. Politicians and political operatives, mostly Republican, are pushing far different ideas and outcomes. With little good evidence, they proclaim teachers, at least experienced, tenured, and unionized ones, to be inherently the problem, but nothing that can't be fixed by stripping them of their pensions, tenure, and union membership. A pay cut is also in order; got to balance that budget you know. And that mantra that you have to pay top dollar if you want top talent? It's a truism held up by free-market ideologues as applicable everywhere --except for teachers.

So now, especially in red states, teachers can no longer expect additional pay to match higher qualifications. For Republicans, all public school teachers already earn too much. Nor can teachers expect a decent retirement. Recall that the recent recriminations against teachers, coinciding with the presidency of Barack Obama, are after the NCLB era that demanded that teachers be more highly credentialed. In other words, many thousands of teachers spent huge sums of money to upgrade their credentials and become better qualified. It was a trend that didn't last.

So those smart enough to get advanced degrees in math or science, and might have once considered teaching, now face a hostile environment where teachers are publicly ridiculed by students, parents, the media, and members of congress. They are told they make too much, their retirement plans are too high, and they are thus a drag on state and municipal budgets. In an nauseating display of obtuse thinking, teachers are expected to be social worker, friend, counselor, foster parent, pastor, babysitter, as well as teacher, and then are blamed because they have not solved all the problems that others have created, including pathetic, criminally irresponsible parents.


It is true that some teachers are not performing well. Leave aside for the moment that teacher evaluations are fraught with difficulty; never forget that a major reason you hear diatribes against public schools and, of course the unions, always the unions, is because they are a target of a conservative agenda. The religious right remains hysterical about sex education, secular, and more inclusive, curricula, the teaching of evolution, and, incredibly, critical thinking skills. l. And Republicans of a broader stripe have long worked to undermine teachers' unions for the same reason they have opposed all unions; doing so undermines the Democratic Party's base, especially when it comes to voter turnout in elections. 


Others have written extensively on the depressingly well-orchestrated and politically-motivated effort to undermine public education and teachers' unions as well as the failure of charter schools to live up to the hype. See, for example, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch. Others argue that public schools are doing better than critics care to admit. I'll come back to these issues another day. But I'll finish here with a point not often made by others.

What is fundamentally different now than in the past is the investor class, which with the help of mostly conservative legislatures, has entered the field and is in the process of monetizing education. Billionaires promising market-based miracles have found receptive politicians always looking to shift education from the public sector to the private. Their favorite Trojan horse has been charter schools, a right winger's wet dream, because they rarely involve unions, or tenure, teacher pay is lower, and in some cases they have been able to reintroduce religious dogma into the classroom on the public dime, as in Bobby Jindal's Louisiana.

And what about the teachers that really are not performing well? Conservatives will overstate the numbers, but surely there are some that don't measure up (as in every other field). First, some context; at the start of every school year, large numbers of young, freshly minted teachers enter the classroom for the first time. 
The same holds for those who, for a variety of reasons, take up teaching later in life. In either case, economic circumstances compel many to enter a field they might not have otherwise considered, not because they don't want to be good teachers, or because they don't care, but because teachers and those considering teaching suffer, like most of us, from a terrible job market, where free trade has stripped away millions of jobs, unions have been crushed, the minimum wage is far lower than in comparable countries, and where overall wages have been flat for decades, even if productivity, corporate profits, and
the cost of living have not. In other words, many teachers cannot just up and leave for a comparably paying job. They cannot walk out just because certain critics endlessly taunt and complain. If one cares to look, job opportunities for both inexperienced grads and middle-aged workers on their second career are very tight, unless you think big-box retailers and the like are acceptable alternatives. 

All of this is separate from the actual workday. When they enter the classroom most new public school teachers are immediately hit with a hellacious shit storm from every direction. It is not always students specifically, or the endless bureaucratic torments, but rather the totality of the experience that makes public school teaching difficult and stressful. Those who have not taught in an American public school, most especially the most adversely affected ones, cannot truly appreciate how difficult the job is. The pay is unusually low in the United States, commensurate with public opinion of what teachers are worth. What is harder to quantify, and impossible to appreciate for non-teachers, is the way years of teaching in a crowded, hot, underfunded school grinds down all but the most resilient, not to be confused with the best or most talented.

Teaching is not immune to the growing realization among American workers that they have declining employment options and thus feel they must hang on to whatever job they have, regardless of the stress and indignities. Those who do have options either avoid teaching entirely, or leave when they can. Some may be putting in their time until retirement, but most who choose to stay in teaching are talented and devoted, yet the attacks on unions and pensions hurts all teachers. 

The most talented young graduates see and hear the vapid platitudes about the satisfaction and nobility of teaching on the one hand, and the now widespread attacks to lessen pay, degrade the profession, and balance state budgets by firing teachers and shuttering schools. 

Why would our most capable recent graduates enter the field under these circumstances? Why be devoted to a system that treats you as the problem?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Pat Robertson

I have always considered Pat Robertson to be a hideous ass, but the video below shows him about as vapidly inane as I have ever seen him. He has been more aggressive, vicious and hateful at other times, but this segment brings "laughably wrong" to a new level. Perhaps it is his advanced age that makes him incoherently lash out at all that he hates, much like Justice Scalia, who is in his own cognitive downward spiral. If so, I would cut him, and Scalia, some slack. But if he is going to remain on TV and spout his nonsense, then he can forget it.

First, Robertson calls for a revolution. He could have stopped there, but I should have known bullshit would follow. You can seen from the video that Robertson is recounting a recent visit to his doctor. He complains that the nurse was asking him many questions, but he admits they are medically related. So the problem with this is what, exactly? The nurse should not be asking you such questions? Really, Pat?

And she, the nurse, was typing the answers into a computer, and thus, a database. What are you saying, Pat? That she should not bother to record the data? And it took a long time, what with all those questions and all that typing? Perhaps medical professionals should skip asking and recording medically relevant information? Because you know better, Pat?

The implication I draw is that Robertson wants us to think his horrific experience was the direct result of Obamacare. He wants you to feel the Affordable Care Act has created new levels of big-government intrusiveness while draining him of his last bit of freedom. Apparently even the omniscient power of his ever-loving god is not enough to save us. I thought we were supposed to pray and leave everything to god, who knows best and always guides us, never lets us down, should always be relied upon, ad infinitum. Revolution is what those secular guys do, 'cause Jesus doesn't whisper in their ear. Hey Pat, millions claim their prayers were answered when the ACA was passed. I guess those prayers don't count.

The inane implication in all of this is that he wants this revolution because:
   Nurses never asked those questions before Obamacare;
   They didn't record your medical history before Obamacare;
   Health care didn't use computers before Obamacare;
   There wasn't a lot of paperwork before Obamacare;

Perhaps Pat has forgotten that medicine has been switching to computerized medical records for some time, and for good reason. Who wants to go back to pen and paper? I mean, besides Pat?

And one of the reasons why health care in the US has been so expensive for so long, long before the ACA, is the incredible amount of paperwork brought on by what, liberal bureaucrats? Wrong again, Pat. We have been choking on paperwork beyond what other nations do because of the privatized nature of our health care system, dominated as it was, and mostly still is, by a profit-seeking insurance industry.  Europe and Japan provide coverage for all; it's cheaper and it is better. They have not had many thousands of their citizens die each year because they didn't have health insurance. And they didn't have many thousands more file for bankruptcy every single year because they couldn't pay their medical bills, or lose their insurance just because a private insurer didn't want to pay. It is these unacceptable realities that have defined the United States for generations, and that the Affordable Care Act has begun to change.

So Pat, is it asking too much for you to do some homework? There is a reason, whether you like it or not, why France is often regarded has having the best health care system in the world. France! Not the US, and quite frankly, we are not even close, even though circumstances have improved, thanks to the ACA, for America's poorest -- those who had no insurance at all. You forgot about them, didn't you Pat?

For the record, I had good insurance before the ACA went into effect. I have not had to do anything different because of Obamacare. I didn't have to switch, I didn't have to change doctors, no premium hikes, nothing. I'm guessing multi-millionaire Pat Robertson also had good medical insurance before the ACA kicked in. Nothing has changed with his insurance plan; no new doctors, no hike in premiums. Nothing. If he had real issues to complain about, the kind of disaster ideological fucks like Robertson claimed would happen, you know damn well he would have enumerated them in whining detail.

No changes with Pat Robertson either. Same asshole he has always been. But he loves Jesus, so it's OK.



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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Come Together?

Ralph Nader has a new book out, called Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. In it, Nader argues that some elements of the Right and Left are beginning to come together as they slowly realize they have a common enemy, Wall Street in particular, corporatism in general.

Progressives, including Nader, had much of this figured out long ago; whether it be the corrupting influence of wealth and privilege, the contradictions of neoliberal economics, the laughable asininity of supply-side economics, the  illogical and self-serving gospel of free trade and more: It was the Left, the true Left, not the Clintons and their Democratic Leadership Council, nor the New Democrats, nor other Republican Lites, including President Obama, that long ago saw the corporate train wreck heading our way.


Only now, with so much evidence that even Fox cannot spin it all away, we see at least some working and middle class conservatives, including those who identify with the Tea Party, are finally realizing they have been played by the Republican establishment, those at the very top of the conservative wealth and power structure. 

The Left, broadly defined, has long wondered how the reactionary Right, especially working class rank and file Republicans, could so blindly and aggressively support Republican politicians who so clearly violate what teabaggers claim they stand for, or what they consider to be morally sound.


Nader is not alone on this. I myself have argued there is a substantial ideological and policy opening that could allow the two otherwise disparate forces to work together. Issues such as an abusive financial sector, corruption, inequality before the law, the bill of goods called free trade, secret offshore bank accounts -- an issue that hurt Romney with working class Republicans --are issues that animate both the Left and more than a few Tea Party adherents.


Mike Konczal argues that the Tea Party and Wall Street actually get along just fine. He makes some good points, but it is important to note that Konczal's focus is on elected politicians, those whose elections are financed by Wall Street, and not rank and file teabaggers. It is this latter group's interests which diverge most strongly with the plutocracy, even if they often seem doggedly unaware of it.


And ultimately, this is why Nader's belief that liberals and teabaggers will work against a common enemy may be wishful thinking, at least until even more pain is felt. Few conservatives, and especially tea partiers, even now, will listen to arguments made by progressives. Or to put it differently, many teabaggers will be open to an idea or policy until they realize it is a progressive one, or on those occasions when President Obama supports it. As an aside, I might add they also don't realize how often President Obama sides with the center-right, such as through his enforcement of domestic spying programs initiated by Bush, his unwillingness to prosecute Wall Street banks, or the continued care and feeding of a bloated military.

Their common sense is overwhelmed by a condition that Fox News has worked hard to develop. Fox News Channel President Roger Ailes once said he was less interested in giving viewers the news than in how they felt about it. Blame it on cable TV and the Internet, but fewer of us are willing to listen to, and think through, viewpoints we don't like and may not want to hear. Authoritarians, which populate the Tea Party, are especially impervious to uncomfortable facts and are especially rigid, often contradictory, in their views, but we are all susceptible. Add to this a visceral hatred for liberals that runs deep in America, even though conservatives support liberal policies far more than they realize, that ensures that many on the right will reject policies and programs they would otherwise support if psychology played less of a role and evidence-based economics played more. It does not help that progressive views are relatively complex and do not lend themselves to easy bromides, slogans, or bumper stickers.


It would undoubtedly gall many teabaggers, were they suddenly to acquire a more rounded education, that Marx was right; class defines everything. Those at the very top have always used the state for their own ends. The enduring challenge for the rest of us, one we are currently failing, is to keep in check the predatory nature of the neoliberal overclass.   

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Innovation is Secondary

Ever notice how little time politicians spend debating the core issues that concern the politically literate? And how easily our media chases after, or creates, secondary issues? It was painful enough to watch the tepid and interminable process known as the presidential election campaigns. And now with mid-terms approaching, we are reminded just how shallow American elections, and the media that feeds off them, have become. What really is killing us is the abject inability or unwillingness to understand and confront our rigged and dysfunctional system. Our overclass has no intention of letting public discourse ever become constructive and insightful. Our corporate media is only too happy to fixate on the trivial, or otherwise shine its investigative spotlight on important but secondary issues, including education, the federal debt, and other seemingly constructive topics such as innovation.

As America continues to struggle, many continue to tout the value of innovation-- in technology and commerce, mostly-- but also in education and government. President Obama himself has often stressed the importance of innovation; how we once had it in abundance, how it now is eroding, and what we must do to get it back. The value of innovation would seem to be something that progressives and conservatives could mostly agree on, and that helps explain why the President talks about it. It seems, on its face, to be non-partisan.

However, when President Obama talks about the importance of innovation, he has often, inadvertently or not, folded it in with other conservative talking points. We need to "work harder," "stay in school," --or go back to school-- and get that degree or those credentials. It's a competitive world out there; if you can't get the job you want, it's because you are not properly trained and credentialed. And, of course, you cannot blame corporate America if you don't have the proper skills. We must not let down them down; work harder and prove your value to the job creators. This is the central tenant of individualism. 

It's all quite clever, really, for the constant adulation of individualism tends to shut down debate and analysis of US political economy. It is all up to you. The rich earned all they have, and if you don't like your lot in life, it is your fault and only you can change it. This mantra allows the overclass to largely avoid honest media examination or a concerted pushback from a mostly insouciant population that is chockablock with low-information voters, has a short attention span, allows itself to be constantly distracted by inanity, and takes solace in religion. Corporate media operates within this milieu, invariably giving voice to conservative operatives who lecture and berate as class warfare any attempt to lay bare our breath-taking inequality. The ideology of individualism allows our overclass to pin society's ills on our growing underclass.

Obviously, there is much to be said for staying is school, seeking additional training, or more broadly, the role of innovation. American commerce still provides sundry example of where hard work and innovation can take you; they are the twin edges we must sharpen if we are to meet future challenges.

However, every speech devoted to either of these takes the focus away from the underlying causes of US difficulty; jobs, to be sure, but also wage levels for the jobs we still have. Most people are in fact employed, and most jobs have not been outsourced or lost to foreign competition. What is not being acknowledged is that a disproportionate number of the jobs Americans now have face little foreign competition. That's the good part; the bad part is modest wages, benefits, and skill requirements for so many of these jobs. You don't need a degree to work fast food, retailing, and the like. And what about that other more technical job you went to back to school for, got a degree in, and now are heavily in debt for? Sorry, that job has been filled.

The problem of our sluggish economic growth is not a lack of innovation. We have bought into an economic doctrine that sanctifies free trade, financial deregulation, including unfettered flow of capital, and an obsession with credit and debt. It is a system designed by and for banks and the investor class, with little regard for main street or the middle class. The result is an indifference to massive trade deficits, dangerously leveraged banks, and an increasingly ability of the wealthy to avoid taxation and accountability. Employees are seen as a mere input in this profit model. Low wages are good since they improve the bottom line. If workers are recalcitrant and actually want a living wage, management should be free to outsource production to low wage countries. To hear some tell it, management is virtually obligated to fire its American workers and seek cheap unregulated workers abroad for improving the bottom line is management's only real responsibility. It's what the investors want, you know.

And the people who work for the company? That's labor, an input. Lower input costs mean higher profits. Why pay more? Any manager who does not seek to maximize profits is doing a disservice to investors, just like they were all taught in American business schools. It's all very rational and efficient, don't you see? 

Innovation does not directly address any of this. We have innovated like crazy and what are the results? Entire industries have been shipped overseas. Because we have allowed our industrial base and concomitant skills to erode, seeking out overseas producers has become the default position. A generation has grown up assuming that American reliance on foreign manufacturers is the natural order of things.

Nor do the calls for greater innovation say who will benefit from the results. Asia is a huge beneficiary of US economic policy. For generations our tax dollars have poured into basic R&D, much of it going to public universities. It has been a great success story, and it has played a key role in America's development. As with the recent rounds of stimulus spending, many of those tax dollars end up in Asia. Working harder, as both Republicans and Obama have exhorted, does nothing to change the imbalances. US corporations already have what they always want; cheap labor, huge profits, and a compliant, cheer-leader government. The investor class took a hit in 2008, but they have recovered nicely, and have fat dividends and lightly-taxed capital gains to show for it. 

So the middle class needs to work harder? Because corporate America's profits are not high enough? Because the job creators need help? Americans are already working harder than elsewhere in the OECD; we also have, in recent decades, relatively little to show for it. Wages have been suppressed, union membership has plummeted, and pensions and benefits have become even more rarefied, not because of foreign competition, or globalization, but by design. It is the direct result of illegitimate policies made in response to legitimate economic challenges. 

Innovation will help; it always has. But the role of innovation has been undermined for the same reason our middle class and techno-industrial base have. A little history shows that nations that support each of these have thrived. Those that let their financial sector dominate have crumbled. America will not be an exception.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Enrichment for the Few

Former AT&T Broadband CEO Leo Hindery recently acknowledged that executive pay in America has gotten completely out of control, and that it has caused a "structural breakdown of the meritocracy of our nation."

Hindery says it is "born out of cronyism." Well, yes, shameless cronyism is certainly a defining feature of American corporate culture, but who are the cronies and how do they get that way? Cronyism is an American way to avoid the obvious Marxian reality that corporatism in America is and always has been class-based and is intended to be an enrichment mechanism for the well-placed and the wealthy. It is all about enriching the upper class and not Americans in general.

All the same, Hindery's disgust is fully merited. In a recent interview;
Hindery observed that, even as CEO pay has skyrocketed in recent decades, it has not "trickled down" to workers, who must increasingly borrow money to finance their spending. That dynamic helped set the stage for the most recent recession and helps explain today's sluggish recovery.
That's exactly it; rich CEOs are not directly the problem, but more of a symptom. The real problem is how little of the country's growth in the last 30+ years has gone to the middle and working class and instead has gone to those at the very top, the 1/10th of 1%, a class of individuals who were already rich when inequality was merely significant instead of obscene. 

The problem is that too many of us must hunker down just to pay the basics. There is nothing left in a growing number of paychecks for families to buy groceries, pay the rent, pay or save for education, and put away some for retirement. So at the end of the week, something must go. A low-wage economy, which America now is, means increasing numbers of us have nothing left for an occasional splurge on just the products corporations want so much to sell us. Neoliberal politicians, some Democrats, mostly Republicans, have forgotten that one company's employee is another company's customer.
  
As Hindery states; "The only time the U.S. economy and any of the developed economies prosper is when there's a vibrant middle class that grows from the bottom up...We've trashed that whole principle."

To make matters much worse, the figures on inequality generally do not include assets CEOs and their investor class enablers are able to shield from taxation. And that means many billions of dollars leave the US and end up in foreign banks accounts. That does nothing for the US economy, though it is quite beneficial for places such as Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, and Switzerland. It isn't the middle class that sends these huge sums offshore. It is the very wealthy, who quite literally have more money than they know what to do with. While some of that wealth continues to be productively employed, an increasing amount is pumped into the political process--overtly creating a plutocracy--or is frittered away on ostentatious displays; the hyperwealthy's version of crass consumption.

Recent evidence of the astronomical sums the super-wealthy hide or send abroad, you know, people like Mitt Romney, demonstrates we have been seriously underestimating the amount of wealth that has left the United States. 

In a recent article in Slate, Jordan Weissmann shares the findings:
Economists Emmanuel Saez, of the University of California–Berkeley, and Gabriel Zucman, of the London School of Economics, are out with a new set of findings on American wealth inequality, and their numbers are startling. Wealth, for reference, is the value of what you own—assets like housing, stocks, and bonds, minus your debts. And while it certainly comes up from time to time, it has tended to play second fiddle to income in conversations about America’s widening class divide. In part, that’s because it’s a trickier conversation subject. Wealth has always been far more concentrated than income in the United States. Plus, research suggested that the top 1 percent of households had actually lost some of its share since the 1980s. 
That might not really have been the case. 
Forget the 1 percent. The winners of this race, according to Zucman and Saez, have been the 0.1 percent. Since the 1960s, the richest one-thousandth of U.S. households, with a minimum net worth today above $20 million, have more than doubled their share of U.S. wealth, from around 10 percent to more than 20 percent. Take a moment to process that. One-thousandth of the country owns one-fifth of the wealth. By comparison, the entire top 1 percent of households takes in about 22 percent of U.S. income, counting capital gains.

This is hideous, not because a few people are hyperwealthy, but because they helped create the deeply unfair and unsustainable economy that allowed them to attain that wealth. Now they dominate society, law, commerce, media, banking, and the democratic process to ensure their interests are protected and a Dixified, socioeconomic heirarchy is ever more institutionalized.

Say good bye to democracy. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Morals or Ignorance?

It's not just a morality play.

There has been a plethora of books, papers, and articles in recent years on how personality determines politics. In particular we find an effort to understand the gap between liberals and conservatives on the myriad ways they, we, interpret social phenomena, our religious orientation, our social attitudes, and of course, our political motivations and, ultimately, how we vote. Prominent among these are Chris Mooney's The Republican Brain; Jonathan Haidt's most recent, The Righteous Mind, and material referenced in earlier posts, such as George Lackoff's, The Political Mind, Drew Westin's, The Political Brain, along with the numerous works of Robert Altemeyer.

It is true that different values are driving us, as well as different ways in which people process data, through a moral filtering process. There is also growing evidence that small physical differences in our brains may help explain our different emotional responses, whether we feel disgust, fear, or anger on the one hand, or acceptance, curiosity, or even indifference, on the other.

There remains something lacking in this narrative, however, a narrative that is promoted most enthusiastically by psychologists. And that may be the problem. In a nutshell, it gives too much credence to what are seen as additional moral foundations, and understates the role of ignorance. Indeed, there is a tendency for some, and that would include Jonathan Haidt, to lump such fine qualities as ignorance, prejudice, hate, bigotry, racism and xenophobia into a new sanitized category called morality. Doing so deemphasizes the demonstrable fact that many people are not just processing issues and data through a different set of moral filters, though that is part of it. Nor will it do to declare such reactionary attitudes as simply different but equally legitimate moral code, something that, as Haidt would have it, defines conservative values in ways that liberals seem to not understand and don't appreciate. 

Much of the other material by Mooney, et, al, is not prone to equating hate with morality, but it too may be understating the role of abject ignorance and how it helps drive behavior.

There is a component to all of this that is far more prosaic. Many of us are cocksure in our views on sundry issues and policies, yet the briefest of inquiries reveals not merely different opinions, but testable ignorance of the most elementary facts. In other words, many will arrive at their viewpoints not through or entirely through, considered analysis, different world view, moral framework, or ethical sensibilities. Instead, opinions and attitudes are far too often developed and retained through abject ignorance. People are, as the saying goes, entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.

You cannot, for example, make a scientific or factual case for creationism. You hold creationist views because they accord with your religion-imbued sense of morality, to be sure, but also because you do not understand evolution, will not consider it, and often find comfort making demonstrably misinformed comments about it.

Creationism is but one example; the same goes for so much else. I've mentioned Haidt, who has developed the idea of conservatism as additional layers of morality, layers he says liberals don't have. I will revisit his theses, because there is much there, and much that is challengeable.

Of course, the issue remains why many of us have the propensity to misinterpret or show a willful refusal to consider alternative analyses. Apparently it is easier for certain squeamish academics to pretend that wildly different viewpoints are, on some level, equally valid, than it is to declare that an opinion on various issues of the day is flat-out wrong and arrived at not because proponents have a factual basis for their view, but because they don't. They may have a moral filter that data must pass, as we all do, but their assessments are destined to be flawed without a greater determination to come to grips with empirical reality, no matter how irritating some find it. Perhaps this is why psychologists can more easily engage in sometimes dry and abstract theorizing on the nexus of personality, attitudes, and political orientation. Many political scientists and other policy wonks facing real world problems have more difficulty with such aloof equanimity.


Let me be very clear on this point. If I believed the crap that teabaggers do, I would be upset too. If I thought ACORN had helped Obama steal the election, or that he was willfully undermining our country because he is morally debased, or black, or Muslim, or Benghazi!, I would be upset too. But I know the stream of examples the Right trots out, such as stories involving the IRS or Benghazi, to be non-scandals, because I am willing to read complete analyses.

There is, of course, an element of subjectivity in deciding, for example, whether Obama used the IRS to attack conservative non-profits (he didn't). But what struck so many of us as ideological determinism-and jaw-dropping stupidity- was the astounding ability of right-wing voters to ignore mountains of data and context, and draw hard, fast, self-serving conclusions. It was not the venom so much as it was the mangling of the issues, facts, and storyline. It is clear that those with the most toxic views aren't even trying to understand hot-button topics. And yet if you tell Fox-viewing devotees that Ronald Reagan raised taxes multiple times, that he dramatically increased federal spending, or that the US went from the world's largest creditor nation to the world's largest debtor nation on his watch, they may go apoplectic with rage. But these are not opinions, or moral values, or policy preferences: they are facts. 

To be human is to be flawed, but conservatives are especially adept at holding views that reveal their indifference to how they arrived at them.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Austerity's Strange Logic

I have had a few things to say about Social Security over the years (including here, and here). My prime concerns have focused on how mischaracterized it is as a drag on the federal debt, which it isn't, and how successful it has been, despite repeated and wildly inaccurate claims to the contrary.

A recent article by Marty Wolfson has helped put some perspective on how Social Security works, and why current attempts, by Republicans mostly, but also by some Democrats, to curtail it in the name of austerity is so wrong. When speaking of the federal debt, Wolfson reminds us that: 

Two quick points should be noted here: 1) Recall the long-standing theme presented mostly by Republicans who howl that social security will run out of money by (insert scary date here), and use that questionable assertion as evidence that social security does not work, and that the solution is to either privatize it or cut benefits immediately. The implication is that cutting benefits will reduce the Social Security payout and thus increase its viability. Two) Although supporters of social security like to point out, correctly, that the program pays for itself, by law, through contributions, I now think I see why conservatives believe the system adds to the federal debt. By law, paid-in Social Security contributions don't sit in a shoe box, nor are they invested in stocks, like Wall Street would like. The US government takes the $ billions in cash it receives each year and puts it in Treasury securities. As Wolfson puts it:

The $17 trillion (federal debt) figure is a measure of “gross debt,” which means that it includes debt owed by the U.S. Treasury to more than 230 other U.S. government agencies and trust funds. On the consolidated financial statements of the federal government, this intragovernmental debt is, in effect, canceled out. Basically, this is money the government owes itself. What is left is termed “debt held by the public.” It is this measure of debt that is relevant to a possible increase in interest rates due to competition for funding between the private and public sectors. It is also the category of government debt used by the Congressional Budget Office and other analysts. (Of course, the full economic significance of any debt measure needs to be considered in context, in relationship to the income available to service the debt.) The total debt held by the public is $12 trillion. 
The Social Security Trust Fund comprises $2.7 trillion of the total $5 trillion of various US Treasury debt instruments held in those myriad intragovernmental accounts. Not bad for a governmental agency that is supposedly going broke.
Social Security accumulated all these Treasury securities because of the way that its finances are organized. Social Security benefits to retirees (and to the disabled) are paid for by a payroll tax of 12.4 % on workers’ wages (with 6.2% paid by the worker and 6.2% paid by the employer), up to a limit, currently $113,700. If, in any year, Social Security revenue is greater than what is needed to pay current retiree benefits, the surplus must, by law, be invested in Treasury securities (most of which are “special obligation bonds” issued only to the Social Security Trust Fund).
So why are the calls for austerity so ill-advised?  And why is it so obvious to those of us who bother to research the issues (and have a coherent analytic framework, but I digress) see that "fixing" Social Security is not the true objective? The fact that the program is running up large surpluses which then must be parked in Treasury securities sounds good in a way; surpluses sound better than deficits, which would surely drive fiscal hawks crazy. I'm guessing that some congressional supporters in years past helped to ensure a surplus condition so that conservative critics would have less to bitch about. No such luck, for now the critics bemoan the large surplus the Social Security Trust Fund now maintains, though they invariably just call it debt, and then they still insist that the money will run out in, what?, 28 years? 75 years? As if suddenly there were no adjusting allowed, as we have successfully done in the past.

Here is the simple reality. The Social Security Trust Fund was not envisioned to have such large surpluses as it currently has. The fact that there is a meaningful surplus is a signal that contributions are unnecessarily high, or that the payout in benefits is needlessly low, or some combination of the two.

As Wolfson writes: 
Therefore the $2.7 trillion of Treasury securities held by the Trust Fund came about not because entitlements are out of control and the government has been forced to borrow to meet retiree benefits, but rather because future retirees have paid more taxes than necessary to meet benefit obligations. Workers have essentially been prepaying into the Trust Fund in order to provide for their future benefits.
The most pointedly ignorant response, the one that Congressional Republicans keep making, is to suggest that we cut benefits. Doing so will only serve to drive the imbalance further by decreasing the outflow of benefits and further increasing the need to issue or maintain Treasury securities for the inflow of money earmarked for future claims. It is precisely the opposite of what austerity proponents claim. A far more useful solution would be to increase benefits, and pump more money into the economy and at the same time reduce the need to buy ever more Treasury securities. 

A careful reading of Republican proposals and positions makes it clear that actually fixing most government institutions, programs, or issues, is no longer that party's objective, certainly not with this tea bagging crowd. The most jaw-droppingly obvious solutions, which have worked well in the past, are studiously avoided, and kept from the public, the media, and legislative consideration. And that is because the objective, not of all conservatives, but of true Tea Party devotees, is to emasculate the federal government. Those who actually read American history know this has always been the case.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Democracy's Ills

How does that quote go again: "These are the times that try men's souls"? There is a frustrating duopoly at play; in our elections, in civil discourse, in our constitution, and certainly in our strained sense of democracy. We have come to learn, again, that our constitution is flawed and limiting. We, or most of us, say we support democracy, but we can't avoid the question as to why democracy and free elections have led us to the abyss. We speak of equality, think of ourselves, naively, as a classless society, and insist on such time-tested homilies as equal representation, or no taxation without representation (yeah, that's a good one). We have created or inherited a political system that we once urged, or sometimes forced, upon the world but which is now badly failing us.

On the one hand we continue to espouse boilerplate straight from civics class: freedom of expression, free markets makes for free people, a free press is the bedrock of a free society, all this freedom wrapped in a proud belief that minimum government yields maximum democracy --but it's all painfully juxtaposed against the urgently felt need to take back the public arena from the oligarchs, the corrupt, and religious fanatics. We, most of us, value freedom of speech; some of us still venerate the oh-so-learned Supreme Court for protecting our rights, but how many of us really believe Citizens United was a good decision? Or that denying the hyper-wealthy--or corporations--the right to buy elections, politicians, and the media is an affront to their free speech? 


On the other hand, do we know, or care to know, how much voter ignorance and apathy have contributed to our condition? I didn't vote for the jackasses that say we need to cut social security and food stamps from the poor because that's a good way to balance the budget. But millions did.


We may lament that people vote for selfish or irrational reasons, but we must remind ourselves that in the formative years of our republic, universal suffrage was seen as a horrible idea by the aristocracy and most of the founding fathers. The argument always given was that commoners, the illiterate, women, the melanin-enriched, the unpropertied, all of them would make poor voting choices. Specifically, they would vote themselves goods and services that were economically unsustainable, and would destabilize government. They usually left unstated their fear that the power and privileges of the upper class would be threatened by true democracy. 


So it might seem ironic that the most powerful and privileged in society, and among the best educated, are now the ones pushing and protecting policies, practices and legislation that are selfish, reckless, and demonstrably unsustainable. The middle class largely supports the same stabilizing policies of the past, including responsible taxation, support for the self-funding and efficient social security system, regulations that return us to the decades of stable banking we once enjoyed, and more.


And yet just enough people vote for politicians who have made it clear they don't want Americans to have better health care, have no intention of reining in Wall Street, will forever feed the military-industrial gravy train, and consistently vote for the interests of the wealthy and against the poor and working class. 


The real tragedy of American democracy is not just that so many politicians, mostly Republicans, actively support a Dixified nation with a small ruling class at the bidding of corporations. It is that many others, mostly Democrats, claim to support working class folks, but end up going along with the money train; it is they who will settle for scraps and claim progress; it is they who will support legislation so weak, toothless, and watered down as to be useless. They, not all, but too many of them, want you to believe they are fighting for middle America. 


What is depressing about this is though there are many politicians who want to and try to do the right thing, there always seems to be enough politicians, either outright reactionaries or compromised "moderates" who either bitterly oppose anyone who tries to do anything that most Americans actually support, or quietly insist-mostly at election time--that they are for you, but cannot or will not actually promote legislation that is, in fact, popular. Who do they think votes them into office? Why don't they get behind legislation that their base supports? You would think that far-right Republicans would abandon bills that even their Republican base is cool to, just as Democrats should be more enthusiastic about, say, a minimum wage increase. How politically popular does something have to be before Democrats will come out of hiding and publicly support it? It's as if they would rather dodge the attacks from Republicans and right-wing media, and chase Wall Street dollars, than respond to the voters who actually put them into office. It is little wonder that so many of America's poor and working class are disaffected and don't bother to vote. 


But hey, congrats to Harry Reid on filibuster reform; you too Diane Feinstein. It took you a while, but you finally decided that after years of record obstructionism that you should step in and actually do something about it. Too bad it took you five years to notice what Republicans were doing to the economy, the political process, and your party's president.