Saturday, May 30, 2009

Business cooperating with government

The Boston Globe reports that big business has recently begun to cooperate with Pres. Obama and his team. The CEO of Dow Chemical praises the president's efforts to control carbon emissions. The healthcare industry is joining Sen. Kennedy to write a healthcare reform bill. The financial services industry is cooperating with representative Barney Frank in regulating banks and other financial institutions.

What a change! In the early 90s Pres. Bill Clinton and First Lady, now secretary of state, Hillary Clinton developed a grand scheme to reform health care for all Americans. The goal was to make sure that everyone had health insurance and that the cost of healthcare would be under control. A coalition of physicians, hospitals, health insurance companies and drug companies mounted a major campaign and shot down that project. With evidence of global warming growing steadily, the government has been trying to regulate carbon emissions and has met with unbending opposition from chemical companies as well as car manufacturers. Banks, mortgage companies, hedge funds have used their access to the then Republican dominated Congress to loosen restraints on the industry. We now experience the effect of this deregulation in the current economic crisis. For a while they made money hand over fist. Now ordinary Americans have to pay the price.

But now Republicans are in the wilderness. The people have spoken against their unquestioning support for big business. The Democrats have a comfortable majority in both houses and businesses are coming around to cooperate with the government.


But hold on there. Let's take a closer look. Businesses supported the recent credit card bill that was intended to extend new protections to holders of credit cards against the banks. If the banks support the so-called “Cardholders Bill of Rights” can you now trust the bank to be on your side? The same bank that has in recent months raised all its fees?

The same issue of the Boston Globe tells the other side of the story. The new “Cardholders Bill Of Rights”will not go into effect for another nine months. That gives the banks and credit card companies ample time to raise all their fees before their ability to raise interest rates will be restricted. What were the banks doing when they cooperated with writing this new consumer protection law for credit card holders? They were looking out for number one and made sure that the new bill would not damage their bottom line.

So maybe we need to take a second look at this new era of harmony between government and big business. Perhaps it is the government, once again, cooperating with large enterprises to put the squeeze on customers and ordinary citizens.

Consider just one example. One of the groups consulting with Sen. Kennedy about the new health-care legislation is the lobbying group for the drug companies. Most countries in the world regulate prices for drugs. Not so in the US where they can charge whatever they please. As a consequence, the costs of medications are significantly higher here than anywhere else. The companies say they need to charge high prices in order to do research for developing new medicines for, so far, incurable diseases. But the truth is that the drug companies spend more money on marketing than they do on research. Drug marketing persuades physicians to prescribe the drugs produced by one pharmaceutical company rather than another, or tries to persuade people to take pills they don't need. The cost of that marketing comes out of your and my pocket. The drug company has its eyes firmly on their bottom line not on whether you are sick or well, alive or dead.

Do you think that the drug companies have turned over a new leaf, that they have seen the error of their ways, repented, and are now determined to give us necessary medications at the lowest possible cost? Or are they perhaps at the table with Sen. Kennedy to make sure that medications will remain more expensive in the United States than anywhere else in the world?

The CEO of Dow Chemical explained the new cooperative attitude of business in this way: “You're either at the table or on the menu.” With large companies like Dow, the big banks, the pharmaceutical companies at the table, it may well be you and I who are you on the menu.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Crisis in Education

Teachers, school administrators, education experts meet almost any day of the year in one place or another to discuss education. Conferences about education occur almost daily throughout the year. Someone at any of these conferences is bound to talk about “the crisis in education.” For many years now, education in the United States has been deteriorating. Everyone knows it. But all the experts and all the education conferences have not managed to reverse the downward trend. There are unending discussions of schools, buildings and equipment, teachers and teacher training, class size, and many other topics. All of those are important. Many different factors have to come together before children and young persons can receive a good education.
In the United States, however, there is one more problem which does not receive a lot of attention: the vast majority of Americans do not believe that education is important.
How can I say such a thing when we spend huge sums of money on education, on beautiful new school buildings, equipped with computers and the latest audiovisual technology? Yes, it's true that we are willing to spend considerable sums of money on schools and teachers and equipment. But when it comes to education, most Americans think that it has no value except if it prepares you for a better job and for making more money. Most people do not think that education is good in itself. You go to school to enhance your financial prospects, not to learn anything.
Look on the Internet and google "the value of education," "the benefits" or "the importance of education," and you will find article after article explaining how college graduates will earn more money than people who only finished high school and that people who dropout of high school before finishing will earn even less and have more problems finding work. Education makes money; that's what it is good for.
As a consequence, many students at all levels go to school to earn a diploma, not especially to learn anything. In order to earn a diploma you have to pass courses and, preferably, earn a good grade. Learning anything is not the object. Three months after the course is over, most of the content is forgotten. Most importantly, the students did not acquire a thirst for knowledge. Few emerge from school asking questions, looking for answers, trying to understand the world in which they find themselves.
A good education develops the curiosity of children. They discover that learning things about the world is exciting. They learn to ask questions; they learn to wonder about events they do not understand. When they learn to read and write, they learn to formulate questions and articulate their thoughts about the world. When they learn how our government works, they learn one of the important prerequisites for being good citizens. They learn that they live in a society where they can influence their lives together with others. When they learn history, they learn to see themselves as belonging to a human race that has over centuries tried out different ways of living out human lives.
We hear often these days that parents should read books to their children. And so they should. But equally or more important is that parents read books for their own enjoyment and growth. Many American homes have no books except perhaps some college texts that have never been put in the trash. Children in those houses learn that grown ups do not read, that books are only for small kids. Once you have learned how to read, all you need to read is what you have to read in school or at your job.
Children do not learn to be curious if their parents' conversation includes only gossip or last nights' game. Children are encouraged to follow up their own questions when they see their parents talk at dinner about interesting things they found out in the course of the day, or topics they encountered they would like to know more about. Children do not learn to value education if their parents do not ask them what they learned in school, but only ask about their grades. What good are good grades if in earning them your child did not learn anything that will make a difference to the person she is growing up to be? Maybe your child is learning things in school you do not know and you might be glad to find out about. Learning from your children enriches your life and shows them that learning is good in itself.
Education should open everyone's eyes to the immense variety of the world, of persons and places and societies to know, to experience, savor and try to understand. You miss all of that if making and spending money is in the center of your life. You miss what education might provide in your life, if you only go to school to earn more money in the future.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Undocumented workers

May 1 has come to be one of the days when the advocates of undocumented workers demonstrate their support for immigrants. It is also a day for their opponents -- mostly persons who feel threatened by the job competition of the immigrants -- to emphasize that the immigrants are here illegally.

Alan Greenspan, for many years the head of the Federal Reserve and now, in his retirement, the grand old man of the business elite of this country, used the occasion to declare that "illegal immigration has made a significant attribution to US economic growth by providing a flexible workforce."

Translate that into English: businesses can pay undocumented workers very low wages. That saves them money. It also allows them to pay less to American workers because there is always a threat of being replaced by the undocumented low-wage workers. Undocumented workers have no protection from laws or from unions. You can hire and fire them at will.

Greenspan represents the point of view of employers. Many of them like undocumented workers. They also like that the undocumented and their supporters fight with American workers worried about their jobs. The presence of undocumented immigrants provides them with one more way of keeping all wages low and thus making more money.

Both American and undocumented immigrant workers make it easier for their employers to depress their wages when they fight with each other. They would be better off trying to support each other. In work places where there are unions, workers should insist that the undocumented be paid the same wages as they themselves. They should talk to their elected representatives about a reasonable immigration policy that would, for instance, allow long-term undocumented workers to get green cards and, eventually, become citizens and that would allow every workers to come here from abroad for a limited number of years.

The real fight is between employers and their employees. Since real 1970 wages for most Americans have hardly gone up. When workers wanted higher wages, business moved the jobs off-shore. Now they can also use the presence of undocumented workers to keep wages low. As a consequence many people today have less buying power than their parents had.

We can no more stop illegal immigration than we can stop off-shoring jobs. It is important to respond to these facts in ways that do not allow employers to use the undocumented to depress all wages.