Sunday, May 30, 2010

Raising the Minimum Wage ???

Raise the Minimum Wage??

I have suggested raising the minimum wage in several recent blogs, as a method for reducing the demand for illegal immigrants as well as to help alleviate domestic poverty And thereby, indirectly, alleviating some problems in our schools. 

But many readers may well react with horror to the suggestion.
Raising the minimum wage needs to be defended. I will do this in the next two blogs. Today I want to write about the morality of raising the minimum wage. I do not want to preach; I am not a prophet. But I do want to raise some questions about the morality of paying someone $7.50 an hour for doing their work.

First some facts. A family of four can expect to pay upward of $800 a month for not a very great apartment. If you drive 10 miles to work, five days a week, and drive another 10 miles a day to the store or elsewhere, it will cost you about $300 a month to operate your car. If you are a careful shopper, you may be able to feed a family of four for about $200 a month. If you earn $7.50 an hour, your monthly wage will be a bit more than $1200. Well that's just about what, according to a very conservative estimate, a family of four and needs to pay for rent, food, and transportation. Clearly a second member of the household has to go to work to pay for clothes, and the many other things Americans buy or pay for, such as insurance for the car, or health insurance. 

All this time we are not even thinking about saving any money, putting away money for old-age, or buying a home. A two-wage earner family earning minimum wage is always sure to be short of money. We have not even started thinking about vacations, or high-definition television, or cable, or telephones, computer— genuine necessities today-- or anything else people might want to do when they have a bit of leisure. Clearly that will require somebody taking a second job.

This is life on minimum wage. Here are some relevant questions:

Whose fault is it? When you raise questions about minimum wage earners, many people would say: “well if they don't like their job, why don't they get a better one?” The implication is that if people are poor, it's their own stupid fault. Why don't they get a better job?

But that question ignores the fact that many jobs, these days, pay only minimum wage. If Joe Blow gets a better job, then the minimum wage job is perhaps filled by Jane Doe, and if not by her, by Bill Roe. The industry with the highest proportion of workers with reported hourly wages at or below $7.50 is leisure and hospitality (about 14 percent). About three-fifths of all workers paid at or below the Federal minimum wage are employed in this industry, primarily in the food services and drinking places component. The jobs exist; somebody has to fill them. This scandal is not that Jane Roe makes minimum wage waiting on tables, but that the owner of the establishment does not pay her a living wage to do strenuous work.

How could her situation be improved? If the federal government raised the minimum wage, all the service jobs would pay more. Most likely the owners of restaurants and bars or other places of entertainment would not absorb the increased cost themselves but, instead, pass them on to the customers. Eating out, going out drinking, going to a hotel or casino would all be more expensive.

Before you declare, firmly, that you will not be willing to pay higher prices for entertainment or your weekend night out, consider also this: The Federal Poverty Level for 2009 was pegged at $22,000. The family that brings in $15,000.00 a year gets some money from the IRS at tax time-- the “negative income tax”--they are also entitled to food stamps, subsidized housing and other benefits. You and I pay for those anyway.
The choice is not between more money for the low wage earners or more money for us. The choice is between paying for inadequate pay scales through taxes or paying for decent pay scales when we make purchases.

We end up paying to help out the workers who earned the lowest wage. But we still have a choice. We can get our entertainment and other commodities cheaply and force the people who wait on us to run from one government agency to the other to ask for help with their food, with paying the rent, with the cost of health care. Or we can pay higher prices so that the service staff can have a decent wage, live their life in dignity, able to pay their own way without having hold out their hand to a variety of government bureaucrats.

Is a minimum wage of $7.50 morally justified? Should you and I not do our part to guarantee a decent life to everybody in our country? Think about it.

Friday, May 28, 2010

All things are connected

All things are connected

Policymakers, understandably, like to focus on discrete problems. You can only solve one problem at a time they believe. But what if problems are interconnected in complex ways?

The current official wisdom about problems in our schools is that the teachers are at fault and need to be punished. Teachers in under performing schools lose their jobs. It is one more example of the pervasive tendency to respond to problems by identifying a guilty parties and punishing them.

I wrote in in my blog of May 12 that efforts to improve schools must begin with consulting all parties involved, not only teachers and principals, but also parents and students in the schools. Who knows the problems of their school more intimately than the students? I was therefore pleased to see an interview with an honors student at a Boston high school. He is quoted as saying “what really got me, though, was that no one in this whole process bothered to ask us, what we thought. You would think that when it comes to deciding who's a good teacher and was not a good teacher, the students might have some good ideas. We know who stays late, we know who calls home, talks to our parents, makes sure we're doing the work. We know who cares about us.”

This student was very critical of the current policy of firing teachers at under-performing schools. He said “a lot of the kids who have problems at school have problems at home.” The problems in school begin outside the school and thus solutions that stay within the school building are bound to have limited effects.

We know what problems students have at home. Parents may suffer from drug addiction, be ill, unemployed, or may never home because their wages are so low that they need to work more than one job. They may be uneducated or undocumented.

If we really want to address the problems in our schools we need to address the problems of our students' parents. We need, for instance, to address the problems of drugs and addictions. As I wrote in a previous blog doing so by blaming some people and then jailing them has proved to be completely counterproductive.

In my blog of May 10 about immigration I wrote that the most obvious solution is to raise the minimum wage to a level where everyone has a decent income. That means that people have to work only one job and are able to be home when the kids come home from school to make sure that they are attended to, that they do their homework and don't hang out on the street corner getting into trouble.

But the education of parents is also important. The government of Venezuela has put considerable resources in recent years into education for the poor. More than 1 million illiterates can now read and write. Many among them went on to get a high school education. One of these new high school graduates, the mother of three boys, said,: “I am doing this for my children's future. If I study may be they'll follow my example.”

Thoughts in different of my recent blogs come back into focus when we reflect about problems of education. The problem of failing schools connects to the problem of poverty, of low wages, of addiction, of undocumented workers, of parents with minimal education. All things are connected. Focusing only on the school does not promise to resolve their problems. We must address the problems of parents if we want our children to do well in school. We must stop trying to penalize persons with problems and, instead, try to help them to improve their lives.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Don't be fooled by sex offender registries

Don't be fooled by sex offender registries.

We regularly hear stories of convicted sex offenders, who come out of prison after serving their sentence for molesting children, only to rape and murder another girl child. It is terribly frightening to think that this might happen to your child.

Sex offender registries have been instituted in order to protect our children against these sexual predators. But there is good reason to think that they do not protect anyone while imposing an enormous burden on people who do not deserve it.

Consider who today has to register as a sex offender: people who have sex with children, men who rape an adult woman, men who are arrested for urinating in public, 16-year-old boys who have sex with a 14-year-old girl, not to mention flashers and people like that.

The 16-year-old is now in his 30s. He married the girl he had sex with when she was 14. They have children and their children's father is on a website for sex offender. In many localities he may not live within 1000 feet of a school or other institutions where children congregate. In many cases the police is mandated to periodically warn his neighbors that he is a registered sex offender. He may not be a Boy Scout leader for his son's Boy Scout troop and, perhaps most seriously of all, he may have serious problems finding work because he is a registered sex offender. This man is made to suffer a lot. Does he deserve that? Sex-offender registries, as now applied, commit serious injustices.
This man is a man like you and me. Forcing him to submit to all these indignities and harms will not protect any girl child from rape or murder because he is no more likely to do that than you and I.

So suppose we limited the sexual offender registry to men who had shown themselves to be a threat to the safety of your children. Would that be a better policy?

Sex offenders are not the only people who come out of jail only to reoffend. Drunk drivers are often repeat offenders. Violent criminals often commit assaults once they have been released from prison; so do thieves and drug dealers. Robbers have a particularly high recidivism rate. If registries worked, why are there no registries for drunk drivers, for persons prone to physical violence, for murderers, drug dealers and robbers?

A moment's thought shows that these registries would not be effective. Knowing that the person who is about to knock you down with his car is a convicted drunk driver will not protect you. Knowing that the person, who is holding a gun on you while he takes your wallet, has been convicted of robbery before, does not help you. Similarly, knowing that this man was convicted of sexual misconduct towards a child does not help you much to protect your child.

The problem is that not everyone who is convicted of a crime will re-offend. Whether any particular ex-convict will re-offend depends a great deal on circumstances which are difficult, if not impossible to predict. We do know, however, that the harder we make the life of ex-prisoners, the more likely they are to commit another crime. To that extent, the sex-offender registries may well be counterproductive.

Our ignorance of who will and who will not re-offend makes it so very difficult to protect children. It would be better to use all the money spent on sex offender registries, their administration and prosecuting the people who failed to register, on research on recidivism in order to develop more reliable methods for predicting who is likely to re-offend and who is not.

Yes by all means let us protect our children from all harm. But sex offender registries and laws restricting where sex offenders may live and the whole system of ostracizing ex-convicts does not make children safer. It is therefore a disservice to parents because it makes them believe that their children are safe when they're not. Politicians who spread his false sense of security by continually tightening restrictions on sex offenders do a serious disservice to their constituents.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

We have seen the terrorists and they are us

We have seen the terrorists and they are us.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, publisher and editor of Tikkun Magazine, is a vocal critic of Israeli oppression of Palestinians. He is equally critical of Palestinian attacks on Israelis. Recently his house was attacked by persons who glued posters to his door attacking Lerner personally, and attacking liberals and progressives as being supporters of terrorism and "Islamo-fascism."

Is Rabbi Lerner a victim of terrorism? Let's agree immediately that there are different kinds of terrorism. Terrorism often involves physical violence against random people. Examples are 9/11, or suicide bombers in a sidewalk cafĂ© in Tel Aviv. But not all violence is terrorist – husbands who murder their wives and then kill themselves are not trying to intimidate anyone. They want to destroy. But terrorist violence does not aim at destruction for its own sake; it has the explicit purpose of instilling fear, to terrify. No one got hurt in the attack on Rabbi Lerner's house but the point was clearly to send a frightening message: “We know where you live; you better watch yourself and your family.” This is terrorism without bodily violence.

Many definitions of terrorism stipulate that intimidation by governments are not terrorist. When police throw their weight around, when the CIA tortures prisoners, when the military sends its airplanes to rain bombs on an enemy city, that is not considered terrorism.

Whether we call government actions terrorists or not, matters little. It is important to see that intimidation by inflicting pain and death, or life threatening serious harm is used by governments as often and as regularly as by its opponents. In its war against the Mexican government, the drug cartels kidnap and kill. They undermine the democratic process, for instance, by killing candidates in elections. The government reciprocates by arresting and torturing suspects.

Here is Sen. Leahy's (D-VT) story about his encounter with drug enforcement police:
"It was about 125 miles from the border. In a car with license plate one on it from Vermont. With little letters underneath it that said U.S. Senate. We were stopped and ordered to get out of the car and prove my citizenship. And I said 'What authority are you acting under?' and one of your agents pointed to his gun and said 'That's all the authority I need.' Encouraging way to enter our country!"

Calling Palestinians or the Taliban “terrorists,” and withholding that label from the governments that oppose them or from the people who defaced Rabbi Lerner's house obscures the fundamental fact that the most common response to conflict in the world is an attempt to intimidate the opponent. Often that intimidation involves inflicting physical harm on more or less innocent bystanders. Carpet bombing enemy citizens is a good example of that. At other times, the mere threat of physical harm suffices to intimidate.

The root problem is the universal inclination to respond violently to conflict. In almost any disagreement, someone will try to get his or her way by threatening the other party. The most common response to disagreement is an attempt to intimidate the other in order to make them pliable and get them to yield.

We learn terrorists techniques as children because most adults threaten children: sit still or else..., eat this or else..., go to bed or else.... The examples are endless. By the time we reach adulthood we have learned that the way to resolve disagreements is to threaten the other. In this way children learn to be bullies. The response of adult legislators—who had the same teaching as children-- is to pass new laws which threaten bullies with incarceration. Legislators bully the bullies. Responding with violence is a knee jerk reaction of our governments. It has landed us in the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq, as well as earlier in Korea and Vietnam. It involved us, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, in the ill-fated “war on drugs.” Current government policy to improve failing schools it to punish the teachers by firing them. Will punishing teachers improve our schools?

Calling some of our opponents “terrorists” while refusing to attach that label to our own actions, conceals the fact that we too are prone to use violence to intimidate both in our international policies and in response to domestic problems. Whatever the crisis, we look for the guilty party and threaten them . When will we draw the obvious lesson that intimidation rarely solves problems? Or that it always creates new ones?

Surely there are alternatives to bullying, to intimidation, to violence and terrorism. One alternative is an integral part of the Christian message: “Turn the Other Cheek.” But that is a hard recommendation to follow.

A more promising response to conflict is to talk it over. Democracy is one form of this approach to conflict resolution. Participating in a democratic system commits one to avoid violent and/or coercive responses to people who have different interests or different ideas. Instead, one promises to have conversations about the disagreement in the hope of settling it by talking it over.

Talking it over can only succeed if participants are flexible, if they are profoundly dedicated to peaceful resolutions of conflict, if they are prepared to examine their own stance critically, and to give a respectful hearing to the views of others.

All of this is very difficult. But it will save untold lives and prevent much suffering.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Another wrong war

Another wrong war.

We should never have started the war in Iraq. The war in Vietnam was justified by the “domino theory” – if we did not resist Communism in Vietnam, the rest of Asia would also go communist. That theory is now thoroughly discredited suggesting that we should have staid out of the Vietnam War. Justifications for the Korean War were very similar; most likely it too should not have been fought.

We have an unfortunate inclination to get into unnecessary and unjustified wars .

Now comes news of another ill considered war. Forty years after the beginning of the “War on Drugs” a government commission has concluded that that war, too, failed. In the last 40 years, we have spent more than $650 billion—some reports say “ $1 trillion”-- to reduce the supply of marijuana, cocaine and heroin to US consumers. Two thirds of that amount was spent on incarcerating people arrested for drug offenses. Even the current U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske concedes the strategy hasn't worked. "In the grand scheme, it has not been successful," Kerlikowske told the Associated Press. "Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified."

The project was doomed as soon as it was called “ a war.” Wars are violent, they are extremely coercive, they are destructive of lives and property. Wars are not for the fainthearted. Combatants need to be hard, and merciless in the face of the suffering they inflict. Our war on drugs has been all of those: Violent, coercive, and mercilessly destructive. Our jails are overflowing with persons arrested for drug offenses. US drug gangs bring violence to city streets. Mexican drug gangs seriously undermine the power of their government. In Latin America, and now in Afghanistan, we try – with very limited success – to eradicate coca plants and poppies without any concern for the growers whom we deprive of their livelihood and often sicken with the herbicides we spray on their crops. All that is shrugged off as collateral damage.

We tried this experiment once before – during Prohibition –and found that you cannot force people to avoid substances that may be harmful to them. Draconian laws and their enforcement have not reduced the demand for drugs—neither during Prohibition nor today.

Addicts are souls in pain. Punishment only intensifies that pain. For many addicts, poverty, social isolation, lack of hope for a better life, leads to despair and addiction. When the policeman comes to arrest you and the judge puts you in jail, that simply confirms what you knew all along, namely that life is miserable and there is nothing to hope for. You might just as well get high and forget about your problems. The coercive spirit of the war on drugs encourages addiction rather than reducing it.

The war on drugs failed, not because it was poorly executed but because it was the wrong response to the problem of drug addiction. It was one more example where we allowed the haters among us to set public policy. They have only one response to problems: violence, destruction and intimidation.

We were not sufficiently concerned about fellow citizens whose lives are excessively difficult and unrewarding. We blamed and punished when we should have acknowledged that we are members of the same society and that if some of us suffer, the rest of us may well have some responsibility for alleviating the suffering if we can.

Politicians like to present themselves as “compassionate.” Our response to drug addiction has been anything but that. The 40 year failure of the war on drugs suggests that we should take compassion more seriously. Coercion is destructive; it does not solve any problems.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Democracy and Education

Democracy and Education.

I want to examine two stories that, on the surface, do not seem to have much in common. I want to point to interesting similarities and from them extract some important lessons about democracy.

The first story comes from Ethiopia – a desperately poor country in East Africa. An American writer, Helen Epstein, visited that country several times and was appalled by the pervasive malnutrition and hunger. The “experts” ascribed it to droughts, poor soil, and other natural conditions. When Epstein asked malnourished women why they did not have enough food for their children and themselves, she was told that the plots of land available to each family are not big enough to feed them. Other problems had to do with low prices for their crops and burdensome taxes. Epstein writes: “There is no simple solution to this crisis... but only the peasants themselves have any hope of finding one. Working with agronomists and other experts, they could confront” their problems. But no one asks the peasants. The government is very repressive; any attempt of the peasants to organize themselves would invite swift reprisals. The NGOs are staffed by people who think that they know better. They don't ask the peasants; they just tell them. The people who know the problems most intimately have no way of applying their knowledge to solve them.

The next story comes from the United States. Everyone knows that our schools have problems. The latest response to this crisis is to blame the teachers and principals. Where schools are not up to test standards, principals are moved out of the schools and teachers are fired or forced to reapply for their job. Very rich and very powerful persons have jumped on the charter school bandwagon. Bill Gates – who, after all, is not infallible; he gave us Windows Vista – and a collection of other big shots, recently got together to agitate for charter schools even though careful studies have shown that, on the average, charter schools fare no better than schools run by local school committees. Some charter schools perform brilliantly, but so do some public schools. Other schools in both categories don't do a very good job.

In Ethiopia a dictatorial government does not allow peasants to organize themselves in order to try to solve their problems. We do not have that problem but share another difficulty with Ethiopia. There the self identified experts of the NGOs just give orders and advice; they do not ask the peasant families what they think even though they see the problems more intimately than anyone else. When it comes to education in the US, the problem is very similar. Collections of big shots jump on one bandwagon or another even though they have no first-hand experience of the problem, nor any expertise in education. No one, that I know of, talks to the parents. No one asks the students in different schools what they think about their schools, what works, what does not, and how their school could be improved. All the wisdom about schools is claimed by people who know no more about schools than anybody else.

In both cases the people who have the problems are not allowed to try to solve them. Big brother, in one form or another – NGOs or Bill Gates –, tells people what their problem is and how they need to fix it. I would have thought that being involved in solving your problems is of the essence of freedom. Democracy requires that no one's problems are solved by persons outside the community that has the problems, and solutions to problems are attempted without elaborate consultation with the people whose problem it is.

But that is not the kind of democracy we have. Here, democracy means that we have elections and choose people to do things for us. The very act of voting is an act of giving responsibility for our lives to the people we vote for and to the armies of bureaucrats who work for the elected government. In the very act of voting I surrender my freedom to solve my own problems and those of my neighborhood in co-operation with my neighbors. As a voter I limit my freedom to run my own life because I give over that task to an elected government. Electoral democracy is paternalistic: the people periodically pick those who will run their lives for them. The spirit of paternalism has expanded so that now people run our lives whom we did not vote for. Who gave the power to Bill Gates to spend a lot of money trying to encourage the founding of charter schools?

Real democracy, democracy that makes us free, must include full participation of everybody in running their own lives. In the case of schools it must involve the parents, the students, their teachers, administrators and counselors and coaches and janitors. They must all be consulted and participate in developing solutions if the process is going to be democratic. Bill Gates has no business meddling in this.

Monday, May 10, 2010

How to deal with undocumented immigrants

How to deal with undocumented immigrants.

The debate over undocumented immigrants is fueled by economic self-interest of employers, by the fear held by low wage American workers of the economic competition from undocumented workers, by the interests of the undocumented immigrants themselves. Additional pressures come from those who fear that not enforcing existing laws against undocumented immigrants will promote disrespect of the law. Other participants in the debate are simply prejudiced against speakers of Spanish or other foreign languages, against foreigners or people with darker skin.

There are a range of businesses such as farms, cleaning and personal care, construction, and low-wage manufacturing that use extensive workforces of immigrants who often have no papers. These businesses would be willing to hire the same immigrants if they did have papers. They are not interested in the illegality of it but in maintaining the low wages they pay these workers. They support increasing temporary workers from south of the border.

Their view of the matter is agrees with that of undocumented immigrants and their supporters. Jobs in Mexico and Central America are very hard to come by. Coming into the US without papers is expensive, difficult, and more and more dangerous. But the immigrants keep coming, propelled by their misery at home.

On the other side are American workers who do low-wage work and fear that the undocumented workers who get paid even less will depress their already low wages. They oppose any extension of undocumented immigration or even of bringing in temporary immigrants who have few skills and work for next to nothing.

They are supported by the people who fear that not enforcing an existing laws, they think, will spread disrespect of existing law.

If we try to take sides in this controversy, we must choose between, on the one hand, businesses that pay deplorably low wages and some of the people they employ who are still better off working for very low wages than they were at home. On the other side are American workers fearful that their wages will be depressed by the competition from the undocumented and the champions of upholding existing laws and enforcing them.

That is a very difficult choice. Whatever choice one makes, a group of people who already suffer from unjust treatment are bound to suffer more.

The choice is made more difficult by the fact that no reliable reliable information is available. No one knows precisely how many undocumented workers there are in the US. No one knows precisely to what extent the jobs taken by the undocumented are not acceptable to American workers. There are no accurate numbers about the depressive effect on domestic wages by undocumented immigrants.
As a consequence it is not clear which group is more numerous—the undocumented seeking some sort of living in the US or the American workers threatened with even lower wages due to competition from the undocumented. It is impossible to decide reliably which choice will do the least damage to the least number of people.

In a previouis blog I gave some examples of the deleterious effects on Latin American countries of US business practices. A completely just solution would require a large-scale effort on the part of the United States to improve conditions in Latin America. A completely just solution word make a major effort to reverse the damage we have done to all these American countries.

Short of that we must 1. Raise the minimum wage to a level where it allows a family a decent standard of living and 2. Enforce minimum wage legislation for all people working in the US in order to put an end to the lowering of American workers wage's by the undocumented. To be sure, forcing employers to pay all workers, whether documented or not, a decent wage would remove much of the incentive for hiring the undocumented and thereby the incentive for people coming across the border without papers. If there is less work for foreign workers, we would not need militarized, high-tech interdiction at the border. We could save billions of dollars and put an end to businesses taking advantage of the poverty abroad by paying wages which Americans cannot live on.

There is an interesting analogy between the immigration problem and the war on drugs. The US government is unwilling to spend more money on reducing addiction in the country. Instead they are trying desperately to choke off the supply. But as long as the demand is as large as it is, drugs will be imported. Undocumented workers are similar; they will come as long as there is demand for them. The way to solve the problem is to lower the demand by raising wages.