Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Aims of Education

Earlier this year, results from a national test showed that less than one third of all elementary and high school students were proficient in science. 40% of 12th graders tested at the very lowest level in science. Recent tests of school children in Massachusetts showed very discouraging results.

I am quite sure that many people who deplore the continuing deterioration of American education are perfectly sincere in their worries. They expect our schools to benefit all children by helping them learn as much as possible.

But at the same time it becomes clearer all the time that many of our leaders hold a very impoverished idea about the goals of American education.

Not too long ago it was a commonplace that education in the humanities was a essential to develop the minds of students. Knowledge of literature, of the arts and of philosophy was thought to make young people articulate, creative, and clear thinkers. Hence liberal education was considered an important part of everyone's education. The aim of education was to create well-rounded persons equipped to live their lives as well as possible.

In recent years the rhetoric has changed. We do not hear much anymore about the desirability of well-rounded persons. Today, everyone from the president on down repeats that the goal of education is to produce a work force for the coming years. Our leaders no longer seem interested in the development of the capacities of all young people to be creative, articulate and clear thinking citizens. The only purpose education serves now is to prepare people to do a job.

Now it is quite obvious that there are very different jobs in this world. Many jobs are quite routine, the person doing the job has to be good at taking orders, and to fit into a complicated bureaucratic machine. Their main virtue is to follow rules, to go by the book. People who do jobs like that do not need to be articulate. They do not need to be creative or think for themselves. If they did, they might not like their job and might prove to be difficult employees.Better that the people destined to fill routine and bureaucratic jobs should be thoughtless, poorly educated, and not particularly knowledgeable.

In line with this change in thinking about education, the University of Nevada has abolished its philosophy department. Howard University came very close to doing the same thing. The State University of New York in Albany abolished its foreign language departments.

These are just the beginnings of moving against traditional liberal education. In our world where business calls the shots, education no longer is intended to make persons the most capable they can be so that they can have good lives. The role of education now is to provide a workforce for business. Best are workers with limited education who will not complain if their jobs are stupid and boring because their education prepared them for boredom, for doing as they are told and to accept orders from above.

For many students the aim of education is to produce competent drones that are not rebellious but do as they are told.

But wait! Are these drones at work not also citizens? Are they not parents whose job and ambition it is to raise their children to be intelligent, eager to learn and independent thinkers? But we are no longer hearing about that.

Business calls the shots. Business wants drones. Business does not care about democracy; it prefers docile, ill informed citizens who are easily manipulated by advertisers. 

That is the real crisis in American education.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Are Corporations Persons?

In 1886 the US Supreme Court declared that corporationssuch as General Electric or General Motorswere persons for the purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment. In this view, treating corporations as "persons" is a convenient legal fiction that allows corporations to sue and to be sued, that provides a single entity for easier taxation and regulation, that simplifies complex transactions that would otherwise involve, in the case of large corporations, thousands of people, and that protects the rights of the shareholders, including the right of association.

That sounds perfectly reasonable. Corporate personhood is a mere legal fiction for the purpose of court actions and taxation.

Today this fiction has ominous political consequences. Last year in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission the Supreme Court decided that, being persons, corporations have free speech rights and thus no one may limit corporate political spending. If we tell corporations that they can spend only so much for political campaigns, we are telling them that their ability to speak out on politics is limited andsince they are personthat would contravene one of our most dearly held constitutional principles that all persons are free to speak their mind.

Corporations have a lot more money to spend on political campaigns than you and I. They can engage in a lot more and a lot louder political speech than you and I. In fact this court case may well intensify the corporate ability to drown out citizens' political opinions. Corporations are now the most important “citizens” that get the best hearing because they can yell louder than anyone else. 
It is time to rethink corporate personhood.

Obviously, corporations are not persons. Would you like your daughter to marry one? The fact that corporations will not come to your back yard barbecue to drink beer and talk about the Red Sox is only one indication that this corporate personhood is, indeed, a fiction.

More significant even is that persons are moral beings. We do not always do what is morally right, but the question of morality is always there.

Persons do not only have rights; they have responsibilities. Persons owe gratitude to their benefactors, they have obligations to their parents, and their children. They have civic obligations. They are morally obligated to contribute to the community in which they live, that provided schooling for them, that protects them and their property.

Corporations, typically, are not good citizens. They pollute the environment. In the age of the global corporation, they show no loyalty to their nation or do not hesitate to do business with authoritarian regimes. IBM provided the machinery for Nazi Germany to make list of their Jewish citizens thereby enabling mass killings. General Motors and Ford made trucks and tanks for the US military in the US, and trucks and tanks for Hitler's army in Germany. Anyone with money will find corporations in their corner. During the last two years global corporations like General Electric and Exxon paid no income taxes.

That kind of cold-blooded money-grabbing is not acceptable if people do it. If corporations are persons can we let them be completely oblivious to the moral obligations of persons?

We need to demand that corporations live up to the full implications of their personhood or be stripped of it altogether.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Free Market  

We hear daily about the blessings of the free market. But we hear a lot less about its limitations. 
In practice it is well understood that some things do well if traded in a market. Other 
things, we believe firmly, should not be traded.  
Human beings should not be bought and sold. We oppose slavery. We oppose human 
trafficking in sex slaves and domestic servants. We do not allow parents to sell their 
We are ambivalent (confused ?) about buying and selling education. Yes, there are for- 
profit schools. They are often unsuccessful. Yes, the children of the rich can get a better 
education than the children of  rest of us. But we also spend significant amounts of public money to educate everyone, regardless of their income. 
The same is true of health care. The wealthy get better care. No doubt. But a good deal
 of public money is spent to pay for at least some health care for everyone.  
If you think about it, we believe in the free market within definite limits. Not
 everything should be traded in the market.  
Where the market does not serve everyone, other means must be taken to meet
 legitimate needs. According to the Declaration of Independence we are all entitled to “life,
 liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Where the market does not serve those rights, we need to 
make other arrangements.  
Commodities traded in a market yield a profit for the traders. But some items we think 
should not be traded for a profit, such a human beings, health care, education, controlled 
Our recent experience suggests two other items that should also be removed from the 
market: political power and savings.  
 There should not be a market in political power.  Political power should not be for sale.
 It should be illegal to trade in political influence.  
Last year the Supreme Court decided that corporations—being persons before the law
—should not be limited in how much money they spend to express their political opinions. 
They should be able to spend as much money in politics as they choose. Global  corporations
 have much greater resources than ordinary citizens. In that decisions the Supreme Court 
completed a development, long in the making, that the country would, in effect, be run by the
 very rich.  
That is so obvious a betrayal of what we think and say we stand for—democracy—that
 it must be reversed. We need to take politics out of the market place. We need to take the 
market traders out of politics.  
When you retire, Social Security will not pay you enough to live, let alone comfortably. 
We are hence encouraged to save for our old age. So you put your money in the bank. 
The bank uses the money to speculate in stocks, in bad mortgages, in whatever. 
When the bubble bursts the economy is in recession, you loose your job and can no 
longer save for your old age.  
It is clear that savings of ordinary citizens should not be available to banks to make
 risky investments. Savings should be taken out of the market. Today cooperative banks are 
essentially not for profit enterprises. They are associations of citizens who want to have a 
place to keep their savings and to manage them. All banks should be not for profit. If the 
bankers have money of their own they want to risk in the hope of getting rich quick, that 
is their privilege. But please do not use MY money for that.  
Markets are extremely useful for a number of reasons. But not everything is suitable for trading in a market. 
There should be no market in education: everyone should have an even chance at the
 very best education they can use. We are all equally entitled to pursue our happiness and 
equally entitled to be as well equipped for that, as possible.  
 There should be no market in health care. There should no market in our savings. We 
are all equally entitled to life.  
 We are all entitled to freedom. Political participation should not be for sale to the
 highest bidder. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Occupy Wall Street!

The Wall Street protests in New York City are entering their eighth week. During the early days you only heard about it on e-mail, from friends, from the Internet. The newspapers ignored it.

But now the protests spread to other cities, including Boston. 24  persons were arrested there for refusing to leave the Bank of America building. 700 people were arrested in New York City.

This is a real movement and can no longer be swept under the rug. Of course, the newspapers all hurry to dismiss it as foolish. "They have no clear goals," the journalists write.

No clear goals? The protesters want jobs. They want affordable health insurance. They want to have as much power as Wall Street and the large corporations. What's not clear about that?

The papers never accuse the tea party of lacking clear goals. Smaller government and few other government regulations seem perfectly clear. Is it any clearer than 'jobs and health insurance'?

Thousands of New York's finest came out to protect Wall Street. In Boston the police spokesperson is quoted as saying: "When they break the law, we arrest them."

That's really reassuring. But where was the police when Wall Street manipulated the economy into a deep and stubborn recession? Did they arrest anyone?

Well no, because that's not against the law. That's just capitalism. The big operators in the financial industry can take every crazy risk and ruin the lives of many of their fellow citizens. That's not illegal.
Why is it not illegal? It seems to me that it should be.

But then I remember the golden rule: "He who has the gold, makes the rules."

And, of course, he who has the gold has been newspapers in his pocket.

The occupied Wall Street protesters want that changed. They want American democracy to be returned to the people.

What's unclear about that?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Small Government – what is the price?

Small government is all the rage and there are times when that seems like a good idea. Many government regulations seem not only unnecessarily onerous, but somehow misconceived. In plain English they impose regulation where the government has no business regulating.

But looked at more carefully, all the talk about smaller government is not well thought out. One needs to begin by asking what does the government do; the list of functions of the US government is very large indeed. Here are some items on that list:

The government builds schools, roads, airports. It provides for essential avenues of traffic and communication without which our economy could not function.

The government provides the system of justice, it organizes periodic elections. The government provides police, prosecutors, and prisons.

The government takes care of relations to other nations. That involves, on the one hand, the military. It involves on the other hand customs and immigration. It keeps track of citizens, provides passports for foreign travel and for the naturalization of immigrants.

The government assures us that food is safe because it inspects butcher shops, restaurants, dairies and food processing plants.

The government regulates banking, investments and stock markets.

The government conducts space exploration. It supports the arts and sciences through the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Science Foundation.

The government is intimately involved in caring for public health through monitoring, through vaccinations, and support of research.

This is a partial list but it is quite impressive. Yes we pay a lot in taxes but we do receive a generous return.

There are two ways of making the government smaller. The first is simply to end certain activities or services. The other is to privatize them, that is to have them performed by for-profit organizations. 
Consider the first one. Ever since the days of Ronald Reagan the mantra has been that government is the problem and we should shrink government. Along those lines Congress abolished a number of limitations on financial dealings and weakened government supervision of investment. Banks could now also make speculative investments. The result was an enormous financial collapse caused by institutional investors taking crazy risks in order to make more money. A significant number of banks still have an uncertain future. The economy is in terrible shape. Unemployment is still about 9%. Government regulation of the financial sector is essential. 
Consider what would happen if we abolished government meat inspection, government control of alcohol products. How many people would die of food-borne illnesses? Shall we close schools or close our police departments? Shall we stop building and maintaining roads and bridges?

There are, we are finding out, a significant number of government services that we cannot do without. To that extent small government is not a possibility.

But – say the advocates of shrinking the government – the services could better be performed by private, for-profit companies.

One example of privatization should make us think twice about this proposal. Many states have privatized their prison systems. These companies make more money if there are more prisoners with longer sentences. In several states private prison companies have lobbied the Legislatures to extend their sentences for various criminal offenses. The privatization of prisons has led to the interference by private companies in the legislative process. It has produced a draconian system of punishments that devastates lives.

Government services performed by private companies for-profit are not always a blessing. Add to that that many services performed by the government can only yield a profit for private companies if they do an inferior job. There are companies that try to make money by running schools. But so far they have rarely succeeded and for-profit schools are often understaffed. 
There are no indications that private for-profit health care is better than health-care run by nonprofit organizations. The US has the most expensive health care in the world but at least 15 countries do better than we on basic health indicators such as life expectancy or infant mortality rates.

Once we look more closely at the project of shrinking government, we see, on the one hand, that the government performs essential services. Disaster ensues when we try to do without them. On the other hand, privatization is often not a good prescription. In some cases it is impossible because the service cannot make money. In other cases, private companies can earn money by performing the service but their doing so damages public interest.

We will have to put up with the complicated government we have because we live in a very complicated society.