Monday, June 3, 2013

Money in Politics II

In a previous blog I considered the price in human lives and human misery we pay for an economic system that regards the pursuit of private profit as the main goal of economic activity. The primacy of private profit shows up in the contamination of democratic processes by wealth. No longer does every citizen have one vote. Most of us do, indeed, have one but the rich have as many as they are willing to buy. One consequence is the failure of private or governmental regulation to protect textile workers in Asia against building collapses, fires and brutal exploitation from their employers.
But that is only one example of the power of money in politics. And another interesting example has recently received a good deal of attention: the role played by super foundations in our public life. The Gates Foundation, for one, has taken an interest in education. It has supported a number of serious changes in education. It pursues its agenda quite independently of what people in general want. It pushes through changes in education and only once they are being implemented, does the public at large hear about these activities.
A concrete case in point are the so-called "Common Core" standards in education. They have been adopted by education bureaucrats in a majority of states. The project is to institute uniform standards for primary and secondary education in all states.
That seems like an attractive idea. If there are standards of what schools should teach our children, surely they should be the same in Texas, as in Washington, or in Massachusetts. Geography has nothing to do with what constitutes a good education. Being well educated does not change when you cross state lines.
That seems plausible, but national standards of a good education circumvent local decision-making. Americans have been insistent for a long time that local schools should be run by the local citizens who pay for those schools and whose children are educated there. From the perspective of democracy that would seem to be a reasonable demand. If democracy allows all citizens to run their own lives, it should also allow them to make decisions about the education of their children.
The common core educational standards, pushed by various foundations, make an end run around local democratic self-determination. In different parts of the country, local communities are protesting that these new educational standards were adopted by education bureaucrats without either consulting state legislators, or teachers, or parents. They have been imposed by people who consider themselves more knowledgeable about education than ordinary citizens.
This controversy illustrates the traditional tension between experts and the decisions of a democratic public. The ordinary people who make democratic decisions are not always right. Sometimes the experts know better. Advocates of democracy must acknowledge that difficulty. If we value democracy we must continue to support popular decision-making even if, sometimes, the experts are right and the people are wrong.
The controversy about common core standards, however, is also an example of the role of money in politics. Foundations are so enormously powerful because they have a powerful amount of money. The Gates Foundation's $40 billion speaks very loudly. It speaks much more loudly than the voice of ordinary citizens, than the voice of teachers and parents in smaller and larger communities all over our country.
For the sake of preserving our democracy, local communities have to be extremely vigilant about the influence of the large stashes of money of different Foundations. Bill Gates is a successful computer entrepreneur. He is rich enough to buy bushels of education experts. But he should not be allowed to displace the decisions of citizens by his personal choices.