Sunday, March 30, 2014

Why are we so poor?

Americans like to describe themselves in superlatives. According to one of them ours is the “richest country in the world.” That is not literally true, but we are among the countries that are better off.

But at the same time we are chronically short of funds. Our roads and bridges are poorly maintained. Our education system is underfunded. Buildings need better maintenance. Class sizes are growing while teachers continue to be laid off. College and University faculties shrink while the bulk of teaching is done by temporary teachers who are overworked and underpaid. Ours is becoming a MacEd system.

The most obvious explanation of this state of affairs is that our tax rates are significantly lower than those in other developed countries. For every dollar paid in taxes in other developed countries, Americans pay 75 cents. (Obviously, such comparisons are complex and very controversial). While the official tax rates for American corporations are much higher than, say, in Europe, significant numbers of huge multinational corporations, whose profits run into the billions of dollars, actually pay no income tax at all.

But then we run into some perplexing facts. The US outspends other developed countries on education but ranks lower than all of them in educational test results. We spend more but get poorer results. The same in true in health care where we spend enormous sums for no more than mediocre results.

Our constant shortage of funds may be due not only to how we collect money for the government but also on how we spend it.

The controversies about comparative international tax rates are insignificant compared to those about the explanations for our failure to spend education and health care money effectively. It clearly seems that we waste a whole lot of money compared to other countries. Ask any ten people for an explanation of that and you are liable to get at least twelve different answers.

But then there is also the question of what we spend our money on. The two largest items in our national budget are social services--for the poor, the elderly, the sick—and the military. Here we encounter some startling figures. Of the $1750 billion the whole world spends on the military, the US spends 39% or $682 billion. The US has soldiers stationed on all continents with the lowest number in Africa.

Our perpetual shortage of funds has many causes. We do not pay enough taxes. We do not spend our money wisely. We maintain an empire that is more expensive than we can afford.

How can we resolve any of these problems, about how we tax, how we spend, and how we try to control the globe? We cannot agree on the answer; we cannot even agree on how to frame our questions.

The fiscal crisis is just one more symptom of a deep-seated deficiency. The nation has no common values. Our dedication to equality and liberty has become a formulaic ritual barely concealing a wide range of different agendas. Deeply divided, we are unable to form effective policies. Reforms like the Affordable Care Act are immensely complex schemes cobbled together to please groups with inconsistent agendas. Private insurance companies, out for maximum profit, are yoked together with public spirited advocates for the sick and the poor to form a byzantine system that is bound to be inefficient.

But such Rube Goldberg contraptions are needed in a country that has lost the ability to have a reasonable national conversation on anything. We all look first to what is best for  us. No one cares about the common good—about what might be good for all--and so we cannot agree on anything.

The financial poverty of the country is a fitting symbol for its loss of public spirit. We are impoverished above all when it comes to caring for our children, the sick, the elderly and the poor. We fail in our efforts to make a good life for ourselves because we have lost sight of the fact that anyone of us can only be well off, if all are.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The War on Women

I recently visited one of the Middle schools in town. I discovered that the school day still begins with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance ” . . . with Liberty and Justice for All.” But that is political propaganda. For half the students, the girls, the prospect for liberty and justice is pretty dim. Not only is their liberty seriously restricted by the epidemic of rapes, of other sexual assaults and harassment, but their hope for justice is dim as long as our legislators are unwilling to stand up for them.
This thought is prompted by a random collection of news stories in the last few weeks.
The Army is investigating sexual abuse allegations against an officer who trains military prosecutors who handle sexual and physical abuse cases, a defense official said Thursday.
Once a rising star among the US army’s top battle commanders, Brigadier General Jeffrey A Sinclair is now fighting sexual assault charges that could land him life in a military prison if convicted. The general who faced serious prison time was let off with plea deal.
Pentagon officials announced in May that sexual assault incidents have increased by 35 percent between 2010 and 2012, bringing the annual total to 26,000 cases of some type of unwanted sexual contact or sexual assault last year. The results came via an anonymous survey.
Active-duty female personnel make up roughly 14.5 percent -- or 207,308 members -- of the more than 1.4 million Armed Forces, according to the Department of Defense. One in three military women has been sexually assaulted, compared to one in six civilian women, according to Defense. According to calculations by The Huffington Post, a servicewoman was nearly 180 times more likely to have become a victim of military sexual assault (MSA) in the past year than to have died while deployed during the last 11 years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a pilot who was also the inspector general of the 31stFighter Wing at Aviano Air Base in Italy, was found guilty of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to one year in military prison in November. His charges included “abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault and three instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman,” the Air Force Times reported.
But last month, Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force base, dismissed the sexual assault conviction – even though there was plenty of evidence of the defendant’s guilt. On Feb. 26, the case was dismissed and Franklin even recommended Wilkerson for a promotion, the New York Times reported.
Nor is this an exclusively North-American phenomenon.
Violence against women is "an extensive human rights abuse" across Europe with one in three women reporting some form of physical or sexual abuse since the age of 15 and 8% suffering abuse in the last 12 months, according to the largest survey of its kind on the issue.
Horrifying gang-rapes in India have been in the news repeatedly in recent months.
Not only is women's freedom seriously restricted by the ubiquitous threat of sexual assault, but their hope of receiving justice is dim. Existing legislatures are unwilling to see that justice be accessible to all, even women.
The case of Lt.-Col. Wilkerson whose conviction of sexual assault was overturned by his commanding officer, prompted legislation in Congress to exclude commanding officers from getting involved in sexual assault complaints. That piece of legislation, intended to provide a bit of justice for women victimized, recently failed to pass the US Senate.
The Texas legislature adopted new restrictions on abortions. There were 44 facilities that performed abortions in Texas in 2011, abortion providers said. There are now 24, they said. When the law is fully implemented in September, that number is expected to drop to six.
While it is customary to praise the heterosexual family as the cornerstone of our society, the prevalence of violence in families is being overlooked.
• In 2008 females age 12 or older experienced about 552,000 nonfatal violent victimizations (rape/sexual assault, robbery, or aggravated or simple assault) by an intimate partner (a current or former spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend).
• In the same year, men experienced 101,000 nonfatal violent victimizations by an intimate partner.
• The rate of intimate partner victimizations for female s was 4.3 victimizations per 1,000 females age 12 or older. The equivalent rate of intimate partner violence against males was 0.8 victimizations per 1,000 males age 12 or older.
            Is it not time to get serious about liberty and justice for all?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Mass Producing the Citizenry

One source of our great wealth is the capacity to mass-produce commodities. The computers, cars, cell-phones, and the like can sell cheaply because they are produced in very large numbers. More and more persons can buy these glittering toys and tools as they come off the assembly line, indistinguishable, one exactly like the other.
We would not want our children, and the next generation that is growing up, to be similarly indistinguishable from each other. Every human being is, in some way, unique. Each of us has capacities all our own that are different from those of our neighbor. If these capacities are developed, we all turn out to be unique. Each of us can make special contributions to our lives and the lives of those around us. Our lives will be enriched by the great variety of skills and knowledges each citizen contributes. Life will be more interesting, richer in possibilities.
But these differences must be fostered. We do not have them at birth. If we fail to encourage them, citizens grow up to be very much like each other. They turn into mass produced persons very similar to the commodities we buy.
Our society is rapidly developing into a huge machine to mass produce human beings, because it is not willing to allow and to encourage each child, each young person, to develop their differences from every one else, to be a person in his or her own right.
Yes, there are some private schools where classes are small and have enough teachers to address each child individually, to perceive the special ability of each and to help nourish those individual gifts. But the public schools most of our children attend are large, classes are large. Here crowd control, laying down clear rules of behavior and making sure that every child conforms are much more important. Moreover, thanks to supposed government education experts and masters of mass-production, like Bill Gates, children are constantly drilled to pass tests—the same tasks for every child. Our education ignores individual differences and trains children to be very much like each other.
These children are reared to become consumers of the identical commodities produced by our factories. They learn to judge each other by their consumption, by wearing the right jeans or sneakers. Capacities that set each child apart do not matter. Having the right clothes, the same clothes worn by many other children, does.
Often the parents of these children work for very large organizations. They are hired and evaluated by superficial criteria because in these large organizations there is no time to get to know employees and to appreciate them for their individual gifts. Instead they pass standard tests, they are judged by whether they dress like others, whether their conversation is familiar. Being different is not a recommendation. Conformity is.
It is Oscar night when we find out what are the most popular movies. The push is to see the movies watched by the greatest number of people. There are best seller lists of books and we are encouraged to read the books read by most other people. There are obvious economic interests in the background: publishers want to sell as many copies as they can of any book they have on their list. Oscars and similar prizes, best seller lists are ways of increasing sales. For the citizenry they are another push toward homogenization.
If you go to buy clothes, the sales person may well urge you to buy that shirt you seem to like by telling you that it has sold very well. Many people liked it. So you should like it and buy it too.
The pressure towards conformity is strong in politics too. Candidates for public office need to get large numbers of votes; more than their competitor. They cannot afford to offend anyone. You can best not be offensive to anyone's sensibilities by only saying whatever everyone else says on any given topic. The less distinct your statements are, the better. The more wishy-washy the candidates, the more likely that they get elected.
Accordingly, it is best to be in the middle of any disagreement. Any opinion or statement that someone labels as “extreme” is a problem. Extremists have no chance of being elected because they are not like everyone else.
With every year we more and more come to resemble those gadgets we buy. Differences between us disappear or are ignored and shoved aside instead of being developed and encouraged. The people you talk to are more and more like you. We become progressively more interchangeable. It matters less whether anyone of us is alive or dead because there are many persons still alive who are just like me. As we become more interchangeable and anonymous our lives lose in value.
Individual human life matters less and less as human beings are more and more like machine products, one just like the next one.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The privatization dogma.

It is a pretty universally accepted dogma that privatization of government functions saves money. Unfortunately that dogma is false. Here is one example:
Here is an interesting problem encountered by the Federal Government. The Feds outsource a significant proportion of their checks on new employees to a private firm. A private firm investigates a job applicant's previous employment, criminal records, trustworthiness in financial transactions, etc., instead of the Federal Government itself..
The argument in favor of this outsourcing is simply that private companies are competing with other private companies for the job of vetting the applications of new government employees. As a result of this competition, the private companies are likely to work harder for less money than the government agency might have done. The leaders of the private company have their eye on the bottom line. They must control costs in order to compete successfully with other businesses applying for the same job. In order to control costs, their employees must be exceptionally productive. Stated in plain English, private companies must drive their employees to work hard for as little money as possible. The leadership of a government agency, on the other hand, is not under those kinds of competitive pressures. They are more likely to treat their employees better because it is in their interest to have loyal and content people working for them.
Competition will increase productivity and save money. That is the outsourcing story.
This morning's report, however, suggests that often private companies meet their profit goals not by increasing their employees' productivity but by submitting shoddy work. It turns out that the company that is vetting a large number of employee records in Washington, DC has, for years, submitted reports based on incomplete or even nonexistent investigations.
Notice what happened here. The government sends its job applicants' records to a private company. After a while some government employees begin to be suspicious of the investigative reports they are receiving, and start their own investigations. We now have both a private contractor and a government agency doing the investigating job. Quite obviously that is horrendously inefficient. Privatization has struck out.
Privatization is by no means always more efficient than jobs being done in-house in the government.
But there is more to be said. The private companies can make money only if they lower their costs. A favorite way of lowering costs for businesses is to cut wages of their employees or to cut the number of employees and increase the workload of those remaining. Both will increase the number of citizens seeking, for instance, unemployment benefits, or perhaps medical care for stress and overwork. If we do not focus our consideration of privatization excessively narrowly, we can see that the supposed savings from privatization are going to be, in many cases, illusory.
It has become a dogma in many circles that government outsourcing is more efficient and saves money. Like many dogmas, this one is very often false.