Friday, April 24, 2015

American Progress? 
We are falling behind

In my last blog I asked why there was no mention in the 20 or more presidential campaigns now underway of the results of the “Social Progress Imperative.” This public interest research program sets out to measure the accomplishments of different countries not by the amount of money they earn annually (GDP) but by outcomes, by what these countries accomplish on different dimensions. A summary of the scorecard for the US in 2015 is dismal: in health and wellness we rank 68th of all countries in the world. In personal safety we rank 30th, with respect to access to basic knowledge –which refers to primary and secondary education-- our rank is 45th (although we do much better in higher education), in ecosystem sustainability our rank is 74th. These are our scores in spite of spending more money, for instance, on health care than all other countries.
If we were third, or even fifth I would not give it a second thought, but 68th in health and wellness--that is really troubling. In 68 countries, most of them a lot smaller and not as rich as we are, citizens get better health and wellness care. That does not seem acceptable.
What will we have to do if we are to improve our health and wellness services, our primary and secondary education, our security and our treatment of our environment? Obviously the answer to that question will be complicated and in different categories different remedies will be needed. The problems of health care are different from those in trying to educate our children, and both of those need different remedies than our environmental heedlessness.
But there are also common themes in those different dimensions of our failures. Consider the issue of health care. Many countries have a publicly owned and run system of health insurance for all citizens. Our system is cobbled together with many different private health insurers. Our laws forbid the government expressly to bargain with pharmaceutical countries for lower prices. Dealing with many private insurers and suppliers makes our system excessively complicated and more prone to failures. The more complex a system the more likely that some patients will not receive the care they need.
In addition our health care system is designed to yield profits--large profits in some cases--for private companies. It should not surprise anyone that we spend more money with less impressive results because what we pay for is not merely an essential service but also healthy profits for private investors.
It is tempting, at this point, to complain about the greed of business men in the different branches of the health care industry. In the last few years this has become a very common reaction. But that would be unfair and dishonest because large numbers of ordinary Americans are convinced that services performed by privately owned, for-profit institutions will be cheaper and more effective than similar services offered by a government bureaucracy. Distrust of government has a long history in the US. As a consequence there is widespread support for farming out what should be government services to private enterprises. Ordinary citizens often only have themselves to blame for their unthinking support of privatization of public services.
The failures on the different international scales of social process are an eloquent demonstration of the foolishness of this mania for privatization. There may be services which would be better performed by private companies. Health care does not seem to be one of them. The many experiments in privately owned, for-profit education are largely failures and often fraudulent, taking money from veterans and people with limited resources without providing training that is at all useful. Different experiments that apply free market mechanisms to reduce global warming have, so far, not shown themselves to be effective. There exists a great deal of evidence to suggest that in many cases privatization does not have good results.
There are, of course, counterexamples. The failure of a number of regional VA hospitals--a government organized, run and financed health care system-- to provide timely care to veterans is a real scandal. But even there a private solutions was tried. Two private physicians networks have been hired to provide medical care to veterans living at a distance from the nearest VA. So far this solution through calling in the assistance of private for-profit business has proven to be a failure.
But Americans, rich and poor, are so distrustful of government that they do not see the facts in front of their own eyes. We will not improve our standings on the social progress scales until we end this blind devotion to privatization of public services.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Misdirected Presidential Campaigns.

Hilary Clinton opened her Presidential campaign with a video showing images of happy people, two men walking, holding hands, some pretty babies, ducks, a happy couple expecting their child and more. Then there is Hilary herself, in front of an upper middle class home with white trim and a white picket fence (really!) and a flower garden in bloom telling us about growing inequality in the US and offering to be the champion of the majority that is losing out.
The message I hear is: Our America is in good shape. It would be even better if we could reduce economic inequality and she will, if elected President, fight for that. The message is designed to make us feel warm inside. It certainly did that for me.
But then I recalled the Social Progress Index produced annually by an organization that calls itself “Social Progress Imperative.” It sets out to measure the accomplishments of different countries not by the amount of money they have (GDP) but by outcomes, by what these countries accomplish on different dimensions. A summary of the scorecard for the US in 2015 is dismal: in health and wellness we rank 68th of all countries in the world. In personal safety we rank 30th, with respect to access to basic knowledge –which refers to primary and secondary education-- our rank is 45th (although we do much better in higher education), in ecosystem sustainability our rank is 74th. These are our scores in spite of spending more money, for instance, on health care than all other countries.
Before proceding I should say that the board of directors of the organization producing these rankings includes one professor from Harvard Business School, one professor from MIT and Oxford University each, an editor from the British business journal The Economist and the President of the Rockefeller Foundation. These are not socialists or communists, or flaming left-wing radicals. They are enlightened persons in the middle of the political spectrum. Their numbers and the implicit criticisms of existing conditions in the Unites States deserve to be taken very seriously.
Our country is seriously falling behind. At issue is not an international competition that ends in some sort of World Cup of health and welfare, or educational accomplishment. If we rank 68th in health and wellness there are 67 countries whose population is in better health and cared for more effectively when they fall ill than are citizens of the US, even though those countries spend less money on health care than we do. The ways in which these other countries organize their health delivery system, their preventive medicine programs, their medical and pharmacological research and delivery systems of medications and medical technology are more effective than ours. These other countries have figured out a lot of ways of doing things related to health and wellness that are better than what we do. All of that in spite of our justly world famous universities and research institutes.
We hear none of that in Hilary's opening campaign video. Nor is that anything the matter with Hilary Clinton. If you consult the opening videos of Republican candidates, our dismal performance in the Social Progress Index does not show up there either. None of the candidates for president so far has dared to tell us that we have mismanaged our country and our ample resources is disastrous ways. Many other countries, smaller, saddled with more problems, have managed to keep their citizens, healthier, better educated than we have. They have been less destructive of their environment than we have.
Why is that not a topic in the presidential campaign? The candidates who each in their own way assure us that America is well, healthy and thriving and just needs a small tune-up here or there are lying to their constituents. Our political campaigns are based on deception, misinformation, on making citizens feel good. They do not appeal to us as mature adults who can stand to face crisis situations. They do not exhort us to have our eyes open to struggle against the difficulties we are facing. They are trying, instead, to narcotize us with false feelings of security.
What is going on here? Ask any schoolchild what democracy is and they will tell you that in a democracy the people rule. That means they run things. Running things means recognizing problems and trying to fix them. If that is what American citizens were doing, our candidates for office would come to us with problems and their specific proposals for resolving this problem or that. Candidate and citizens would have to have detailed conversations about the precise nature of a problem and what different possible resolutions might look like. But that is not what we get. Hilary talks about economic inequality. Is that one problem or many? Whatever it is, Hilary will help us fix it. She does not tell us how. So we—the people who supposedly run things—have nothing to bite into. We can like Hilary because she makes us feel good. Her republican opponents promise to deal with the deficit. How will they do that? don't ask. They promise to repeal and replace Obamacare. Replace it with what? We are not told.
Candidates treat voters not as the people who run things, but as the gullible, unthinking audience to a political American Idol. The voters, infantilized by the candidates' public relations wizards, accept that role.
What a sad caricature of democracy!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Conversations about Race 

In the present situation of great upset about racial killings, racial inequities, overt displays of anti-black racism, we hear a great deal about the need for conversation. A good example is a recent story in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a publication read by college and university administrators and faculty. The story reported a meeting where 300 diversity officers discussed the racial climate on campus. The suggestion was made repeatedly that campuses needed to organize opportunities for white students to have conversations where they could learn what it was like to be black in the United States today.
This seems reasonable. Until some black friends explained to me the condition of African-Americans in the United States, I did not really understand the gravity of our racial situation. White people often just don't know.
At the same time, one must understand that passing on information in conversations will not be enough to improve racial justice in our country. Giving information to people who do not want to learn is useless. Every teacher knows that. You can put important facts before students and many of them will not learn anything because they don't want to learn. History suggests some reasons for white Americans being so reluctant to apprehend the facts about racism in America.
The Founders, men like Jefferson and Washington, who determined that a Black slave was not to count for more than 3/5 of the most abject white human being knew perfectly well what they were doing. They both owned slaves. Neither of them thought that owning slaves was morally acceptable. They knew that they were compromising their high political principles. They did, in fact, talk and correspond a good deal about the moral failure of owning slaves, but did not change their behavior. Their economic interest pushed them to go against their moral principles. Slaves provided cheap labor. In a time when all work was done by hand, refusing to have slaves meant that one had to pay people to work on the farm or in the house. Paid help was more expensive than slave help. Without slaves, one would have fewer servants and thus a more cramped style of living. Economic interest was a strong support for the institution of slavery.
But it was not the only support for racism. There are other reasons why Whites refuse to grasp the ravages of racism. Once again history helps us to understand that.
The first black men and women arrived in Virginia in 1609 – just about 400 years ago. Until the 1670s both black and white servants were indentured. In order to work off the cost of their voyage to the new world, they were committed to be servants for a set period. Their indenture at an end, they would be given a piece of land and supplies, including a gun, regardless of whether they were black or white. More often than not, the land they received was marginal.
Racism was widespread among the English immigrants; slavery was not unknown. From the middle of the 17th century on, some blacks were enslaved. But that process of converting the temporary indentured servant status of Blacks to the permanent status of slaves accelerated after 1676. In that year, in Bacon's Rebellion, former indentured servants, both black and white together, rose up in Virginia to protest their land being in the foothills, and less fertile than the land of their previous masters. The rebellion was put down but afterwards the white masters encouraged the institution of slavery to drive a wedge between white and black pioneer farmers. Political rather than purely economic motives supported the development of slavery and the anti-black racism that accompanied it.
330 years later racism has become very much part of the flesh and bone of the American. Whites who are not wealthy and of high status have learned to reconcile themselves to their low condition by glorying in their whiteness, in the fact that they are not black. Racism serves a political purpose to keep large numbers of less favored Whites content. But our society, having changed a great deal in the last 330 years, now has an economy that is unable to provide jobs for everyone in the country. Racism that incarcerates large number of young black men and some black women restricts the number of job seekers and thereby serves an economic function. It reduces the opposition to prevailing economic practices.
White men and women may get a job that also has black applicants simply because they are white. That gives whites a serious economic advantage, especially when jobs are scarce. The racism that supports those practices is not going to be extinguished by having conversations about race.
As long as it is to someone's advantage to be racist, that blot on our national identity will remain. Conversations about racism will have very limited effect because Whites derive advantages—economic, political and psychological—from racism. Ours will remain a country plagued by racism until we have changed our economy to provide enough good work for everyone. Until everyone has work and lives, that they can be justly proud of, whites will bolster their self-esteem by oppressing blacks and other groups—Hispanics, immigrants, homosexuals.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Hidden Injuries of Class.

A few weeks ago, This American Life, told a story about young persons of color who had attended public school and not learned a whole lot. They were then given the opportunity to study at a good, predominantly white college. Most of them flunked out. They were overwhelmed by the alien environment. They felt themselves to be utterly incompetent. They were much too ashamed to talk to anyone to ask for help. They lacked the most elementary self esteem they would have needed to survive in a mainly white, middle-class, intellectual environment which felt utterly strange and incomprehensible to them.
The students I teach at a State college are overwhelmingly white. They are there because tuition is a lot lower than it is at all the private colleges in the area or even at the State University. They belong to what is now referred to as the middle-class but they definitely belong to the lower strata of that middle-class. They have limited financial resources. They are not well prepared for college. Many of them do not write a decent paragraph in English. Many of them have difficulty reading academic texts because their vocabulary is very limited. They know a good deal about popular culture, but few of them are readers of books. Not too many of them are familiar with current affairs, or with the outlines of the history of our country and our world.
A lot of them are bright people who, given half a chance, could do good work of some kind. Not all of them will have that chance.
But their greatest handicap lies in the rarely considered class distinctions in contemporary American society. To illustrate that, here is the story of Timothy.
Just before spring break I assigned a midterm paper. It had to be all of two pages long and discussed issues, some of which we had been talking about in class – the problems of having a functioning democracy when large portions of the electorate are ill-informed about political matters and are not in a position to make reasonable choices between candidates.
The papers were to be submitted in the last class before Spring Break. Timothy did not give me a paper. When asked, he told me he would send it to me that afternoon by email. I sent him a message when I did not receive this paper, but did not hear any more from him.
After class at the end of spring break I asked him what had happened. It turned out that the paper he promised to send me had never been written. Then he went off to spring break somewhere warm. He saw my question on his email when he returned, but felt I had sent it too long ago. He could not respond. It was certainly embarrassing to confess that he had never written his paper. He could not really talk to me about it and so he did nothing at all.
Not writing an assigned paper does not strike me as such a terrible thing that it should have been impossible for him to ask me for an extension, or even to make up some family tragedy to excuse himself. But from Timothy's perspective the distance between him and me is so enormous, that it did not seem possible for him to talk about the whole matter.
I am almost four times as old as he is and that makes a difference. But the age difference is not the only thing that makes it hard for him to take an active part in his own education. He is clearly finding himself in an alien environment where he does not seem to have much agency. I do not think that his situation is as dire as that of the students of color mentioned in the beginning of this blog. But his problems are not unlike theirs. He is not oppressed by racial prejudice – he is white. But the class differences between him and his teachers, and the administrators in the college are serious enough for him to not be able to take charge of his education, to ask questions when he is confused, or to ask for an extension if he cannot get his work done.
But how is he going to learn anything if he can't ask any questions of his teachers, if having questions appears to be so terribly embarrassing that he can't let on? How can he make useful educational choices if the entire project seems so strange and in some way incomprehensible?
Timothy's class problem is, of course, also an element in the failure of the students mentioned at the beginning of this blog. It is not just their skin color, and all the restrictions and limitations attached to that, but also the deep divide between classes in the US today that makes attending college terribly difficult or perhaps impossible for them.
It is high time that we should admit and carefully consider the class problem we have.