Sunday, July 26, 2015

Bernie Sanders

 Almost 6 times as many people voted in the election of the All-Star baseball team as took the trouble to vote in the last presidential election. Only half of all persons eligible took the trouble to vote for president in 2012. Among young voters the numbers are even worse. In 2012 only 45% of eligible young voters went to the polls.

These same young people flock to the events where Bernie Sanders speaks. His attendance is impressive and the majority are young people.

Young voters are not apathetic but there is something about regular politicians that leaves them completely cold. There is something about Bernie Sanders that interests and attracts them.

It is not difficult to see what that something is.

The news reports about Hillary Clinton record almost daily the kinds of compromises she makes in order to attract very rich donors. Her program is so far fairly vague. In the initial stages of her campaign she is catering to the very rich, she is building an enormous campaign fund to match those being constructed by Jeb Bush, Donald Trump and other Republican candidates. She is being cagey in her answers to the press; her policy statements are very general. Not offending anyone sitting on bags of money is the dominant strategy at the moment.

Given our current state of democracy that is clearly the right thing to be doing. We are so used to it, we no longer notice the stench of corruption.

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is talking policy. He is talking about justice, about inequality. He is talking about what he sees as our major problems and what he would do about them, were he elected president.

He is talking about change and what changes need to be made. He is talking about making America better.

Bernie Sanders is talking about running the country. According to press reports, Hillary Clinton is running an electoral campaign. He wants to make the country better. She wants to better her position by becoming president.

Sanders' democracy has to do with all of us running our country together. Her democracy has to do with getting the rich to support her.

Among the young, Sanders' democracy is more appealing. Democracy as usual, they think, is not worth wasting your time on unless you too are sitting on bags of money.

This is the lesson of the Sanders campaign so far: ordinary people are not going to pay attention or vote in a democracy that excludes them because it listens only to the rich. An oligarchy of the rich is just around the corner, if it is not already here, unless we manage to make room for everyone once again to participate.

Monday, July 20, 2015

What is education for?

 The bankruptcy of American culture is vividly illustrated by our debate about education. Everyone is moaning about the shortcomings of the American educational system. Students do not learn enough. They are not prepared for the demands of the workplace. Education is too expensive. Educational results are very unequal. Here too the obstacles confronting the children of the poor are much greater than the difficulties encountered by the children of the middle class.

All of these complaints are justified. Our educational system does not teach students what they need to know. It charges too much for what it provides. The prevailing inequalities are only intensified by the schools and colleges our children attend.

In the midst of all this fretting, no one asks the question that should surely be first, namely what should be the goals of our education? You cannot criticize a set of institutions plausibly unless you begin with a clear idea of what you expect those institutions to accomplish.

The  bulk of the complaints we hear, however, have an implicit answer to the question about the goals of education. Everyone assumes that the function of education is to train people to take jobs in American business.

That seems all right, but we do need to ask whether preparing young people to take jobs is the only or even the main function of education. When we think of our college generation, young men and women just setting out on their lives, what matters most for them? What do we hope for them as their parents, as their uncles and aunts, as their friends? Are we prepared to tell our children that what is most important in their lives is that they do a good job and earn a good living? Why did we expend a great deal of effort to teach them to be honest, to be respectful of themselves and others, to live their life thoughtfully? Why did many of us want out children to grow up into good citzens?

When our children are as old as we are now, how do we hope they will summarize their lives? Is it enough for them to say 'I was good at my job and made a good living'?

Here is what I would hope my children will say when they are old – not necessarily in this order: I want them to believe that their life was interesting, and that one of the sources of interest were there many connections with other people's lives, with other families and the children raised in them. I am want them to be proud of what they learned over the years about many different things. I want them to look back with satisfaction on what they accomplished together with their neighbors to improve the place where they lived. I want them to bask in the respect of their neighbors for their contribution to the common life. I want them to be proud of having been good citizens.
I want them to remember fondly the many people they loved well and the love they received from their family and friends.

I want them to acknowledge frankly their failures, their acts of cowardice, their avoidance of opportunities to be decent persons.

This is only a partial list and different people might draw up very different lists on what makes a life a good life, a life well lived. But what is amply clear is that doing a good job at work and making a decent living considers other people merely as employees, as people one might hire for one's business. It is not considering young people as human beings preparing to live human lives.
Someone might agree that there is a lot more to life than earning a living, but also assert that none of those other accomplishments can be promoted by formal education.

But that is obviously false. A good education takes a person in their late teens who knows the world in which they grew up and introduces them to a much larger world by teaching them history and introducing them to matters political, by transmitting to them the pleasure of reading, or of the arts. Our young people, many of them prospective parents, can acquire a much more sophisticated sense of the process of growing up which they will be directing when they have children. We would want them to learn that adult life is also a continuing process of change, of learning, of adjusting to the demands of different ages.

When we think about education, just as when we think about many other things, we have been conditioned to think of ourselves only as cogs in the great capitalist machine. We have lost sight of the many wonderful possibilities that human lives present. We have allowed ourselves to be terribly impoverished.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The "Free Market" – once again.

Congress seems poised to turn its back on the "No Child Left Behind" educational nightmare. But many of the supporters of this shift of direction in educational policy are not particularly interested in providing a good education for our children. They are interested in states rights. They distrust the federal government. They are worshipers in the church of the Free Market.
The belief in the blessings of the free market are indeed a religion-- facts have nothing to do with it. It is all a matter of faith.
But we live in the real world where facts are available; we should certainly not ignore them. Indifference to actual events regularly leads to disaster. If a truck is bearing down on you, you'd better run. If your house is on fire, you'd better leave. If your bank account is empty, you'd better not write checks.
Hence it is important, from time to time, to look at the reality of the free market. A couple of examples of the gross malfunction of the free market have come to my attention and I want to share them.
Both of them have to do with the privatization of law enforcement. It is a well-known fact that many prisons in the United States are run by private companies. The two largest ones are Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO. It is also well-known that "private prison companies have indirectly supported policies that put more Americans and immigrants behind bars – such as California's three strikes rule and Arizona has highly controversial anti-illegal immigration law." (Washington Post April 28, 2015)
It is less well known that private prison corporations house almost half of the immigrants arrested as undocumented. Some immigrants who have been held in these private detention facilities have recently sued GEO, the company that owned a facility outside Denver, for being made to do janitorial work in the facility for one dollar a day. The company makes a huge profit by forcing inmates to do their own maintenance and paying them a pittance.
People in detention have not had a trial. Some of them are being detained without justification. One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit agaainst GEO was, in fact, a legal resident of the United States. He suddenly found himself being practically enslaved, having to work for next to no pay cleaning toilets and washing floors. That clearly violates the most basic standards of how residents of the United States should be treated. Even if it turns out that the persons detained do not have the requisite documents, they still should not be subject to forced unpaid labor before they have had a trial and have been sentenced.
Our cash strapped cities could significantly improve their bottom line, if police would go around arresting citizens who, while detained, were forced to work for nothing, for instance cleaning streets, hauling garbage, and doing other undesirable work for practically no pay. There would be a major uproar if we did this to citizens. The fact that this is being done to people, accused of being illegal immigrants, does not make it any less outrageous.
The private companies, the "free market", in this case clearly violate basic human rights. That's hardly a blessing.
Another example of the failure of privatization: some municipalities in Alabama and elsewhere have farmed out their collection of traffic fines to a private collection company, Judicial Corrections Services. This company collects payments on traffic fines and every time they get a payment they collect an additional $40 fee from the person paying.
The victims of this scam had been in court and the judge imposed a fine on them. But the $40 fee is charged on top of the fine imposed by the court. It has no legal justiification.
This particular arrangement disproportionately burdens poor people who are unable to pay large fines at one time and therefore have to pay their fines in installments. JCS adds their $40 fee to every installment paid.
The government establishes certain rules, such as traffic and parking rules, and attaches a schedule of punishments for violators. It is essential that government be impartial, that no private party profit from government actions. Where that impartiality is violated and government action brings profit to private individuals, we speak of corruption. Where ever private parties enrich themselves by using the power of government they are corrupting those powers.
For-profit companies collecting fees for fulfilling government functions are one more example of clear corruption. It is no different from the policeman who accepts a bribe for not writing a ticket, or the government bureaucrat who needs to get paid under the table in order to process a form.
The blessing of the free market, in this instance, is in fact the corruption of our government. Justice falls victim to private enrichment.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

After the Charleston Murders

After the murders the only thing most people want to talk about is flying the Confederate flag. We have heard of the decisions of eBay and other large Internet merchandisers to take Confederate flags off their list of articles for sale.
After nine highly respected African-American Christians are murdered in their church, talk is focusing on the Confederate flag, a symbol of racism. Surely our question should be: will removing the symbol, reduce the intensity of racism?
Even more important is this question: what can be done to put an end to these, by now quite common, murder sprees that kill innocent citizens? One time the victims are moviegoers, then they are schoolchildren and their teachers. Now the victims are black worshipers at a prayer meeting.
Taking down the Confederate flag does not address the question of how to reduce the incidence of these mass murders.
A frequent prescription is additional legislation regulating the sale and ownership of handguns. But that seems unlikely to have any effect in the next 50 or 100 years. Our country is awash in guns. The numbers themselves are controversial but even the people who claim that gun ownership is receding believe that one in four households of Democrats or Independents owns one or more guns, while among Republicans the number is one in two households owning lethal weapons. Other surveys claim that for every hundred residents in the US there are 88 guns—that's more than one gun for every adult.
Both high and low numbers make it very clear that there are so many guns in circulation that anyone planning mass murder will have no difficulty procuring the weapons needed. Gun control will not make ordinary citizens safer.
A number of commentators, including a speechwriter for Hillary Clinton, have pointed out that our government is narrowly focused on terrorists connected to the parties fighting in the Mideast and seems completely unconcerned about addressing the problem of domestic terrorism. The killer in Charleston claimed to have wanted to touch off a "race war." He surely is a textbook example of a terrorist.
In the 14 years since the September 11, 2001 attacks, nearly twice as many Americans have been killed by white supremacists, right-wing extremists, and other non-Muslim domestic terrorists than by people motivated by "jihadist ideology," a report by the New America research group published Wednesday has found.
Using a database that catalogs information on U.S. citizens and permanent residents engaged in "violent extremist activity," the report, Homegrown Extremism 2001-2015, found that 48 people were killed by non-Muslim terrorists during that time frame, as opposed to 26 who were killed by self-described jihadis.” ( 06/24/domestic-terrorists-more-deadly-jihadis-report)
The FBI and other government agencies are constantly arresting young men who are planning to fight with ISIL in Syria, or who are accused of planning terrorist attacks in the United States. Sometimes these plans are discovered because one of the participants decides to betray the plot to the government. Sometimes potential pro-Muslim terrorists are discovered by following peoples' wandering through the Internet and social media.
It seems quite clear that similar efforts should be made to discover potential mass murderers before they execute their plans.
But that is not a comfortable conclusion. The discovery of potential jihadists terrorists requires many people following the Internet and email activities of a significant number of American citizens. Potential terrorists are found only because all of us are not only potential but actual subjects of government surveillance.
Government surveillance of citizens is not new. Think of the decades of anti-Communist persecutions. The techniques of surveillance are different in the current technological climate. But the long history of government spying on ordinary citizens should make us very reluctant to recommend an extension of government surveillance.
Now we face just that suggestion of seriously extending surveillance in order to discover not only potential terrorists connected to the Mideast and religious conflicts but the much larger number of actual and potential terrorists plotting mass killings and, specifically, plotting attacks on citizens of color. This is clearly a difficult choice.
But as the victims of the Charleston church massacre are being laid to rest, and we mourn the death of a group of outstanding American citizens, it is very difficult not to support a significant extension of government surveillance in the hope of preventing future mass shootings.