NEA plays the least worst candidate game in Obama endorsement

The largest teachers’ union in the United States, the National Education Association, voted over the weekend to endorse President Obama’s 2012 reelection bid. This last year has proven perilous for teachers across the country as primarily Republican-led attacks have sought to strip them of their collective bargaining rights, and blame them for the budget shortfalls caused by the recession.

In addition to attacks on compensation and union rights, Republicans have long been on the forefront of an effort to privatize public schooling through the implementation of voucher programs. Given the attacks — both new and old — on public education and teachers from the Republicans, the 72 percent vote in favor of endorsing Obama comes as no surprise.

However, the vote was really one made out of desperation. Although Obama has not been leading a charge to cut the pay and union representation of teachers, he has consistently echoed support for charter schools and standardized testing. The teachers then had to choose between a Republican party that wants to cut their compensation, destroy their union, and get rid of public education altogether, or President Obama who endorses the failed charter school movement and standardized testing as a means to evaluate teacher performance.

Faced with this awful choice, the teachers had no option but to “pick the least evil” as middle school teacher Bertha Foley described it in today’s New York Times.

The charter school movement that Obama endorses has been an unmitigated disaster. Often premised on the claim that teacher unions are causing public schools to fail, these sometimes private, sometimes public, alternative schools have popped up across the country to solve our education woes. They have received enormous public relations boosts from sympathetic documentaries like Waiting for Superman, and are closely linked to other failed educational reform efforts like Teach for America.

Whatever one thinks about the teacher-blaming, school-blaming slant of the charter school movement, the data which indicates a widespread failure of charter schools speaks for itself. The Stanford Credo Study (pdf) on charter schools — the largest study of its kind — analyzed 70 percent of the charter schools in the country. It found that only 17 percent of charter schools perform better than their public school counterpart, with 37 percent performing worse, and 46 percent performing about the same. More than twice as many charter schools perform worse than their traditional counterpart than the number of schools that perform better.

Reliance on standardized testing has similar problems, and relies on unfounded premises that are equally weak. Although standardized testing evaluates something, it is less than clear what that something it evaluates is. Good or bad performance on a small set of questions is not broadly indicative of how much a person has learned.

The heavy emphasis on testing leads to narrow curriculum aimed at beating the test, and the heavy reliance on the scores to evaluate teachers is senseless and encourages cheating. Let us not forget the recent debacle of Michelle Rhee whose miraculous standardized test improvements as superintendent in the troubled Washington DC schools were revealed to have been a fraud.

Despite the obvious problems with these approaches to improvement, Obama keeps on pushing them as a way to better achievement outcomes. Blaming schools and teachers is a convenient way to pretend that the problem is being addressed. It also allows us to distract ourselves from the reality that poor performance in school is clearly driven — at least in part — by childhood poverty. Children who are forced to endure the conditions of poverty at home do not perform as well in school as those who are better off.

The NEA then is put in a precarious position where both major political parties have adopted inadequate policies that put them in the crosshairs. While I wont criticize the NEA for playing the least worst candidate game, there is something sad about the fact that they even have to.

What Madison had in common with Marx

Today is the 235th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence. In the political sphere, the Fourth of July is usually a time for trumpeting the perceived greatness of America. Those more nationalistically inclined take the opportunity to repeat various facets of the standard American Exceptionalist line.

Whenever the booming proclamations of American perfection are made, my thoughts always tend to wander into the various criticisms of the rosy picture of America’s founding. Despite the praise that is poured onto this era – especially of late by the Tea Party – most people would certainly be horrified if they were suddenly dropped into the time period of the founding. After all, the founders sought to and did construct a society in which every person was excluded from equal treatment except wealthy white men.

What interests me about the intentional inequality of the system put in place by the revolutionaries is the arguments that were used to support it. There is a fundamental tension that has to be resolved between the liberal ideology that was claimed to motivate the founders and the government they actually installed. Liberalism’s promise of equality and freedom for all is clearly inconsistent with inequality – and even enslavement – for most.

To somehow make this contradiction work, arguments had to be offered to explain the exclusion. For women, the argument of the era was that they were inferior – mentally, physically, and otherwise – to men. For people of color, the argument was the same, but more severe: not only were they inferior, they were not even full persons.

For poor white men however, the argument had to be different. Appealing to inherent inferiority is inadequate to justify the unequal treatment of poor white men since they share the same inherent qualities as wealthy white men. If they are not inherently inferior to wealthy white men, then on what basis can they be excluded from equal rights (e.g. the equal right to participate in the sovereign through voting)?

There were, as with most things, multiple arguments given for this exclusion. Two arose in this period that interest me. First, James Madison famously argued that government “ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” Denying the vote to poor white men, Madison claimed, is necessary because if they had a vote, the government of the country would surely be directed away from the protection of property. The liberal imperative to protect individual property is then practically in conflict with the liberal imperative of equality, and clearly the former trumps the latter for Madison.

The second argument comes from Immanuel Kant who of course is not a founder of America, but a liberal philosopher writing in the era. Kant argued that in order to vote, an individual must be a citizen, a term which he clearly defines in Theory and Practice:

The only qualification required by a citizen (apart, of course, from being an adult male) is that he must be his own master, and must have some property (which can include any skill, trade, fine art or science) to support himself. In cases where he must earn his living from others, he must earn it only by selling that which is his, and not by allowing others to make use of him; for he must in the true sense of the word serve no-one but the commonwealth.

What is interesting about the arguments from both Kant and Madison is how closely they line up with the basic anti-capitalist arguments that pop up later in the writings of communists, socialists, and anarchists, most famously Marx. The idea from Madison that if the working people were truly able to express themselves politically they would tear down the present slate of property arrangements could be ripped right out of The Communist Manifesto.

The idea from Kant that wage workers (which is the class of people he excludes from citizenship) are not truly their own masters, but are dependent on and controlled by those who they work for, is a classic argument in favor of socialism. The supporters of socialism argue that only when workers own the workplace they labor in will they truly be their own masters.

Although Madison and Kant did not have in mind the same remedies as the anti-capitalists did, they did seem to agree on the same description of the state of affairs. Their response to what they saw as the lack of independence and the antagonistic position of poor white men was to disenfranchise them. The response of the anti-capitalist philosophers was to empower them.

Deficit reduction debate is really about which class pays

The federal government and state governments across the country have been forced to confront sudden budget deficits in the wake of the 2008 recession. For state governments, the overriding cause of the deficits was a more than 30% reduction in state revenues following the economic downturn. For the federal budget deficit, the causes are more varied as this chart from the Economic Policy Institute indicates.

Although varied, none of the causes of the present deficit problems across the country can be reasonably blamed on poor and working people. The recession resulted from the near total economic meltdown that followed the bursting of the housing speculation bubble. Investment bankers — struck by a dangerous mix of greed, incompetence, and perverse incentives — are the culprits in that catastrophe.

The Bush tax cuts — which make up nearly 20% of the present federal deficit — were primarily a giveaway to the wealthy. Even the sudden public employee pension problems are largely the result of the economic recession as the investments of the pension funds took a hit when the market fell.

Despite the fact that poor and working people did not cause these deficits, efforts to reduce them have relied on policies primarily focused on making them pay. The infamous Scott Walker budget repair bill seeks to plug the Wisconsin state budget deficit in part by decreasing compensation for teachers and other public employees. Texas cut $15.2 billion dollars to shore up its deficit, primarily in the areas of education and health care. Ohio followed suit with Governor Kasich signing a budget that reduced taxes while slashing spending on education, libraries, nursing homes, and social programs.

As the eclipse of the federal debt-ceiling nears, it is not out of the question that similar approaches will be tried at the federal level, especially if Republicans win the present standoff on the matter. But cuts are not the only way to respond to budget deficits. Bringing in more revenue is the other option, an option which is not getting nearly the sort of play that it ought to.

Republicans predictably oppose revenue increases; the official line is that revenue increases reduce investment, destroy jobs, and fail to increase revenue due to decreased economic production. The response to this line has been disappointingly technocratic in nature.

Christina Romer pushes back with a dispassionate economic analysis about the relative economic impacts of spending cuts and tax increases, the takeaway being that spending cuts decrease economic production more than tax increases do. Paul Krugman keeps forwarding the Keynesian line that cuts would be devastating, and possibly result in a double-dip recession due to a decrease in consumer demand.

While these technocratic responses have merit, I think a much more moralistic argument is called upon here. What the deficit reduction question centers around is not really whether tax increases or spending cuts are best for the country as a whole. Analysis about the country as a whole is totally inadequate as the country is not made up of a unified population with unified economic interests. Cuts in education, health care, and worker pensions have no impact whatsoever on the wealthier classes as they already enjoy private education, can afford their health care, and do not rely on public pensions for their retirement.

The question of how we reduce our budget deficits is really a question about which class should pay. Should it be the poor and working people who had nothing to do with the causes of the present crisis, and — after 41 years of total wage stagnation — are not in a position to afford to pay for it to begin with? Or should it be wealthier people whose tax cuts are a significant driver of the deficit problem, and whose mismanagement of financial markets precipitated the crash that caused almost all of the rest of the budget shortfalls?

The answer to me is clear. Poor and working people should not be forced to pay for the tax cuts and market failures of the wealthy. To force them to do so is nothing more than a form of redistribution of income from poor and working people to the very rich.