February 2011 Archives

Is The United States An Exceptional Country?

       Americans, contrary to what some scholars and many political pundits have suggested, have been and remain profoundly influenced by ideology. The insistence that American politics is best explained by non-ideological considerations has inspired a long and well-documented literature in America which resonates to the present.

       Even some American intellectuals are afflicted by this peculiar aversion to the world of ideas; their aversion prompts them to deny that people participate in a shared perception of social reality based upon a worldview. Daniel Boorstin, in his book, The Genius of  American Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), argued that "The genius of American democracy comes not from any special virtue of  the  American people but from the unprecedented opportunities of this continent and from a peculiar and unrepeatable combination of historical circumstances.These circumstances have given our institutions their character and their virtues.The very same facts which explain these virtues, explain also our inability to make a "philosophy" of them. They explain our lack of interest in political theory, and why we are doomed to failure in any attempt to sum up our way of life in slogans and dogmas. They explain, therefore, why we have nothing in the line of a theory that can be exported to other peoples of the world."

Cover of "The Myth of American Exceptiona...

        Boorstin insists that the antipathy to political theory which Americans express is based upon a sound conviction that "an explicit political theory is superfluous because we already possess a satisfactory equivalent...the belief that values in America are in some way or other automatically defined: given by certain facts of geography or history peculiar to us." Professor Boorstin continues, "We have received our values as a gift from the past; that the earliest settlers or Founding Fathers equipped our nation at birth with a perfect and complete political theory...and that our theory is always implicit in our institutions." In addition, "a belief in the continuity or homogeneity of our history...makes us see our national past as an uninterrupted continuum of similar events, so that our past merges indistinguishably into our present."

         Lamentably, Professor Boorstin's endorsement of this myth is hardly novel. See, for example, the extraordinary article by Steven G. Calabresi, "'A Shining City On A Hill'--and the Supreme Court's Practice of Relying on Foreign Law," Boston University Law Review, Vol. 86: 1135 (2006). In that essay, Professor Calabresi, who was one of the founders of the right-wing Federalist Society, also endorses the myth of American exceptionalism and urges the federal courts to reject the guidance of foreign law, even that of fellow common law countries, because they do not share this country's commitment to individualism and its hostility to socialist ideology and policies.

         Unfortunately, the argument that America is somehow exceptional or unique is profoundly ahistorical and anti-intellectual. Essentially, it denies that humans are sentient beings who understand social reality based upon the sets of ideas which constitute their worldview. From where did the ideas of the Founders come? If American values are always implicit in American institutions, were the implicit values just randomly chosen from some kind of intellectual smorgasbord, or was the creation of these institutions the result of some overarching design--i.e. a political theory? Did the choice of institutions create the values which Boorstin praises as "a perfect and complete political theory," or did the chosen values create the institutions?

         An important part of the explanation for the tendency of Americans to dismiss or minimize the role of a political philosophy in informing our understanding of politics, personally and collectively, is the pervasive and often unconscious acceptance of the postulates of John Locke's liberalism.In fact, the origin of the very pragmatism or common sense for which Americans so often laud themselves may be traced back to the epistemological concepts that emerged after the Protestant Reformation.
         These ideas were systematically explicated in the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Subsequently, this penchant for "common sense" reasoning was transmitted to the New World where it was popularized by Puritan divines such as Jonathan Edwards and became part of what has been described as the New England Mind. To quote Louis Hartz, in his seminal study on the influence of John Locke's ideas upon American politics, The Liberal Tradition in America (New York:Harcourt Brace, 1955), "Pragmatism, interestingly enough America's greatest contribution to philosophic tradition...feeds itself on the Lockean settlement. It is only when you take your ethics for granted that all problems emerge as problems of technique."

        Hartz argues that, to extent to which America may be described as exceptionalist, it is precisely because as a political culture, American culture remains the epitome of Locke's essential political philosophy, removed and uprooted from its historic context in England, unmediated by the existence of an ancien regime with its contrarian Catholic, communitarian values. Locke's political philosophy, once adopted, elaborated and acted out upon a vast wilderness of free land which was encumbered only by the presence of some troublesome savages. America is thus exceptional because we remain imprisoned in an early eighteenth century intellectual universe, unable to comprehend what came before in Europe or what followed after.

      To the extent to which American politics remains "locked in Locke," we will become increasingly unable to adapt and respond to the new challenges and demands that confront this country in the twenty-first century, or to imagine alternatives to the status-quo, irrespective of whether the issue is pervasive unemployment, the hollowing-out of the middle class, global warming and the emerging energy crisis, the delivery and provision of heath care, or reigning in the military-industrial complex that has created a welfare-through-warfare culture.

      Witness the nostrums and platitudes spewed forth by right-wing Republicans like Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker, their media surrogates and legion of adoring Tea Party supporters. Where is the evidence that shows that dismantling this country's safety-net in the name of austerity, destroying unions, and further weakening public regulation of corporations, while granting yet additional tax-cuts to the wealthiest could possibly do anything except to dig us deeper in the hole into which we have already collectively fallen? Aren't these precisely the kind of policy prescriptions that could only be endorsed by someone whose understanding of political and economic theory has not evolved beyond the in the eighteenth century?

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            The struggle in Wisconsin is a struggle for the soul of America. Governor Scott Walker and the majority Republican legislature have made a Faustian bargain with the Koch brothers and American Chamber of Commerce to sell their souls in return for campaign contributions and electoral success.  

            The efforts of Governor Scott Walker and his Republican legislature to gut the collective bargaining rights of employees is part of the on-going assault by corporate America and their cronies upon the middle class. Since the 1940s the American labor movement has been forced into retreat. After the death of Franklin Roosevelt and the election of a Republican Congress in 1946, as discussed, right-wing liberalism became resurgent. The first great success of New Deal critics was achieved with the enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which was passed over President Truman's veto. The effect of this legislation was to outlaw "closed shops" and to permit individual states to allow "open shops"--i.e. shops in which elected unions could not require all of the employees to belong to the unions, irrespective of whether the non-union employees also received and enjoyed the benefits of collective bargaining.

            As a result of that legislation, corporations began an inevitable migration to the South where welcoming state legislatures hastily enacted "right-to-work" laws. The migration of these manufacturing companies away from the unionized urban centers of the Midwest and North left hundreds of mill towns impoverished and desolate, and the union movement was effectively eviscerated. It did not take long for the owners of corporations to discover that, once they had escaped from the threat of unionization, they could escape almost all government regulation by moving their business and manufacturing operations out of the United States to Third World countries. As a result, in the private sector, unionized workers now number less than 7% of all employees.

           By contrast, in the public sector, approximately 37% of American employees are unionized. Because a  large number of these employees - including teachers, university professors,  social workers, inspectors, and law enforcement - are often better educated and more articulate than their private sector  peers, and are more often Democrats, these public employees pose a greater challenge to on-going efforts of American corporations to destroy the ability of American employees to challenge their hegemony.    

          Because the facts are to the contrary, corporate America and its media outlets have now resorted to a tsunami of lies and misrepresentations in which ordinary middle class Americans have now become the enemy. For example, according the Wisconsin Budge Project, Wisconsin, based on the most recent national data, ranked 27th in total state and local spending (measured as a percentage of income).  Contrary to the perception that Wisconsin had a large government bureaucracy, it   ranked 43rd (8th lowest) in 2009 in the number of state employees relative to population, and 38th (13th lowest) in total state and local government employees relative to population.

          In fact, the cause of Wisconsin's fiscal problems have little to do with the public employees and much more to do with the loss of tax revenue caused by the continuing recession an d the high rates of unemployment, all of which stemmed from the excesses of wall Street and the lack of government regulation of the financial sector during the most recent eight years of George Bush's administration . In addition, in Wisconsin, at least eight new or expanded state tax cuts and tax credits went into effect at the beginning of 2011. These tax changes will add up to an estimated $210 million cut in state taxes in the next two years. These tax cuts, along with  other tax reductions with different effective dates, will contribute more than $320 million to the structural deficit in the next two years.Wisconsin also spends less on its state employees than the national average in payroll spending for government employees. Wisconsin was 8.7% below the average and ranked 30th among the states.

         Finally, it should be noted that, included in the current budget before the Wisconsin legislature, is a provision that permits the governor's state appointed administrators to sell all of Wisconsin's public utilities "at a price deemed satisfactory to the state." How is that for a payback to the Koch brothers - who, incidentally, were major contributors to Governor Walker's campaign?  How will the sale of public utilities to private, for-profit n entities reduce the cost of services to the citizens of Wisconsin?

        The United States has a troubled and bloody labor history in which leaders such a Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, Eugene Debbs, John L. Lewis, and the Walter and Victor Reuther, among thousands of others, struggled to secure social and economic justice for American workers. Organized labor brought to America the right to grieve mistreatment in the workplace, "just cause" termination standards, the eight hour day, weekend offs, overtime and rest break regulations, workers' compensation, unemployment insurance and pensions. 

       It would be a tragedy of the first magnitude - and surely single this country's continued descent  -  if American employees did not stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Wisconsin employees. The struggle for social justice will never end. It is now this generation's burden to continue that struggle. The question to be answered is, "what kind of a country do we want to ensure for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren?

        Edmund Burke, a true conservative, reminds us that "society is indeed, a contract...It is to be looked on with reverence; because it is not a partnership in things...It is a partnership in science, a partnership in art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born."

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What Do Corporations Owe To Us?

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    Corporations in the United States enjoy an exalted status in the media and in the public's perception, but they are also the beneficiaries of a legal status which makes them superior to all other citizens. As non-natural "legal persons," they have standing to sue and to be sued. Unless a corporation is dissolved, either voluntarily, by actions of its shareholders, or involuntarily, by state regulatory authorities, the corporation is virtually immortal. In addition, corporations, by virtue of their political influence in the latter part of the nineteenth century, were granted the equal protection of the laws long before the same civil rights were accorded to black Americans in the Southern States. See, for example, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, 118 U.S. 394 (1886).. Most recently, the United States Supreme Court further transubstantiated their essential nature after anointing them with the gift of protected free speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution in the recent case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 130 S.Ct. 876 (2010).
       In addition, many federal statutes which benefit corporations have been held by the federal courts to preempt more favorable state consumer protection statutes and state labor laws. Section 301 of the Labor Management-Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 185(a), the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1001-et seq., and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), 29 U.S.C. § § 651-678 are examples of federal legislation which courts have held trump state statutory provisions to the contrary, even when those statutes were intended to confer greater legal protection to individual citizens or groups of citizens or to protect against corporate abuses.
        An audit prepared by the Congressional Government Accountability Corporation is a further cause for concern. It reported that, between 1998 and 2005, two out of every three domestic United States corporations paid no federal income taxes whatsoever. Among foreign corporations doing business in the United States, a slightly higher percentage--68 percent--paid no federal taxes. The government study surveyed 1.3 million corporations of all sizes with a collective $2.5 trillion in sales. Between 1950 and 2009, the percentage of total income taxes receipts paid by corporations to the U.S. Treasury declined from 27.5 percent--or 4.8 percent of GDP--to 9.6 percent or 1.7 percent of GDP.
             The Founding Fathers never anticipated the  unintended consequences that an ideology based upon the exercise of  individual rights, unrelated to any reciprocal social obligations would exert upon the evolution of the legal system, which would make corporations more powerful than human beings; nor could they have imagined that the financial interests of these entities, after they metamorphosed into global, multi-national organizations, would become increasingly adverse to the interests of their employees.

     Roger Steare, a professor at Cass Business School in London, commented in a recent letter to the Financial Times ("Workplace itself is a totalitarian state",2/14/2011],  "While most of  us who read the FT live in some form of  liberal or social democracy, when we work we become citizens of totalitarian plutocracies that more closely resemble Egypt, Zimbabwe or North Korea." Steare further observed that "In business, our language is all about 'executing' strategies and 'terminating' people, who become expendable human resources...Until we can introduce social democracy into the workplace, where ownership and responsibility  is mutual and rewards are fairly shared ...we will see no end to dysfunctional  wrong-doing and the sight of former 'Dear Leaders' retiring into wealthy exile."

       Current state and federal laws impose a legal duty of care upon a corporation to its shareholders alone. The question then becomes: If corporations enjoy the benefits of federal and state protections, as well as favorable tax incentives denied to ordinary Americans, what, if anything, do they owe to their own employees or to rest of us as citizens? Is there a duty of loyalty beyond the profit-motive and the devil take the hindmost? Or may a corporation such as General Motors simply close up its shop and walk away from any responsibility for the misfortune which its policies caused to Flint, Michigan, as was depicted in Michael Moore's documentary Roger and Me?

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Requiem For An Uncommon Man

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     He was born on November 7, 1919, near Bolivar, Missouri into a poor rural family. As a child, he grew up in communities where the wealth and excesses of the Roaring  Twenties somehow never seemed to trickle down to them. He came of age during the New Deal that helped to lift his family and neighbors up by providing opportunities and jobs. He was the first in a long line of his family to be able to go to college: He received an associate's degree from Texarkana College in 1938. At the age of twenty-two, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1941, and served with the 69th Infantry Division as it  fought its way across France and Germany. On May 21, 1945, he wrote home:

 "Dear Folks,
    "There is no more censorship, so you might like to know where I have been. The ship landed at Southampton, England and we were in Winchester, about 30 miles north, until the middle of January. I came to France about two weeks ahead of the rest to get things set up, and managed one short trip to Paris, but could only stay a couple of hours.

    "We moved across France in short jumps and went into combat Fed. 11 at Montenau in Belgium. It took us three weeks to fight our way through the Siegfried Line and then about two more weeks to get to the Rhine. We crossed near Remagen and the 69th spearheaded the southern arm of the First Army drive to cut off the Ruhr.

    "After taking Cassel, we swung east and spearheaded a long drive to Liepzig and then captured it. Afterward we advanced in the Elbe River where we were the first Americans to meet the Russians.

     "I realize that all this is just a lot of names to you, but it will give you some idea of what was going on. My team was with the 271st Infantry Regiment and we spent most of our time out with a major doing intelligence work between the armored spearheads and mopping-up troops. That's about all.
   "You all seem to have the wrong idea about my coming home. I don't have enough points to get discharged - and if I do get there, it will only be for a furlough before going to the Pacific - probably 21 days, maybe 30.

    "Thanks again for the package. Will try to write again soon.


He was always reticent about his military service and until his recent memorial service, few knew that he was one of the first to appear at the gates of Auschwitz.

         His obituary notes that, after he returned from the war, he attended Columbia University  where, in 1947, he earned his bachelor's degree in accounting and joined the public accounting firm of Arthur Andersen & Co. in its New York office. He became a manager there in 1951 and was made a general partner in 1956. He also served in various supervisory positions, including Deputy Managing Partner in New York and spent his last three years in Geneva, Switzerland, working with the professional practice in Europe, Africa and the near East. He retired in 1982 but continued to consult on limited financial activities until 1998. When his family was younger, he volunteered as a Sunday school teacher and a Deacon at the First Congregational Church of Darien, Connecticut, served as an elected member of the Darien Board of Finance and became a Cub Scout Leader.
       In so very many ways, he epitomized the American Dream: He achieved success, financial independence, traveled  frequently and vacationed in Florida. More importantly to him, he was a loving father to three devoted daughters and a son. But he never forgot who he was or where he came from. Until his last days, he remained an unreconstructed Democrat: he understood that the administration of Franklin Roosevelt and the GI Bill enabled him and millions of other Americans to rise out of poverty and to succeed and prosper in an American economy in which the government and the private sector were strong partners, rather than antagonists. He understood, as did Oliver Wendell Holmes, that taxes are the price of civilization; and he endorsed Luke's admonition in the Gospels that to whom much has been given, much is expected in return.

       As a person who could grasp the whole and see the big picture, he lamented the avarice that destroyed his beloved Arthur Anderson and wondered frequently aloud why so many businessmen did not understand that the long term needs of our economy - for better jobs, a stronger unions, and a healthy middle class - should never be sacrificed for short-term gains that would  ultimately impoverish all of us.      

      With his death, as with the passing of Sergeant Shriver, America has lost another patriot, albeit one less heralded. Requisat in pace, Wilbur Duncan. 

Why Does The Myth of Horatio Alger Linger?

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Horatio Alger, Jr., Harvard Class of 1852

Horatio Alger, Jr., Harvard Class of 182

    There are a number of good reasons that explain why the emergence of what Kevin Phillips in his book American Theocracy described as the "new indentured servitude" and the growth of plutocracy in America were largely met with silence or grudging acquiescence in contemporary American culture before the economic collapse of 2008. The first, and perhaps the most tenacious, is the myth of the self-made man. Most Americans still cling to this fantasy which is a resilient exemplar of the powerful influence that the liberal ideology of individualism continues to exert in the consciousness of Americans to the present.

    In The European Dream, Jeremy Rifkin describes a Newsweek poll of 750 American adults conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates on June 24 and 25, 1999. Fifty-five percent of all of the respondents under age thirty who were asked whether they believed that they would become rich, answered yes. When asked, as a follow-up question, however, how they would get rich, 71 percent of the same respondents, all of whom were employed, did not believe that there was a chance that they would become rich from their current employment. Seventy-six percent of them believed that Americans were "not willing to work as hard at their jobs to get ahead as they were in the past."

    Since the advent of the Protestant Reformation, as R.H. Tawney and Max Weber have chronicled, there has existed a pronounced link between the dour predestination of Calvinism and a work ethic which has emphasized material success: The accumulation of wealth was incontrovertible evidence that Providence had blessed the successful and marked each as one of those as chosen for redemption. In the United States, an entire cottage industry of books from Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale and his successors have extolled the power of "positive-thinking" as the key to personal advancement and success.

    As opportunities for financial success in the workplace diminished for most Americans throughout the later part of the twentieth century, rampant speculation, get-rich schemes, real-estate "flipping," day-trading, the purchase of lottery tickets, and gambling became the substitute vehicles for this pursuit of success. They continued to fuel the fantasies in which ordinary citizens invested their dreams and hard-earned money.

    The increasingly desperate behavior of American employees and their families who were being "hollowed-out" by our economy's "race-to-the-bottom" presaged the emergence of a meaner, less-caring America. The problem was that few were paying attention then and that fewer still seem to have noticed since.
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Was Thoreau A Fraud?

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    Ralph Waldo Emerson's friend and former Harvard classmate, Henry David Thoreau, shared Emerson's enthusiasm for limited government. In his famous essay on Civil Disobedience, he stated, "I heartily accept the motto 'That government is best which governs least;' and I should like to see it acted up to rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe--'That government is best which governs not at all...'"

    Consistent with that enthusiasm, Thoreau, too, was fearful of government regulation which might stand in the way of one's economic advancement: "For government is an expedient...when it is most expedient, the governed are most let alone by it. Trade and commerce, if they are not made of india-rubber, would never manage to bounce over the obstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way; and, if one were to judge these men wholly by the effects of their actions...they would deserve to be classed and punished with those mischievous persons who put obstructions on the railroads." 

    Thus, Thoreau too, all of his pretensions notwithstanding, was by education, temperament and family legacy a committed member of the bourgeoisie. Thoreau's individualism, a legacy of John Locke's liberalism carried to its extreme, was unabashedly libertarian: "But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice...Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think we should be men first, and subjects afterwards."

    Thoreau extolled the life of solitary contemplation. Consistent with the prevalent liberalism of nineteenth century New England culture, he seemed unable to fathom the inescapable truth expressed in the words of John Donne, that "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind."[Meditation XVII]
    Thoreau, ever the proponent of personal experience, was as oblivious as are most liberals to the social implications of each person's existence. Because of that social myopia, Thoreau's Walden was, in so many important ways, as was he, a fraud. His essay devotes significant sections to the pleasures that Thoreau derived from reading books presumably  written by others, visitors, the village, Baker Farm, and the hermit with whom he sometimes went fishing. In addition, he sometimes dropped by the Emerson's household for victuals and conversation. Thoreau, despite his protests, was living proof that each of us is dependent upon one another for our intellectual, spiritual and physical existence.*

*This article is an excerpt from the author's recently published book, The Politics of Selfishness: How John Locke's Legacy Is Paralyzing America. Greenwood/Praeger/ABC-CLIO, 2010. Copyright © 2110 by Paul L. Nevins  

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The Selfish Self or the Social Self?

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     Students of language and history understand that the keepers of the canon and those who control the narrative by and large determine what is accepted as the truth, as well as what  is worth knowing and what is not. For that reason, the struggle for the narrative over American history is now being waged fiercely  between those who argue for individual rights - particularly property rights - and limited government and those who contend that any alleged conflict between the interests of the individual and the public interest is a false dilemma.

         Proponents of governmental minimalism, whether intentionally or as a matter of unconscious, internalized  ideology, draw their inspiration from the tenets of John  Locke's liberalism. As Carl Becker noted in his book, The Declaration of Independence (New York: Random House, 1922), "Most Americans had absorbed Locke's works as a kind of political gospel; and the Declaration, in its form, in its phraseology follows certain sentences in Locke's second treatise on government." Jefferson, Madison and John Adams, among many others, were intimately familiar with the most minute details of Locke's political philosophy.    In fact, Jefferson was so impressed by Locke's arguments that he read Locke's treatise on civil government three times and used Locke's compact theory of government to justify the American Revolution, just as Locke's treatise had, almost a century before, been interpreted to justify the "Glorious Revolution" of 1680 and the ouster of the Catholic Stuart kings.
Garrett Hardin, 1986

Garrett Hardin, 1986 

    The problem is that here in the United States, however, Locke's political philosophy, unlike that in England  has been constructed upon a foundation which recognizes and envisions only solitary selves, and  a concept of the whole--the public interest, what we owe to one another as citizens--is largely missing from American public discourse. Whether the issue is universal medical coverage, poverty, antiquated labor laws which harm workers and benefit employers, access to education, the need to rebuild our economy and to address decaying infrastructure, the impediments--which are the legacy of Locke's politics--remain: parochialism, special interests, and, all too often, an inability to see beyond the refrain of "What's in it for me?"

    In contemporary American society, the anti-social individualism which is the essence and legacy of Locke's political philosophy has been given free reign, unencumbered by the restraints, modifications and caveats to which it was subjected in England and in other European political systems. There the ties of the traditional society and medieval ideas which place an emphasis upon cooperation and extol communitarianism have not unraveled and continue to inform and bind the political discourse. As a consequence, in Europe, Locke's individualism was given nuance and context; whereas in America, in the context of the political tabula rasa of the New World, the self has become the avatar.

      In  his now-famous essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, the ecologist Garrett Hardin commented upon the deleterious effects which the pursuit of unbridled self-interest has upon the public interest. To Hardin, the Commons was a metaphor for the Earth and its environment, which belongs to all, and for which each of us has a special, collective obligation to protect; and he warned that it cannot withstand the incremental effects of individual anti-social acts. Pollution, as one example, is often caused by individuals who, based upon purely personal, self-serving calculations, seek to maximize their individual opportunities, irrespective of the consequences. Thus, over time, the public effects of pollution are gradual and diffuse. Therefore, the harm--the disutility--is slower to manifest itself. However, the utility to the polluter who disposes of  pollutants by releasing them onto the Common is immediate and positive.

    Hardin's prophetic essay underscores the difficulties of overcoming personal predilections and self-interest, even where important public concerns are at stake. The prognosis for a political culture such as the United States in which citizens have been acculturated to think only in terms of "me, myself, and I" suggests the dangers about which Hardin warned will only worsen unless the mindset of the population changes and begins to think in terms of the first person plural, "We."

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Why Have Teachers Now Become A Target?

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         The New York Times reported the other day ["GOP Governors Take Aim at Teacher Tenure," 2/1/11] that governors in Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada and New Jersey have urged that teacher tenure be eliminated. In this effort, they have been advised by former Washington D.C. school chancellor, Michelle Rhee, and her advocacy group, Students First. Ms. Rhee, who supports a top-down, GE management model for school administrations, has consistently  blamed teachers for almost all for the ills of urban school systems such as Washington, D.C.

      In the midst of this recession,with the attendant  pressure it continues to exert upon state and local budgets, public school teachers have become a convenient target for anti-government, right-wing politicians and their corporate sponsors and lobbyists. These same anti-government crusaders refuse to have a serious, adult-like discussion about public education today with their constituents.

     Redundant, unevenly-funded, locally-controlled school systems are a major contributor to the ills of  American public education. Because of the existence of a federal system, with its emphasis upon diffused power, local school districts have been created almost entirely through the exercise of state power, in the form of legislative acts. As a result there are approximately 15,000 local school districts in the United States, each of which has its own superintendent, its own administrative  bureaucracy, tax base and, often, meddlesome school committee - witness the number that are preoccupied with patronage concerns or which have advocated the adoption of crackpot ideas about creationism, the myth American exceptionalism, and prayer in schools.

       These 15,000 units of government are also largely financed by regressive property taxes that all to often pit young families with children against "empty-nesters." According to the National Governors Association, state funding of local school districts varies dramatically among states, ranging from about 8 percent in New Hampshire to 74 percent in New Mexico. On average, states fund approximately 50 percent of local school districts' needs from their general budget. Local governments contribute an average of 44 percent, largely from local property taxes. As of 2005, the federal government's average contribution was reported to be 6 percent of a district's budget.

          If American public education depends for its vitality and its support upon local autonomy, how then does one ensure that, in an increasingly national and global workplace, a high school diploma awarded to a graduate of a secondary school in El Paso, Texas is equivalent to that awarded to a graduate of the Boston Latin School or the Bronx High School of Science? The sad truth of the matter is that, because American public schools are purely creatures of state and local governments, and were not created through the exercise of national legislative powers, in contrast to most European countries, the demands, the financing and the outcomes of these local systems of education vary enormously.

        Today, for example, the United States spends more money as a proportion of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product--7.5 percent--on education than do countries in the European Union, but the educational outcomes are significantly worse. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has reported that, "In most OECD countries, a child at the age of five can now expect to undertake between 16 and 21 years of education during his lifetime either full- or part-time, if present patterns of participation continue. Australia and the United Kingdom, at 20.7 years, show the highest educational expectancy among OECD countries, while in the United States a five year old can expect almost four years of education less during his/her lifetime.

        Children in twelve European counties rank higher in mathematics literacy; and in eight European countries, the children were ranked as possessing better scientific literacy than their peers in the U.S. The 2003 results from the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) document the comparatively poor performance in mathematical proficiency, on average, of fifteen year olds in the United States. As the OECD noted, "Out of 30 OECD countries which participated in PISA 2003, the average performance for the United States was statistically higher only than that of five countries (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Mexico and Turkey) and statistically lower than that of twenty countries."

        Equally a cause for concern, as of 2006, is the fact that the average adolescent in European Union countries completed 17.5 years of education, versus his counterpart in the United States who, on average, completed only 16.5 years of education. In nine European countries, more young people entered university education than in the U.S. and, as of 2006, the United States slipped from first to seventh in the number adults aged 24-35 who have received a bachelor's degree, as opposed to Canada (53 percent), Japan (52 percent), Sweden (42 percent), Belgium (41 percent) and Ireland (40 percent).

      The problems caused by a decentralized, unequally-funded system of local public education across the United States are compounded by the existence and tolerance of widespread economic and social inequality which also explains, in large part, the uneven outcomes in America's decentralized education system and the dismal performance of so many of the children who are enrolled.

         In a report released in March 2009, David Berliner, Regents Professor at Arizona State University, analyzed those "out-of-school factors" (OSFs) which "play a powerful role in generating existing achievement gaps" that continue to undermine the purpose of the federal "No Child Left Behind" act. Berliner, in a wide-ranging review of the existing data and summary of the educational literature, identified six significant factors among poor children that adversely affected their health and learning opportunities and which therefore "limit what schools can accomplish on their own: (1) low birth weight and non- genetic prenatal influences on children; (2) inadequate medical, dental, and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family relations and family stress; and (6) neighborhood characteristics." These six factors, Berliner concluded, "are related to a host of poverty- induced physical, sociological and psychological problems that children often bring to school, ranging from neurological damage and attention disorders to excessive absenteeism, linguistic underdevelopment, and oppositional behavior."

        Berliner further observed that, "Because America's schools are so highly segregated by income, race, and ethnicity, problems related to poverty occur simultaneously, with greater frequency, and act cumulatively in schools serving disadvantaged communities. These schools therefore face significantly greater challenges than schools serving wealthier communities, and their limited resources are often overwhelmed."

        The data which Berliner cites showed that, in 2006-2007, the average white student attended a public school in which about 30 percent of the students were classified as low-income. By contrast, the average black or Hispanic student attended a school in which nearly 60 percent of the students were classified as low-income, while the average American Indian was enrolled in a school where more than half of the students were poor. "These schools," Berliner concluded, "are often dominated by the many dimensions of intense, concentrated, and isolated poverty that shape the lives of students and families."

        The totality of the evidence suggests that American education, at almost every level, is experiencing a profound crisis and has failed to create a literate, educated citizenry. For example, the National Adult Literacy Survey found that over forty million Americans age 16 and older have significant literacy deficiencies. In addition, more than 20 percent of Americans read at or below a fifth grade level which is far below the level needed to earn a living wage. The data with respect to scientific literacy is also disquieting. Americans in general do not understand what molecules are, less than one third can identify DNA as a key to heredity, and one adult in five thinks that the Sun revolves around the Earth.

        The increasing inequalities among local school districts in United States and between educational outcomes in the United States versus other member states in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are directly related to the ideological stranglehold that notions about individualism and local control of education continue to exert over American politics. This tradition of local autonomy in public school systems has led to the emergence of an increasing number of autonomous charter schools which siphon off badly-needed funds and better-performing students from more troubled, urban school systems. This trend, coupled with the existence of so many private secondary schools and colleges and universities, make it virtually impossible for American educational institutions to adopt and enforce uniform learning and graduation requirements or to effectively measure educational outcomes.

        Given the magnitude of the problems that face American public education today, only demagogues can continue to argue that poorly-paid, poorly- supported teachers are the cause of  this country's educational crisis and not a part of its solution. The continuing assault upon teachers, their job security and future retirement benefits will deter more and more top-performing university graduates from considering a career as a  teacher. 

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