October 2012 Archives

Is FEMA a Stalking Horse for Socialism?

     Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath illustrate, far better than any political debates or television advertisements, the choice that American voters must make next week: Should the role of government be drastically reduced or are there things that government, as an agent of the public, can do that the private sector is unable or unwilling do?



       In his now infamous answer to the question posed by CNN 's John King this past June during the GOP presidential primary debates, Mitt Romney was queried about the role of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). He replied that the states would do a better job responding to  disasters than any federal agency and that the private sector would do an even better job.

      Romney's reply was consistent with the GOP's18th century ideological conviction hat government is always intrusive, burdensome and ineffective, especially at the national level, and that the private sector is invariably more efficient and more cost-effective. This message has been repeated ad nauseam by spokesmen for the GOP and its army of SUPERPACs and financial supporters who envision that a Romney victory will free corporations and the 1% from the need to comply with public regulations or to pay their fair share of taxes.   

       Romney's rhetoric has now challenged by reality. Upon his election, President Obama made the restoration and professionalization of FEMA a priority. This was necessitated because of the Bush administration's willful indifference to that agency and its pitiful response to Hurricane Katrina. President Bush's remark, "You're doing a heck of a job, Brownie" showed in stark relief why public agencies should never be staffed by hacks, sycophants, or nay-sayers who believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that  the role of government should be minimal and that, wherever possible, public goods - including infrastructure, schools, military support, the postal service, medical care, Social Security and Medicare -  should be privatized and sold off to entrepreneurs in the  private sector while ordinary citizens are left to fend for themselves.

    Anyone who still subscribes to such utter nonsense needs only to  reflect upon the "success"  of  ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) that was enacted during the Reagan  administration. While ERISA preempted almost all favorable state regulations designed to protect employee benefits, it defunded and destroyed hundreds of thousands of defined benefit.plans - traditional  pension plans - and replaced them with 401K plans in which employees lost more than a trillion dollars of their savings in the Great Recession.  

     President Obama has assured the hard-hit region of the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast states that the their government - the federal government, through FEMA -  will mobilize every resource at the disposal of the federal, state and local governments, as well as private charities,to address the needs of suffering families. FEMA's response to this crisis will be very different from that of the insurance companies. It will take years of litigation and endless frustration for those paragons of private enterprise to finally acknowledge their obligations and to pay all claims for which their hundreds of thousands of policy-holders paid premiums to the insurers of billions of dollars over the years. In fact, the first response of the insurance companies - in the face of the undeniable evidence of climate change - will be to increase the premiums of all of their insureds and, in the immediate coastal areas at or below sea-level, to withdraw insurance coverage all together.
     Since his election, President Obama has been vilified, in the words of Mitt Romney, as someone who is  determined to convert the United States into a European-style social democracy. The now right-wing hack commentator Dick Morris said, in a column circulated on GOPUSA.com, that conservatives are "enraged at Barack Obama's socialism and radicalism" and former House  Speaker Newt Gingrich has titled his most recent book To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine.    

    There is no evidence to support the proposition that those who argue that government must play an indispensable role in protecting and promoting the public interest or that - in a conflict between purely private desires to accumulate profit and the public good, the latter should prevail - are socialists. Every student of history knows better. The ancient Greeks, for example,  had no notion of privacy or of private interests whatsoever: "The Greek was seldom at home. He used his house for sleeping and eating. You will not find him in his private garden: for a Greek city, crushed within it with its circuit of walls, has no room for gardens, and what was the use of them with orchids just outside the city walls? He will be at work or along with other men in some public place." (Alfred Zimmern,The Greek Commonwealth).

    The Catholic  philosopher Jacques Maritain, who was steeped in the tradition of conservatism that was  nurtured by the teachings of St.Thomas Aquinas, has insisted in his book, Man and the State, that "the primary reason for which men, united in political society, need the State, is the order of justice. On the other hand, social justice is the crucial need of modern societies. As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice."  

       The private sector, as Hurricane Sandy, has shown,cannot and will not serve as an instrument of social  justice or address the needs of the victims. That is not the nature of business nor the purpose of private enterprise.The role of government, on the other hand, is something very different: to serve the needs of the entire community, to help those who are unable to help themselves, and to provide a safety net for all citizens.      

        In this election, voters must decide which vision of America they want to shape their future.


Enhanced by Zemanta

How Will GOP Victories Help White Guys?

        Current polling survey data indicates that the presidential race is now almost dead even and that the GOP is likely to retain control of the U.S. Congress and may very well win majority control of the Senate. Should the GOP gain control of the remaining two branches of the federal government, the GOP will then control all three branches of the federal government since Republican appointed jurists  - who enjoy life-tenure for good behavior -  are already the majority voting block on the U.S. Supreme Court and their number would undoubtedly increase in a Romney administration. Such a sweeping victory by the GOP would have far-reaching policy implications for all citizens, but it in particular white males. Why is this likely ?


          During the past four decades, there has been a fairly consistent trend among white male voters who do not possess a college degree to favor GOP, especially in presidential and state-wide elections. This trend has become especially pronounced in the South where, ever since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Democratic Party has become increasingly a minority party, while the number of GOP voters and office holders has expanded exponentially. Increasingly also over the past four decades, in the economically-distressed and hollowed out-towns and cities of the Midwest and the Northeast, white males in these regions have also begun to defect to the GOP.

              President Obama's performance has been consistent with the support Democratic presidential candidates have received in the past four decades. In 2008, despite a very weak GOP presidential candidate and the onset of the Great Recession, President Obama garnered a mere 41% of the total white male vote across the U.S. His support was even lower among white males without a college education - at 39%.nationwide. According to Reuters/Ipso poll conducted between October 1 to October 7, 2012, as reported by Samuel Jacobs ("Romney relies on shrinking pool of white male voters" October 11, 2012), likely white male voters polled in this election favor Romney 55.5 percent to 31.9 percent while six percent of likely male voters said they were undecided.

             These voting trends among white males need to be viewed in the context of the economic data. According the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010 median household income declined, the poverty rate increased and the percentage of those without health insurance coverage was unchanged from the previous year. Real median household income in the United States in 2010 declined  2.3 percent  decline from the 2009 median. That same year, the nation's official poverty rate was 15.1 percent, an increase from 14.3 percent in 2009 and that was the third consecutive annual increase in the poverty rate.

           In addition, there were 46.2 million people in poverty in 2010, as opposed to 43.6 million Americans in 2009. That figure was the fourth consecutive annual increase and the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published. Equally a source for concern, the number of people without health insurance coverage rose from 49.0 million in 2009 to 49.9 million in 2010, while the percentage without coverage -16.3 percent - was not statistically different from the rate in 2009.

           Although the poverty rate for non-Hispanic white males and females in 2010 was still lower than it was for other racial groups, there was a more startling statistic embedded with the economic report: The wages of white male workers employed full-time, when based in 2010 dollars and after adjusting for inflation, had actually declined by $8.44 per week: In 1973, the median earnings of white males workers employed full-time was $50,074 as opposed to $50,523 in 2010.

             There is an obvious and undeniable link between the voting patterns of white males and their abandonment of the Democratic Party: economic insecurity and fear. Over the past four decades, a war has been waged against white males who have felt, in response, increasingly ignored, stigmatized and under siege. In the past decades, the Democratic Party policies have been shaped by a well-educated and prosperous elite who have never worked in factories, struggled to be paid a living wage, and have little understanding of the daily travails faced by workers who intuitively understand that their chance and their children's chances to ascend the economic ladder and to enjoy the American Dream are ineluctably slipping away. In addition, these same white males - who have never wielded the swords of economic or political power - have been the excoriated as malevolent bigots or proponents of white patriarchy by single-agenda advocates who would never dare to level such accusations at the true defenders of privilege and the economic status-quo  -e.g., Michael Blomberg, who condemned the Occupy Wall Street movement but muttered not a word of criticism about Jon Corzine, or Robert Rubin, who accused Joseph Stiglitz, after he advocated cuts to corporate welfare during the Clinton administration, of wanting to wage class warfare.

             Sadly, as the Democratic Party correctly moved to expand the horizons of opportunity for all Americans, and has supported essential initiatives to ensure civil rights for all groups including blacks, Latinos and Gay and Lesbians, it has failed to remain faithful to its working class roots that were forged with sweat and blood from the beginning of the Progressive Era through the New Deal and the Fair Deal of Harry Truman. Thoese struggles by labor to vindicate the rights of workers were by far the most tumultuous and violent among countries in the entire Western world as workers were brutalized and murdered by armies of Pinkerton detectives, private armies of thugs, and police and National Guard militias summoned by governors and mayors at the behest of their corporate benefactors.

             The Right in the United States has never ceased in its efforts to reduce the role of government to a passive player that would merely ratify and support the interests of corporations and the wealthy. In 1947, the Taft Hartley Acts of 1947 was passed over President Truman's veto. 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 took only a few more decades, however, 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.

             Because the Democratic Party, under President Clinton and Vice President Gore enthusiastically supported the expansion of free trade, without also negotiating reciprocal fair labor and environmental laws and anti-dumping provisions, the Democratic Party has been in denial. To the present, its leaders have been unable to acknowledge the economic evidence, as reported by economists such as Ian Fletcher in his book Free Trade Doesn't Work, that shows, while the expansion of free trade and out-sourcing of jobs have been an extraordinary boon to financiers, hedge-fund managers, venture capitalists, and purveyors of imported goods made by exploited employees in Third World sweatshops for corporations such as Walmart and Apple, it has been an unmitigated disaster for the overwhelming majority of American workers and their standard of living.

             With the destruction of the labor movement, the American workplace in the twenty-first century is now governed by the nineteenth century doctrine of employment-at-will, which further circumscribes the ability of American workers to protect their livelihoods or to improve their conditions of work. The legal fiction of at-will employment essentially posits an equality of bargaining power between individual employers and employees: Each is free to accept or reject employment, resign or be fired without cause or restriction. Since employers in "union-free" environments are legally permitted to unilaterally impose, almost without restriction, whatever conditions of work they require as to hours, compensation, and often further restrict  re-employment after discharge in the form of non-competition agreements, the economic relationship is one of profound inequality in which the employees are burdened and the employers benefitted.

             The labor laws of the United States today are the most restrictive and onerous in the developed world, and they demonstrate the utter contempt and disregard with which the economic elite of this country have been permitted to trespass upon the rights of workers. Labor laws that are rigged in favor of the employers and the legal fiction of at-will employment need to be at the top of any agenda to reform the American economy and restore a vibrant middle class. Since corporations and employers are not required to any show any loyalty to their employees, government policies need to demand that our labor laws and our tax policies protect the rights of workers and the middle class, and place obstacles in the way of corporations, particularly multi-national corporations, from doing further damage to the American economy.

             The response to these developments, however, by the leadership of the Democratic Party has been a deafening silence. In the past two presidential debates and in the vice-presidential debate, not a word of support was spoken by President Obama or Vice President Biden about the plight of ordinary workers, laws and court decisions at all levels that have effectively gutted the rights of workers to unionize and collectively bargain as guaranteed under New Deal legislation, or about the well-documented link between low wages and the absence of widespread unionization. President Obama was elected, among other reasons, because of strong support from  organized labor, and his promise to put reform the labor laws at the top of his priorities and to level the playing field for American workers. His administration has done neither.

             While President Obama and most Democratic Senate and Congressional candidates have been too timid to raise the  banner of social justice,  GOP supporters, true to form as the consummate practitioners of wedge politics, have seized upon every opportunity to exploit the fears and vulnerabilities of white males with incessant attacks upon public sector unions and their more highly paid employees, quotas, the purported special treatment of minorities including welfare waivers and food stamps, and attacks upon experts, trial lawyers, academics and other intellectuals. These appeals are cravenly calculated to create such divisiveness and resentment that ordinary white male voters will fail to notice that they have more in common with the other 99%, including racial and sexual minorities, than they ever would with Mitt Romney and Grover Norquist.

             The hour wanes, but President Obama still has an opportunity to endorse a strong economic agenda that, coupled with labor law reform, will reconnect white males to their historic roots in the Democratic Party. In doing so, he might reflect upon the words of French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain that "the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice." He might also take the time to explain to this essential constituency, in specific ways, how a GOP victory, given the petulant anti-labor and extreme austerity budget proposed by its candidates, will only exacerbate the continued economic decline of white males and further marginalize them.


Enhanced by Zemanta

Shall We Corporatize Public Education Too?

   From its earliest beginnings in a 1647, when the Massachusetts General Court required every  town in the colony with a population of more than  fifty people to found, operate and fund schools, public education in the United States today has grown to encompass more than 15,000 separate school districts across the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are now 98,817 public schools. The U.S. Department of Education reports that the country currently spends over $500 billion a year on public elementary and secondary education, K-12, and that, on average, school districts spend $10,591.00 per pupil.
    Lately, much has appeared in the print media about the malaise of public education in the United States. Numerous reforms have been proposed, many of which involve empowering school administrators, testing students regularly, eliminating collective bargaining rights and tenure for teachers, holding teachers accountable for student performance, and creating more charter schools.

    Some of the more extreme measures proposed would dismantle public education entirely but use taxpayer funds to replace it with a system of vouchers for use in private schools and for-profit schools. Today, "private school choice" programs, as these vouchers are called by the  Alliance for School Choice, have been enacted in 13 states and the District of Columbia. Last year, during a time when states across the nation drastically slashed spending for public education budgets, 41 states introduced 145 pieces of private school choice legislation. The net effect of the more extreme proposals would be to remove education from public oversight and regulation, and permit unlicensed, poorly-paid and poorly-educated individuals to teach creationism, others forms of pseudo-science, extremist religious doctrines, and right-wing politics, history and economics without fear of censure and without any accountability whatsoever.

    A number of the reforms that have gained cachet in the mainstream media have been touted by President Obama's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and former D.C. Superintendent of Schools, Michelle Rhee, among others. Interestingly, none of these proponents of public school reform have ever taught in a public school or have any direct experience in trying to challenge students, particularly students under stress, to  learn. The larger question, however, is: will any of their proposed reforms actually improve public education in the United States or will they further undermine it?

       The October edition of Atlantic magazine, Nicole Allen documents the travails of American public education. Students in the United States ranks 21st among counties in Science; 14th  in reading skills, and 30th in Mathematics skills, according to the International Student Assessment for 2009. By contrast, students in Finland rank 2nd in Science, 3rd in reading sills, and 6th in Mathematics skills.

    Many might argue that any comparison between Finland and the U.S. is meaningless, given the size of the population and racial diversity of the U.S. in contrast to Finland. But is it possible that the example of Finland can still instruct, and if so, how?   

    First, Finland has created uniformly high standards for all of its students and those standards are supported and insured throughout the entire country. This is in stark contrast to the U.S. where the federal government and the states impose, at best, minimal requirements upon local school districts.

    Secondly, only 7% of the applicants to the University of Helsinki's teacher programs are accepted. Upon completion of their education and practicum, teachers in Finland are paid more than 80% of the average of full-time earnings of college-educated adults in that country. By contrast, in the United States, teachers are uniformly poorly paid and are often recruited  from the bottom quartile of college graduates. As the Atlantic data shows, even in more selective education programs such as those at Johns Hopkins School of Education and at Columbia University's Teachers College, 53% and 56% of the applicants respectively are accepted.

       Third, teachers in Finland, as recognized and valued professionals  - all of whom are also unionized - are given great latitude in their methods of teaching; and collegiality, rather than a top-down management model, governs decision-making in the schools. By contrast, here in the United States, the GE management model of public execution and intimidation  - exemplified by the likes of Michelle Rhee - controls educational discourse.

    Lastly, and most importantly, Finland's education system succeeds because its students are ready and prepared to learn. As a social democracy, Finland has perhaps the Western world's most extensive safety net. The country has universal medical care, strong family-support, child welfare, and nutritional programs, minimal poverty and its population would never tolerate the kind of extreme economic inequality that is currently fashionable in the United States .

    Here in the United States, the evidence shows that the problems caused by a decentralized, unequally-funded system of local public education 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 under-development, 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."

    Horace Mann believed that education had the potential to become  "the great equalizer in the conditions of men." For that reason, he became an early advocate of the importance of public education for all citizens. Later, John Dewey insisted that "Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education."   

    The continued de-funding and fragmentation of American public education- as exemplified by the growth of charter school movement - coupled with the relentless, continuing assault upon teachers, the imposition of management models dawn from the private sector, the continued dumbing down of curricula, and proposals to turn public education over to entrepreneurs and for-profit business are precisely the wrong direction for American public education. Sadly also, these proposals show how far this country has strayed from the grand visions of Horace Mann and John Dewey.

       In his important book, What Money Can't Buy, Harvard University political philosopher Michael Sandel warns against the continued creep of the values of market economy into the public square,  the end result of which he fears will be the creation of a market society in which everyone and everything is for sale. Decades earlier, the Marxist philosopher and social critic, Herbert Marcuse argued that "An economic system that encourages its young men and women to tailor their educations to the needs of the marketplace, irrespective of their hopes and ambitions, is an economic system that should be roundly condemned. A nation that discourages the study of art, music and the Humanities is a nation that will inevitably find itself populated by unthinking dolts and automatons."

    Everyone who is concerned about the future of this fragile democracy and about the education of our children and grandchildren must hope that it is not too late to reverse the trend toward the continued corporatization of American public education.

Enhanced by Zemanta