Earlier this week Yves Smith’s blog, The Naked Capitalist, cross posted an article by Joanne Barkan from the Nonprofit Quarterly titled “How Bill Gates and His Allies Used Their Wealth to Launch Charter Schools in Washington State”. At the outset of the article, Ms. Barkan contrasts the traditional foundations of bygone years, who turned the operation and oversight of their philanthropic work to independent Boards, with those started by today’s billionaires, who want to control and direct the way money is spent… and she then underscores the major problem with the current state of affairs:
Call it charitable plutocracy—a peculiarly American phenomenon, increasingly problematic and in need of greater scrutiny. Like all forms of plutocracy, this one conflicts with democracy, and exactly how these philanthropists coordinate tax-exempt grantmaking with political funding for maximum effect remains largely obscure. What follows is a case study of the way charitable plutocracy operates on the ground. (This results in) a tug-of-war between government by the people and uber-philanthropists as social engineers.
The balance of the article uses the funding of the charter school movement in Washington State as an example of how this “charitable plutocracy” is changing the face of philanthropy. Ms. Barkan offers a blow-by-blow description of the 20+ year history of legislation and referenda in Washington State on the creation of charter schools and how, after successive defeats on ballots and in the legislature, the “charitable plutocrats” eventually prevailed by a slender majority… only to have the Washington Supreme Court declare the public funding of private schools unconstitutional. The latest workaround? The plutocrats persuaded the Washington legislature to pass a law that earmarks lottery funds for charter schools, thereby circumventing the Constitutional mandate that moneys raised from taxes be used only for public schools.
Barkan concludes her essay with this synopsis:
American democracy is growing ever more plutocratic—a fact that should worry all admirers of government by the people. Big money rules, but multibillionaires acting as philanthropists aggravate the problem by channeling vast sums into the nation’s immense nonprofit sector. Their top-down modus operandi makes this a powerful tool for shaping public policy according to individual beliefs and whims. And they receive less critical scrutiny than other actors in public life. Most people admire expressions of generosity and selflessness and are loath to find fault. In addition, anyone hoping for a grant—which increasingly includes for-profit as well as nonprofit media—treats donors like unassailable royalty. The emperor is always fully clothed.
So, what to do? The measures required to rein in plutocracy in the United States are plain to see and difficult to achieve: radical campaign finance reform to end the corruption of politics by money, and steeply progressive taxation without loopholes to reduce inequality in wealth and power. Private foundations, too, are due for reform. Congress hasn’t overhauled their regulation since 1969, and watchdog agencies are woefully underfunded. But few, if any, megaphilanthropists give these reforms top priority, although many talk endlessly about reducing inequality and providing everyone with a chance at a good life. The interests and egos of philanthro-barons rarely incline toward curbing plutocracy.
Questioning the work of megaphilanthropists is a tricky business. Many readers of this article will be fuming in this way: Would you rather let children remain illiterate, or allow generous people to use their wealth to give them schools? Would you rather send more money to our bumbling government, or let visionary philanthropists solve society’s problems? Here is a counterquestion: Would you rather have self-appointed social engineers—whose sole qualification is vast wealth—shape public policy according to their personal views, or try to repair American democracy?
In my work as a Superintendent for 29 years and school-based administrator and teacher before that I found the glacial pace of change to be frustrating… but the long I worked the more I appreciated the fact that school boards were the purest form of democracy. They receive little to no compensation and are only interested in what they believe to be the public’s interest… and the public is generally satisfied with the overall way schools are operated and are, therefore, resistant to the kinds of changes the mega-philanthropists advocate. Indeed, they are often resistant to the kinds of changes that I view as beneficial for children: changes like the provision of social services within the school and support for parents before children enter school. But school boards DO listen to reason and CAN be persuaded, especially if it will yield a better life for the children they serve. I would urge the mega-philanthropists to use their funds to help underwrite the “education” of school boards, administrators, and teachers— to persuade them that the approaches they want to take will work in their schools. Inside Out and Bottom Up takes time… but the end result is always better and who knows… in their efforts to “educate” school boards, administrators, and teachers the mega-philanthropists might educate themselves!
If the Return to a Manufacturing Economy is a Mirage, What Kind of Schooling Is Needed to be “Ready to Work”?
“The Mirage of a Return to a Manufacturing Economy“, Eduardo Porter’s column in yesterday’s NYTimes, describes the cold hard facts about the direction our economy is headed. Three paragraphs in the middle of the article outline the problem:
Look at it this way: Over the course of the 20th century, farm employment in the United States dropped to 2 percent of the work force from 41 percent, even as output soared. Since 1950, manufacturing’s share has shrunk to 8.5 percent of nonfarm jobs, from 24 percent. It still has a ways to go.
The shrinking of manufacturing employment is global. In other words, strategies to restore manufacturing jobs in one country will amount to destroying them in another, in a worldwide zero-sum game.
The loss of such jobs has created plenty of problems in the United States. For the countless workers living in less developed reaches of the world, though, it adds up to a potential disaster.
The article offers liberal economist Joseph Stiglitz’ perspective on the phenomenon of technological advances replacing manufacturing followed by Porter’s reaction to the political response:
“The observation is uncontroversial,” said Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-winning economist at Columbia University. “Global employment in manufacturing is going down because productivity increases are exceeding increases in demand for manufactured products by a significant amount.”
The consequences of this dynamic are often misunderstood, not least by politicians offering slogans to fix them.
While Porter focuses on the slogans dealing with economic issues like increasing tariffs and/or stepping away from trade agreements, he could just as easily have focussed on the slogans about “preparing our students to compete in a global economy”. After reading Porter’s analysis and the reactions of economists like Stiglitz, it is hard to imagine how public education as it exists today is doing anything to prepare students for a global economy where manufacturing jobs are on the decline across the globe. The notion that offering more STEM courses or teaching coding to students is the answer seems foolish. So if the jobs of the future are not in the manufacturing sector, where will they be and what policies should be put in place to prepare students? Mr. Porter offers his advice to politicians:
Note to Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump: A grab at the world’s manufacturing jobs is the wrong answer. Walls will damage prosperity, not enhance it. Promises to recapture industrial-era greatness ring hollow.
The United States, though, does have options: health care, education and clean energy, just to name a few. They present big economic and political challenges, of course — not least the enormous inefficiency of private American medicine and Republicans’ blanket opposition to more public spending.
Yet just as the federal government once provided a critical push to move the economy from its agricultural past into its industrial future, so, too, could it help build a postindustrial tomorrow.
Mr. Porter concludes his column there… without describing what the federal government could do to “…build a postindustrial tomorrow”. From here, I doubt that an education policy that uses standardized test results to measure the quality of education is the direction to head since health care requires the ability to interact effectively in providing face-to-face services, education requires the provision of face-to-face tailored instruction, and clean energy requires the use of creative thinking. Most importantly, someone needs to begin promoting the notion that we might need to scale down our standard of living if we hope to avoid the “…worldwide zero sum game” that Porter envisions if we DON’T find a way to deal with the replacement of middle class wages that a large sector of our economy earned performing tasks that are now done cheaply and effectively by robots.
Bernie Sanders’ issued a message to the 1% that “enough is enough”. What Mr. Sanders DIDN’T note is that his proposal for a $15/hour wage would ensure that every American would earn an amount that would make them the 1% in the global economy… and in a zero sum game that would inevitably lead to some country or culture wanting to destroy ours. Maybe part of our curriculum in public schools should be to challenge students to examine what they have and what they need and determine their own definition of “enough”. That would be a far greater challenge than learning how to code.
The Misunderstanding of Mindfulness: It’s NOT a Tool for Efficient Thought; Is IS a Means of Observing Thought
When I am not writing blog posts in the morning I try to spend 30-40 minutes meditating and reading the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh. I’ve attended several retreats he led before a stroke left him incapacitated and as recently as last weekend visited Blue Cliff Monastery where monks and nuns lead retreats in the Plum Village tradition he established.
Given this background in Eastern teachings, I found a recent NYTimes column in the “Job Market” section, Achieving Mindfulness at Work, No Meditation Cushion Required, to be maddeningly misleading. Written by Mathew May, an author and— based on the content of his essay— a management consultant, Mr. May oversimplifies mindfulness and waters it down in a fashion that I find to be misleading and, frankly, indicate his limited understanding of the term. He writes:
By most definitions, mindfulness is a higher-order attention that involves noticing changes around us and fully experiencing them in real time. This puts us in the present, aware and responsive, making everything fresh and new again.
Meditation is simply one of several tools for achieving mindfulness, and in the context of work it may not be the most suitable for many people. For those who, like me, can’t seem to get the hang of meditation, there is good news: You don’t have to meditate to become more mindful.
There are two approaches to mindfulness: Eastern and Western. The Eastern view indeed positions meditation as an essential tool to achieving a mindful state. But the Eastern view is more about quieting the mind and suspending thought. This philosophy is almost the complete opposite of the Western view of mindfulness, which centers on active thinking.
I would argue that given the speed of change today, it may not be realistic to suspend or stop thinking. Rather, we need to actively think through problems in new ways to achieve innovative, elegant solutions. These will not rain from on high in a meditation session.
These paragraphs indicate that Mr. May has two notions about mindfulness meditation that are incorrect. First and foremost, nothing “rains on high” as a result of meditation. Everything about meditation is an inside-out process and not top-down or outside-in. Second, and nearly as important, the “Eastern view” is not about “suspending thought” it is about “observing and accepting” thought. Part of the meditation practice is recognizing when thoughts arise on the cushion so that one can eventually control one’s reaction to those thoughts when they arise off the cushion.
At the end of his essay, Mr. May offers an algorithm for using meditation on the job, one that presumes an individual can achieve “self-distancing” in “a few easy steps”. My response to this approach is a mixture of envy and dismay. It might be possible that Mr. May was able to achieve the “self-distancing” by applying an algorithm that is fast and efficient, and it might be possible for others to do so as well. In that case I am envious. But it may also be possible that Mr. May— in his goal oriented desire to sharpen his active thinking— is completely avoiding an opportunity to dig deeply into his own nature and diverting others from that same opportunity. In that case I am filled with dismay. Developing the self-awareness that leads to “self-distancing” takes a long time and— at least in my personal experience— leads to a humility because I am beginning to understand how little I really know about myself and the world around me.