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Assuming Higher Taxes on the Rich is a “Solution” Also Assumes that “Markets” Are Acceptable and Just… and Markets are Neither

December 31, 2019 Comments off

The title of UMass-Boston economics professor emeritus Arthur MacEwan’s recent Dollars and Sense article that was reposted in Common Dreams poses this question:

Are Taxes the Best Way of Dealing With Inequality?

The subheading of the headline elaborates on the framing of the question and the article itself. It reads:

Taxes can redistribute income, but relying on taxes means we are accepting the way the system works—the way markets operate—to create inequality in the first place.

Mr. MacEwan then demonstrates that markets are neither natural nor just, illustrating how regulations and legal constructs undermine the natural impact of markets and, in doing so, distort the way the economy works in a way that contributes to inequality. I agreed almost entirely with Mr, MacEwan’s analysis, but differed with his conclusions about schooling. Here is the section he wrote on that topic:

Schooling and the labor market. Schooling, from pre-K through college, shapes the labor market. The U.S. school system is a multi-tiered system, preparing people for different levels in the workforce. Certain areas of education receive attention—which means funds—according to the needs of employers, as demonstrated by the emphasis in recent years on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. The structure of the school system, good or bad, is not a “natural” phenomenon, but it greatly affects the operation of the labor market and the distribution of income.

Mr MacEwan’s belief that “certain areas of education receive attention” in the form of funds misses an important reality. It is not certain academic disciplines like STEM that receive additional funds, it is certain school districts that receive additional funds… and it isn’t the districts serving poverty stricken areas that receive the additional funds, its the affluent districts. And that reality plays into the conclusions he draws about the difficulty faced in making changes:

…Financial institutions, fossil fuel firms, pharmaceutical companies, software giants, and many others use their wealth and power to see that markets are constructed in ways that work for them… They get the rules made the way they want, play by the rules, and then claim they deserve what they get because they played by the rules. Nonsense, yes, but effective nonetheless.

Of course, it is difficult to fight these powerful firms and the individuals who reap their fortunes through these firms. They are quite powerful. But there is no reason to think it is more difficult than raising their taxes.

A first step is to establish a wide understanding of the fact that markets are social constructs and that they can be constructed differently.They have been structured differently in the past, and they can be structured differently in the future… Even if little change comes in the short run, it is important to send the message that just because firms and rich people play by the rules of the markets, this does not lead to the conclusion that the results are just. (And, of course, they often don’t play by the rules!)

Schools have been structured differently in the past… and not necessarily in ways that helped address inequality. Until child labor laws were passed at the turn of the 20th century education was limited to the elite. Until Brown v. Board of Education our social construct of “separate but equal” schooling for minority students was deemed acceptable. We ostensibly offer an equal opportunity to all children and yet the evidence indicates that systemic change is needed if we want to truly offer such an opportunity to all.

Mr. MacEwan is right in his assertion that the “winners” in our system “…get the rules made the way they want, play by the rules, and then claim they deserve what they get because they played by the rules.’ The school district boundaries are social constructs as surely as the markets and the “sorting and selection” structure of our education system whereby students compete with age cohorts is a construct as surely as the “separate but equal” structure was a construct. Until we change the mental models we use to construct the rulebooks that favor those who claim they deserve what they got we will continue reinforcing the economic system we have in place… and the rich will continue to get richer.

Insightful Inquirer Article Sidesteps Segregation that Resulted from Suburban Exclusionary Zoning

December 30, 2019 Comments off

An insightful article by Jason Laughlin in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer describes how racist covenants in the early 1900s restricted black families’ access to some neighborhoods in that city. Drawing on research done by Larry Santucci, a senior research fellow at the Consumer Finance Institute of the Federal Reserve Bank, Mr. Laughlin’s article describes how “...deeds for Philadelphia homes included racially restrictive covenants, with language barring minorities from buying into the neighborhood.”  His research found that “...the practice was especially widespread in two wards in the Northeast” where “…currently, only 18% of the residents in those wards are African American, compared with 49% in the rest of Philadelphia“. He also sensed that his research scratched the surface and offered this understated paragraph:

Philadelphia’s poshest addresses didn’t need (restricted deeds)… There, minorities were excluded largely by housing being out of their price range.

As noted in earlier posts on this blog noting the link between zoning and school segregation, I wrote an essay on this topic when I attended graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1972. That essay noted that exclusionary zoning practices in suburbs that bordered Philadelphia created artificially high housing process that effectively excluded minorities and families who qualified for Title One funds while generating higher property tax revenues that, in turn, resulted in well funded schools.

Nearly 50 years later, nothing has changed….

Bad News Betsy Blistered by Guardian

December 30, 2019 Comments off

Guardian writer David Smith wrote a blistering essay outlining the many ways Betsy DeVos has undermined public schools in her short tenure as Secretary of Education. Here are some highlights, beginning with Randi Weingarten’s assessment:

“We’ve had plenty of Republican as well as Democratic secretaries of education but none of them, even those who believed in alternatives to public education, actually tried to eviscerate public education,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Here is someone who in her first budget tried to eliminate every single summer school programme, every single after-school programme, and who has done everything in her power to try to make it harder for us to strengthen public [sector] schools.”

Then there’s the federal court’s assessment:

DeVos is currently attacking a programme, known as “borrower defense to repayment”, intended to forgive federal loans for students whose colleges misrepresent the quality of their education or otherwise commit fraud. The programme was expanded under Barack Obama but DeVos has been accused of stalling it for more than a year while she altered the rules and made it harder for students to get loan relief, resulting in a large backlog.

Last month, a federal judge held DeVos in contempt for violating an order to stop collecting loan payments from former Corinthian Colleges students, a for-profit college chain that collapsed in 2015 amid allegations that it lied about the success of its graduates in order to get students to enroll.

And centrist MD legislator John Delaney’s take:

“If we were grading her on a report card, I would give her very low grades if not a failing grade,” he said by phone from Iowa. “The reason I think she has not been a successful secretary of educationwas obvious from the day she was given the job, which is she doesn’t believe in the public education system in this country. She would voucherise the whole system if she could.”

But the most chilling quote from Mr. Delaney was this one:

Delaney warned: “We have to be careful not to be so preoccupied with every single ridiculous thing the president does because, to some extent, it might be a strategy to distract us from the bad policy that’s actually getting done.Obviously the things he did with Ukraine deserve this attention they’re getting. But in some ways he’s the bright, shiny light and every little tweet causes people to just be incredibly preoccupied.

“Meanwhile, environmental regulations are getting rolled back. Ethanol waivers are being granted. There are proposals to spin off the entire student loan portfolio of the Department of Education. The list goes on and on and on of real policies that are happening that deserve much more attention. She has largely kept her head down and gone about her business, which I think is ideologically driven and hasn’t attracted that much attention.”

John Delaney is onto something insidious: while the President issues ridiculous tweets that occupy bandwidth on the evening news his appointees and the anti-government wing of the GOP are doing horrific damage to our country… damage that will cost billions of dollars and, in all probability, decades to repair.

Mr. Smith’s article concludes with this prediction from Neil Sroka, an activist from Michigan:

“(Betsy DeVos)… scion of wealth and privilege has never had a real job but made it her life’s work to attack public schools, teachers and students. She only escapes scrutiny because so much incompetence, grief and evil comes out of this administration that she’s been able to ride out the storm. But she’s made it much more likely we’ll get a Democratic education secretary who’s a real champion for teachers.

Sroka’s prediction will only come true if we elect a Democrat who opposes the neoliberal agenda. If the Democrats choose someone in the mold of Barak Obama or Bill Clinton they will likely get a secretary of education in the mold of Arne Duncan, someone who will never be held up as “…a real champion for teachers”.

Michigan Spent Millions for Charter Schools That Never Opened…. But Is Prepared to Spend Millions More

December 30, 2019 Comments off

Michigan Public Radio reporter Dustin Dwyer provided his listeners with a synopsis of a study done by the Network for Public Education (NPE) that determined that 72 of the 257 charter schools receiving federal funding never opened… a dubious record that was unmatched by any other state in the union. But that’s not the worst:

Another 40 charter schools in Michigan that received money have since closed. In total, 44% of the schools that won grants are no longer open.

Despite that, Michigan is moving ahead with the latest round of the federal program, which could send an additional $47 million to the state’s charter schools.

Mr. Dwyer reported that some of the Michigan State Board members expressed misgivings over the oversight of these funds, but the majority of members endorsed the continuation of the program and State Superintendent Michael Rice “…told members of the State Board of Education at a meeting Tuesday that he’s asking the Michigan Department of Education to keep a closer eye on funding for the next round of grants.” Given NPE’s analysis, it seems that he or his predecessor failed to do this in the past:

The report from the Network for Public Education lists several examples from Michigan in which charter school operators paid themselves, or their family members, tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees for schools that never opened.

Given the loose regulations governing charter schools it is no surprise that “entrepreneurs” are seizing the opportunity to make money at the expense of taxpayers. But those who favor the application of the marketplace model for the public sector will be quick to point out that failing schools, like failing restaurants, failing casinos, or failing hotels, will close. The collateral damage to the “customers” in schools, though, is more far reaching than the collateral damage to customers in other failed businesses.

Heartwarming Stories About Individuals Helping the Homeless, Churches Paying Medical Debts, and Gritty Students Undercut the Need for Government Aid

December 29, 2019 Comments off

I read a recent Rolling Stone article by Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren that described how Russian trolls are planting “heartwarming stories” that attract liberals who are later fed stories and memes that are divisive. In analyzing how the Russian trolls work, they offered the story of former pro football player Warrick Dunn and his inspiring charity work building houses for single mothers, which was uplifting and inspirational. What Mr. Linvill and Mr. Warren failed to note, though, was that the story itself insidiously reinforces the notion that tough problems like homelessness among single parents can be addressed by big-hearted individuals. That is, tough social problems do not need any government intervention because there are virtuous individuals who will step in to solve the problem. The story may well entice people to follow the “individual” who posted it, but the content of the story effectively undercuts the role of government in providing housing assistance as do the “heartwarming stories” like the recent one I read about a mega church paying off the medical debts of people in LA.

And there is a subset of “heartwarming stories” that pro-school-choice and pro-privatization advocates promote. Stories that tout “gritty” students who overcome the deficient homes they are raised in. Stories that talk about heroic teachers like Jamie Escalante who can help disadvantaged children score high on AP Calculus tests despite gaps in their schooling they experienced prior to entering his classroom. Stories that champion the success of “start up” charter schools whose students score higher than their cohorts who remain in “failing public schools”. All of these stories reinforce the idea that there is sufficient funding for public schools and social services. If one student with grit can succeed then ALL children could succeed “if they put their minds to it”. If one teacher can teach calculus to disadvantaged urban students then ALL teachers could do so if they replicated the methods used by one. If one shiny new “start-up” charter school was able to succeed because it was freed from regulations and “competed in the marketplace” then ALL public schools should be able to do the same.

And these “heartwarming stories” contribute to divisiveness in communities and district in government as surely as the story about Warrick Dunn does. And the real message that these “heartwarming stories” reinforce is that there are cheap, easy and fast solutions to complicated problems. Unfortunately, even if such cheap, easy, and fast solutions exist, arriving at them requires a democratic process that is often more costly, slower, and more complicated.

The apocryphal story about the demise of democracy in Italy is that the voters got behind Mussolini because he was able to get the government operated trains to run on time. The fact is that Mussolini got the trains that served well-heeled tourists and affluent Italians to run on time knowing that by doing so he would generate positive publicity in the West and the support of the plutocrats in his own country. He also spent millions of dollars upgrading roads for the few Italians who had cars and airports for those who could afford to fly. If 100 people were killed building a train tunnel in the Alps and hundreds of poverty stricken residents were displaced to build roads and airports that was not at all problematic. After all, there would be jobs for them in the military, the police force, and guarding dissidents who were placed in prisons.

Our democracy is in peril because we are willing to ignore the costs or providing a sound government. We have elected a President and political party that favors deregulation and the dismantling of agencies that enforce whatever regulations remain in place. We have elected a President and political party that favors the privatization of public services even if it means diminishing compensation for a whole set of workers and diminishing levels of service for the majority of people. We have elected a President and political party who have lowered taxes for the most affluent based on the false promise that— like Warrick Dunn and the Los Angeles mega-church— they will share their largesse and expertise to ensure that everyone else benefits. I hope that voters will examine that premise carefully when they cast their ballots in 2020.

Today’s Collegians are Surveilled 24/7, in Keeping with In Loco Parentis Standards Set By Student’s Parents

December 27, 2019 Comments off

I was initially appalled when I read the headline in Drew Harwell’s Washington Post article that appeared earlier this week. It’s title, “Colleges are turning students’ phones into surveillance machines, tracking the locations of hundreds of thousands”, led me to wonder why college students were accepting this surveillance… until I reflected on the upbringing of today’s students.

The students entering college today are the first generation to go through their lives being surveilled from cradle to campus. Their parents almost certainly had baby monitors in their rooms and, as part of the post-Columbine generation, likely attended schools with video monitors in the hallways. Upon entering adolescence, their parents purchased cell phones and provided them with phone service, enabling the parents to monitor their every movement and check on every text and phone call and monitor their screen time. In short, in loco parentis- the concept that colleges should keep track of students in the same fashion as parents, is far different in the age of telecommunications than it was when I entered college in the 1960s and when my children entered in the 1980s and 1990s. I was not surprised to read the reaction of one parent who was pleased with the impact of this kind of monitoring:

Some parents, however, wish their children faced even closer supervision. Wes Grandstaff, who said his son, Austin, transformed from a struggling student to college graduate… said the added surveillance was worth it…

He now says he wishes schools would share the data with parents, too. “I just cut you a $30,000 check,” he said, “and I can’t find out if my kid’s going to class or not?”

The article also offers a chilling description of how acceptable this kind of monitoring is to students today and how administrators justify its use based on the results:

This style of surveillance has become just another fact of life for many Americans. A flood of cameras, sensors and microphones, wired to an online backbone, now can measure people’s activity and whereabouts with striking precision, reducing the mess of everyday living into trend lines that companies promise to help optimize.

Americans say in surveys they accept the technology’s encroachment because it often feels like something else: a trade-off of future worries for the immediacy of convenience, comfort and ease. If a tracking system can make students be better, one college adviser said, isn’t that a good thing?

As a parent who did not have a baby monitor, I can appreciate the “convenience, comfort and ease” that such a device offers. It would have saved many trips up and down stairs to see if my daughter was really taking a nap and many nights of shuttling between our bedroom and hers when she was fighting a childhood illness. And as a high school disciplinarian in the late 1970s I would have appreciated the ability to remotely monitor distant hallways and to track students who were wandering off campus instead of attending class. But as a parent and school administrator, I have some misgivings about the overreach of technology, especially when it is being used to classify students and predict misbehavior as described in the article:

A classifier algorithm divides the student body into peer groups — “full-time freshmen,” say, or “commuter students” — and the system then compares each student to “normal” behavior, as defined by their peers. It also generates a “risk score” for students based around factors such as how much time they spent in community centers or at the gym.

The students who deviate from those day-to-day campus rhythms are flagged for anomalies, and the company then alerts school officials in case they want to pursue real-world intervention.

And what might that intervention looks like? In one case cited in the article, the university sent an adviser to knock on the student’s door. On one level, that kind of intercession seems invasive. Yet if the gathered data suggests the student is suicidal or, worse, contemplating and capable of carrying out some kind of shooting the institution would be faulted if it failed to act. This kind of conundrum contributes to the mixed responses of students, a response that is ultimately fatalistic given the ceaseless “advancement” of technology:

Students disagree on whether the campus-tracking systems are a breach of privacy, and some argue they have nothing to hide. But one feeling is almost universally shared, according to interviews with more than a dozen students and faculty members: that the technology is becoming ubiquitous, and that the people being monitored — their peers, and themselves — can’t really do anything about it.

But some administrators and students are rightfully concerned. Here’s the reaction of a disaffected administrator:

“It embodies a very cynical view of education — that it’s something we need to enforce on students, almost against their will,” said Erin Rose Glass, a digital scholarship librarian at the University of California San Diego. “We’re reinforcing this sense of powerlessness … when we could be asking harder questions, like: Why are we creating institutions where students don’t want to show up?”

And here’s a disenchanted student’s reaction:

“We’re adults. Do we really need to be tracked?” said Robby Pfeifer, a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, which recently began logging the attendance of students connected to the campus’ WiFi network. “Why is this necessary? How does this benefit us? … And is it just going to keep progressing until we’re micromanaged every second of the day?

Mr. Harwell does an admirable job of providing a balanced perspective on this difficult issue, his closing paragraphs reveal the paradoxical perspective on the issue of 24/7 surveillance:

Joanna Grama, an information-security consultant and higher-education specialist who has advised the Department of Homeland Security on data privacy, said she doubted most students knew they were signing up for long-term monitoring when they clicked to connect to the campus WiFi.

She said she worries about school-performance data being used as part of a “cradle-to-grave profile” trailing students as they graduate and pursue their careers. She also questions how all this digital nudging can affect students’ daily lives.

“At what point in time do we start crippling a whole generation of adults, human beings, who have been so tracked and told what to do all the time that they don’t know how to fend for themselves?” she said. “Is that cruel? Or is that kind?”

Little Libertarian Home Schooler on the Prairie and Cato Homeschooler in Cambridge

December 25, 2019 Comments off

Earlier this month, the Foundation for Economic Education, a libertarian economics site dedicated to promoting the ideals of Milton Friedman and his acolytes, posted an article by Kerry MacDonald extolling the virtues of home schooling based on the mid-20th Century works of Rose Wilder Lane. Ms. Lane, whose mother Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the Little House on the Prairie series beloved of children (including my two daughters) and the basis for a TV series of the same name, was a staunch opponent of any and all government coercion, including public education. Ms. Lane’s views on public schooling, written in 1943, are quoted in Ms. MacDonald’s article:

American schooling is now compulsory, enforced by the police and controlled by the State (that is, by the politicians in office) and paid for by compulsory taxes. The inevitable result is to postpone a child’s growing-up. He passes from the authority of his parents to the authority of the police. He has no control of his time and no responsibility for its use until he is sixteen years old. His actual situation does not require him to develop self-reliance, self-discipline and responsibility; that is, he has no actual experience of freedom in his youth.

Surprisingly, I find myself concurring with Mr. Lane on this perspective, particularly given the increase in surveillance and the introduction of “good guys with guns” in schools. And Ms. Lane’s observation that:

…this type of American education, imported from Prussia by 19th-century education reformers, “is ideal for the German state, whose subjects are not expected ever to know freedom,” but it is “not the best preparation for inheriting the leadership of the World Revolution for freedom”

But I was a bit unsettled when I read her ultimate thinking about schooling, which effectively sought to eliminate all compulsion:

(Ms. Lane) laments the “substitution of compulsory State education for the former American free education,” saying that formerly “American children went to school because they wanted to go, or because their parents sent them,” not because it was mandated of parents under a legal threat of force.

Maybe Ms. Lane’s 1943 memory of “American free education” was untarnished based on her prairie experiences, but urban children who three decades earlier worked in mines, mills and factories probably appreciated compulsory education as compared to compulsory slave labor. And, while Ms. McDonald, who resides in Cambridge MA is able to provide her curious and well educated children a robust curriculum outside the conventional classroom, it is unlikely that some of her neighbors who are working two jobs in the gig economy can do the same thing for their children. But in the rarified atmosphere of the Cato institute these discrepancies probably don’t matter.