Schizophrenia of Education “Reform” Movement

Gates ProtestOver the weekend, Dean Baker wrote, An Innovative Way to Address Teacher Shortages: Higher Pay. It’s a very short and snarky post, in reference to an article in The New York Times, Teacher Shortages Spur a Nationwide Hiring Scramble (Credentials Optional). As Baker noted, it’s an interesting article. But it fails to mention the obvious market oriented approach to bringing more workers into an industry: raising wages. I wonder why that is?

There are a couple of parts to this. The first is that as a nation — especially in the political class — we are schizophrenic about teachers. On the one hand, we think that teachers are lazy and don’t care in the least about children or teaching. “Damned teachers’ unions!” On the other hand, we think that teachers only care about teaching the kids and so we don’t have to pay them well. It makes absolutely no sense. The best you can say about this is that maybe they don’t actually think that teachers only care about the kids, but just that teachers should only care about the kids. And that’s even worse.

Of course, all the teacher haters out there wouldn’t go to their jobs in grocery stores and banks and restaurants — not to mention newspapers and magazines and television stations — without being paid. They know how monetary considerations affect their personal and work lives. But applying it to teaching somehow seems wrong. I think their ideas about teaching come from watching Little House on the Prairie, where teachers were young women waiting to get married.

But this brings up a larger issue that I think about a lot. But its one that the whole education “reform” movement seems totally oblivious to. Regardless of what they will say, the single biggest issue for these “reformers” is to get rid of teachers’ worker protections. They want to make teachers at will employees so that they can be fired without cause. This is supposedly what it is going to take to have a first rate education system. Somehow, making teacher jobs more like server jobs at Denny’s is critical.

I’ll admit that doing that will certainly be a way of getting rid of bad teachers fast. But in my entire work life, I haven’t found that the bad workers are the people who get fired. In fact, it is more often the good workers. This is because people usually get fired for personal reasons — because they aren’t liked by those doing the hiring and firing. Also: people who disrupt tend to get fired. You know: the kind of people who are often the very best teachers.

But apart from that, the great push in the education “reform” movement is to make teaching a less appealing profession. I know that the supposed reformers will say this isn’t true. They will claim that good teachers will thrive in this environment. But that isn’t the way people looking at going into teaching will see it. Few will go into the profession thinking they will be the very best. Most will go into the profession thinking that can do a good job and have a decent career. But not in the brave new world of the education “reform” movement. They will instead see a job where they are forced to make students perform well on standardized tests and probably have a half dozen different jobs in their career.

So the current state of education “reform” is just as schizophrenic as our general outlook on teachers: “Teacher jobs are just too cushy and we can’t find anyone to fill them!” But as I’ve written before, the goal is not to improve education. It is to decimate public education. After that’s done, all that sweet money now going to the “reform” movement will dry up, because the billionaires giving it will have accomplished their goals.

I have an idea: how about we start thinking seriously about education and not just doing what the billionaires want?

A Quotation on Quotations

A Dictionary of Modern English UsageDidactic and polemical writers quote passages from others to support themselves by authority or to provide themselves with something to controvert; critics quote from the books they examine in illustration of their estimates. These are matters of business on which no general advice need be offered. But the literary or decorative quotation is another thing. A writer expresses himself in words that have been used before because they give his meaning better than he can give it himself, or because they are beautiful or witty, or because he expects them to touch a chord of association in his reader, or because he wishes to show that he is learned and well read. Quotations due to the last motive are invariably ill-advised; the discerning reader detects it and is contemptuous; the undiscerning is perhaps impressed, but even then is at the same time repelled, quotations being the surest road to tedium; the less experienced a writer is, and therefore on the whole the less well-read he is also, the more is he tempted to this error; the experienced knows he had better avoid it; and the well-read, aware that he could quote if he would, is not afraid that readers will think he cannot. Quoting for association’s sake, has more chance of success, or less certainty of failure; but it needs a homogeneous audience; if a jest’s prosperity lies in the ear of him that hears it, so too does a quotation’s; to each reader those quotations are agreeable that neither strike him as hackneyed nor rebuke his ignorance by their complete novelty, but rouse dormant memories; quotations, then, should be adapted to the probable reader’s degree of cultivation; which presents a very pretty problem to those who have a mixed audience to face; the less mixed the audience, the safer is it to quote for association. Lastly, the saying wise or witty or beautiful with which it may occur to us to adorn our own inferior matter, not for business, not for benefit or clergy, not for charm of association, but as carvings on a cathedral façade, or pictures on the wall, or shells in a bowerbird’s run, have we the skill to choose and place them? Are we architects, or bric-à-brac dealers, or what?

—Henry Watson Fowler
A Dictionary of Modern English Usage

The US Does Not Have a Labor Market

David Cay JohnstonDavid Cay Johnston has been writing a lot of great stuff over at Al Jazeera America. This last week he wrote, Flat Wages Show the US Doesn’t Have a Labor Market. That’s quite a thing for a conservative to say. But that’s one of the things that is so great about Johnston: he doesn’t follow the herd. He is, fundamentally, conservative. But he isn’t partisan. The person I most associate him with is Dean Baker. The fact is that even though they come at problems from different points of view, they both are interested in the common good. And they see that our system does not facilitate that.

In this article, Johnston focuses on the Supreme Court’s definition of a market. He wrote, “The high court has held that a market requires a buyer (employer) and seller (worker) acting without coercion and a reasonable command of the facts reaching an agreement on price (pay).” This is really critical. We have a tendency to be really loose when it comes to this kind of stuff. But not any system where goods and services are transferred is a market. No one would say that a mafia protection scheme is a market, even though a service (not getting beaten up or killed) is exchanged for money. Coercion really is key.

So let’s look at labor. Is it a market in this sense? Not at all. It is totally coercive. I’ve talked about this a lot. People don’t have a choice but to have a job. We are all born into the Monopoly game with all the properties already sold. So we can’t just farm a fallow field or hunt. Nor can we just cut down some trees and build a house. These are all options that civilization has taken away. But in the conservative mind (and even more, the libertarian mind), civilization owes nothing to the individual. Rights have been taken away and not replaced, but they think it is “natural.”

But we can see that there is no labor market just by the outcome. Macroeconomics is nothing but feedbacks. So wealth should be something that is constantly circling around the economy. But it largely isn’t. Other than the late 1990s, when has the the US economy reached full employment? You’d have to go back more than a generation. Full employment is the exception, not the rule. And this means that workers have basically no leverage in the economy: there are always more people than jobs. And the end result is that money piles up with people who already have large piles.

Johnston puts forth two ideas[1] on how we could go about creating a labor market in this country. The first is to raise the minimum wage. I’m for that. But it is also the case that it is a remedy that doesn’t fix the underlying problem. Clearly it should be done, however. Second, is that we should encourage the creation of labor unions. This is the core of the issue. And from my perspective, we should mandate labor unions. When I was a libertarian, I used to argue this. You couldn’t have management able to organize as a unit and not have labor do the same thing. Almost no libertarians believe this, because they don’t actually believe in “free markets and free minds”; they just hate workers. (Note how popular libertarianism is among upper middle class white college graduates.)

But the Republicans are not willing to touch this stuff. And to be honest, the Democrats are fairly squishy on it as well. But these are things that we should all agree on. In particular, the minimum wage is something that even majorities of Republicans believe in. Really, it all comes down to accountability. Johnston wrote, “Congress will act only when voters make the reelection of representatives depend on raising wages.” That’s true. The problem is that too many of the people affected are too busy working second and third jobs to show up at the polls.

[1] He talked about a third one, but it is fairly technical: labor inspectors. It’s important though.

What God Wants Republicans to Do

Republican God

I thought we would take a moment to consider the worst question at last Thursday’s Republican presidential debate. It was from a Facebook user, so that Fox News could deflect blame as if this is the kind of thing that the people just really care about, “I want to know if any of them have received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first.” It actually sounds kind of snarky. I wonder if the questioner was really just posing it to see how many of the candidates would claim that God told them he wanted them to be president. But most likely, it was a thoroughly genuine question.

I hate this kind of thing, because even though I’m an atheist, I take religion seriously. I admire people who are religious. One of the reasons I admire them is that they are incredibly rare in this country. Most religious people I talk to have no sense of theology. They are religious in the same way that others are Giants fans because they grew up in San Francisco and were forced to watch games while they grew up. But at least the Giants fans understand the game of baseball. They don’t just pretend while having little idea what’s actually going on in the field.

On the plus side, no one claimed that God wanted them to run for president. That is apparently so 2012! Ted Cruz instead said, “I am blessed to receive a word from God every day in receiving the scriptures and reading the scriptures. And God speaks through the Bible.” He then went on to talk about how God cured his father of alcoholism, but apparently not of being a hateful bigot. And then he got down to the meat of it, “You shall know them by their fruit.” And that means that the Republicans must nominate “someone who has been a fiscal conservative, a social conservative, a national security conservative.” Because Jesus.

John Kasich said he believed in miracles because his father was a mailman and his maternal grandmother could “barely speak English.” Then he went on with some boilerplate about community and opportunity. And then he said what all American Christians seem to believe, “[God] wants America to be strong. He wants America to succeed. And he wants America to lead.” Because Jesus? I don’t know. The truth is that Kasich is the only one up there on that stage that shows any sign of what is termed “God’s love.” But he too seems to be stuck in the religion as signifier nonsense.

Scott Walker got real Christian, “I’m certainly an imperfect man. And it’s only by the blood of Jesus Christ that I’ve been redeemed from my sins.” He then went on to talk about the protesters in his state and how he was able to do what he thought was God’s will. So cutting union rights is something that God cares about?! God the micro-manager — I love it! I think that Walker may be confused between the Christian God and the Koch brothers. And let’s be clear: he’s doing the Koch brothers’ bidding, not God’s. He might want to check that book he claims to love so much. But he won’t. Because Koch money.

Megyn Kelly has a reputation for being smart, but I think that is just the result of low expectations: “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” So for Marco Rubio, she wanted to combine God and veterans. A real debate moderator would have asked these fools to combine their belief in God and their knee-jerk support for war. But we couldn’t have that. So Rubio was allowed to waffle away. He used the word “bless” six times in his first 58 words — “we” are blessed, the Republican Party is blessed, and most of all America is blessed. Also: Obama has destroyed the VA. Because Jesus.

Megyn Kelly also mixed the question up for Ben Carson; he was supposed to combine God with race relations. Carson used it as an opportunity to make old white people know that even though he is a black man, he is not one of those demanding ones. He is the kind that will tell them that racism is over — except for the occasional person who still uses the n-word or goes on a murder rampage at a Black church. We must never divide the nation by not pretending that everything is just fine. Because Jesus was big on ignoring problems. “And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man… Wait! Forget that. The rich are cool. No problem with the rich. No injustice in this world. No, not a bit. Don’t want to divide anyone.”

And then it was time for the closing statements where only Huckabee mentioned God, and just in passing.

Anniversary Post: 433 Eros

433 ErosOn this day in 1898, 433 Eros was discovered. It was the first near-earth asteroid ever discovered. It has a fairly elliptical orbit, and crosses the orbit of Mars. Currently, it does not cross the Earth’s orbit. But that could change. So people who worry about this kind of stuff pay a lot of attention to the asteroid. In fact, 433 Eros was the first asteroid that we put a spacecraft in orbit around. It eventually landed on it.

Like most asteroids, 433 Eros is irregularly shaped, but it is not a tiny thing. It’s about 20 miles long and about 7 miles in the other directions. This makes it roughly half the size of the asteroid that destroyed the dinosaurs. So if it hit the earth, it would destroy everything. We would almost certainly go extinct. It’s interesting how we live our lives in blissful ignorance of the many threats that lurk in the vast unknown.

Happy birthday 433 Eros!