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As some of you may have noticed, I went on one of my informal (self-)promotional campaigns recently on Facebook, posting links to my Colorado Confluence Facebook page on a variety of group sites (and some friends’ pages) that seemed like well-chosen places to do a little advertising. On one FB page I chose, “You know you’re a political staffer when…,” I was received with the reflexive vitriol that seems to have become an integral part of what passes for political discourse these days. Apparently, the sole purpose of the page was to complete the title phrase (though I saw plenty of posts that did not serve that purpose, without complaint), and my post was an act of “hijacking the thread” (the whole page being conceived of as a single thread).

One poster there complained that I should be dismissed for writing “impractical abstract bullshit” rather than manning the phones in order to move the political needle a little. That got me thinking (and pontificating): What is the relative value of my “impractical abstract bullshit,” and what is the relative value of manning the phones to move the polical needle a little (in competition, of course, with those of the opposite ideology, doing the same in the opposite direction). (I also threw in a long list of the other things I’ve been doing to affect the world positively, that might compare favorably to manning the phones….)

So, here are some of the things that economically, sociologically, and legally informed “impractical abstract bullshit” helps with, if you are involved in “politics” (which used to –and still should– mean the art of devising and implementing “policies”):

1) A popular mental health “consumer movement” idea called “money follows the individual” is burdened with the same flaw that the popular “school voucher” idea bears: It allocates money equally to individuals, thus leaving those with the greatest needs in a ghetto of underfunded and underserved extreme problems. (See School Vouchers, Pros & Cons)

2) School reform requires the opposite of current popular incarnations of it, with more attention to community involvement, more attention to holistic and integrated child development, and more attention to creating a culture of positive reinforcement through, for instance, designing school programs and policies which give students a stake in one another’s success. (See Real Education Reform and Mistaken Locus of Education Reform)

3) While we do have to create a trajectory in which our national debt is stabilized as a proportion of GDP, it is not the urgent problem that some pretend it is. In fact, new debt is being financed at a rate about equal to the rate of inflation, meaning that in real terms it is costless to finance. And our current entire national debt is equal to about one year’s GDP, which compares very favorably to the average homeowner, whose household debt in the early years of home ownership is equal to several years’ income. Also, the private sector, to which many conservatives bow as the model to which the public sector should aspire, relies on credit as the life-blood of its operations. (See The Economic Debate We’re Not Having , The Real Deficit , The Restructuring of the American and Global Economy , The More Subtle & Salient Economic Danger We Currently Face, and Why Extreme Income and Wealth Inequality Matters)

4) Popular attitudes toward “illegal immigration” in the United States sometimes parallels deeply discredited historical chapters of identifying reviled “foreigners” living within a nation, and seeking to remove them. While there are important differences between our current political situation vis-a-vis our undocumented residents, and the most infamous of historical chapters of mass xenophobic scapegoating (e.g., our directly targeted foreign population does not include descendents of immigrants, but only those who actually crossed the border after their own birth; and our treatment is not yet at “concentration camp” levels, let alone approaching genocide, though detailed knowledge reduces this gap to an extent that would surprise many, including a family detention center that made small children stand at attention for hours and urinate in their pants). (See A comprehensive overview of the immigration issue, Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding, and Basal Ganglia v. Cerebral Cortex, Basal Ganglia Keeping Score)

The list, of course, goes on (and on, and on, and on…; see Catalogue of Selected Posts), but the point here is that it pays to think about the world we live in; and think about the exact nature of the policies we are currently pursuing or advocating, versus the exact nature of the policies that a better informed and more reflective stance might support instead.

Apropos this discussion, I responded to Ed Quillen’s column in today’s Denver post (The Hazards of Nitpicking: http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_19360471?source=bb) with a discussion of the importance of getting the facts and analysis right, rather than merely engaging in the blind partisan warfare and ritualism that the critical poster on that FB page was so committed to. My DP comment (which for some reason does not seem to appear after the column on the DP website) is reproduced below:

Excellent point, Ed!

As a Progressive Blogger (at http://coloradoconfluence.com/) and person engaged, in many different ways, in our shared human enterprise, the only ideology I want to see anyone embrace is the one that acknowledges the limitations of our knowledge and understanding, and commits us to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill working together to confront the challenges of a complex and subtle world.

I cringe just as much when I see a Progressive leap to some insufficiently supported conclusion, or cling to some insufficiently justified assumption, as when I see a conservative do it, because it is just as counterproductive to our collective welfare (more so, in some ways, since it squanders the opportunity to define ourselves as something other than blind ideologues opposing other blind ideologues).

The real political divide isn’t between the Right and the Left (or Libertarians and “Statists,” or whatever substantive dichotomy you might want to define yourself by), but rather between those who, on the one hand, are committed to applying reason to reliable evidence in service to human welfare, all things considered, and those who, on the other, want to engage in blind ideological warfare, relying on cheap and irrelevant shots, shoddy or false information, poorly reasoned arguments, and cynical and base methodologies of all sorts, ranging from mindless marketing of candidates and policies to disingenuous smear campaigns to simply inventing facts to suit one’s ideological convenience, in service to the displaced goals of advancing an insufficiently examined ideology rather than advancing the interests of humanity.

Ed, there is no message that needs to be repeated as frequently and as forcefully as the one you’ve reiterated in this column. Thanks!

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

Given Douglas County’s move toward school vouchers (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_16803779), now is a good time to cut through the rhetoric, the ideology, and the assumptions, and examine the idea thoroughly and fairly.

The logic behind school vouchers is that by providing parents with the ability to take the tax revenue allotted to their child(ren) to whatever public or private school they choose, competition for students will ensue, and the quality of education in all schools will improve (or some will simply “go out of business,” to be replaced by those that have a more successful business model, better competing for the revenue that follows students to the schools of their choice). The argument against school vouchers revolves around the notion that they undermine our commitment to public education.

On the plus side, school vouchers empower parents and students to make their own choices regarding what school they feel best serves their educational needs. They incorporate market forces and competitive pressures into our national struggle to improve our abysmally poorly performing public education system. They do not, inherently, reduce the public investment in education, but rather merely contract out for educational services to the private sector.

On the negative side, school voucher programs are likely to create a permanent underclass of the poorest performing students left isolated in the most underfunded schools. They undermine communities most in need of the benefits of strong community solidarity, by creating a vehicle for abandoning what is often the central cohesive force in our modern communities: The local school. They undermine our commitment to education as “the great equalizer” by, ironically, assigning to each student an equal share of the tax revenue dedicated to public education, thus disenabling increased spending on those with greater needs. And they do absolutely nothing to address the problems of education where they reside, in our homes and communities, in our norms and ideologies, in our cultural anti-intellectualism and preference for mindless distractions over disciplined engagement with the world.

Since private schools are able to accept or reject applicants at will, and acceptance of vouchers will be made on the basis of their school mission and their profit-motive, the students most in need of the most attention will tend to be declined, while the students who are easiest to teach and need the least investment of resources will be preferred. This means that those children most in need of improved educational services will be least able to get them, and, in fact, will see resources that have been dedicated to them siphoned off by the flight of the higher-performing students from their local schools. This is a recipe for abandoning and defunding those children most in need of our attention and resources. It is a retreat from a commitment to equality of opportunity, and toward the reincarnated “social Darwinist” tendencies of the modern far right in America.

Student success is predicated most on their family and community environments; those children who have parents or community members who frequently engage them in intellectually stimulating conversations and model for them the disciplines and attitudes most conducive to success of all kinds will almost inevitably achieve academic success. Our primary focus on educational reform should be on cultivating more of that social support infrastructure outside the schools and school hours, not on dismantling that social support infrastructure even more. Academic failure in America has more to do with the advance of extreme individualism, and the decline of communities, than it does with any defects in the schools themselves. Giving those students already rich in the ingredients for the success increased opportunities at the expense of those poorest in those ingredients will certainly benefit some people, but it will hurt those who are most vulnerable, and will hurt us collectively as a society (by breeding a more entrenched substratum of despair, and all of the social ills that ensue from it).

The projected market-disciplining benefits of vouchers are at best dubious. “Market success” does not, in fact, automatically mean “higher quality”. All it means is that people tended to choose that particular good or service over its competitors. The higher the information costs (i.e., difficulties and obstacles to consumer-assessment of quality), the lesser the degree to which competition improves quality. Parents and students can indeed look at how past graduates of a school have fared, and make assessments on that basis, but those outcomes are based as much or more on the quality of the students that were admitted to the school as on the quality of education they received at the school.

Higher quality students moving from poor performing schools to these more selective schools may indeed on average experience improved individual performance, but not because of any improvement in the quality of educational services delivered; rather, as a result of isolating and removing low performing students from the equation. We have to ask ourselves who and what we are as a people: Are we committed to the continuing march of extreme individualism, the resurrection of “social Darwinism,” or are we committed to being a people who works together to increase opportunities for all? If the former, vouchers are the way to go. If the latter, we need to go in the exact opposite direction: A greater commitment to improving the services offered to families to assist them in better supporting their children’s education, and to communities to help move them in the direction of better facilitators of better educational performance and better citizenship in general.

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

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