Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Real Wagner

            In the April 25th issue of New Yorker, there is an excellent article by Alex Ross which unravels the real message in Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  It seems Wagner’s purpose is not to glorify power, but to show that abuse of power doesn’t really work—not even for the gods.
            Ross interviewed several conductors who have conducted the Ring, including Christoph von Dohnanyi, whose father was executed in April 1945 for his role in the plot to assassinate Hitler.  Dohnanyi said the Ring delivers a sweeping critique of the urge to dominate others, but it was the creation of a domineering man, and it drew the admiration of Hitler. And Wagner made anti-Semitic statements that were quoted by Goebbels.  Dohnanyi goes on to say, “I don’t blame any Jewish person who would say, ‘Wagner’s music may be great but I don’t want it. ‘ ”    But he also says, “…..when I really think about Wagner I don’t discover anything that had to lead to Hitler.   And what happens here (we’re looking at Wotan’s cries of shame) is not something that any Fascist could have written.”
            So the Nazis got it wrong.  

Friday, April 22, 2011

Limerick of the Day, April 22

The "robbery attempt" by Paul Ryan,
(Well, you can't blame the fellow for tryin')
Would transfer our wealth
To purveyors of "health."
If Paul tells you different, he's lyin'.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ryan's Folly

               Since Paul Ryan’s “deficit reduction” plan was approved by House Republicans last week, several well deserved denunciations have appeared on the web and in print.   Alan Blinder, (Princeton economist, former Federal Reserve Vice-chairman) writing in April 19 Wall Street Journal calls it a “Reverse Robin Hood Budget.”   Dean Baker, (economist, Co-Director of the Center for Economic Policy Research) writing in Huffington Post, 04/18/11, says that such a budget, if approved, would simply transfer trillions of dollars from ordinary working people to the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and to the very rich.  Baker says that the Ryan plan would radically increase the country’s Medical costs.  It would replace the current Medicare system with a voucher system, and the vouchers would be held to the general inflation rate. But medical costs are going up faster than the general rate, and privatizing the system, absent any meaningful price controls, would certainly accelerate this inflation. So seniors would soon be priced out of the market, since the vouchers they would receive would no longer pay the premiums for private insurance. We know that privatization in health care does not rein in costs, but allows them to skyrocket. We know this because we’ve tried it twice; once when the Gingrich Congress passed the Medicare Plus Choice plan, and once when the Bush administration pushed through the Medicare Advantage program.  Both of these plans raised costs—that’s why the non-partisan CBO projects that costs would increase under this plan.
             Ryan claims that tax cuts for very wealthy individuals would spur the economy.  This has also been tried twice, first with the Reagan tax cuts, beginning in 1981.  (The 80s had the worst growth of any decade since the Great Depression, but even the 80s were not as bad as the 00s, which followed the Bush cuts.)
              Richard Eskow, (writer, consultant, and former insurance/finance executive) writing in the Huffington Post back in February, reminded us that our present deficit is caused by three things:  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic collapse caused by Wall Street greed and corruption, and the Bush tax cuts.  Remember that at the end of the Clinton administration, we did not have a deficit—we had a surplus.  That surplus changed to deficit when Bush cut taxes, (mostly for the very rich) and then proceeded to fight two wars without ending those cuts.   Eskow feels that saying that government spending causes deficits is like saying that empty gas tanks are caused by driving.   True, if everyone totally stopped driving forever, then no one’s gas tank would ever run dry.  But that might not be very practical.  Most people would rather drive when necessary--and then stop at a filling station from time to time.   

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Limerick of St James.

There once was a mean old assessor
Whose freezer required a compressor.
He petitioned his God,
And though this may seem odd,
He appealed to Saint James the Lesser.

Still he prayed to his Lord and Creator,
And then also to Saint James the Greater.
For he'd got no compressor
From Saint James the Lesser,
So to him he would no longer cater.

If he really would like that compressor,
Then forget about Saint James the Lesser.
Never waste any hymns
On the lesser of Jims.
Just petition Saint Ed the Confessor.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Should Education be Sold as Job Training?

            Before attempting to answer this question, we should begin by acknowledging that this is how we do in fact sell education, unabashedly, from basic literacy to PhD programs.  Our local community college even presents itself to the community as “Hire Education.” And this is how we’ve sold education for 130 years.  When, during the Progressive Era of the late nineteenth century, the idea of universal public education began to take hold, it became obvious that a large commitment of time and effort on the part of those receiving this education would be required, along with a large financial commitment on the part of those paying for it. Both groups were approached with the same argument:  educated workers are more productive workers. The employer class would recoup their tax investment by hiring more productive workers, and the working class would recoup their time investment by becoming more productive workers--and presumably better paid workers.  Formal education promised better jobs, and a better life.
            Has education delivered that which was promised?  Yes—and no.  If a group of recently arrived immigrants in 1880 applied for jobs building railroads, working in a slaughterhouse, or doing any kind of brute physical labor, the hiring boss would probably ask,  “Can any of you men read and write?”  There would usually be at least one that could.  The boss would then hand this man a clipboard and say, “Here, you will be the foreman.  Write down the names of the other men, and I’ll show you how to keep track of their time.”   In one stroke, a person who was in no way any better than the others became their master—to spend his days observing hard labor rather than actually performing  it—simply because he could read and write.  And this lesson was not lost on the others.  Each one vowed to himself, “Someday my son will learn to read.  Then he too can be boss.”      So, a generation later, after all of their sons had learned to read, did they all get to be foremen?  No; only about one out of twenty did.  But by then it was not simple literacy that was in demand—it was a grammar school education, and later it was a high school diploma, and then a BA, and today a graduate degree.
            Here is a hypothetical example:  Suppose that a small group meets once a week for a friendly poker game.  And suppose that you wrote an ingenious book on the art of playing poker that was so effective that if any of these players were to read it, he would usually win.  Would this scenario be possible?  If the book was really that good, then yes, it would be possible.  Now supposing that they all bought the book and read it—would they all win?  No, because a poker game is a zero sum game.  But, in some ways, so is the economy at large.
              If your investment in educating your children is greater than average, then it is likely that their earning power will be above average.  Being above average is what we all want, but this is not something we can all get--and no level of public investment in education can change this.  Education can be effective as an individual competitive strategy, but in any competition there are a few winners and many losers.  So any sales argument that promises to make people winners will eventually fail, once that promise is being applied to the entire population.
            Policy makers have responded by making the argument in the negative sense.  Rather than represent post-secondary education as a guarantor of success, they represent failure to complete such education as a guarantor of failure.  The carrot has become the stick, and the promise has become a threat.  And this may explain why an increasing percentage of students in community colleges and even in four year institutions no longer pretend to enjoy being there.  They despise the whole system but feel they were bludgeoned into accepting it and paying for it. 
            There must be a way to sell education that goes beyond promising higher incomes to individuals.  Can knowledge be interesting for its own sake?  Is there a beauty to understanding the order of the natural world, or the workings of human society and its rich history? Could anyone be enticed to pursue higher education for reasons such as these?  I know at least one person who found these arguments persuasive.  I did.
            In the late 1950s, I graduated from high school.  I had originally planned to enter the Navy for two years, and then spend four years attending college on the GI bill, as my elder brother had done.  But The GI bill ended in June of 1956, and I did not graduate from high school till June of 1957. So though I was still subject to the draft, my only compensation for this service would be my wages--$62.00 a month.  I decided that I could finance my own education by working at local factory jobs for a semester, saving my money, and then quitting the job and going to college for a semester. But by the time I had accumulated two years of credit, I would be 22 ½ years old, the age at which young men were then being drafted.  By the time I got out of the army, I would be about 25 years old, would have forgotten much of what I’d learned in college, and there would still be no GI bill.  Realistically, my college would be limited to two years. There was no way to a degree.
            At Iowa State Teachers’ College, I attended an orientation for incoming freshmen.  It was in a large auditorium and the main speaker was the college president.  He lamented that students saw college only as a job training program.  He said that most of us were there only to obtain a piece of paper that would get us a job. Ahh, how wonderful it would be to have students who could see knowledge as something to attain for its own intrinsic worth.
            The next day I met with my advisor and he saw my class registration list, and asked what kind of degree program I intended to pursue.  I explained that I would not be getting a degree, for the reasons I have explained above.  “Then why are you here?” he asked.   I replied, “President Maucker claimed yesterday that he would like to see students who seek knowledge for its own intrinsic worth.  Well, here I am.  That is why I am here.”   But the man still did not believe me.  He kept asking things like, “But what kind of job will these classes get you, with no degree?”  I finally said that I fully expected to return to working at the tractor factory and probably spend my life there—and I was comfortable with that.  I came from a long line of blue collar workers and was proud of it. I didn’t mind being a factory worker—I just didn’t want to be an ignorant factory worker.
            I then added that I thought he was being a bit hypocritical. The orientation had asked for students who come for precisely the reasons which brought me here, so why the disappointment?  He replied that I had misunderstood President Maucker’s point.  What he had surely meant was that we should seek knowledge for its own worth, in addition to seeking a degree—not instead of a degree.  He pointed out that it cost the taxpayers a lot of money to run a teachers’ college, and they expect such monies to provide teachers, not incrementally wiser factory workers.
             I asked if he would agree that a successful democracy requires an informed electorate.  He said, “Yes, yes—that’s what we have high schools for.”  He said that any civics class could tell you how the basic mechanism of our democracy works and how to vote.  As for teaching us to use that vote wisely--he doubted that any level of formal education could deliver such an outcome, since many of his lettered colleagues vote just as stupidly as any of their less educated countrymen.  
            So far, we have looked at education decisions as the personal decisions of the student and his family, and analyzed only their personal costs and benefits.  But education, or the lack of it, can have societal costs and benefits as well, since education is a form of infrastructure.  If you were to visit any very primitive country, you’d notice the lack of roads, railroads, power lines, water systems, and public facilities of any kind.  Yet you’d also notice that even if such amenities were to magically appear, it would make little difference since few residents would know how to operate or maintain such structures.  So any economic development would require that the human capital be developed alongside any improvements in material infrastructure.
              Do improvements in the educational infrastructure of a country automatically improve the affluence of its people?  For a long time, we assumed that they did.  The post-war years saw dramatic increases in level of public education and also in the general level of prosperity, and we assumed, quite naturally, that one begat the other.  More education made workers more productive, and increased production, once divided among the populace, meant greater wealth. From the end of WWII till the early 1970s, there was an uninterrupted rise in productivity--and affluence.  Yet since that time, education levels and the levels of worker productivity have continued to rise, but real wages for workers have remained stagnant or fallen.
            What we failed to understand in the 50s and 60s was that working class wealth was increasing not merely because of increased productivity, but because of a social contract, backed up by a liberal government and powerful unions, which required that this productivity be fairly divided among the workers who made it possible.  But this compact broke down in the 1970s as Wall Street and the businesses it owned began a class war against American workers.
            Absent this social consensus, education can still deliver increases in productivity, but such increases no longer translate into economic security for most Americans. In fact, such increases can actually further undermine the security of workers by creating additional technological unemployment.  In short, our educational institutions can deliver better lives for their clients if and when they act within a broad social contract.  But when the middle class dies, our educational establishment dies with it.  No matter what changes are made to our education policies, without a fair social contract, those policies still fail.  Still, no matter what happens on this front, I suspect we will need a plan to sell education as something other than a jobs program.  I haven’t the vaguest idea what such a plan might look like.  But we will soon reach the point where the old approach inspires no believers.