February 4, 2017
Hot ones, cold ones - big ones, small ones - long ones, short ones - secret ones. We've fought a lot of wars, and they've varied in both form and outcome. There's one being waged today, and it's high time we ask ourselves whether it's worth fighting. Government resources and the time of American citizens are finite. In an era in which domestic politics are so divisive, wouldn’t it more economical to look inward?
President Trump hasn’t been in office a month, and he has already done enough to keep the national attention fixed on him. Meanwhile, Congress has started a deregulation spree. Americans, both liberal and conservative, aren’t watching. Instead they’re focused on the Trump Travel Ban that, with or without protests, will end up before the Supreme Court, and will likely be ruled illegal and unconstitutional. This issue is at least partially domestic in form. But why is the only thing we talk about foreign policy? Why do we let it polarize us? Washington presciently cautioned against dividing ourselves internally because of divergent external preferences. His admonition was in reference to Hamilton and Jefferson’s debate over favoring trade with Britain or France, but it is applicable today, particularly with our views on the Middle East, Russia, and China. The executive enjoys great latitude in the realm of international affairs, and if we didn’t like his foreign policy positions, we should’ve elected someone else. But now that he’s in office, protests won’t do much except embolden him and further divide Americans. The battles beyond our shores aren't worth fighting over.
None of this is to argue organizing is futile, only to say that the invigorated left should direct its power more discerningly. Weekly demonstrations make for great TV - but they also remind the party in power that an angry electorate will be coming for their seats soon enough. Couldn’t that same energy be aimed at more permanent efforts, like voter registration drives? I ask because the far-right knows how powerful a left they’ll be facing in two and four years, and I’m betting they’re preparing for it. Trump voters were difficult to count in pre-election polls, and that’s because they’re motley folks who thought America was headed in the wrong direction, and they were the people we had stopped counting. Their views are in the mainstream now, and there’s no reason to think they won’t be spending the next two years convincing their perviously apathetic friends and neighbors to join their movement.
Follow their example (in GOTV, not party affiliation). Emulate the grassroots efforts that got President Obama elected twice. Organize canvassing trips to blue counties, get your friends involved in the political process, and help common Americans understand that only one party cares for them and can effectively represent their interests. And please, please, if you’re old enough and have even half a brain, run for something! •
February 8, 2017
Public schools are easy targets - they're expensive, unionized, and sometimes perilously ineffective. But without them, the middle class would erode further, and people would either be born wealthy or grow up as wage slaves.
There would be exceptions, of course. Before there was public secondary education, poor smart kids still made it to decent high schools and prestigious colleges with the help of sponsorships. But those fortunate few were far outnumbered by people their age stuck in child labor. And even those who won funds to study faced seemingly minor, but insurmountable challenges. One notable example is young Richard Nixon, who won a full scholarship to Harvard, but didn’t attend because he couldn't afford the train to campus.
One disheartening story isn't enough to justify a particular public policy, however. The aggregate economic benefits of public secondary education are. Starting in the 20th century, the United States overtook Britain as the most productive nation. That wasn’t because of capital, which was still stockpiled in Europe. Nor was it because of more labor, since holding labor constant, the United States would’ve still been more productive than its European rivals. The difference was innovation. Americans were better educated - and many had degrees in technical fields. And this trend picked up after the World War II GI-Bill. Britain hadn’t instituted similar programs, and through the 1950s, less than one percent of British workers had a university degree.
Public education, therefore, is good for students and for the economy. But there’s another argument against public education, which is too often neglected in political debates: religion. Some people would rather have their children attend private schools if it’s the only way to maintain school prayer and keep evolution out of the curriculum. Those people are impossible to convince - no matter how eloquent the argument, they’ll never choose it if at odds with their idea of God or the advice of their local religious leader.
Public education, therefore, faces a bifurcated resistance: one which disagrees with it in practice and another on principle. And so it needs a two part solution.
In practice, public schools need to increase efficiency and performance, and the easiest way to do that is to roll back the power of teachers’ unions - schools should be designed to favor the interests of students at all costs. As much as American needs Teamsters and machinists unions, teaching isn’t in an inherently exploitative profession, and can therefore do without one.
This would roll back the growth of charter schools, and thereby put money back into public schools, putting upward pressure on public educator wages; allow for performance pay structures and the removal of ineffective teachers; and divorce politics, at least somewhat, from public education.
Charter schools’ comparative advantage is better teaching talent. Without public school teacher’ unions, that same talent could flow into public schools. With charter schools offering relatively less benefits, more parents would elect to keep their children enrolled in public schools, which would keep resources from leaving them. This would trigger a virtuous cycle of better talent for better pay.
The inflow of new, better compensated teachers, would lead to greater competition among educators. Performers would remain, and ineffective teachers would be out of a job. Without unionized political power protecting them, bad teachers wouldn’t be able to pressure school districts into keeping them around, making public education less litigious, and thereby less polarized and political.
Ironically, a less political public education system would be easier for politicians to reform, since special interests wouldn’t be part of the discussion. This is where the biggest gains can be made. Imagine changes like a federal funding structure that makes education more equitable, incentives for high achieving students to become teachers, and a common curriculum that all colleges and universities acknowledge as rigorous and transferrable. And maybe, just maybe, a stop to the bickering over the efficacy of standardized testing.
The aforementioned changes would improve schools in practice. But for those who don’t want their kids in godless schools, the necessary solution is more drastic and likely unpalatable for those who believe in public education. End local funding of schools. Property taxes and local levies are an easy point of argument for those in favor of school vouchers and other free market education programs. Remove that ammunition from the debate, give religious parents a federal education tax deduction (already done), and worry about making public schools better for those who genuinely want them to succeed.
Public education is the only thing stopping our society from becoming more unequal. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton dreamed of a country in which the most meritorious would rise. That’s the reason a poor orphan from St. Nieves was able to become Treasury Secretary and the de facto cheif of staff to George Washington. That’s the very essence of the American Dream, and it should be fought for at all costs. That means ending the arguments in which there is no chance for compromise, and fighting for a reasonable middle ground in others. One without unions, with greater federal control over education, and with an option for generous private school tax deductions for those morally opposed to a secular education. •
February 4, 2017
As America's major political parties look inward, globalization continues. Trade deals that the United States abandons will be taken up by some other major power - likely China. By the IMF's account, China's GDP as measured by purchasing power parity, surpassed the United States' two years ago. So what exactly will ignoring the world accomplish... •