Tag Archives: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Our Politicians Need an Education

Why Both Democrats and Republicans Miss the Big Picture

Public education is mirroring American society overall: a tiny island of haves surrounded by a vast ocean of have-nots.

For worried parents and students, the good news is that spending on public education has become a campaign issue. Mitt Romney is pushing a warmed-over version of the old GOP school voucher scheme, “school choice.” The trouble with vouchers, experts say (and common sense supports), is that allowing parents to vote with their feet by withdrawing their kids from “failing schools” deprives cash-starved schools of more funds, leading to a death cycle—a “winner takes all” sweepstakes that widens the gap between the best and worst schools. Critics—liberals and libertarians—also dislike vouchers because they allow the transfer of public tax dollars into the coffers of private schools, many of which have religious, non-secular curricula unaccountable to regulators.

Romney recently attacked President Obama: “He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of [the failed recall of the union-busting governor of] Wisconsin?”

“I would suggest [Romney is] living on a different planet if he thinks that’s a prescription for a better planet,” shot back Obama strategist David Axelrod.

Both parties are missing the mark, the Republicans more than the Democrats. Republicans want to gut public schools by slashing budgets that will lead to bigger class sizes, which will reduce the individual attention dedicated to teaching each student. Democrats rightly oppose educational austerity, but are running a lame defense rather than aggressively promoting positive ideas to improve the system. Both parties are too interested in weakening unions and grading teacher performance with endless tests, and not enough in raising salaries so teaching attracts the brightest college graduates. Not even the Democrats are calling for big spending increases on education.

Is the system really in crisis? Yes, said respondents to a 2011 Gallup-Phi Delta Kappa poll, which found that only 22 percent approved of the state of public education in the U.S. The number one problem? Not enough funding, say voters.

Millions of parents whose opinion of their local public system is so dim that they spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on private school tuition and—in competitive cities like New York City, force their kids to endure a grueling application process.

According to one of the world’s leading experts on comparing public school systems, Andreas Schleicher of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. is falling rapidly behind other countries. In Canada, he told a 2010 Congressional inquiry, an average 15-year-old ahead is a full year ahead his or her American counterpart. The U.S. high-school completion rate is ranked 25th out of the 30 OECD countries.

The elephant in the room, the idea neither party is willing to consider, is to replace localized control of education—funding, administration and curricula—with centralized federal control, as is common in Europe and around the world.

“America’s system of standards, curriculums and testing controlled by states and local districts with a heavy overlay of federal rules is a ‘quite unique’ mix of decentralization and central control,” The New York Times paraphrased Schleicher’s testimony. “More successful nations, he said, maintain central control over standards and curriculum, but give local schools more freedom from regulation, he said.”

Why run public schools out of Washington? The advantages are obvious. When schools in rich districts get the same resource allocation per student as those in poor ones, influential voters among the upper and middle classes tend to push for increased spending of education. Centralized control also eliminates embarrassing situations like when the Kansas School Board eliminated teaching evolution in its schools, effectively reducing standards.

A streamlined curriculum creates smarter students. It’s easier for Americans, who live in a highly mobile society, to transfer their children midyear from school to school, when a school in Peoria teaches the same math lesson the same week as one in Honolulu. Many students, especially among the working poor, suffer lower grades due to transiency.

Of course, true education reform would need to abolish the ability of wealthier parents to opt out of the public school system. That means banning private education and the “separate but equal” class segregation we see today, particularly in big cities, and integrating the 5.3 million kids (just under 10 percent of the total) in private primary and secondary schools into their local public systems. Decades after forced bussing, many students attend schools as racially separated as those of the Jim Crow era. The New York Times found that 650 out of New York’s 1700 public schools have student bodies composed at least 70 percent of one race—this in a city with extremely diverse demographics.

If we’re to live in a true democracy, all of our kids have to attend the same schools.

(Ted Rall’s new book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt.” His website is tedrall.com. This column originally appeared at MSNBC.com)

(C) 2012 TED RALL, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Some Weasels Are More Equal Than Others

Liberal BS on Income Inequality

Everyone talks about income inequality, but no one does anything about it.

Lately they’ve been talking more than ever.

“The United States is the rich country with the most skewed income distribution, ” Eduardo Porter asserts in his upcoming book “The Price of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do.”

Porter continues: “According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the average earnings of the richest 10 percent of Americans are 16 times those for the 10 percent at the bottom of the pile. That compares with a multiple of 8 in Britain and 5 in Sweden. Not coincidentally, Americans are less economically mobile than people in other developed countries. There is a 42 percent chance that the son of an American man in the bottom fifth of the income distribution will be stuck in the same economic slot. The equivalent odds for a British man are 30 percent, and 25 percent for a Swede.”

For students of history and economics, this is shocking stuff. Europeans came to America in search of opportunity, for a better chance at a brighter future. How can it be that it’s easier to get ahead in Britain—famously ossified, rigidly class-defined Britain?

Yet it’s true. David Leonhardt of The New York Times writes: “Income inequality, by many measures, is now greater than it has been since the 1920s.”

According to Nicholas Kristof, also at the suddenly class-conscious Times, we live in a time of “polarizing inequality” during which “the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans possess a greater collective net worth than the bottom 90 percent.”

This, we are informed, is bad. Not just for us. Income inequality hurts everybody—including the rich.

Cornell economics professor Robert Frank notes the correlation between financial stress and social dislocation. “The counties with the biggest increases in inequality also reported the largest increases in divorce rates,” reports Frank. Children of divorce are more likely to become a societal burden, committing crimes against everyone, including the wealthy.

Frank argues that our quality of life is suffering across the board due to income inequality. For example, traffic jams are getting worse: “Families who are short on cash often try to make ends meet by moving to where housing is cheaper—in many cases, farther from work. The [U.S.] counties where long commute times had grown the most were again those with the largest increases in inequality.” Everyone sits in traffic, even millionaires.

The “middle-class squeeze,” Frank explains, pressures voters to vote against higher taxes that would support improvements in public infrastructure. We all pay: “Rich and poor alike endure crumbling roads, weak bridges, an unreliable rail system, and cargo containers that enter our ports without scrutiny. And many Americans live in the shadow of poorly maintained dams that could collapse at any moment.”

Is it wrong to giggle at the thought of selfish millionaires being washed away by a flood?

Citing the work of the British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Kristof blames just about every societal ill on income inequality. Among the highlights: infant mortality, drug abuse, teen pregnancies, heart disease, even higher obesity among people who don’t eat more than others. This may be why high-unemployment Michigan has some of the nation’s fattest people. (The hormone cortisol, released when humans are stressed, increases fat retention.)

Porter notes that the income gap is increasing across the spectrum—including among high earners. One study shows that in the 1970s the top ten percent of corporate executives earned twice as much as the average exec. Now they get four times more. “This has separated the megarich from the merely very rich,” he says.

Rising income inequality means trouble. Not just for our waistlines, but for the system that has created the problem: corporate capitalism.

“If only a very lucky few can aspire to a big reward,” Porter warns, “most workers are likely to conclude that it is not worth the effort to try.” That would lead to less legitimate innovation, fewer new businesses. The best and the brightest will conclude, as they have in post-Soviet Russia, that crime is the only economic activity that pays.

So what is to be done?

Here the income-inequality-is-bad crew falls flat on its collective face.

Kristof’s prescription: “As we debate national policy in 2011—from the estate tax to unemployment insurance to early childhood education—let’s push to reduce the stunning levels of inequality in America today.”

Push? How?

Porter’s solution: “Bankers’ pay could be structured to discourage wanton risk taking.” But bankers aren’t the only culprits. How would this restructuring take place? Who would force bankers to accept it?

Frank’s answer: “We should just agree that it’s a bad thing—and try to do something about it.”

Workers of the world, try to do something about uniting!

I’m going to climb out on a limb here: The guys I’ve quoted are all smart. They know exactly what is causing this relentless increase in income inequality. Ruling elites have exploited globalization and technological advances to increase corporate profits through deregulation, union busting, and lobbying for federal subsidies and tax benefits. We’re witnessing exactly what Karl Marx predicted at the dawn of industrialization: capitalism’s natural tendency to aggregate wealth and power in the hands of fewer people and entities, culminating in monopolization so complete that the system finally collapses due to lack of consumer spending.

The pundits are also smart enough to know that there’s only one way to equalize income: revolution.

Increasing riches leads to increasing influence. No matter how nicely we ask, why would the rich and powerful give up their wealth or their power? They won’t—unless it’s at gunpoint.

Nothing short of revolution stands a chance of building a fair society. Not “pushing.” Not “restructuring.” If working within the Democratic Party and the election of Obama prove anything, it’s that reform within the system is no longer a viable strategy for progressives.

We’re way past “trying to do something about it.”

The sooner we start talking about revolution, the closer we’ll be to a non-BS solution to the social and political ills caused by inequality of income.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL