Sunday, January 1, 2012

Issue #40 January 1, 2012- Review, Recall, Education Reform, Social Class, and More

What This Is…
Issue #40- January 1, 2012
In this issue: 2011 In Review, Recall Information, Financing Education, Charter Schools, Respecting Educators, Buy Local, A Movement Divided?, Cult of Personality, Class in America.

"Highlights" of 2011…
One of my favorite things at the end of every year are the summaries of events and the collections of video clips that are put together to recap the highlights of the previous 365 days.  The end of the calendar year provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the past year and look forward to the next one. 

There's no doubt in my mind that 2011 was a year with historical implications.  The events in Wisconsin and across the entire globe will impact the future in many ways.  For those of us caught up in the tide of political activism this has been a challenging and in many cases discouraging year.  The heightened involvement and feelings of solidarity with like minded citizens is tempered by the ongoing assault on our rights and values by well organized and powerful foes.  We face daunting odds as we work to educated our fellow citizens about the dangers that current conservative leaders pose to our democratic and progressive traditions.

Even with all the negative news and significant challenges that progressives face, I'm optimistic that we are going to see a shift in the overall trends of the social and political culture here in Wisconsin.  It will be a difficult process and will involve a great amount of work in order to achieve this shift, but the changes are necessary as we work to protect all that we value as a society.  The broad coalition of people from all ages, races, professions, backgrounds, etc. makes for a powerful and positive force.  I'm reposting a couple of videos made by my son that show some of the reasons I'm hopeful.

Political news doesn't always have to be serious in order to make a point.  Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were two of my favorites.  Here are a few clips from the past year that I enjoyed.

With the constant onslaught of negative press and distressing news it's always good to be able to find things that make you smile. 

This one's from 2010, but still seems relevant. 

Recall Information…
We are down to a couple of weeks to continue gathering signatures to recall Walker, Kleefisch and the 4 GOP senators targeted for recall.  Every signature counts in several ways.  The more signatures collected the stronger the message sent to the electorate of Wisconsin about the support for the recall effort.  We also know that each petition will be scrutinized carefully and that some signatures that will be invalidated.

As we get closer to the end of the signature gathering period keep an eye out for ways to stay engaged and involved.  This is especially true for the recall efforts against the senators.  These local races can't be overlooked in their importance, but don't always get the same level of attention statewide as the efforts to recall Walker and Kleefisch.  I would draw extra attention to the Recall Fitzgerald campaign which has been organized by individuals operating without significant support from larger organizations (Democratic Party where are you on this one?).  Grassroots efforts like this deserve our support and are a short drive from communities like Madison where progressive support is strong. 

Recall Reasons…
In some way it is difficult to continue to find new things to write about to support the recall of Walker and friends.  I don't want to keep rehashing the same issues over and over.  Most of the newer information is really just adding on to previous themes.  However, it is important that we don't lose sight of the reasons that we started the recall process in the first place.  The supporters of Walker will be funding ads, using the press and finding ways to make people forget about or forgive him for his actions of the past year.  They will promote the idea that Walker and the GOP has made the tough decisions to make Wisconsin a better place.  There will also be some "concessions" made and policies changed.  This will lead citizens to a false sense that Walker is willing to compromise and change.  However, the changes will be minimal and political in nature with little actual progress made in reversing the tide of dismantling the safety nets for regular citizens. 

One little detail that Walker's press release failed to mention.

One of the strengths of the Republican propaganda machine is their tenacity and single minded focus on a few issues and talking points.  Progressives need to follow this example and keep our arguments simple, direct and clear.  We need to speak passionately, but use facts and clear reasoning in defining our positions.  Conservatives enjoy portraying liberals/progressives as emotional and illogical.  In my mind the key points that need to be highlighted are:

-The Walker budget hurts Wisconsin, it doesn't help.

-The questionable ethics and lack of measurable success for the Walker administration.

-The restriction of citizen rights and freedoms (collective bargaining must be addressed, not ignored).

-The unconstitutional nature of the tactics and policies of his administration along with the dismantling of the checks and balances established by our constitution. 

In each of these categories there are numerous examples and a few should be chosen that are grounded in data and affect large numbers of Wisconsin residents. 

It isn't enough (nor is it acceptable) to simply try and counter the Republican talking points.  This isn't a strategy that will work (it puts us on the defensive and allows Walker to set the tone for the debate) and it doesn't provide a vision for Wisconsin.  There is a clear difference in how conservatives and progressives see the future of our society.  We must make this difference crystal clear for the voters so that they understand the choice they are making. 

Education Financing…
In some ways the greatest damage that has been done to our political system here in Wisconsin is the loss of focus on ways to actually address the real challenges that our state faces.  One example of this is the funding of education.  This has been a problem for years and many different solutions have been offered.  By focusing the debate over school budgets solely on educator unions and salaries Walker has eliminated much of the discussion about other solutions.  People who might have workable ideas are now spending their time engaged in a single issue debate. 

Focusing on issues is a good thing, but such a single-minded solution to a complex issue rarely finds success.  If fixing education financing problems was so simple then we wouldn't have had to struggle so long with the issue.  This is another example of conservative political strategy being applied.  Narrow a complex issue down to a single point, one where an identifiable target (in this case educator unions, salaries and benefits) can be used as a scapegoat.  Then focus the debate only on that one issue and attack it relentlessly.

I won't pretend that I'm any sort of expert on economics, but a proposal like this one would at least get discussion started.    

Charter Schools…
The debate over Madison Prep was a troubling and divisive chapter in the story of education in Madison.  However, I also believe that the attention that it received can be the start of something positive in several ways. 

-It drew increased attention to the challenges that different groups face in our public schools.  Every educator knows that we have groups that are struggling in our schools.  Most of the general public doesn't recognize this as an issue.  They only see a small part of the problem and focus only on test scores, major behavior issues and graduation rates.  By emphasizing the achievement gap and sharing their stories the supporters of Madison Prep increased the public awareness of this issue. 

-It increased participation in the debate about how to make our schools better for all students.  Several speakers at the school board meetings talked about the different demographics and increased attendance at the meetings associated with Madison Prep.  A democratic institution like our public schools needs citizen involvement from all groups.  Only through this participation will effective solutions be reached.

Both of these positive aspects of the debate are only potentially positive.  There must be sustained interest in these issues by a significant number of people in order for there to be a positive resolution developed.  If citizens simply turn out for a short time and on a single issue/solution no long term progress will be made.  The emotion generated by the Madison Prep proposal needs to be channeled into positive discussion and we need to avoid having the proposal become a source of division in the community.

-It allowed for more information to be shared about the charter school movement and the threat it poses to our nation's educational system.  The privatization of our public schools is dangerous in many ways. 

The privatization of our schools divides our population along racial, gender, socio-economic and other lines.  These divisions further increase the inequities in wealth and opportunity that already exist and make for a nation that becomes more and more dysfunctional over time.  We become, not one nation, but a collection of different nations with different experiences, goals and belief systems.  Instead of looking out for the general welfare of all citizens supporters of charter schools frequently look to get the best educational opportunities for their own children or a specific group of children.     

Charter schools also are frequently based on educational practices or structures that are not sound or are not supported by research.  The "reforms" offered through the charter school may sound good, but often have limited success in actually educating students.  They are too often more of a quick fix or corporate sponsored approach and are sold to consumers who don't get the full information about the programming provided.  Thus, a substantial number of charter schools perform worse or at the same level as public schools in the same area. 

The heightened awareness of charter schools here in Madison has allowed a well educated population a chance to see the truth about the charter school movement.  We were able to fend off the initial attempt at privatizing our schools, but need to remain vigilant and informed to continue defending public education.
This is a national movement with significant financial and political resources to spend on promoting their agenda.

Respecting Educators…
A significant part of the problems we face in education stems from the lack of respect that many Americans have for educators in general.  Too many people think that teaching is an easy profession.  That it is a job where you are just throwing out information to students and managing behaviors.  They don't recognize that teaching is a profession that takes skill, training and significant expertise to do well.  As educators we need to educate the general population about the things that we do.  We need to sell our profession as one that truly makes a difference in the world and one that deserves the same respect as any other.

Buy Local…
As we start the new year, it is a great time to think about our spending habits.  Please continue to look for local businesses and try to keep our local economy growing independently of the large corporate enterprises.  The first link is to a event that ends on January 31st, but has a good list of local businesses.   

A Movement Divided?…
Almost all of the issues that the progressive movement is working to address are complicated and involve many different (and frequently competing) interests.  The strength of the progressive movement is its flexibility and multiple perspectives.  At the same time this is a weakness, especially when the interests of different groups come into conflict.  One example of this is the issue of mining in northern Wisconsin.  On one hand, people in this area need good jobs that will support their families.  On the other hand, mining can be damaging to the environment and to the health of people living in the area. 

The complexity of this issue deserves a complex solution.  This is where the Republican strategy of simplifying a problem falls short of reaching an acceptable solution.  In the conservative view the creation of jobs and the growth (temporary or longer term) of the economy justifies virtually any action.  To a progressive this isn't as clear cut of an issue.  I believe that our democratic traditions give us a better chance of reaching a workable solution, but the Walker administration would simply force their ideas through without public input.  Democracy isn't pretty or efficient, but it is the best "tool" we have in reaching a just decision on issues like this. 

We are also facing a problem in terms of political representation for all people.  The Democratic Party has long been seen as the representative party for groups like organized labor.  However, as more and more money flows into the political arena, the views of the everyday working person are drowned out by the influence of large donors.  Look at this list of donators to Republican and Democratic party funds. 

Notice a few things: 

-Labor organizations are among the top donors.  Now the reason for the Republican goal of eliminating unions seems to be fairly obvious.

-Many of the organizations that have given to the Democratic Party haven't gotten very good value for their donations.  Groups like the postal workers haven't been supported by the Democrats on any level.  Educator unions can make the same complaint.  All those donations and support of President Obama got us Arne Duncan as our Secretary of Education, enough said.

-Watch some political ads over the next few months here in Wisconsin.  Then try to find these groups that are paying big bucks to fund the ads on the list.  The larger foundations are basically laundering money through these smaller organizations to minimize their exposure and publicity.

Cult of Personality…
Scott Walker has become something bigger than just a governor.  He has become a symbol to many people of all that is either right or wrong with Wisconsin.  This is a typical trend in American society, we take an individual and build them up beyond what is reasonable. 

This fact doesn't reduce the need to recall Walker, but we need to keep the impact in perspective.  Individuals can directly influence many events and policies, however, even with the restrictions and limitations on democracy here in Wisconsin, Scott Walker is only a part of the problem.  To build him up as something larger than a ranking politician in a relatively small state gives him power beyond that which he merits.  Instead of focusing on him as an individual I believe it is important to see him for what he is, a cog in the conservative machine.  The personal attacks and fixation that many have on Walker changes the focus of our agenda.   Recalling Walker is a key part of the political strategy employed by opponents to his conservative agenda.  If it is successful we will have taken a huge step in reclaiming Wisconsin and will set an example for the rest of the nation.  However, we can't forget what he is and allow ourselves to be distracted from our long term goals of restoring our progressive heritage and building on that legacy.      

Class in America…
Republicans are fond of accusing Democrats of employing class warfare as a political tool.  What makes this an unusual argument is that Americans tend to think of our society as one free of the class structure of Europe and other societies.  The idea is often advanced that America is a country that doesn't have fixed social classes and is a place where opportunity is given to all.  Your status in American society is determined by your talents and the effort you put in to advancing yourself socially and economically. 

Just how accurate is this perception of America?  When you look at data and read sociological studies it becomes clear that there are distinct social classes in the United States.  While it is true that there are opportunities to change your class level, the reality is that Americans live their lives very differently based on their class.  It is also true that it is becoming more and more difficult to improve your class, and this is especially true for groups that have been historically disadvantaged here (like African-Americans). 

Why does the issue of class matter in today's America?  Republicans would have us believe that it shouldn't.  They want us to think that it is only jealousy and laziness that drives the movements like Occupy and the 99%.  They argue that these movements are driven by jealousy of people who have worked hard to get ahead in America and the people who participate in the protests are too lazy to do the necessary labor to achieve wealth.  The protestors want the government to reallocate wealth and eliminate incentives for the wealthy to continue to do the work of supporting the rest of the nation.

Continuing the theme of this issue, I would argue that this argument is an oversimplification of a complex issue and is used to justify the continuing stratification of our nation.  Much of the policy that is generated by conservatives is designed to preserve their status as an elite class and to make sure that opportunities for others to join them are limited.

Social class does matter a great deal.  A persons social class will affect many aspects of their life.  The American ideals that many conservatives claim to believe so strongly in have a strong message of equal opportunity for all.  However, current actions by Republican leadership calls into question their support for the phrases in our founding documents like, "Promote the general welfare", and, " We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." 

Here in America we recognize a few distinct categories of social class.  The classes are; The Wealthy, Upper Middle, Middle, Working or Lower Middle, and the Poor.  As you can imagine very few Americans classify themselves as poor.  Most of us consider ourselves Middle or Upper Middle class.  Interestingly, many people, when surveyed are reluctant to categorize themselves as Wealthy.  Most people believe that they came from a class lower than what they are now.  This means that most Americans surveyed believe that they have improved their standing in economic class.  There is some disagreement as to what income levels actually define a person's class.  We can use the Federal poverty level to help identify the Poor, but it is more difficult to get a widely accepted income level to divide the other classes. 
Socio-economic class is a hidden, yet vitally important part of American culture.  It turns out that a person's socio-economic class has a huge impact in their life experiences here in the United States.  David Levine, Berkeley economist and mobility researcher says, "Being born in the elite in the U.S. gives you a constellation of privileges that very few people in the world have ever experienced.  Being born poor in the U.S. gives you disadvantages unlike anything in Western Europe and Japan and Canada."
One example of the advantages enjoyed by the upper classes in America is life expectancy and overall health.  Americans from upper class live longer and have better overall health than lower classes.  Advances in medicine and disease prevention go to the more educated, wealthy and connected.  Risk factors like smoking and exercise have different impacts depending on one's social class.  Even stress affects the classes differently as negative effects of stress increase with lack of autonomy and control. 
Americans pride themselves on having a very fluid social structure.  The belief is that anyone can make it to the top here in America.  Unfortunately we are seeing signs that our social classes are becoming more fixed and less fluid. 
Education and hard work are the two things that most Americans associate with upward mobility.  In 2004 Lawrence H. Summers president of Harvard said, "We need to recognize that the most serious domestic problem in the United States today is the widening gap between the children of the rich and the children of the poor.  And education is the most powerful weapon we have to address that problem."  Anthony W. Marx, president of Amherst College also said, "The great colleges and universities were designed to provide for mobility, to seek out talent.  If we are blind to the educational disadvantages associated with need, we will simply replicate theses disadvantages while appearing to make decisions based on merit."  Unfortunately, even for those who make it to college less than 50% of lower income students graduate while about 2/3 of upper income students do. 
Social classes in America are becoming more and more discrete as the gap in income between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of us grows.  With the rise in cheaper status symbols (cell phones, cars, access to credit, etc.) the wealthiest are spending money on personal services and exclusive experiences that further divide them from the rest of America.  Wealthy communities tend to be very homogenous.  One resident of an Atlanta community is quoted as saying, "But we're never challenged to learn much about the other economic groups." 
In many surveys Americans define the American Dream as having financial security, freedom and opportunity and peace of mind.  Upward mobility requires both human capital (person's education, job credentials and employability) and social capital (emotional support and encouragement from reliable stakeholder in one's life- usually from marriage).  As social classes become more distinct the ability of people from the lower classes to amass any amount of either type of capital is reduced significantly. 
With education becoming more expensive and with students from less wealthy families not succeeding in college the means for advancing in class are reduced to work and chance.  By chance I mean winning a lottery, appearing on a game show, or some other unusual event.  Of course very few people achieve wealth this way so hard work is the only other way to get ahead. 

Most individuals in the lower classes will find that their opportunities to make a wage that will enable them to move up in class are not as readily available as they have been in the past.  With the decline in jobs that would pay well and not require significant education (manufacturing jobs for example) here in America most of the working class find themselves struggling to stay ahead of their basic expenses. 

Our political leaders have done a great deal over the past decades to help reinforce the barriers between social classes.  One of the clearest examples is the Bush Tax Cuts.  These tax cuts were passed as part of the conservative agenda of reducing the tax burden, but in reality were of great benefit to the wealthiest classes.  As a result of these cuts a person in the top 400 of income earners now pays the same percentage in payroll and income taxes as someone making $50-75,000 a year.
After decades of policies that favor the wealthy we are seeing a divide between incomes earned that hasn't been seen since the 1920's (and we all know how that turned out).   From 1950-1970 for every additional dollar earned by the bottom 90% of wage-earners the top .01% earned $162.  Between 1990-2000 that number changed to $18,000.  The share of the nation's income earned by the taxpayers in the top .1% has more than doubled since the 1970's and in 2000 exceeded 10% of nations income. 
While the rich got richer and the poor fell farther behind we have seen a sharp decline in the power of the majority of Americans to make their voices heard in government.  Citizens United is the crushing blow to the independence of our elected officials, but the effects of money in politics has been felt for years.  A New York Times survey found that 72% of Americans felt that the very rich had too much power here while only 23% said they had the proper amount of power.
Republican leadership continually sends the message that it is possible for anyone to become one of the economic elite.  Bruce R. Bartlett member of Reagan and HW Bush administrations, "As long as people think they have a chance of getting to the top, they just don't care how rich the rich are."  It is this illusion of hope that allows them to gather support for economic policies that run counter to the interests of the majority of Americans.  This idea has been disproved in recent surveys where 85% of those polled expressed more concern about financial stability than upward mobility. 
 All of the opportunities for mobility assume that all Americans have an equal opportunity for advancement.  Yet there is significant data that says this is not the case.  The Pew Research Center has done a great deal of research about the issue of race, class and social mobility.  I've provided the link to the section that talks about neighborhoods, race and social mobility here.
A brief summary of this report is that people living in a poor neighborhood experience little upward social mobility.  The study goes on to state that African-Americans are more likely to live in poverty than white Americans.  Even white citizens living in poverty experience a different level of challenge than their non-white counterparts.  This study highlights the effects of poverty and the importance of addressing the issues that social class and race raise here in America. 
With this wide divide between rich and poor it is virtually impossible for Americans to experience a "rags to riches" story without outside assistance.  Just listen to almost any story of someone who moved out of poverty and into a higher class and you will find traces of this assistance.  Americans should recognize the role that government plays in providing supports for all of its citizens.  It is clear that when defining the role our government plays in our economic system we can't ignore the fact that the historic documents that conservatives endorse call for a government that is designed to provide opportunity for the citizens of the nation.  The definition of citizen has changed over time, but the language that calls for a supportive government has not.   
What do Americans want from their government?  Once again citing research done by the Pew Research Center, they rank the top 5 things the government should do to help people get ahead:
  1. Ensuring all children get a quality education (88 percent)
  2. Promoting job creation (83 percent)
  3. Ensuring equal opportunity (79 percent)
  4. Letting people keep more of their money (78 percent)
  5. Providing basic needs to the very poor (75 percent)
Percentage saying the goal is "one of the most important" or "very important."
In this same study most Americans expressed concern that the government is ineffective in helping people and is actually working to help the wrong people.

There is no doubt that we are experiencing some very challenging times here in the United States.  At the same time we have all the resources necessary to improve conditions and restore confidence in our nation's economy and government.  However, our political leaders must recognize the power of class in developing their policies.  They must understand the history of our nation and how past policies helped or hindered our economic growth.  It is also important to look at the way that class mobility has provided incentives to groups and individuals and thereby promoted the common good.  Without an awareness of the stratification of our society American democratic ideals will be eliminated and our economy will continue to falter.

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