Wednesday, July 20, 2011

These Truths Won't Set You Free.

There has been a spate of honesty from the right in the last few days—no, not anything really substantive, like an admission that tax breaks for millionaires don’t really create jobs, or that the only reason to support literally negative taxation on oil companies is that they’re really good campaign contributors.

But still, the revelation that Teri Adams, the head of the Independence Hall Tea Party, really does want to destroy public education is pretty significant. So is the overt cynicism of Mitch McConnell, who really isn’t having a good week. McConnell has a habit—an annoying one, no doubt, to his brethren on the right—of saying out loud what most of us already know: that nothing is more important to him than getting control of the government back from the Democrats. That would include, of course, getting the economy going… because if that were to happen, President Obama might get the credit.

And, just as he burbled after the 2010 elections that the centerpiece of his legislative agenda would be to prevent the re-election of Mr. Obama, now he’s abdicating any role in the negotiations about raising the debt ceiling:
I refuse to help Barack Obama get reelected by marching Republicans into a position where we have co-ownership of a bad economy. It didn't work in 1995. What will happen is the administration will send out notices to 80 million Social Security recipients and to military families and they will all start attacking members of Congress. That is not a useful place to take us. And the president will have the bully pulpit to blame Republicans for all this disruption.

If we go into default he will say Republicans are making the economy worse. And all of a sudden we have co-ownership of a bad economy. That is a very bad position going into an election. My first choice was to do something important for the country. But my second obligation is to my party and my conference to prevent them from being sucked into a horrible position politically that would allow the president, probably, to get reelected because we didn't handle this difficult situation correctly.
Senator McConnell is an ass, of course, but that’s not exactly a revelation. Nor is it exactly shocking that a politician—any politician of any political stripe—would choose policy decisions based on politics rather than on a good-faith consideration of the consequences. What’s different is that McConnell is so forthright in his utter disdain for anything that might actually help solve problems. His objective now is what it has been all along: to put a Republican in the White House. And the best way to do that is to make sure the economy doesn’t get better in the next 16 months.

Interestingly, the McConnell plan in all its crassness is despised by one and all. Democrats think it’s a trap; Republicans think it’s a surrender. What is universally accepted, however, is that it is all about politics and not even a little bit about policy.

Here’s Kevin Drum of Mother Jones:
This is possibly the most juvenile, most buck passing, most transparently mendacious proposal I can recall from any party leader in recent memory. The bright idea here is to force Democrats to repeatedly vote to raise the debt ceiling during campaign season, and to repeatedly force Obama to lay out enormous budget cuts that have no purpose except to piss off interest groups. The whole thing is so patently, ridiculously political that it's breathtaking. It ought to be named the “Gratuitous Embarrassment of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party Act of 2011.”
OK, but that’s from the left, from a journal not likely to be favorable to Senator McConnell’s cause. What about the right? Well, R.M. of The Economist cites Drum approvingly, then adds:
The idea, from a Republican perspective, is to saddle the president with full responsibility for the unpopular move of raising the debt limit and back away from fomenting a new economic crisis (always a smart move). It was likely that the debt ceiling would be raised, but under [Mr.] McConnell's plan Republicans would be able to avoid casting an embarrassing vote to that effect. They could then vote against increasing the ceiling with the comfort of knowing it will rise anyway.
It is, in short, universally acknowledged that McConnell’s plan is cynical, just as GOP votes against TARP were cynical (or, to be fair, then-Senator Obama’s vote against increasing the debt ceiling was cynical). Politicians do that stuff, in between calling each other “the honorable” and “the gentlelady from…” and then describing them as Sharia-loving atheist communist Nazis ten minutes later. It’s McConnell’s blithe dismissal of anything but politics as a motive for apparently anything that’s troubling. Drum compares it to The Lord of the Flies, complete with shameless Machiavellianism and overtones of early adolescence. I think he’s being kind.

Note: I am not being facetious in the above sentence. Yes, McConnell is being crassly partisan, placing the fortunes of his party above those of his nation. Yes, he’s strutting his amorality like some sort of perverse talisman: the red state badge of honor, perhaps. And yes, he’s probably a lot smarter, politically, than he appears. But there’s more to it than that. He has also (skillfully? accidentally?) diverted attention away from anything that might prompt even the sloths in the mainstream media to talk about what’s really important in these deliberations: the virtually unchallenged assertion (by Speaker Boehner, among others) that Congressional Republicans are simply doing the will of the people.

Thankfully, there’s Nate Silver, now of the New York Times, to supply some cogent analysis. He points out that the various deals proposed by President Obama (who may not be a great President, but is pretty clearly the only grown-up in the room) range from about 17-25% tax increases (often achieved simply by closing loopholes rather than changing the marginal rate even a smidge). This puts Mr. Obama not merely in synch with, but to the right of, Republican voters. By contrast,
If we do take the Republicans’ no-new-taxes position literally, it isn’t surprising that the negotiations have broken down. Consider that, according to the Gallup poll, Republican voters want the deal to consist of 26 percent tax increases, and Democratic voters 46 percent—a gap of 20 percentage points. If Republicans in the House insist upon zero tax increases, there is a larger ideological gap between House Republicans and Republican voters than there is between Republican voters and Democratic ones.
And that’s the dirty secret away from which McConnell’s ploy was consciously intended to distract us: Congressional Republicans have no interest in doing what’s best for the country or even what the people want (which, obviously, isn’t necessarily the same thing). Their only real constituency is the big-money Wall Street cabal: not the American people, not the voters in their respective districts, not even the rank and file GOP base. We knew that, of course. But this reminder was a little more blatant than others.

A similar phenomenon is readily observable with respect to the Tea Party and public education. On the one hand, it’s not much of a surprise that a TP spokesperson would think that public schools ought to “go away”:
Our ultimate goal is to shut down public schools and have private schools only, eventually returning responsibility for payment to parents and private charities. It’s going to happen piecemeal and not overnight. It took us years to get into this mess and it’s going to take years to get out of it.
On the other hand, the proclamation does mark a sea change to the extent that anyone would be so brazen about it. Whether this openness is a function of hubris or naïveté, I’m not sure, but there is clearly no longer a felt need to disguise such a contempt for public education (I’d say for education in general, but they’re not admitting that… yet) that the rhetoric has shifted from “reform” to destruction.

James Kovalcin, a retired teacher interviewed by Bob Braun, the (Newark) Star-Ledger columnist linked above, suggests that the initial impetus for this antagonism came from the religious right’s anger at the removal of prayer from public schools; James Harris, head of the New Jersey NAACP, traces it all the way back to Brown v. Topeka in 1954. The more perspicacious among you might notice that neither of those rationales have anything to do with the Tea Party’s stated purpose. Which, frankly, makes them fairly likely to be accurate.

Certainly the opposition to public education of the right in general and of the Tea Party in particular is manifest. Part of the problem may be the kinds of social history mentioned above: please take note that the public schools themselves had nothing to do with ending either school prayer or segregation—they were simply the site where those battles were fought. The schools are responsible for having the audacity to teach actual science in science classes, for insisting that James Madison really is worth of study (and really did argue against “an alliance or coalition between Government and religion”), and for suggesting that slavery was the principal cause of the Civil War War between the States Struggle for Southern Autonomy. Oh, and a lot of teachers are in a union.

I happen to have a job at the nexus of two of the professions that everyone else thinks they could do better: theatre and education. Everybody’s a better actor (or director) than people who actually have to do it; everyone can home-school their kids better than certified teachers can. I have no doubt that there are those people who are quite competent to home-school their kids, and for whom doing so is an appropriate decision. I also have no doubt that the majority of students who are home-schooled are ignorant, socially inept, chauvinistic asses.

Of course, the voucher systems espoused as yet another litmus test of true Republicanism (although a sizeable percentage of them couldn’t tell you what a litmus test is, either literally or figuratively) purport to offer “choice.” They in fact offer state-subsidized religion (I seem to remember some document saying that was a bad idea…) or teaching by people hopelessly unqualified in intellect, training and temperament for the job at hand. Secular or non-sectarian private schools often offer an excellent education, but it comes at a price: well above the amount many families could afford on an ongoing basis, even after vouchers.

I have a good friend who is “head of school” at such an institution. There is no doubt that the education offered there is excellent, but even with considerable support from alumni and other donors, they still charge over $11,500 a year in tuition and fees (and that doesn’t count the cost of meeting the dress code). Financial aid is available, but “only rarely will awards exceed 50% of tuition.” In other words, even after a voucher ($3000 per student per year seems to be the standard sought by proponents) and maximum financial aid, a family with two kids would still be looking at an annual cost of $6000 or more.

The voucher plan would in fact make access to such stellar prep schools more affordable for some people, and that’s a good thing. But we also need to make two important points. First, not every private school is “better” than public education. Secondly, and more objectively, there are many students whose families simply can’t afford the cost. If you can afford a Civic and somebody offers you a Lamborghini for the price of a BMW, you’re still going to drive a Civic. These people, the most vulnerable in the society, need a thriving, excellent public school system: and every dollar that gets diverted from that system hurts not merely those students affected directly, but all of us.

Public education, good public education, is one of the irreplaceable stanchions which support a free society. The Tea Party either doesn’t know that or doesn’t care. That’s not news. Their admitting it is news, or ought to be. But the Democrats have been their traditional craven selves, no one in the Republican leadership is willing to differentiate themselves from the most pathetically ignorant elements of their party, and the media have, as usual, been deafeningly quiet.

Both of these stories are troubling, not because this or that political figure is a cynical charlatan, but because there no longer seems to be any shame associated with appearing to be so. This says more about us than about them. While it’s true that there is a certain refreshing quality to hearing any politician, especially a Republican, actually tell the truth, I almost wish they’d keep lying to us about some things: it would certainly make convincing myself of their sanity and their good intentions a little easier.

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