Monday, December 24, 2012

Critical Thinking

Earlier in the year there was a spate of articles on the Texas Republican Party, and its concern over the teaching of "critical thinking," and whether it should be in the Texas public school curriculum. In response, the same people who consider it essential that students learn logical analysis, fact from fiction, evidence from assertion, and a general willingness to challenge received wisdom, are also mostly the same people who drop their jaws in disbelief that certain politicians and educators in Texas would be opposed to what most of us consider to not only be an essential 21st century skill, but one that is already in short supply.

But it really isn't that surprising, not if one accounts for the world view of those who are skeptical if not outright defiant about critical thinking, and what they prefer be taught in its place. 

Conservatives have often argued that much of what comes under the rubric of critical thinking undermines authority, especially parental authority, and gives license to students not to merely question authority, but to subvert it. Empowering the student to think systematically, analyze, and challenge the views of others--and not merely accept--is now seen by the Texas GOP as subversive. This is merely the current version of an age-old pattern: The aristocracy is to be educated, peasants are to work; the masses are to be controlled and remain illiterate; the clergy will interpret and obfuscate doctrine as needed. No Latin for you.

Cognitive scientist George Lakoff has laid out the key distinctions rather well. Many conservatives, but especially authoritarians (and not, by way of comparison, libertarians, even conservative ones), see humans as essentially evil and sinful in nature. They-we-must undergo a strict and disciplined upbringing, where we learn  obedience and submission to authority. The central authority figure is the father, he who dispenses judgement and punishment.

In contrast, more liberal households are more likely to encourage their children to explore, create, and examine the how and why of life. Less rote memorization, more hands up in the classroom, and more critical thinking, just that which irritates the Right. This talk of creativity and exploration is all fine up to a point, they say, but not if it undermines the family, other authority figures, and moral certitude. For such authoritarians, a strict father is preferable to a nurturing mother.

The Texas Republican Party Platform of 2012 is unambiguous: "We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority (emphasis mine)."

Silly me, I thought a central point of education was to challenge a student's "fixed beliefs."

In an insightful, if distressing, article called How the Conservative Worldview Quashes Critical Thinking -- and What That Means For Our Kids' Future, Sara Robinson writes:
In the conservative model, critical thinking is horrifically dangerous, because it teaches kids to reject the assessment of external authorities in favor of their own judgment -- a habit of mind that invites opposition and rebellion. This is why, for much of Western history, critical thinking skills have only been taught to the elite students -- the ones headed for the professions, who will be entrusted with managing society on behalf of the aristocracy. (The aristocrats, of course, are sending their kids to private schools, where they will receive a classical education that teaches them everything they'll need to know to remain in charge.) Our public schools, unfortunately, have replicated a class stratification on this front that's been in place since the Renaissance.
Robinson makes the point that education is inherently a partisan issue, something conservatives seem to realize more than progressives. We had been making great strides in this country primarily because of two interrelated trends: an expanding middle class and an ever-widening public school system that was tasked with educating millions who, in times previous, would have been relegated to cheap, ignorant labor.

We are witnessing trends, policies, and attitudes that are threatening to reverse these gains. As taxes are cut, and state and local budgets come under pressure, a curriculum that educated us, and made society less coarse, has come under attack as humanities, philosophy, music, art, and now critical thinking, are being curtailed. While many school districts attempt to upgrade math and science, a laudable objective, many schools are forced to gut enriching subjects simply because budgets compel them.

But this is not strictly an issue of budget constraints. Again, Sara Robinson:
It's obvious that stripping these mind-expanding fripperies out of the curriculum -- as conservatives are proposing, often with no push-back at all from liberals -- serves the narrow, functional conservative view of education and citizenship very well. But we let them win this point at our peril. It's not exactly accurate -- but nonetheless true -- to say that the reason we call it "liberal education" is that the more of it you have, the more liberal you're likely to be. If we buy into the idea that critical thinking is somehow non-essential, we're not only betraying the entire future of the liberal tradition in America; we're also depriving future generations of the basic skills and knowledge they'll need to defend their democracy from the plutocrats who are always standing in the shadows, determined to wrest it from them.
More tax cuts will be implemented long before any real reduction in the federal debt takes place. So don't expect positive changes in public education any time soon, unless you think charter schools and vouchers are an improvement.

At least the Pentagon gets all the money it needs.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tax the Traders

Here is an idea that is slowly gaining ground, though I don't suspect our corporate-owned media wants to spend much time on it. As if Wall Street didn't hate him enough already, Eliot Spitzer recently made the case that Wall Street traders should be taxed.

As Spitzer says:
This one is not so new; it has been around for a long time, supported by a wide range of economists, including Nobel laureate James Tobin, as well as advocates, including Ralph Nader in the Washington Post this weekend, and elected officials: a tax on financial transactions. It will give us gobs of revenue. It will fall on a sector that has generated enormous and unwarranted profits for a very few, who at the same time have benefited from huge bailouts and regulatory help and largely escaped any responsibility for their central role in creating the financial cataclysm that we are still struggling with. 
Here is the idea: A tax of less than half a percent on every $100 of stock sales or sales of other financial instruments including bonds, derivatives, and options. The tax could raise anywhere from $170 billion to $350 billion per year depending how it was applied. Extend that over 10 years, and we are raising almost what the White House and Republicans agree needs to be raised in order to accomplish the objectives of a grand bargain.
The exact amount is open for debate; Spitzer says 1/2 of a percent per $100 of trade value. Others have said a flat 1% or $.10 per trade. The amount raised would be highly significant in each case. The key would be to set the tax at a low enough rate that small investors would hardly notice, but make it high enough so that high-frequency program traders on Wall Street would think twice about the speculative casino they have created. In other words, impose a tax that compels Wall Street to contribute more and take less, and at the same time encourage actual investing, and with longer-term outlooks.

Elliot Spitzer is spot-on when he concludes:
The application of this concept to the financial sector could solve our need for revenue, bring some sanity back into the financial sector, and give us a way to raise the revenue we need to run the government in a fiscally responsible way. Maybe this is the old idea that we need folks in D.C. to pay attention to again.
Right, but don't hold your breath. The investor class and the politicians they control are not into doing the right thing, they are into money and power. For them, the current system works well.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


I am pleased, if that is the right word, to see a growing chorus of criticism about not just the direction this country is headed, but the very specific reasons why. Some point to the eroding infrastructure, and characterize it, too vaguely I believe, as "economic decline." It is, but without detailing why such decline is happening, such assertions have limited utility.

Others are closer to the point when they talk of the US becoming "third world." They don't mean a lack of technology or development, but instead point to economic inequality and a political economy dominated by a well-entrenched landed-gentry-cum-oligarchs; e.g., an aristocratic overclass. 

Those who know their American history, the history we did not learn in high school, are well aware this country was built on cultural fault lines from the very beginning. Talk of secession was in the air, and has remained there, from the earliest days of the Republic. If you didn't hear much about secession growing up, and thought it was just that one flare-up called the Civil War, it's probably because you were not born in the south, or in Texas.

But this is not about secession; it's about southern economics, or Dixiefication.  A recent article by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times takes an important leap in fleshing out what has gone wrong in the US in the last 30+ years.

Kristof writes of the last 30+ years of conservative influence as a "failed experiment."
...In upper-middle-class suburbs on the East Coast, the newest must-have isn’t a $7,500 Sub-Zero refrigerator. It’s a standby generator that automatically flips on backup power to an entire house when the electrical grid goes out.

In part, that’s a legacy of Hurricane Sandy. Such a system can cost well over $10,000, but many families are fed up with losing power again and again...

...the lust for generators is a reflection of our antiquated electrical grid and failure to address climate change. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave our grid , prone to bottlenecks and blackouts, a grade of D+ in 2009.
Kristof notes that demand for household generators has surged. Most of them are being scooped up by upper-middle class families that can afford the generator and the gas that goes with it. 
That’s how things often work in America. Half-a-century of tax cuts focused on the wealthiest Americans leave us with third-rate public services, leading the wealthy to develop inefficient private workarounds.
But our political system is dysfunctional: in addressing income inequality, in confronting climate change and in maintaining national infrastructure.
Indeed it it dysfunctional. But government is not a mess because people do not know what to do. We are being purposefully pushed in one direction because of deeply held ideological beliefs and the policies that reflect that ideology. That belief system is familiar to those raised in the deep south. It is based on class, race, hierarchy, tribalism, and an obsequious allegiance to authority. The result is that the plantation mentality of the colonial south, where cruel slave masters from Barbados established themselves far from the prying eyes of Yankee do-gooders, and created a feudal society dominated by a privileged few. In other words, a society much like the old one they left behind in Europe, one structured on wealth, privilege, and class. Democracy and equality before the law had nothing to do with it. Mouth breather Ted Nugent, who appears increasingly unstable these days, epitomizes this brutally undemocratic attitude when he says that poor people and those on welfare should be denied the right to vote.

Slavery may be gone, but much of the rest of Dixie model not only has remained, it has spread to other states, mostly in the Midwest and Appalachia. A sense of where I am coming from on this can be found in Democracy Heading South: National Politics in the Shadow of Dixie, (2001) and Dixie Rising: How the South is Shaping American Values, Politics, and Culture, (1996) by Peter Applebome. A study I have mentioned before, Colin Woodward's American Nations, provides an invaluable historical backdrop to explain how we got this way.

A sense of that Southern model, what I am calling Dixification, can be seen in a litany of examples. Kristof provides a few:
So time and again, we see the decline of public services accompanied by the rise of private workarounds for the wealthy.
Is crime a problem? Well, rather than pay for better policing, move to a gated community with private security guards! 
Are public schools failing? Well, superb private schools have spaces for a mere $40,000 per child per year.

Public libraries closing branches and cutting hours? Well, buy your own books and magazines!

Are public parks — even our awesome national parks, dubbed “America’s best idea” and the quintessential “public good” — suffering from budget cuts? Don’t whine. Just buy a weekend home in the country!

Public playgrounds and tennis courts decrepit? Never mind — just join a private tennis club!
I’m used to seeing this mind-set in developing countries like Chad or Pakistan, where the feudal rich make do behind high walls topped with shards of glass; increasingly, I see it in our country. The disregard for public goods was epitomized by Mitt Romney’s call to end financing of public broadcasting.
You got it, Kristof. At its core, Dixification means disdain for the public sector, but also low wages, low regulations, and low taxes.  It calls for a dominant class run by corporations, the modern version of the plantation's boss man; land owners and sharecroppers, feudal overlords and a peasantry.

Recent data shows just how badly the middle class has been squeezed. As CNNMoney just reported (my emphasis):
Corporate profits hit their highest percentage of GDP on record in the third quarter.
Just four years after the worst shock to the economy since the Great Depression, U.S. corporate profits are stronger than ever.
In the third quarter, corporate earnings were $1.75 trillion, up 18.6% from a year ago, according to last week's gross domestic product report. That took after-tax profits to their greatest percentage of GDP in history.
But the record profits come at the same time that workers' wages have fallen to their lowest-ever share of GDP.
Welcome to Dixie.