Saturday, January 31, 2015

Liberation & Cain's Problem

In Wisconsin, Governor (and presumptive entrant in the GOP Presidential rat race) Scott Walker has proposed to give the state university system freedom and independence. Specifically, he wants to liberate them from the oppression of about $300 million of state support over the next two years. He's also getting rid of many government mandates and statutes governing the university system, so they are free to innovatively slash whatever they like to make up for the shortfall.

This is solid conservative principle in action. Also in Wisconsin, we just saw a proposal for zones in Milwaukee's poorest areas that would "unleash" the power of individuals by getting them off welfare, a refrain that has been heard in virtually every state in the union. This has become a modern moebius version of the social program-- the best way to help the poor is to cut their government support.

The independence argument has crept into education as well, with the repeated assertion that throwing money at schools just won't help, the idea that schools are too dependent on financial assistance and that support should be trimmed back to make them more nimble, robust, flexible, innovative. The basic premise of school choice is that by taking resources away from public schools, we will force the public schools to become better by making better use of their newly-reduced resources.

I suspect that there are people who truly believe this, and I can even see why. but I don't believe for a second that any of the leaders and politicians who espouse it actually believe it at all. Not a bit. Here's why. They never bring it up in reference to anything except social services programs.

None of these corporate Masters of the Universe say, "We need to spark some creativity in the widget division, so let's cut their budget." Nor do they say, "The bumswagger division has done some great work, so lets reward them by cutting off their financial support."

None of these political whiz kids says, "Wall Street corporations have become too dependent on the largess of the federal government. We must help them out by pushing them off the federal teat. That way we can unleash them and their innovative creativity."

No-- in the corporate world, you go see a some Master of the Universe and make your pitch that you plan to be, hope to be, expect to be creative and innovative. Then the Master of the Universe helps unleash the innovation by handing over a pile of money.

I mean, look at the Gates Foundation. They have unleashed a hundred different cheerleaders for the common core and charters and other reformster fun zones by throwing money at them and there certainly doesn't seem to have been great concern that groups like TFA or CAP or any of the dozens of astroturf groups that have bloomed in the last decade-- nobody seems to be sitting back at the main office shaking their heads in serious and mournful tones saying, "Guys, I'm afraid that we have just made these groups too dependent on us. We should liberate them and unleash them so they can do great things."

No-- in these cases they do the opposite. Let's liberate innovation by supporting it; let's unleash innovation by funding it.

I expect they see a distinction between the two types of liberation-- liberating some folks by giving them money and liberating other folks cutting them off, making them do without support.

I suspect that they are following the simplest human impulse. Let's take care of Our People.

It is Cain's problem. The difficult question is not, "Am I my brother's keeper?" We all know the answer to that. The hard question is, "Who is my brother?"

The human inclination is to limit our compassion to members of our own tribe. My brother is a person like me. Those people over there who are not like ought to shape up; the ways in which they are different are probably part of their problem in the first place. We know on some level that it's wrong, but we can't help it. And yes-- we are just as bad when we assume that those damn reformsters must be friendless terrible people whose own mothers probably hate them.

I'm inclined to believe that one of the reasons that we're here is to take care of each other (and yes, I also believe that in the event there is no reason we're here, that only makes taking care of each other a greater imperative). I'm pretty sure it's a simple as that. Each of us is uniquely positioned to take care of a particular batch of people for a particular period of time.

I am not a puppies and rainbows guy, so I absolutely believe that sometimes taking care of people looks more like a kick in the butt than a pat on the head. But I also believe that step one means recognizing and honoring a person's own aspirations for him- or her-self.

I believe that to liberate persons, you have to respect them, listen to them, probably even love them. And I see no respect or honoring or love in policies that say, "I don't want to give Those People money because they are The Wrong Type of People, and so I am going to try to make them hurt instead."

The root of far too many policy ideas is a simple one-- it's the belief that Those Kinds of People are making the wrong choices, and they should be suffering because of them. Anything that interferes with that suffering is interfering with cosmic justice, and if it's interfering by using my money, it's a double interference.

Too much of this thinking has seeped into education policy. If those kids don't want crappy schools, they shouldn't be poor. But if you're That Kind of Person, you end up poor and you should end up poor and you should suffer the effects of being poor. We'll set up better schools for some of those poor kids, but only the ones who show their willingness to be the Right Kind of Person.

That is not liberation. It is subjugation. That is not unleashing. It is leashing.

We cannot support schools with infinite resources that we don't have, and it doesn't help anyone to be given free ponies and ice cream every day just for drawing breath. But we have got to stop this ridiculous language of liberation, insisting that we can best help people become unleashed and free by turning our backs on them, making sure they feel the full sting of need, and ignoring our own moral imperative to help and support whoever we can.


  1. "We need to cut subsidies to big sugar producers."


    Big oil got tax breaks to encourage exploration when oil was under 20$ a barrel. (They never went away.)

    Tough love is always for those who can't afford the big bucks for K-Street and straight-up purchase of politicians.

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  3. "And yes-- we are just as bad when we assume that those damn reformsters must be friendless terrible people whose own mothers probably hate them."

    I'm sorry, but that's just really bad false equivalence. The reformsters are bad people because of what they do, not because of what they are. It has nothing to do with the color of their skin, but everything to do with the content of their character. They're the ones willing to let actual human beings suffer and die because of who they are while scrambling for profits for corporate "people". They are terrible people whose own mothers (should) hate them, but, sadly, they are not friendless.

  4. It reminds me of another Old Testament story from Exodus 5:

    6 That same day Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and overseers in charge of the people: 7 “You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. 8 But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ 9 Make the work harder for the people so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.”

    10 Then the slave drivers and the overseers went out and said to the people, “This is what Pharaoh says: ‘I will not give you any more straw. 11 Go and get your own straw wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced at all.’” 12 So the people scattered all over Egypt to gather stubble to use for straw. 13 The slave drivers kept pressing them, saying, “Complete the work required of you for each day, just as when you had straw.” 14 And Pharaoh’s slave drivers beat the Israelite overseers they had appointed, demanding, “Why haven’t you met your quota of bricks yesterday or today, as before?”

    15 Then the Israelite overseers went and appealed to Pharaoh: “Why have you treated your servants this way? 16 Your servants are given no straw, yet we are told, ‘Make bricks!’ Your servants are being beaten, but the fault is with your own people.”

    17 Pharaoh said, “Lazy, that’s what you are—lazy! That is why you keep saying, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ 18 Now get to work. You will not be given any straw, yet you must produce your full quota of bricks.”