Monday, April 9, 2018

Fight for Scraps (The Real Causes of the Strikes)

In today's Washington Post, economist Robert Samuelson, lays out his vision of why states like West Virginia and Oklahoma and Kentucky (and Arizona etc etc) are squeezing their teachers economically.

The deeper cause is that teachers — and schools — are competing with the elderly for scarce funds.

As the Boomers age, grandparents and grandchildren will vie for scarce funds.

Spending on the elderly is squeezing K-12 schools, police, parks, libraries, roads and other infrastructure (water projects, sewers), mainly through two programs: (a) Medicaid, a joint state-federal program of health insurance for the poor, which pays about half of nursing-home and long-term-care costs for the aged and disabled (on average, states pay about 37% of Medicaid’s costs); and (b) contributions to underfunded pensions for state and local workers.

If nothing else, this may help clarify for some of us why lately there is so much right-tilted thinky tank interest in "fixing" pensions.

But for me it raises another question. If the underlying problem behind all these issues is competition for funding, couldn't we also say that the underlying issue is the lack of funding?

Could we not say that the underlying problem is that too few people are collecting too much of the wealth generated by the economy and paying too little tax on it?

I'm not an economist, but I continue to be mystified at how the country can get richer and richer, and yet states and communities seem to get poorer and poorer. I mean, we've seen some states run their own experiments. Minnesota increased taxes. California increased taxes. Kansas slashed taxes. It has turned out well for Minnesota and California; it has turned out poorly for Kansas. Could it be that taxing done well is helpful?

So maybe it's not necessary to have a cage match between Grampaw and Junior. Maybe it's possible to fund stuff for the aging boomers and also fund stuff for children (like, you know, education) just by collecting more funds.

A sensible society would direct its governmental programs and investments toward preparing for the future. Instead, our emphasis is backward-looking, with more and more support going to the aged. On the other hand, a compassionate and caring society — a civilized society — doesn’t discard its older members just because their self-reliance and social utility have declined.

Teachers and others will continue to battle the demographics. Until we muster the courage to be candid about the choices, we will be stuck in a place we don’t want to be.

Samuelson isn't wrong. But that candid conversation could include one other choice-- we could tax folks a bit more so that we could afford to be both sensible and civilized. We could decide that providing health care for the aged and education for the young are both more important than making sure the 1% keep their vast wealth undisturbed. I'm not a hard-core socialist, nor do I think the government needs to strip every last dollar from every rich person's hand.

But by Samuelson's own framing, doesn't the fact that some states have to choose between being sensible and being civilized-- isn't that a sign that we may have veered a bit too far in the direction of using government primarily to service the desires corporations and the rich folks who run them? Because I don't think there's anything sensible or civilized about a country that makes Grampaw and Junior fight over table scraps while the rich are grabbing more food than they know what to do with.


  1. I dunno, this sounds an awful lot like the joke about the Koch brothers inviting a tea party person to a meeting with a union guy. There's a plate of a dozen cookies, from which the Koch brothers help themselves to 11 of them. David Koch then turns to the tea party guy and says, "You'd better watch that union guy. I think he's going to eat your cookie."

    It's not that kids and old folks are competing for funds, it's that we're all competing against the corporations/billionaires.

  2. BTW, even hard core socialists don't believe in stripping every last dollar from every rich person's hand. Even rich people still need to eat. From each according to his means, to each according to his needs. No one needs 11 cookies.

  3. Sorry, but Samuelson will soon be hearing from the AARP. The old folks are the biggest voting bloc out there. They might try to mess with the benefits for the elderly, but they quickly get slapped back into place. The teachers need to start doing this for their students.

  4. It's the classic false dichotomy posed by "reasonable" conservatives every time the issue of funding government services comes up. It's always that there must be a "trade-off" between two desirable outcomes or policies and we have to make the "hard choices". It's baloney, as you rightly point out. The real choice that they always want to deny (or, more accurately, pretend desn't exist) is that we could fund both the desirable outcomes if we just raised more revenue from those who can afford to pay into the system that has benefited them so generously. But that is anathema to these conservatives because that might mean they'd have to contribute some of their own unwarranted wealth to the public good, so this false dichotomy is their fallback position to attempt to forestall any discussion of it.

  5. Two issues

    1) we are getting richer, but it is only in areas where we are getting more from less human input. Education is human heavy and it does not follow that a rich society will be able to afford more of it. We can, and do, get more tech in classrooms than we used to, because we are wealthier, but this isn't a key area to improving education.

    2) value generated is not equivalent to money spent. The US does not underspend on "education" but it does spend its money very poorly. Massive amounts are spent on stupidly expensive College degrees, that other countries manage to do for a lot less. That money could be spent on schooling.

    Money is also wasted on Charters, which most other countries (if they try them) do not let have extra money. The whole point of the charter system should being more for less, not the reverse!

    Improving student behaviour would also free money. Other countries don't need cops in schools.

  6. Ah, the forced choice. It is a standard sales tactic. Do you want an apple pie or an ice cream with your meal? That is what the fast food worker is trained to ask you. Most people begin to think which one they want. Thanks for being the curmudgeon that you are (like me) and deny the tactic.