All posts by Sheila

The Unremitting Attacks On Public Education

The attacks on public education by “privatization” ideologues have ramped up under Betsy DeVos, who–as Mother Jones has reported–wants to use America’s schools to build “God’s Kingdom” and who has spent a lifetime working to end public education as we know it. She has ramped up those efforts since becoming Education Secretary, and she has help from other billionaire privatizers.

Last September, The Guardian reported on an Arizona effort spearheaded by DeVos and the Koch brothers.

Arizona has become the hotbed for an experiment rightwing activists hope will redefine America’s schools – an experiment that has pitched the conservative billionaires the Koch brothers and Donald Trump’s controversial education secretary, Betsy DeVos, against teachers’ unions, teachers and parents. Neither side is giving up without a fight.

Groups funded by the Koch brothers and cheered on by DeVos succeeded in getting Arizona lawmakers to enact what the Guardian describes as “the nation’s broadest school vouchers law.” (If it is broader than Indiana’s program, that’s saying something.) The state-funded vouchers were designed to give parents more school choice and–like Indiana’s–could be used to enroll children in private or religious schools.

For opponents, however, the system wasn’t about “choice”–it was about further weakening Arizona’s public school system.

Six women with children in the public schools had lobbied unsuccessfully against the measure, and they decided to fight back. Arizona law allows referenda (Indiana’s does not), and the women decided–long odds or no– they would gather the 75,321 signatures they needed to get a referendum on the ballot to overturn the law. They formed a group, called it Save Our Schools, and set out to collect the needed signatures.

The six women inspired a statewide movement and got hundreds of volunteers to brave Arizona’s torrid summer heat to collect signatures – in parks and parking lots, at baseball games and shopping malls. Their message was that billionaire outsiders were endangering public education by getting Arizona’s legislature – in part through campaign contributions – to create an expensive voucher program.

One reason for their success in generating a movement was the fact that Arizona’s public schools are so obviously underfunded. Some classes have 40 students; schools have to ask private citizens to donate money for supplies and books.

One study foundthat Arizona, at $7,613, is the third-lowest state in public school spending per student, while another study foundthat from 2008 to 2015, school funding per pupil had plunged by 24% in Arizona, after adjusting for inflation – the second-biggest drop in the nation.

Save our Schools submitted 111,540 signatures to the secretary of state in August 2017, but the Koch brothers’ political arm, Americans for Prosperity, sued to block the referendum. A judge dismissed the lawsuit and approved the referendum for 6 November – it’s called Proposition 305. The vote will be closely watched by people on both sides of the debate as the Kochs and DeVos hope to spread the voucher scheme and opponents look to Arizona for clues on how to stop them.

Save our Schools won. 

A grassroots group of parents successfully overturned the massive school voucher expansion supported by the state’s Republican establishment, as the “no” vote on Proposition 305 won by a wide margin, the Associated Press has projected.

The “no” vote victory on Prop. 305 has major implications for the school-choice movement in Arizona and nationally, as the state has long been ground zero for the conservative issue and Republican leaders have crowned the Empowerment Scholarship Account expansion as a national template.

This is the way democratic systems are supposed to work when legislatures pass measures that conflict with the desires of the voters.

If we have public schools that are not performing satisfactorily, we need to fix them–not abandon them. And we absolutely should not be sending tax dollars to religious schools–a practice that only deepens America’s already troubling tribalization.

The President’s Stupid Trade War

Remember Trump’s declaration that “trade wars are good, and easy to win”? How about “I am a Tariff Man,” or his repeated (inaccurate) claim that foreigners pay tariffs.

Have we ever had a less-informed President? (That’s a rhetorical question. Obviously, being ignorant is one contest Trump wins in a walk.)

Let Paul Krugman explain Trump’s fallacies.

Over the course of 2018 Trump imposed tariffs on about 12 percent of total U.S. imports, and many of those tariffs have been in effect long enough that we can get a first read on their consequences.

On Saturday economists from Columbia, Princeton, and the New York Federal Reserve released a paper, “The impact of the 2018 trade war on U.S. prices and welfare,” that used detailed import data to assess the tariffs’ impact. (The paper, by the way, is a beautiful piece of work.) The conclusion: to a first approximation, foreigners paid none of the bill, U.S. companies and consumers paid all of it. And the losses to U.S. consumers exceeded the revenue from the new tariffs, so the tariffs made America poorer overall.

Krugman explains the essential findings of the cited paper, with graphs–you should click through for the details–and then gives examples.

Consider the following example: pre-tariff, the U.S. imports some good from China that costs $100. Then the Trump administration imposes a 25% tariff, raising the price to consumers to $125. If we just keep importing that good from China, consumers lose $25 per unit purchased – but the government raises an extra $25 in taxes, leaving overall national income unchanged.

Suppose, however, that importers shift to a more expensive source that isn’t subject to the tariff; suppose, for example, that they can buy the good from Vietnam for $115. Then consumers only lose $15 – but there is no tariff revenue, so that $15 is a loss for the nation as a whole….

Putting it all together, the Trump tariffs have raised consumer prices, rather than depressing foreign earnings. Some revenue has been gained, but there has also been what amounts to tax avoidance as consumers turn to other, untaxed sources of what we used to import. But this tax avoidance itself comes at a cost, so the U.S. as a whole is left poorer.

Now, the numbers aren’t that big. The new paper puts the net welfare loss at $1.4 billion a month, or $17 billion a year; that’s less than 0.1 percent of U.S. GDP. But winning it isn’t.

NPR and other media outlets have reported on the far worse effects of Trump’s tariffs on farmers–especially soybean farmers.

Stubbornly low crop prices have been exacerbated by the trade war that decimated the once-lucrative Chinese market for soybeans. China used to be the biggest buyer of U.S.-grown soybeans. But this year, in retaliation for similar U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports, China imposed a 25 percent tariff on imports of U.S. soybeans, resulting in a dramatic drop in shipments.

The American Soybean Association has elaborated on the problems. According to the organization, Trump’s actions have “rocked the foundation of a decades-old trade relationship” between U.S. soybean farmers and China, which has been the largest market for American beans. It has resulted in halted sales, plummeting crop prices, and a lack of security for farmers seeking funding for the 2019 season.

The value of U.S. soybean exports to China has grown 26-fold in 10 years, from $414 million in 1996 to $14 billion in 2017. China imported 31 percent of U.S. production in 2017, equal to 60 percent of total U.S exports and nearly one in every three rows of harvested beans. Over the next 10 years, Chinese demand for soybeans is expected to account for most of the growth in global soybean trade, making it a prime market for the U.S. and other countries.

U.S. soybean growers have realized a nearly 20 percent drop in soy prices since the threat of tariffs began last summer, and the future of soy growers’ relationship with China continues to be in jeopardy. China has pursued new means to procure soybeans and other protein crops, including maximizing soybean imports from other exporting countries, particularly Brazil.

Growers have taken to Twitter and other social platforms today with the hashtag #185DaysStillNeedTrade, along with the popular #RescindtheTariffs hashtag to continue demanding that the Administration bring an end to its lingering trade war with China and help restore certainty and stability to the soy industry.

Certainty and stability aren’t Trump’s strong suits, to put it mildly. Thanks a lot, “Tariff man.”

Behavior Is Fair Game–Identity Isn’t

The horrific attacks on Mosque worshippers in New Zealand are more evidence–as if we needed more–of the global eruption of tribalism and bigotry.

That bigotry has been encouraged, and defended, by Donald Trump and his supporters, who traffic in stereotypes and like to shrug off criticisms of slurs based on race, religion and sexual orientation as “political correctness.” They deliberately ignore the very consequential difference between legitimate criticisms of behavior and illegitimate accusations based upon identity that fuel intergroup enmity.

It’s a crucial distinction, and one with which even well-meaning Americans struggle, as we’ve recently seen in the debate triggered by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

I hadn’t posted about the explosive reactions to Congresswoman Omar’s comments, for a couple of reasons: first, there have been plenty of columns, blog posts and Facebook rants without my adding my two cents; and second, because I know very little about the Congresswoman and thus lack a context within which to evaluate whether her use of a couple of old anti-Semitic tropes was inadvertent or purposeful.

That said, I tend to give her the benefit of the doubt. I have a sneaking suspicion that she wouldn’t have been subject to such blowback had she not been Muslim. (It took years of overt hate speech before Steve King’s vitriol bothered his fellow Republicans. Islamophobia isn’t any prettier than anti-Semitism.)

Inadvertent or not, the reaction to her remarks makes it important to emphasize that criticism of Israel is not in and of itself anti-Semitic.  Plenty of American Jews are highly critical of Israeli policies and Netanyahu. I am one of them. Josh Marshall, editor of Talking Points Memo, is another.

As Marshall recently noted,

the Israeli right and its supporters in the US (who are overwhelmingly evangelical Christians) have reaped the whirlwind by making the Netanyahu government’s meddling in US politics so frequent and expected. It is not only wrong on the merits. It is insanely shortsighted for Israel. It also endangers American Jews.

As he concluded,

There is nothing wrong with criticizing Israel. I agree with many of the main criticisms. There’s nothing about criticizing Israel that is anti-Semitic, though the two things can overlap. And the history of anti-Semitism being what it is, it behooves critics to stay their criticism in ways that doesn’t easily play into anti-Semitic stereotypes. But the Israeli right and its American allies have made all of this more difficult for American Jews, who are overwhelmingly identified with the party the current Israeli government considers itself opposed to.

When critics suggest that Israel doesn’t have a right to exist, when they are conspicuously silent when far less democratic countries in the region like Saudi Arabia oppress women or kill journalists, or when they signal that their animus toward Israel extends to American Jews–yes, that’s anti-Semitic, and they should be called out on it.

For that matter, no one should be surprised that people who have a five-thousand-year history of hatred and discrimination would be a bit… sensitive… when old tropes play. But criticism of Israeli actions and/or policies is fair game, and it shouldn’t be deflected by unfair charges of anti-Semitism.

On the other hand, sweeping characterizations of Jews–or Muslims, or African-Americans or any other group–is bigotry. Condoning it–let alone tacitly encouraging it, as Trump clearly does– leads to tragedies like the massacre in New Zealand.

 

 

 

The Anger Games

Wonder why we keep seeing reports like this one from Talking Points Memo?

Bennett Bressman has “more compassion for small dogs than illegals” and claims his “whole political ideology revolves around harming journalists.” He uses the n-word freely and cracks jokes about the Holocaust.

Bressman also happens to have served as statewide field director for Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts’ successful 2018 reelection campaign.

A shocking trove of leaked private messages Bressman sent over Discord, a gaming platform popular with white nationalists, were surfaced Sunday by Anti-Fascist Action Nebraska. Under the handle “bress222,” Bressman made over 3,000 comments on the page for white nationalist YouTuber Nicholas Fuentes’ show America First. The chats were made public by Unicorn Riot, a volunteer nonprofit media outlet devoted to exposing the internal communications of white nationalists.

The Nebraska GOP declared itself “horrified” by the disclosures, and if this were a “one-off,” I’d be inclined to give the party a pass. But it comes on the heels of too many similar revelations and the constant stream of “dog whistles” and worse from Trump and numerous other Republican candidates and officeholders.

A recent sociological study confirms what many of us have suspected: these sentiments are widely shared in the GOP.  Far from “horrifying” good people who inexplicably voted for Trump, these attitudes are actually the reason they cast those not-so-inexplicable-after-all ballots.

New research by University of Kansas sociologists David Smith and Eric Hanley demonstrates how a socially combustible mix of racism and sexism, in combination with anger and bullying, put the United States on a path to authoritarianism.

 Writing in “The Anger Games: Who Voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 Election, and Why?”, which appeared in a recent issue of the journal Critical Sociology, Smith and Hanley summarize their new research:

We find that Trump’s supporters voted for him mainly because they share his prejudices, not because they’re financially stressed. It’s true, as exit polls showed, that voters without four-year college degrees were likelier than average to support Trump. But millions of these voters — who are often stereotyped as “the white working class” — opposed Trump because they oppose his prejudices. These prejudices, meanwhile, have a definite structure, which we argue should be called authoritarian: negatively, they target minorities and women; and positively, they favor domineering and intolerant leaders who are uninhibited about their biases.

Furthermore, the authors report, what unified Trump’s voters was not “economic anxiety” but prejudice and intolerance. What they define as authoritarian views were “strongly associated with support for Donald Trump.” Political polarization, although it definitely exists, is not strictly a “class phenomenon,” in their view. Trump voters came “from many strata and milieus” and “the effects of class are mediated … through biases and other attitudes.”

Smith and Hanley’s research identified eight attitudes that reinforced each other and predicted support for Trump: self- identifying as conservative; a desire for a “domineering” leader; Christian fundamentalism, animus against immigrants, African-Americans, Muslims and women; and “pessimism about the economy.”

The research concluded what many of us suspected: people didn’t vote for Trump “despite” his obvious prejudices; they voted for him because they shared those prejudices. It was the basis upon which they identified with him.

Assuming the accuracy of this research (and I do), the rest of us will have to come to terms with two very unpalatable facts: (1)some 35% of our country’s citizens are racist, and (2) they are not going to desert Trump. They aren’t going to recoil as his administration and cabinet wreak havoc on the economy, the environment, and the social fabric. So long as he hates the same people they hate, they will continue to support him.

For that (disconcertingly large) minority of the population, he really could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue without losing their allegiance. And that is terrifying.

Measles, Lies And Politics

In our politically polarized country, it’s tempting to see arguments about the efficacy of medical interventions like vaccines as examples of “non-political arguments.” True, the less-kind among us (I plead guilty) tend to view “anti-vax” parents as deranged left-wing versions of rightwing conspiracy theorists, or less judgmentally, arguably sane but credulous people who haven’t had access to accurate information. We don’t, however, see this particular controversy as a particularly political argument.

A recent, very thoughtful article in The New Yorker disagrees, calling the measles vaccine a “quintessentially political issue.”

Vaccination is a basic political issue, because it is the subject of community agreement. When a high-enough percentage of community members are immunized, a disease can be effectively vanquished. In epidemiological terms, this is known as “herd immunity,” which cannot be maintained below a certain threshold. When enough people reject the community agreement, they endanger the rest. Willfully unvaccinated adults and children can spread diseases to those who cannot be vaccinated or haven’t been vaccinated, such as infants and people with a compromised immune system; these vulnerable populations would probably be safe in conditions of herd immunity. Vaccination and the refusal to vaccinate are political acts: individual decisions that affect others and the very ability of people to inhabit common spaces.

The author cites evidence that a majority of anti-vaxxers are educated white people who have ample access to credible public-health information and scientific studies about vaccination. Much like those who refuse to believe that climate change is real, they simply choose to reject the science; they choose not to believe the medical consensus. As Frank Bruni recently wrote in the New York Times,

Their recklessness and the attendant re-emergence of measles aren’t just a public health crisis. They’re a public sanity one, emblematic of too many people’s willful disregard of evidence, proud suspicion of expertise and estrangement from reason.

The irrationality triggered by anti-vaccination propaganda is yet another example of the current raging conflict between facts and lies in America–a conflict exacerbated by social media. According to the author of the article in The New Yorker, there are even some reports that Russian trolls have been exploiting anti-vax fears as part of the Russian effort to use disinformation to splinter American public opinion.

What would cause well-educated parents to believe that the entire scientific and medical community is lying to them about the risks of vaccination?

The article attributes this reaction to current levels of public distrust–distrust of authority, of government, and especially of a complex, overly-expensive, profit-driven medical system that has few incentives for robust public-health interventions.

The solution to under-vaccination lies not in getting the right kind of information and messaging to the “vaccine-hesitant” but in changing the politics of health care. Political agreement is unlikely among partners who do not trust each other, and near impossible when one side is explicitly profiting from the other. The American health-care system is ill-suited to protect public health, because a profit-driven industry cannot serve as the guardian of public good.

It’s hard for people to trust the credibility of pharmaceutical companies when those companies are jacking up the price of insulin and other life-saving drugs.

The role of trust is something to consider as lawmakers debate the pros and cons of “Medicare-for-All” and  universal systems like those in place in most other modern countries.