Opening a New Front

There’s something all teachers know – it comes with the territory. If the kid does well that’s the kid’s accomplishment alone – he are she really rose to the occasion, and may actually have hidden talents that are only now emerging. But if the kid screws up that’s because you, the teacher, somehow blew it – you failed little Johnny or Sally. In short, the successes are theirs and the failures are yours. You’ll do better in the future. The only exception is parents’ night, when you explain that the kid’s successes are due to how magnificently this child was raised, with the right values and the right attitude – someone must have set a fine example.

Of course it’s all nonsense – the kid might be a whining brat or a dim-witted bully, or just a bit slow on the uptake. But you don’t mention that. There’s no point in disillusioning people. The world runs best on hope, even if it’s the delusion of hope – and no teacher really resents the implicit bargain here. Offering encouragement, even when it’s pointless, is part of the job. Maybe it’s the biggest part of the job. And sometimes you’re pleasantly surprised. Johnny or Sally actually manages a complete thought. And to be fair, there are smart or at least resourceful kids who do exceptionally well – the kids you send off to Harvard or Yale – and that wasn’t you at all. All you did was get out of the way, which is also what good teachers do.

It’s no wonder Americans are so confused about education – there are too many fictions involved. Here it was dinner a few years ago with two CEOs – of small but successful companies – who both dropped out of college early and pointed to Bill Gates, who did the same. The talk was what you would expect – you can make it big, and get all the goodies and lots of power, without a fancy-pants education, or even a degree. Formal education doesn’t matter – you can hire lawyers and engineers to do the tedious grunt work – you know, those hopeless fools that stayed in school all those years and now have to work for you, for what you choose to pay them, if you choose to pay them.

That is now matched by the idea that schooling may not be meaningless but may actually be bad for you. Glenn Beck is clear on the matter of universities in general – “We have been setting up re-education camps. We call them universities.” People go to such places and learn too much about other forms of government, like socialism, and other religions, like Islam, or even Buddhism. That sort of thing ruins you. Yes, Obama says he wants as many kids to go to some sort of college as possible, which is why Rick Santorum called Obama a snob:

There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate him. I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.

Santorum believes in home-schooling, as does Todd Akin:

He rejected President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation as too invasive for parents. With his wife, Lulli, Akin pulled his children out of school to have them taught at home. That made the Akins heroes to other home-schooling parents, many of them Christian evangelicals. Lulli Akin directed other parents at a home-school conference to “make sure that you tuck God’s word deep into your heart and your children’s hearts.”

Hey, if you’re home-schooled you learn some amazing facts about human biology that all those arrogant doctors, with their four years of college and all those years in medical school, and their years as an intern and then those years in residency, seem to think are not true at all. Akin says he knows better – so there!

Many of us who left teaching years ago probably didn’t leave because the pay was below low, or because we secretly wanted to become minor systems managers in aerospace all along, or because we never wanted to grade another essay on Hamlet’s issues with his mother ever again. And it wasn’t the pleasant lies that we told the parents all the time – those were harmless enough and probably necessary. It was because it all seemed pointless after a time. Half the country was always telling you that, or even suggesting that what you were doing was malicious. No one needs that. There were better things to do, or at least other things. And they paid reasonably well. More than a few of us walked away.

It’s the culture, and CNN contributor LZ Granderson offers the latest example of that:

What the president said was:

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that.” He also said, “The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

Romney spins it to make it sound as if the president is totally discrediting an individual’s hard work, summing it up this way.

“I realize that he got to school on a bus and the bus driver got him there, but I don’t give the bus driver credit for the honor roll,” he said. “I give the kid credit for the honor roll.”

He certainly wouldn’t give the teacher credit either, and Granderson offers this:

Nothing’s wrong with that statement by itself. The problem is, we don’t live by ourselves. This analogy epitomizes what makes Romney so unlikeable to so many people, regardless of party, race, gender or socioeconomic status.

On the other hand, Romney is likeable enough that the November election looks like a toss-up. There are his mildly enthusiastic fans, those who believe they made it on their own, and if their life is a mess believe they would have made it on their own, if the damned government hadn’t been giving all the money they paid in taxes to lazy bums who got all the opportunities they should have gotten. And as for education, especially public education, who needs it? It used to be that you wanted your kid to go to college, to be able to build a better life than even you now have, to learn things you couldn’t even imagine. That would make you proud. Now that would make you resentful, and you’d feel threatened.

Half the country seems to feel that way, but of course that also means half the country doesn’t – and Obama decided it was time to open a new front and address those people:

Broadening his attack on Republicans’ plans to curb federal spending, President Barack Obama campaigning in Ohio Tuesday portrayed GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, as intent on “gutting investments in education and science and infrastructure.”

Obama said in his speech at Capital University in Columbus, “Putting a college education within reach for working families just doesn’t seem to be a big priority for my opponent.”

He’s right about that, and he made it personal:

Drawing on his and his wife’s struggles to pay off student debts, Obama said at the outdoor rally that he was familiar with the difficulties of paying for college.

“We’ve been in your shoes,” he said. “I’m only standing before you because of the chance that my education gave me. So I can tell you with some experience that making higher education more affordable for our young people — it’s something I’ve got a personal stake in.”

Democratic officials call education “one of the most important economic issues facing our nation.” The stop was the first of three in the next days at either college or high school settings.

Obama is going to hammer this home:

His main focus was Romney. He spoofed comments the Republican made at Ohio events – including one in which he said students who couldn’t afford college should “shop around,” or that they could borrow money from their parents. “Not everybody has parents who have the money to lend. That may be news to some folks, but it’s the truth. So what Gov. Romney’s offering us is not an answer,” he said.

Obama said he hadn’t just “talked the talk,” but “walked the walk” on education, boosting Pell grants, tying student loan payments to incomes, among other policies.

Contrast that to Todd Akin:

In April, Akin cited a law Democrats passed in 2010 that saves billions of dollars by preventing private banks from profiting, risk free, on federally backed student loans as an example of the notion that “America has got the equivalent of stage three cancer of socialism, because the federal government is tampering in all kind of stuff it has no business tampering in.”

When offered the chance to clarify, he declined, saying “I called a spade a spade.”

No, that wasn’t a racial slur. Akin was just saying that the government has no business concerning itself with education at all. It’s a private matter, which seems to be the general idea on the right – everything is a private matter. Government only screws things up, every time.

But Obama’s shift in topic was carefully planned. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein did offer that long and carefully-sourced article on how the Obama team worked for years to make sure Romney picked Paul Ryan to run with him, because Ryan’s obscure and often self-contradictory 2008 budget plan, his Roadmap for America’s Future and all its subsequent iterations, was full of easy targets – stuff most Americans would find repellent, if they only knew. The Obama team worked hard so everyone would know, and the Republicans fell into the trap.

Tom Curry, an NBC News national affairs writer, explains how this all worked out:

Judged by his ten-year budget blueprint which unlike Romney’s education proposal has actually been approved by one house of Congress, Ryan isn’t satisfied with the return the federal government is getting on its investment in education.

“While Federal spending on the Department of Education and related education programs has grown significantly over the past few decades, academic achievement has not seen a commensurate improvement,” Ryan said in the report accompanying his budget plan.

It was time to pounce:

Ryan’s ten-year budget blueprint proposes to reduce some federal education outlays as part of its overall 12 percent cut in spending over ten years, for example consolidating and eliminating some of the 82 initiatives on improving the quality of teaching in public schools. Under Obama, Congress has created a new tax break for higher education, the American Opportunity tax credit, as well as increasing the maximum size of Pell Grants by $900.

One focal point of the campaign debate has been what Ryan would do to Pell Grants, the single largest source of federal aid to low-income students for college education. For the 2010-2011 academic year Pell Grants provided about $37 billion in aid to nearly 9 million students.

In his budget plan report, Ryan argued that “Pell Grants are the perfect example of promises that cannot be kept. The program is on an unsustainable path.” … He pointed out that the cost of the Pell Grant program has more than doubled since 2008, from $16 billion in 2008 to more than $36 billion in fiscal year 2013.

Half the country may think that college is a good thing – a good investment in the future – but we spend too much on that now, and we can’t afford it. But Obama sees a different problem:

Obama noted in his speech in Ohio Tuesday that over the past two decades, tuition and fees at American colleges and universities have more than doubled.

“I put colleges and universities on notice: if they can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding they get from taxpayers will go down. We want to give them some incentive to start lowering tuition,” he said.

A question that for now is going mostly un-debated in all the 2012 speech-making is why America isn’t getting better outcomes from its education investments.

Maybe that will be debated now, unless we just throw up our hands and say let’s just not spend a dime more. The money we save can be used for new weapons systems the Defense Department doesn’t really want and massive tax break for billionaires that they don’t need. It all depends on what you want to invest in.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent sees this as another Paul Ryan vulnerability that Mitt Romney didn’t anticipate:

Obama is campaigning today in Ohio, where he is giving a speech right now hitting Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan on education. He’s highlighting Romney’s suggestion that students worried about tuition costs should “shop around” or borrow money from their parents, and slamming the Ryan budget’s cuts to education funding, Head Start, and Pell grants.

This highlights something that has gotten a bit lost: While there’s a ton of discussion about the political implications of the Ryan budget’s Medicare reforms, Dems also view its education cuts as a major target.

Everyone seems to agree that every day the talk is not about the economy, and how Obama hasn’t fixed it up all shiny and new yet, is another day Romney loses. This was supposed to be an election about the economy and how to fix it, not about rape and abortion, and now about education of all things. But Sargent notes how this got turned around by the Ryan pick:

Dems see the Ryan plan’s impact on education as absolutely central to their efforts to portray the GOP ticket’s priorities as dangerously out of whack for everyone but the wealthy. It’s also a key to Dem hopes of winning over key swing constituencies, such as independents, Latinos and non-college “waitress moms,” and central to firming up support among the “Rising American Electorate,” the Dem coalition of minorities, young voters and unmarried women.

That’s the other half of the country, the half that thinks education is kind of useful, and certainly not evil. And Team Obama simply did their homework, using a poll on the Ryan budget done in July by their research firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner:

The poll, which tested various messages about the Ryan plan, found that one of the leading voter concerns about the Ryan budget is cuts to education, particularly among key constituencies, and that those cuts raise serious doubts about Romney when voters are told that he supports the Ryan agenda.

Among white non-college women, 66 percent say the education cuts raise serious doubts about Romney. Among Latinos the number is 67 percent. Among independents it’s 61 percent.

“There’s a lot the voters don’t like about the Ryan budget, but education is at least as important to voters as the Medicare piece is,” Andrew Baumann, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan, tells me.

“Education is a core concern for middle income and working class voters that gets underestimated,” Baumann continued. “The idea that Romney and Ryan would gut education programs that those voters see as important to pay for more tax cuts for millionaires illustrates whose side they’re on.”

Education really is a core concern for middle income and working class voters – the Romney team didn’t know that. They assumed otherwise. They’ve been listening to themselves a lot, assuming everyone thinks like them. It was the wrong assumption.

Still, Sargent says the Democrats have an uphill battle here. Few associate Paul Ryan with the specific agenda items he has proposed in his grand plan to fix everything:

A new Pew poll finds that Ryan’s Medicare voucher scheme remains unpopular, with a plurality opposed to it (49-34), but only 23 percent of those who have heard about it identify it as Ryan’s plan.

And so, as always, the Dem game plan is about persuading swing voters that the Romney/Ryan agenda really would cut taxes disproportionately on the wealthy while slashing services that poor and middle class voters rely upon. The key to making this case is dramatizing as specifically as possible how the Ryan plan would impact real people, and education – not just Medicare – will be central to the argument.

Opening a new front takes careful groundwork. That groundwork, on education, is now underway and there’s something new to talk about. And that’s the last thing Romney wanted – but he did pick Paul Ryan as his guy. He may live to regret that.

But wait, there’s more! Michael Lind offers another new front:

Why is there no pro-business conservatism in America? At first the question might come as a surprise. After all, conservative thinkers and politicians pose as champions of the private sector.

But in reality, the economic agenda pushed by the American right benefits chiefly “rentiers” or investors – the minuscule number of individuals who are wealthy enough to live on streams of income from their investments. An alternative pro-business conservatism would find many points of agreement with the center and center-left – and would be strikingly different from today’s American right.

You could argue that these guys got it all wrong:

The prevailing economic theory of the American right is that economic growth is driven by investment; investment is driven by capital; and rich people own a disproportionate share of the capital. Therefore, cutting taxes on the rich will lead directly to more investment within the United States, which in turn will lead directly to more broadly-shared economic growth in the United States. This supply-side, trickle-down theory provides the rationale for Paul Ryan’s plan to eliminate capital gains taxes completely.

This may be nonsense:

To begin with, conservative trickle-down economics exaggerates the role of rich individuals in investment, much of which is funded by the retained earnings of companies. Trickle-down theory also ignores the importance of the pooled savings of non-rich Americans in 401Ks and employer pension plans.

An even greater problem with this theory lies in the assumption that increased after-tax income for the rich will be translated automatically into increased investment. The rich may not invest their money in productive enterprises at all. They may spend their money on what Thorstein Veblen called conspicuous consumption. They may hoard their money. Or they may invest it in enterprises that provide them with a steady return but contribute little or nothing to productivity growth – for example, casinos of the kind owned by conservative donor Sheldon Adelson.

And there’s more:

In a global economy, there is no guarantee that rich investors will invest the money they save from tax cuts in productive enterprises in the United States. They may invest in factories in China or the energy sector in Brazil. In such cases, tax cuts for the American rich will spur investment in other countries but not the U.S. And even if investment-driven growth occurs inside U.S. borders, most or all of the gains from growth may go to the few, not the many, as in the last generation.

Lind goes on to discuss the implications of all this at great length, and this could be another front about to open – but one thing at a time. What needed to be said about Medicare has been said and folks have dug in on the matter on each side. And there may be little more to say about “legitimate rape” and abortion – no one’s mind will change there. For now we can talk about education – whether it’s pointless or damned useful and pretty neat and something the government should support, all out. Those of us who left teaching long ago find that heartening – people don’t really think what we did was useless. Maybe it’s time to go back.

But sorry, Mitt – we’ll get back to your main argument, that Obama didn’t fix the economy fast enough, one day. Or maybe not – you were the one chose Paul Ryan, after all.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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