Let’s Make Us Some Life

[A little digression from the ongoing exasperation of trying to understand human behavior.]

Test Tube Life

Every scientific attempt to “make” life has failed. They have all involved mixing all the right chemicals together in a test tube and waiting for life to happen. It didn’t. But haven’t we forgotten something?

Life didn’t begin in a test tube, and it didn’t involve a very brief time, like a mere human lifespan. The conditions that gave rise to life probably occurred not in Darwin’s “warm little pond”, but in a vastly greater area, like hundreds of square miles, even thousands. And they didn’t involve only one set of conditions, but probably many thousands, even millions, only one of which gave rise to life.

The truth is, we have no idea of the scale of natural “experiments” that were required to create life on early Earth. But we do know it wasn’t test tube sized. It was Earth sized, and it happened early, just tens of millions of years after Earth’s formation, when conditions were quite different from what they are today. The mixing probably happened in places cold and hot, on land and in the sea, maybe very deep, where Earth’s volcanic core creates jets of hot water. But it probably went on for many millions of years, and then, suddenly, in only one place, stuff got put together just the right way and there was life. The most primitive form of life, out of which our whole existence eventually came.

Is it any wonder our puny test tube experiments all failed?

Life From Space

There is also the possibility that the building blocks of life arrived as part of the never ending bombardment by meteorites and comets. Think about this: a meteorite broke up near Melbourne in 1969, and numerous fragments were found and studied. They were 4.5 billion years old, about the age of Earth itself, and were well stocked with the necessary amino acids required for the formation of life. How many other such occurrences might have occurred over the tens of millions of years before Earth life formed? In the millions, no doubt.

Given the vast stretches of time evolution requires, it should not surprise us if it took tens of millions of years of “fermentation” of natural or space chemicals before a few of them hooked up in exactly the right way and eventually turned into every life form there ever was, including us.

Our One and Only Shot

But it only happened once. We know this is true because we share the very same elemental essence as every other living thing on the planet. We share more than half of our DNA with yeast, that most primitive of life forms, and we share over 98% of our DNA with chimps, and we share it with everything else! Every living thing, plant and animal alike, is built from DNA, just like us. Miraculous, all right.

But chew on this, too. Our total existence is so far only about one percent of the era in which dinosaurs lived, and they were successful for many millions of years. Yet there is more than a little evidence that in the tiny sliver of time we have been in charge we have probably created the conditions for our own extinction. A crashing asteroid killed off the dinosaurs. It looks increasingly like we’ll be killed off by our own stupidity.

Published in: on 2014/10/21 at 9:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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Six Essentials of Liberal Democracy

Liberalism evolved very slowly from a society nobody today would call liberal. What we consider the liberal norm today arrived piece by piece, with great difficulty. Until mid-20th century, “liberal” was closer to what Americans consider conservative than to modern democratic liberalism.

The term “liberal” causes a great deal of confusion because even today its meaning in many parts of the world is nearly the opposite of what it means in the US. What do you make of “right-wing liberals”, or “neoliberals”?

Several hundred years ago the European political world consisted of very rich nobility and powerless very poor and uneducated peasants. There was no middle class, and class was forever locked in place. Little by little, social changes brought new liberties and inclusiveness that we have come to accept as permanent and natural. 

Conservative thought has had defining figures, particularly Edmund Burke (1729-1797) in England and Russell Kirk (1918-1994) in the US, who have listed conservatism’s salient characteristics. Compared to liberalism, conservatism has changed very little.

Liberal thought had a much more checkered and irregular evolution, and there is no centralizing liberal thinker like Kirk. The important characteristics of liberalism have only stabilized within the past half century or so, whereas conservative concepts such as a belief in the superiority of the rich have remained unchanged for four centuries.

Historically, liberalism has been associated with utilitarianism. It remains utilitarian because government must address the changing needs of citizens. It has also become impossible to disentangle economics from liberalism, because much of the proper role of government centers around the management and distribution of wealth. Social justice must also be included, because the wellbeing of the citizens is of paramount concern, and it also depends on egalitarian economics.

Here’s my take on the subject.

Principles of a modern liberal democracy

  1. The purpose of democratic government is to serve all the people. To the extent that a government does not serve all the people, it is not a democracy. A liberal democracy is by definition inclusionary, treating the rights and responsibilities of all persons equally.
  2. Capitalism is an essential part of the modern world, at least until an improved economics evolves, and in general is a positive influence in a democracy. However, capitalism has serious faults, the most significant being that it tends strongly toward control by the few very rich and inequality for the rest, and for that reason alone its excesses must be firmly controlled.
  3. Equality of opportunity is one of the most important determinants of citizen wellbeing. Economic equality is strongly correlated with many positive social outcomes, including a number that would not appear to be related. For example, rates of diabetes are lower with greater equality. In virtually every case, these positive outcomes save money and create a smoother operating and more peaceful state, and for that reason equality is essential.
  4. Liberalism is built on a foundation of moral behavior in individuals and institutions. Unlike conservatism, liberalism makes no claim that morality requires religion. It is easily demonstrated that moral behavior does not rely on belief in a supreme being or on religious dogma. Nor do religious beliefs guarantee moral behavior.
  5. It is essential that equality before the law be absolute. Equality precedes tolerance. We will never banish intolerance completely because it depends on individual attitudes, rather than government. Equality improves tolerance. It is the duty of government to eliminate social inequality; it is the duty of each citizen to cultivate tolerance.
  6. A liberal democratic society calls for the best from all citizens, to be informed and able to vote and express opinion intelligently, to cultivate honesty and tolerance, and to work for the betterment of self, family, and country. Equality requires government policy and individual action: free and equal public education, public policy encouraging equality and living wage, and an active free press.

How are we doing?

We are failing the first requirement, and much of the reason is because of the lack of opportunity for the poor that is built into our wage structure. Inequality is soaring, yet we are arguing about whether we should raise a minimum wage that is clearly inadequate, rather than establishing a Living Wage like those in other advanced nations. Living Wage would allow every working family to live with dignity and enjoy the blessings of a free and liberal democracy. Minimum wage does not.

Much of the reason we are failing the first element has to do with our failure to properly manage the second, capitalism. Virtually all of the new wealth of the past 40 years has gone to people who have no need of it, extracted from the millions who have desperate need of enough money to survive. The tendency toward inequality is inherent in capitalism, but we have regressed, because protection of worker rights was an important part of conservative politics of 50 years ago. Today’s conservatives, though, continue to honor dogma that says great wealth will create more wealth for everyone, while all evidence says the opposite. Great wealth, in fact, is enormously corrupting, and has brought us laws that heavily favor the richest by extracting wealth from the poorest, thus worsening their condition and weakening the nation.

No one earning inadequate pay has equal opportunity to make the most of her life. Instead, every day is spent scrambling for essentials, with no hope for a better future. The failure to provide equality of opportunity has many negative consequences. The opposite is true for equal opportunity, including many benefits that wouldn’t appear to be related. So, quite aside from universal medical care available in every advanced country except ours, a significant number of important health markers are improved with equal opportunity: less smoking and resulting disease, lower rates of diabetes and several other diseases, less obesity, higher levels of fitness, less depression. Less family violence, fewer homicides, fewer suicides, lower crime levels, less drug use. Higher educational achievement, greater occupational expertise, and so on. In short, there are numerous reasons and powerful motivations for maximizing equality of opportunity.

It goes without saying that moral behavior is essential, both for individuals and for institutions. What is not often said is that religion is not a prerequisite for moral behavior. The church has always assumed it has a monopoly on instruction in morality, but the simple fact is that morality does not depend on belief in a divinity or on religious dogma, and religious observance for certain does not guarantee moral behavior.

The fix we have gotten ourselves into by honoring the conservative creed has meant declining prospects, especially for people of modest means, but even for the middle class. Digging out of poverty is a Sisyphean task that few have the stamina for after working full time for inadequate wages. We have simply not lived up to the promise of equality called for by our founding documents.

In short, we are barely hanging on to a liberal democracy after decades of decline. We are compromised, and corrective action is desperately needed, lest we devolve into something we no longer recognize as democracy at all.

The Schools Aren’t Broken—Society Is

Those who believe private enterprise and the free market are the answer to all the world’s problems claim public schools are everything but what they actually are—one of the crown jewels of American democracy, the most efficient and effective way to bring education to the 319,000,000 of us, an institution whose superiority is recognized the world over. They are doing a great job. That’s not where the problems are.

If we want to see improvement in the schools, we have to quit beating down the regular people who sell stuff to us, deliver our packages, shelve our groceries, and so on. It doesn’t help to close “failing” schools or fire teachers because of test scores, because that’s not the problem—not to mention that our scores have shown nothing but consistent improvement. The problem is that regular folks can’t earn a living.

All we have to do
to see great improvement is
quit beating down the regular people.

Almost all the problems with schools come from poverty, not from the schools. Poverty is so pervasive and deep in the US that the poor universally feel hopeless. Why care about what you learn in school when everything in your life tells you that it will not matter?

The answer is super simple: pay a Living Wage, and in time the schools and their students will improve. “In time” is the operative term here. Results will take at least one generation, and will not result from standardized tests. This makes it very difficult for politicians whose time horizon is never beyond the next election.

Almost all the problems with schools
come from poverty.

The fact is that we are doing everything except what we must do in our effort to fix the problems in our schools. Notice that I did not say the problem “with” our schools. That’s because the problems arrive with the students on Day One, and began long before that. They don’t get enough to eat. Their family life is turmoil. There is never enough money in the house to buy necessities, in spite of the fact that the adults in the house work full time. Their neighborhood, urban, suburban, or rural, has too much crime, too much violence, too many drug dealers, all the usual problems of poverty. In the US, 1 out of 4 children are poor, which is an appalling statistic.

The single most important factor in fixing everyday life and the schools is the Living Wage laws we do not have. A rather long list of advanced countries have Living Wage laws. People with any job at all in those countries are not undernourished, and all can afford a decent place to live.

If you want change,
you have to be talking about
at least one generation down the line.

As I have said before, when the poorest earn a Living Wage, they are magically transformed from welfare recipient to tax payer, a double benefit for the whole nation.

We expect the problems with public school students to evaporate with the latest influx of profit-making corporate investments that force teachers to prepare students for standardized testing, provide charter and private school supers and principals with more money than they are worth, and put the lifetime careers of devoted veteran teachers in jeopardy because their students come from chaos and deep poverty.

We expect all the problems with students
to evaporate with the latest influx
of profit-making investments.

Sorry, folks. Foundation funding to test poor students still leaves them poor, and still leaves teachers struggling to help them with not enough resources. Not to mention that standardized tests are incapable of measuring some of the most important elements of a good education.

If you want student improvement, you have to be talking about at least one generation down the line. If you want change, the newest students have to arrive in school after a good night’s sleep and a nutritious breakfast, and wearing decent clothing. And good preparation would have started long before the first day of school.

In fact, school success starts with sex ed in the previous generation. It is absolutely essential that every child learn about human reproduction and understand the responsibilities and dangers inherent in sex. When a young woman becomes pregnant, it is often because of ignorance, and she is also likely to be ignorant about the grave dangers to her child from alcohol, smoking, and drugs. When she does know these things, she is far less likely to become a teenage mother in the first place, and when she eventually does become pregnant, her child stands a far better chance of doing well in school, and thus in life. There is an endless progression of the young, and each new kid needs to learn these things.

We are failing because
we fail to understand
that nobody can survive
on $7.25 an hour.

However, delivery of a normal weight infant with no developmental injuries is only the first step. It’s important, but what happens after that is only minimally under the control of the new parents if they can’t earn a decent living. Absent a Living Wage, the child is more likely to be undernourished, and to have difficulty learning.

Much of the rest depends on us, and we are failing because somehow we don’t understand that nobody can survive on $7.25 an hour, which will not pay the rent in any city in the country, let alone provide other necessities of life, like food, shelter, clothing, and health care. We endlessly debate whether we should do anything about minimum wage, which is rather like standing around and debating whether we should administer CPR to the unconscious kid we pulled out of the pool.

Yeah, but what about the lousy teachers? There are teachers who should be fired forthwith, and the teacher unions exist only to keep them on. Obviously, the unions are preventing progress, and should be ended as well. That’s what testing does.

Except that’s exactly wrong. There have been highly effective teacher evaluation systems functioning for many years. One such program is called PAR. In such systems the unions and administrators work together to identify ineffective teachers, help them improve, or move them out of the system if they can’t. It works well.

I have mentioned only the poor. The middle class counts too, of course, but it is the lowest earners who count most. When the poor can earn a living, the middle class will find itself boosted by the bootstraps of the formerly poor. The students will be OK, and the schools will be too.

The Superiority of the Rich

People who are conservatives presumably want to conserve things. Most liberals agree that things should not be lost merely for the sake of change. We all believe that we have deeply important things that should be conserved. But what are those things?

Conservatives mostly want to conserve their wealth and privilege. Why? Because they believe wealth reflects the natural order of the world, that wealth indicates superiority, a superior class of people. This has been the conservative belief for at least four centuries.

That wealth indicates superiority
has been a conservative belief
for at least four centuries.

The corollary of this argument is that poverty indicates inferiority. All wealthy people are superior; all poor people are inferior. The conceit doesn’t explain how loss of wealth through misfortune affects natural superiority, or whether gain of wealth merely by being in the right place at the right time actually means superiority. It doesn’t say whether a wealthy crook is superior.

But it does explain why conservative Republicans have opposed virtually every proposal to make the lives of the working poor better, and supported every proposal to give money to the people who have absolutely no need of it.

Ironically, a large percentage of the world’s greatest artists were poor all their lives. According to conservative beliefs, they were therefore inferior people. Only after they are long gone are they recognized for what they achieved. Only then do the rich buy their creations for millions of dollars. So what were these artists? Inferior because they were poor, or superior because they made great works?

A significant number
of the world’s greatest artists
were poor all their lives.

How about the people who hit upon some lucky formula—say, a car alarm that sells like hotcakes, even though it is obnoxious and does nothing to prevent theft? Have they become superior with wealth, after an unpromising youth on the other side of the law, or do they only become superior in hindsight, when their privileged children are able to maintain their status by hiring financial experts to manage their unearned wealth?

Personally, I find the purported superiority of the rich to be a rather contemptuous concept. Any of us can name an obnoxious billionaire or two, or a disgusting millionaire who is unclear on the concepts of ethics, morality, and common decency. And any of us can name someone of modest means whom we could trust with our life. No, money isn’t what counts above all.

One of the results of this belief in conservation of wealth is that most conservatives defend wealth and its production in the face of any and all evidence that their actions lead to profoundly negative results for everyone else. The prime examples today are exacerbation of poverty and inequality as wealth is increasingly shifted to the rich by Congress, themselves millionaires, and denial of the reality of global climate change, because denial allows capitalists to continue profiteering at the expense of the world. They simply cannot appreciate that purposely playing dumb is leading us rapidly into a nightmare world we will all have no option but to address as best we can, simply because they want to increase their wealth infinitely. They are blind and deaf to anything but this conserved wealth.

People don’t become lazy
whenever there’s a market downturn.

The plain fact that inequality has worsened over the past four decades at the same time that the rich were given gift after gift is a fact sufficiently obvious to destroy their argument that poverty is the result of natural inferiority and laziness. People don’t become lazy whenever there’s a market downturn. Nobody likes being out of work and having to depend on emergency funds, compromising their own future. Many people looking for work after a market crash cannot logically be a sign of natural laziness. Yet that is precisely what conservatives were saying after the 2008 crash, just as they did in the 1930s. But in spite of the undeniable truth of this logic, they are undeterred, and continue to believe in their own unquestionable superior leadership.

The conservative religion is no more subject to reason than other religions.

Who Owns the National Wealth?

You’ve seen these things.

GenProgInd

the great upward income shift

low-wage

Screen Shot 2011-10-26 at 7.04.09 PM  

They are endless, dozens of them, and what they all show is that inequality is out of control. It is weakening our country in many ways.

This has come about because people with power, which means money, believe in two falsehoods. The falsehoods are that they, the capitalist rich, are the naturally superior leaders, and that the more money they have, the better off the country will be. On the first point they overestimate their wonderfulness by a whole lot. On the second they are flat-out wrong, which is what all those charts above show.

Now, capitalism beats tyranny easily enough, and pure socialism as well, and is beneficial for democratic countries in a general way. But capitalism has very serious flaws that must be controlled, and one of them is at present creating havoc with people’s lives in the US. The flaw is that capitalism tends toward control by the few very wealthy, and worsening fortunes for all the rest, as you can see.

Capitalism has very serious flaws
that must be controlled.

Our dilemma, should we decide to do anything about it, is to find ways to bring the blessings of living in history’s richest nation to all those millions who aren’t able to earn a decent living no matter how hard they work, and to do this without making excessive demands on capitalists, who do in fact contribute something worthwhile.

In actual fact, solving the entire difficulty is simple, and it requires only two things.

First, we must have a rational wage. Arguing about our pathetic $7.25 minimum wage will get us nowhere. What we need is a Living Wage, like that in most of the advanced nations. People can live on a Living Wage. Nobody can live on minimum wage.

At a stroke, Living Wage ends most poverty and the welfare cost that goes with it. People earning a Living Wage will bring prosperity to the country because they will spend the majority of their earnings, and the added demand will create additional jobs. And they will pay taxes.

At a stroke,
Living Wage ends most poverty
and the welfare cost that goes with it.

Living Wage does not make people wealthy, but it does away with the dangers and hopelessness of poverty. People do not need great wealth to live a good life. When you can buy food and pay the rent, and where a health problem can no longer ruin your life, many other elements of the good life are available. Things like family gatherings, entertainment, travel, good food, community events, and so on. You can relax and enjoy life. You don’t need a second home or a yacht.

Now for the other end of the economic scale.

It is clear that the only feasible way to collect money for our national needs is progressive taxation. The rich live far, far above the point where additional income means anything at all. They can’t even spend it. So progressive taxes, even fairly steep ones, would be equitable.

We need to eliminate a lot of tax loopholes
and define moderately progressive taxation.

Notice that it is not necessary for the highest tax to be extreme, because even the lowest earners of Living Wage pay tax. The welfare payments necessary when people can’t make ends meet turn into taxes paid. Therefore, a reasonably progressive tax treats everyone fairly, and makes possible a number of fiscal improvements such as equal public funding for every student from pre-kindergarten through college.

So it turns out that fixing the mess we have made from maldistribution of the national wealth is not the impossible problem we have supposed it to be. All we need is a wise Living Wage, equitable progressive taxation, and an end of unfair tax loopholes.

Of course it’s not quite that simple, because capitalism and capitalists have managed to contrive many ways for both individuals and corporations to avoid paying their share of taxes. Individuals have a large number of tax-avoidance schemes, most of which they have arranged by simply purchasing legislative influence. Not many have shown any indication they think equality is worth bothering about.

The latest  among many schemes for corporations is to pretend they are now headquartered in some low-tax country such as Ireland. There are many other ways, and many of the very richest corporations in the country don’t pay a dime in taxes.

The nominal corporate tax rate is too high, but no one pays the top rate. Still, it should be lowered to make it realistic, and these avoidance schemes done away with at the same time. With few exceptions, every worker and every business should pay tax, because every person and every business uses the benefits that taxes provide.

No formal study I know of is available at present that would tell how this plan would pan out, but I believe that those changes would improve our national economics a lot.

The Unfinished Business of Democracy in the US

Outstanding advances have been made since feudal days. Everybody goes to school. Children no longer work in dangerous jobs for pennies. Today nobody bats an eye over the fact that every adult can vote, and has a whole series of rights, many of which didn’t exist not so long ago.

But it’s a delusion to imagine we are finished now—or ever. Any fool knows that there will never be a time when all has been accomplished, and we can rest. So. What’s next on the agenda?

Equality of opportunity and schools.

There are always those who would rail against “equality” because they think that means “socialism”. No, no. Calm down. Equality of opportunity means exactly that and nothing more. It means that no person should be prevented from achieving the life they want for themselves because of artificial limitations.

Inequality and schools
are what we should be
most concerned about now.

We’ve done pretty well in that regard. Restrictive laws based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, cultural background, and so on, all very common not long ago, are either voided or are in the process. That’s not to say that all will be right with the world, because you can make laws that forbid discrimination, for example, but you can’t legislate what people are required to think…and we should be very grateful for that, because it’s not true everywhere.

You could say that equality of opportunity starts with sex education, which should be taught to every child. How anyone could approve of keeping children indefinitely ignorant about reproduction, its joys, dangers, and responsibilities, defies reason. It’s been well proven that sex education brings less irresponsible sexual activity, less unwanted pregnancy, less STD, and fewer unmarried teen mothers. Some of the highest rates of those things occur in the most non-permissive settings. Kids do very well with sex education. They treat the subject very matter-of-factly, as kids do in European schools.

Sex education should be taught to every child.

But young women will sometimes get pregnant, and it’s of paramount importance that they learn their responsibilities long before they do. A fetus can be very easily harmed by all sorts of things. Bad diet of the mom is the easiest to deal with, but alcohol, cigarettes, and illegal drugs are disastrous. Unfortunately, young women in an unexpected pregnancy may not have learned these things. Worse, they may not be able to manage the health of their unborn child without help.

We should go to great lengths to assure that every girl learns how to keep herself and her baby healthy long before it becomes imperative. And why should we do that? Fetal injury and poor child nutrition are highly correlated with antisocial and criminal behavior as an adult. The opposite is true for healthy babies and properly nourished children. Providing the means for making all children healthy and well nourished would save the country billions of dollars every year, and generate generations of accomplished adults. Preventing even one child from becoming a serial killer can save several hundred million dollars, and assuring more widespread maturity in young adults would make the whole country stronger and smarter.

Failure as an adult
is highly correlated
with fetal injury,
poor child nutrition,
and abuse.

Closely related to child wellbeing is prevention of child abuse. What is needed here are programs to identify abusive parents, intensive programs to teach them how to be good parents, and ways for the child to escape the situation when needed. Such programs are by necessity expensive and long term. But they save far more than they cost.

Next comes school.

We cannot expect equality in our schools unless every public school student in the country receives equivalent funding. Equivalent funding is not possible as long as we rely on property tax for school funding. The reason is simple: there is more property to tax in richer districts, whereas there is very little property to tax in poor districts. It is incumbent, then, that school funding be rearranged to remove this automatic inequality.

Every public school student
must receive equivalent funding.

We should not be distracted by those who want to privatize schools. Free public schools are a keystone achievement of modern democracy, and any move to weaken them will weaken the whole country. That also means that the trend among some school boards to water down the teaching of science for religious reasons must be defeated. This is especially so because state boards in large states could potentially require anti-science such as creationism in textbooks that are used across the country.

Nor are charter schools a good idea. They have not demonstrated superiority to public schools, and meantime have the potential to weaken the public system. Private schools are another matter entirely, and whoever wants to send their children to a private school should be free to do so. However, there should be no financial reward for doing so.

Free college education
should be a national priority.

Next comes free college. I have given my opinion about free college here. The upshot is that the rich US universities can all easily afford to subsidize every student’s entire college cost, including living costs. Beyond that, there are many that could presently underwrite a significant part of college costs.

The remainder will require restructuring of taxes and increased priority for educational funding. This varies from rather low costs for community colleges, to more significant changes for institutions such as state universities. The single thing to remember is that many of the most advanced nations in the world, even some poor ones, underwrite the entire cost of all college education. Germany has a brand new program for free college. The economic reward, the national benefit for all of them, is a well educated and highly trained work force, putting the country at it’s most competitive and its population at its most democratically intelligent. This is not true for the US now.

Next: Equitable distribution of national wealth.

We’re All Wrong About Race

The perception among many whites is that blacks cause their own problems, by being criminal, by failing to get education, by being druggies, by being absent parents, and so on.

The perception among many blacks is that the deck is so heavily stacked against them, with de facto housing discrimination, lack of job opportunities, and ongoing police violence, that continuing conflict and inequality are inevitable.

Both are right—a little bit—and both are wrong. Race relations are a two-way street and we are traveling away from each other. As a nation, as a society, we have allowed inequality, poverty, and lack of opportunity to persist for generations, and have not addressed the conditions forcefully enough. The problems don’t just persist, but in many cases worsen, and usually affect the poor, not just blacks.

We have failed to address
economic opportunity
in any meaningful way.

Why do so many poor people, of all races, fail to thrive? I think much of the answer is that we have failed to address economic inequality in any meaningful way. Further, conservatives continue to embrace the fiction that the entire reason people don’t succeed is because they don’t try.

We seem to spend endless time debating minimum wage, with rich conservatives convinced not only that anyone can live on minimum wage, but that paying a true living wage would bring down the entire economy. This is another case where the actual facts make no difference, because they contradict the self-serving conservative religion. Far better minimum wages are the practice in many First World nations, along with mandatory paid vacation, sick leave, and other benefits. They work well, and there is no reason that shouldn’t be the case in the US.

There is no reason
the US should not have
Living Wage laws.

The poor come from urban, suburban, and rural areas that are poor. The people have great difficulty earning enough money for a decent life. Much of what little opportunity for work they do have gives them either low pay or it is seasonal or temporary. Millions of people work full time, or even have multiple jobs, at near minimum wage. None of them make enough to support a family. A significant number who work for places like Mickey-D and Walmart only manage with welfare, which of course we pay for, in effect subsidizing the multi-million dollar bonuses of the top execs who believe $7.25 is adequate.

Many whites, especially conservative Republicans, believe that blacks who struggle with dead-end jobs (somehow forgetting that there are more whites than blacks in such jobs) are unsuccessful at rising from poverty because they are lazy. But the vast majority of people of any color want to work, and want their share of the prosperity that should be available to everyone. But in many places the opportunity does not exist.

Students in South Korea
don’t view learning
as “acting white”.

Still, a small number of disaffected young black (and other) men seem to go out of their way to do everything wrong. They come to believe early on that the payoff for education is not available to them, so they reject education entirely. Their absentee rates are higher than anyone else. They leave high school largely illiterate and innumerate almost as a point of pride, keeping themselves purposely ignorant. They reject everything that they perceive as “white”. This virtually guarantees a life of poverty. This is a bad mistake, and it has nothing to do with “whiteness”. Obviously, students in, say, South Korea, don’t think getting an education is “white”, and such students will be our competition.

On the other side of the color line, who would not want to be somewhere else when a scowling, muscular white guy wearing a lot of leather and metal stuff, shaved head, and a swastika tattoo on his forehead shows up. Why is it so hard for such people to see themselves as others see them? This is purposeful construction of an obnoxious character. They may actually be intelligent and talented young men, but they are going nowhere acting and dressing like that.

White attitudes are like religious beliefs,
which are unaffected by actual facts.

If any solution to this giant culture clash is to come about, both elements will have to move toward a point in the middle. The more difficult task is to change white attitudes, because white attitudes are like religious beliefs, which are unaffected by actual facts. The same prejudices and stereotypes that prevailed half a century ago remain today, and recent news suggest there is little improvement. A large percentage of whites blame unarmed blacks for their own murder by violent, out-of-control police. I think we can safely say that equality comes first. Gradually, generations after equality has improved, tolerance will follow.

The government at all levels has the major responsibility for correcting social inequality. Tolerance can only come from individuals. In my opinion, doing away with the practice of funding schools with property taxes, and establishing laws that mandate equal funding of every child, will go a long way, but will not solve everything.

Such proposals as I suggest
are mainstream and
common in other countries.

Such proposals as I suggest are not radical. They are mainstream and common in other countries, and would benefit the nation as a whole. Yet we fail to take advantage of them, mostly because of the conservative fable that all poverty is the fault of the lazy black poor. The US is the only First World nation that fails to fund all students equally. Further, several nations provide additional funding to help students rise from poverty.

Capitalism and Socialism, Some Faults

Here’s what’s wrong with socialism:

Socialism fails to reward individual initiative. When people find that they are not rewarded for harder work, they quit trying. In the end the result is a country where everyone is the same: nobody is motivated and everyone is poor. There is no opportunity to rise above poverty in the official economy. Look at Cuba.

Socialism fails to reward individual initiative.

Here’s what’s wrong with capitalism:

The richest are rewarded with ever-increasing power and wealth, because they have ways of further enriching themselves not available to others, while everyone else finds their wealth and wellbeing either stagnant or declining. The poor have very little opportunity to rise from poverty, no matter how hard they try.

Capitalism creates inequality.

It would seem then that a political system that avoided these socialist and capitalist extremes would more closely approximate the ideal of adequate wealth for everyone than either of these. Other things being equal, which they are not, capitalism provides a generally higher standard of living.

“Equality” is of central importance in such discussions, and carries with it the danger of being misinterpreted. Only hard-core socialists believe in an equality where every person has the same wealth. This is a bankrupt idea that historically has been a resounding failure, with Cuba as the best example at present.

Equality is of central importance.

The only meaningful definition of equality today means equality of opportunity. Ideally, no one should be denied the opportunity to achieve his or her best by the accidents of birth, wealth, or social environment. But that’s what happens to racial and cultural minorities who live in poor neighborhoods, where they are exposed to more crime, weaker schools, more disease and pollution, and less opportunity for employment. These are all factors that the society at large should address. Not to do so does not just affect the poor, it makes the entire society weaker and poorer, with extra social costs that must be covered in other ways.

It is worth noting that both socialism and capitalism are designed to deal only with material wealth. In neither case are personal freedom, spiritual health, artistic expression, or other elements that are important to people part of the equation. In both cases, the poor cannot be said to be free, because the lives of the poor are restricted by the necessity to scramble for the essentials for living, with very little remaining for a satisfying life.

Why College Should Be Free

Let’s start with the rich private schools. Universities with large endowments can easily afford to cover the entire cost of college for every student.

Take Princeton University. Princeton has the 4th largest endowment, but it generates the largest annual return on investments per student, more than $2.3 million. (My estimate, based on the typical percentage of investment return for endowments documented by Thomas Piketty in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.)

The profit figure comes to between $1M and $1.7M per student for Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, and many others are not far behind. Clearly, these universities have no need for student fees of any kind, even when all the other things the endowment provides—new buildings, endowed chairs, etc.—are counted.

Rich universities can easily pay
from endowment profits.

My rough rule of thumb for such universities is this: If 5% of per student earnings on endowment is more than what it costs to attend, all students should attend free. If student costs exceed this percentage, each student should be subsidized up to that 5% figure. That still leaves 95% of investment profits for the university to play with. It also leaves the university more inclined to receive donations from happy graduates and their parents.

All public universities should be completely free, including living costs, no matter what it takes to get there, because the entire country would benefit from it. This would require recognition that the lip service we’ve always claimed about education is actually true: it has great value for individuals and the country. That means we should not stop with high school, but send our young adults to college as well.

The entire country would benefit.

Impossible? Not at all. In total, 43 countries provide free post-secondary education, including a dozen or so in Europe. Even poor countries have it. Many of these provide not only student fees but living expenses as well.

Now, why on earth would they do that? The costs of college are back breaking, and sure to bring these countries to bankruptcy. The answer is simple: Not only do these plans not create bankruptcy, they result in greater affluence and a more educated population. Nor do they have graduates who are drowning in student debt, as we do.

Those countries pay up front. We pay higher costs, plus social costs, plus the cost of greater inequality, later on.

Forty-three countries provide
free post-secondary education.

The single element that is most likely to create higher personal income is an earned college degree. Greater earnings means greater national wealth and equality, because people can afford to pay for things that were previously unaffordable, thus bringing more money into circulation and requiring more workers to satisfy added needs. Yet many promising students are simply too poor for college.

Of greater importance is that higher education creates a much more informed public, which in turn brings improved democracy and equality, as well as a higher quality work force. All these things are very important in several ways.

Algeria, Barbados, Ecuador, Mauritius,
Nepal, Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay,
and many more pay for college,
but are not rich.

 Whoa! you say. We can’t possibly afford to send everyone to college. It’s just too expensive.

I say to you, what is it about Algeria, Barbados, Ecuador, Mauritius, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, and many more, that allows them to afford this expense that we, the richest nation the world has ever seen, can’t seem to manage? These examples are not even rich European countries. Many of them, in fact, are poor.

Doesn’t that mean that every student must be admitted to a college, regardless of their qualifications? The opposite is true. Every student admitted must meet the requirements of the college that admits them, and the colleges can afford to be fussy. If the students can’t meet the requirements, they must not be admitted. Remember too that being admitted only means you got through the door. That’s just the beginning, and if you don’t perform you will flunk out. In fact, a free system would mean that colleges were more strict in requiring good work.

Colleges could afford
to demand student performance.

Under the system we have today, where colleges compete for limited funding based on how many students enroll, there is great pressure on all teachers to pass along students who don’t do satisfactory work, because not to do so reduces student population and therefore funding. That tendency would be reversed with free education, because every college has de facto limited enrollment simply because admissions cannot be infinitely large. Particularly with prestigious universities, there would always be someone who missed the cut by a hair, and wants your seat.

The facts of free college education comes back to the usual thing. Certain politicians and capitalists and their followers cannot bring themselves to believe that anything that helps the poor and average, rather than people who have no need for more money, can be beneficial. The conservative rich have had four decades to demonstrate the truth of this belief, and have utterly failed to do so. What the data show instead is that only the wealth of the already rich has increased in that time. Over the same period inequality has increased sharply, and income for most of us has remained stagnant or actually fallen. Meantime, our democracy has suffered, and our workforce is falling behind.

It’s time for some changes.

Do We Really Want Equality?

We ain’t gonna get it the way we’re going. We ain’t gonna get it by congressional decree. It will take money and generations. It always has.

One of the most important elements of equality is equality of education, because this affects the future. But the system we have evolved serves best to perpetuate inequality. This is largely because of our dependence on property tax to fund schools, and the push by the wealthy to weaken public education with charter schools and other corporate intrusions.

The rich having more property to tax, schools in rich districts are better funded. The poor have almost no property, so schools in those areas are chronically underfunded, creating a self-perpetuating inequality quite independent of other factors.

How about doing something radical, like requiring that all students be funded equally? Radical? There are 43 nations all around the world who do this, many of them in poor countries. Of those, a number also require extra funding for underprivileged children. 

When this becomes law it will be apparent that poor students are routinely underfunded, because funding for rich students will drop as much as it is increased for poor districts. This enlightenment is desirable, because it will point out how unequal funding is. The problem, then, is to provide adequate funding for every student, something that is long overdue.

Our educational system perpetuates inequality.

We must not be distracted by corporate conservative plans to privatize public education. Care must be taken to fully preserve public school funding. No one should escape this responsibility. (We must also realize that charter schools are not an improvement over public schools, about which I will have more to say later.) If the rich want to send their children to private schools they are free to do so, but they must also pay their fair share for public schools, and the same is true for homeschoolers and others. Anything else weakens one of our most important public institutions.

It seems that most white Americans think that all black Americans are poor and all poor are black. However, most of the poor are not black. Social conditions everywhere there is poverty are unsatisfactory, and the only way this will change is for the country to accept the fact that corrective action will require significant funding over time to change it.

Unfortunately, we expect great social changes in very short periods with no new money. Further, conservatives believe that lower taxes and expenditures are always an improvement, which contradicts the facts. Sometimes we expect schools to improve by decree, or as the result of a new law passed by Congress, with no change in how students are funded. That doesn’t work.

Significant changes require investment, and results are measured over generations, not months. Do you want the best coders for your IT company? Do you think you will get them by paying the least you can get away with, the way teachers are paid? Do you want the students to be tech savvy? Think that will happen without buying the latest computers? Do you think students should get a well-rounded education? Do you think that will happen without the arts?

Educational changes require investment,
and results are measured over generations.

The proof that educational change takes a long time is seen in every wave of immigrants the country has ever had. Many new immigrants were undereducated or illiterate, no matter where they came from. First generation Americans were too busy working to learn English well. They were not affluent, but did their best to be sure their children were educated. The second generation spoke both English and the old language, and became better educated and more affluent. The third generation did not speak the old language, and earned bachelor’s and advanced degrees, and became comfortably affluent.

If it takes three generations for immigrants to achieve affluence, it is unlikely that a single generation of people born into poverty and bad social conditions will be able to rise above it. It will take generations. That’s why such concentration must be placed on children, even before they are born. Children born into equal opportunity will do well, and the first step is to assure equal schools with equal funding.

Why do so many of the poor do badly in school and end up as misfits, often on the wrong side of the law? The reason has more to do with racial prejudice than anything else, but cultural valuing of education, so strong in a number of Asian cultures, is a powerful mitigating factor. African-Americans are not the only victims of racism. Until after WWII Asians were routinely denied the benefits of democracy, and today hatred of Spanish-speaking immigrants is at an all time high.

Children born into equal opportunity do well,
and the first step is equal funding.

But blacks are probably the most affected by racism because of the long legacy of slavery and discrimination. This is reflected in the reprehensible treatment of normal, law-abiding citizens provided by police simply because of skin color that has been so much in the news lately. Police violence affects all blacks. No black man, no matter his achievements, no matter what he is doing at any moment, is absolutely safe from murder by the police. It happens every few days.

Much of this reprehensible treatment of various minority groups (who, incidentally, will soon be the national majority) is pure racism. It is part and parcel of the conservative outlook, and is virtually impervious to factual truths that contradict the prejudice. Changing racism takes generations too. Most educated Southerners overcame the ugly racism of their recent ancestors, but it took generations.

If you want less crime and a better society, invest in opportunity for the long term. But you must invest.

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