Ending Economic Decay

The writer Paul Theroux is like no other. He’s prolific, and a restless world traveler, and he has no interest in the places where people have money. His travels have taken him to the poorest parts of the world. His most recent travel book is Deep South, a chronicle of slow trips through the forgotten places left behind by the interstate highways, with factories abandoned after business moved to Bangladesh. There is no money, no work.

And yet every single day, the world’s money flows in great flooding cascades of cash, billions upon billions, in and out of laundering facilities on small islands and banking nations like Switzerland. Theroux quotes the 19th century Portuguese writer Almeida Garrett, who observed the poverty in his own country and posed the question, “I ask the political economists…if they have ever calculated the number of individuals who must be condemned to misery, overwork…and utter penury in order to produce one rich man.” Garrett understood money well.

Our government could begin improving our economy by addressing the blatant violations of law by some of our richest citizens and corporations. Hiding money offshore is illegal, and should be punished with prison sentences, which would—ahem—“encourage” moral behavior, since nothing else does. Corporations that move headquarters overseas should be treated like foreign corporations, complete with import duties on their products and fees for usage of US infrastructure. Most important, since foreign corporations are already forbidden from influencing the American legal process, the lobbying they now do should result in significant penalties, including prison, if continued.

It is part of our great unfinished business to do something about our national poverty. The poorest Americans, in cities like Detroit as well as the obscure decaying towns of the rural south, lack the essentials for a decent life, and it’s not because of laziness or moral failure. It is because there is no work or money to be had. Millions live in severe unrelieved poverty, and it’s not their fault.

Where is the wealth? We all know. Half of all our national income goes to a few very rich people who have no need for more money, but keep it hidden anyway. The US is the richest nation in the history of the world, and yet we have failed completely to provide work and essential income for those millions of people in the poorest parts of the rural south and elsewhere. They don’t want or need to be rich; they would never be wealthy in the common use of the term, but were once wealthy enough. Now they are not even that.

The federal government does spend money to help poor people, but what people need is a way to build their own future. We need new laws and rules that prevent abusive capture of money by the very rich, regulations that encourage domestic industry, plus modern work week hours and living wage laws.

National health care insurance is probably the most important single thing we could do to improve the lives of the poor. A healthier population sharply reduces the significant money lost to illness and death. Not only would it save billions of dollars and millions of lives, it would remove a major disadvantage for companies that compete in markets where national health care is the norm.

When we look at the deep poverty found in the rural south, we see that every part of life is affected by this poverty. That includes the schools. The young do not receive a modern education because desolate state and local economies cannot adequately fund schools. If all Americans are to be educated well, funding must be equal for every student in the country. This cannot happen if a significant part of funding comes from the coffers of very poor states like Mississippi. With equal funding we would have a much better work force, ready for business rejuvenated by improved laws, as well as an intelligent and informed citizenry able to bring more wisdom to the world. This would in time diminish the scourge of ignorance from bad education, of belief in superstition and magic, and of failure to understand science we see even in certain members of Congress.

Austerity, whether a result of unaddressed economic evils or of backward bank practices that prevail in Europe, results in a downward spiral for the people. Investment in the economy, such as with President Obama’s 2009 fiscal stimulus and the Affordable Care Act, has the effect of putting money in the hands of lower income citizens, who cannot afford to hoard it. The money circulates, and improves the local economy.

Dragging the moribund economy of the old south into the 21st century is more important than we commonly believe. Those who suffer include the crabby rednecks who hate Obama, but who deserve a better roll of the dice along with the rest of us, and it will only happen with bold national practices like those I mention here. For nearly a half century, money has been taken out of the hands of these everyday Americans and put in the hideaways of the very rich. This has created unrelieved cruel poverty, and it must end.

How To Cheat the Future

Every politician in the country talks about how children are our future. The most popular time to do this is just before the education budget is destroyed again, sending the educational system into yet another tailspin that will take years to recover from as the best teachers flee the field and everything descends to inadequacy.

Politicians also have an unflattering habit of telling people who have devoted their lives to their profession how to do their work, especially educators. Every administration comes up with its grand educational plan, usually based on political and/or religious beliefs, not verifiable evidence. Typically, these plans accomplish very little, if they don’t actually do harm, and much of the reason is that they are often designed to blame and punish the teaching field, rather than support the students and teaching professionals with actual money. They all want better results, but never supply the one necessary thing.

If politicians really want to help, they should get the hell out of the way and simply devote themselves to providing consistently high financial support. The success of education should not depend on the boom and bust of the business cycle.

The success
of the educational system
should not depend
on the business cycle.

Our public schooling looks like it was purposely designed to foster inequality and inferior education. The primary reason is the way we pay for it. We buy education with some federal funds, but it is the local taxes that create inequality. That is because local taxes are based on the value of property, and, obviously, the rich have more property, so of course they get better schools. The secondary reason is that politicians continually meddle with teaching, which they know nothing about, instead of designing a system of stability, equality, and adequate funding.

My solution involves three things.

  • Require equal and appropriate funding for every student, nationwide.
  • Require this funding to be generous enough to provide a superior academic setting.
  • Establish a stable financing method that provides consistent funding over time.

Every student in every school in every state would receive the same funding, appropriate to the grade level and subject. Even in the Old South, where actual learning is traditionally optional, and budgets are typically less than half what they should be. All teachers nationwide would be as well paid as they are in nations with the best schools.

It would take four years for superior teachers to begin arriving, after teaching becomes a decently paid and respected profession. No plan will provide this result without salaries commensurate with other professions, and no plan can promise immediate results.

Every student in the country
must consistently receive
the same funding.

No doubt there would be a lot of shouting about how unfair and unworkable such a plan is. Nonsense. There isn’t the first reason that inequality must be enshrined in our educational system. In the best educational systems in the world every student is completely supported every year, some all the way through college, teachers are well paid, and the profession is highly respected. Our system staggers from one catastrophe to the next, with mediocre and irregular pay, and gross inequalities built into the system that virtually guarantee failure for some students.

If the rich object to my plan, it can only be because funding is inadequate for everyone, not just their children. The obvious solution is to provide adequate funding for everyone. Nothing says the rich would be prevented from sending their kids to expensive private schools if that’s what they want, but they still have to pay their taxes like everyone else.

Perhaps some private schools are providing superior education, but charter schools and similar experiments have not proven to be inherently superior in the public school setting. Charter schools, in fact, are nothing more than a semi-transparent right wing scheme to privatize education. But privatizing will always cost more because privately run schools must have profit in addition to the expenses public schools have. Money is the plain and simple magic factor, and we’ve never had adequate nationwide funding for schools in our entire national history.

Money is the plain and simple
magic factor.

Additional objections would probably come from those who believe the poor are inherently inferior and do not deserve equal opportunity in schooling, an attitude that is demonstrably common among conservatives. But they are wrong. It has been proven many times that no race, cultural group, religion, or income group is inherently inferior. Take Elizabeth Warren, the fireball Senator from Massachusetts. Her parents both earned their living at humble jobs, yet even without the privilege of wealth she became a respected law professor at Harvard, and a senator to be reckoned with. It’s a path similar to the one President Obama and Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor followed. And there are many, many examples of people from all cultural groups who grew up without much money yet became very successful.

But what about Those People, the ones in neighborhoods where various gangs and violent people create stressful lives for everyone? The Right is certain this means African-Americans exclusively, but the fact is, depending on the era and the neighborhood, criminal activity within every cultural group in US history has made life difficult at times. Asian, Latino, and European criminals have all given us grief.

That’s all irrelevant. If you want students from these stressed neighborhoods to become successful adults, treating them as flawed people not deserving of equal treatment is not the way to go about it.

Treating minority students
as flawed people
not deserving of equal treatment
is not the way to go about it.

What about the chaotic schools, where teaching is a daily battle to subdue bad behavior? First, even expensive private schools have their malcontents—who can be simply expelled, in contrast to public school students, who may not be expelled. Bad behavior is a difficult problem in any school, but some teaching professionals manage it well, and there are constant reports of disruptive students from kindergarten onward who over time mature and do well. Among the poor especially, many problems derive from social conditions, and go away when those improve. For the incorrigible, let them support themselves when they reach legal age; that’s what they want anyway.

Will all the people who live in rough neighborhoods and don’t have much money become professionally successful? Of course not. Some of them are not very smart, and are likely to remain among the lower income levels. That doesn’t mean they should be poorly paid, however. Nor does it mean that there aren’t lots of people in these less promising neighborhoods who have the ability to do well in school and become productive citizens, even national leaders.

In my not-so-humble opinion, when every teacher and student in the country gets adequate and reliable financial support, we will see a level of national superiority in all kinds of endeavors that the country has never seen before.

Our students really are our future. We can’t continue to cheat them in the many entrenched ways we do and expect superior results.