Observations


I am a professional analyst of society; my training is in social research, my primary employment – my bread and butter so to speak – requires me to engage in ongoing research and analysis of social, economic, environmental and political trends. So what follows are not the observations of your ordinary citizen observer or even of a journalist (not at all sure why so many people these days accept journalists – such as Thomas Friedman – as experts on social and economic trends). I spend my days immersed in data, examining the nitty-gritty of income distribution, education attainment, crop reports, tuition costs, energy production figures, employment trends, Arctic melt patterns and extreme weather events, economic investment patterns.

What I see emerging from all this data is stark and disturbing for advanced capitalist industrial nations, but more so for the United States than countries that have made an effort to blunt the contradictions of industrial capitalism with social policy.  We are simply running out of places into which to “bury” the toxic effects of industrial capitalism.  Two types of contradictions exist within industrial capitalism: one has to do with the fact that every single successful capitalist enterprise must draw in more revenue than it gives out in wages/salaries and other costs; the second with the impossibility of the constant growth in production required by industrial capitalism meeting the barrier of finite resources.

For two hundred and fifty years we managed to avoid the first problem by finding sources of revenue that were outside the realm of industrial capitalist societies (undeveloped or underdeveloped nations), and avoid the second problem because we had yet to come close to the limits of key resources like petroleum and natural gas, or the limits of sinks for waste products like carbon dioxide and toxic chemicals. But today, there is no country where capitalist industrial enterprise has not taken hold and converted nations of peasants and artisans into wage earning laborers. And today the limits of resources like petroleum are all too visible, as are the limits of sinks for carbon dioxide and other wastes.

The United States is heading straight for an economic, social and ecological brick wall. To all those Tea Partiers who “want my country back,” I’m sorry, but your country is gone, irretrievably broken and disintegrated, and even if the majority of Americans actually wished to return to days of racial, ethnic and gender inequality that you hold with such great reverence it cannot be recovered. To all the liberals who have “Hope” for the future based on “Change,” sorry, the course is set, there’s not enough resources left to pull us out of the dive we began more than a generation ago.  The next several generations of Americans will have less in the way of material goods, less time, less energy, less ease, less of everything.  There is no changing this. Conservatives who want to reclaim the past can’t stop this from happening. Liberals who want to subsidize the future can’t stop it from happening either.

We are in the condition of “overshoot” warned against by Meadows, Randers and Meadows in their 1972 The Limits to Growth, and then again in the 1992 follow-up Beyond the Limits, and yet again in their Limits to Growth: Thirty Year Update in 2004. Industrial capitalism is the 52,000 ton Titanic. The iceberg is right in front of us. There’s no way to steer a ship of that size around the obstacle. We are going to “crash.” There’s no avoiding it.

So why not give up? Why vote? If the course is set, the disaster is unavoidable, decline is inevitable, why does it matter who wins in 2012? It does matter. Because every disaster, including the Titanic can have survivors. It matters, because the two parties have very different views on how many “lifeboats” and “life preservers” there should be and who should have access to them. I’m going to vote for the party and the candidate, that is going to do its best to make sure that both rich and poor have a chance at surviving. The party that will provide enough life boats for everyone, and won’t be excluding people because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or income. Life boats may not be a luxury liner, but they are the difference between death and survival. Not everyone will survive, but I intend to vote for the party and the candidate that’s going to do it’s best to make sure that the cards aren’t stacked against those in “steerage” and in favor of those with “first class tickets.”  If you can’t figure out for whom I’m going to vote you aren’t paying attention to this election.

The Ballot in Florida will contain the following amendment to the Florida State Constitution:

Amendment 8  “Religious Freedom”- new amendment to appear on the 2012 Florida election ballot
Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution providing that no individual or entity may be denied, on the basis of religious identity or belief, governmental benefits, funding or other support, except as required by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and deleting the prohibition against using revenues from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution. (http://www.examiner.com/liberal-in-orlando/update-florida-bill-would-send-taxpayer-money-to-churches-and-religious-schools)

This Amendment would remove language from the Florida Constitution that prohibits using public monies (largely from taxes) to aid church, sect, or religious denomination or any sectarian institution, and replaces it with language that says that

“neither the government nor any agent of the government may deny to any individual or entity the benefits of any program, funding, or other support on the basis of religious identity or belief.”
and
“that no individual or entity may be denied, on the basis of religious identity or belief, governmental benefits, funding, or other support” (http://election.dos.state.fl.us/initiatives/fulltext/pdf/10-86)

So what does that have to do with Madrasahs? This amendment is supported by Christian Conservatives and Tea Party Activists in Florida, with the intent of making public moneys available for religious schools and charitable institutions. However, to be consistent with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (as the Amendment states), ALL religions must have equal access to state funds.

I personally don’t want to see any tax payer money go to support any religious organization activities – especially when religious organizations are exempt from taxes themselves, and exempt from many laws (such as ADA requirements on hiring, promotion and firing as determined by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision).  I wonder how those supporting this Amendment to Florida’s constitution will feel about their tax monies going to ALL  religions?

Community Colleges in America are well on their way to being institutions that provide no real “college” education at all. Thus insuring that low and middle income students who have no choice but to attend community colleges, will have an education that increasingly below the standard of four year college education.

My friends who teach in community colleges acknowledge that already their courses really do not measure up to those at four year colleges. These faculty know that they simply cannot get low income students who work full-time jobs, are married, have small children, and who lack adequate college preparation (many of whom have never read a single book cover to cover), to read the same amount or level of material, such as the primary sources and research articles typically assigned to four year college and university students.

But in recent years things are getting worse, the gap in what community college students and those in four year institutions learn has gotten wider, and current trends in developmental and technical education threaten to expand the divide to a chasm rivaling the Grand Canyon.

The emphasis in Community Colleges is on developmental education (what we used to call “remedial” before that became politically suspect) and on technical education or narrow job training. In other words, Community Colleges, rather than providing the first two years of a college education, are doing the things that American secondary schools no longer are able to accomplish.

Across the nation, Community Colleges have seen the state tax money available to them decline, if not in absolute terms, certainly in terms relative to the cost of the education they provide. As a result many community colleges, like four year colleges, have raised tuition rates, and instituted a variety of cost saving measures to make up for lost funds, as well as amping up efforts to attract grant and corporate money.

In true political contrarian fashion, states and regional accrediting bodies have increased demands for accountability at the same time that they have decreased overall state tax support for community colleges. The demand for accountability focuses on three things – assessment of learning, increasing retention and graduation rates and the employment of students exiting community colleges.

Rising tuition costs and pressures to improve retention and post-degree employment, push Community Colleges to bow to the short-term, often short-sighted, pragmatic goals of their “customers” – the potential college students and their parents (who rarely have college educations themselves). Colleges scramble to come up with new programs to meet current, localized job demand, with little thought to long range trends or life time career paths.

As a result community colleges crank out graduates that have practical skills but no liberal educational content behind those skills. As a result occupational graduates in fields like real-time closed captioning where the graduates can type as a fast as news anchors can talk, but lack a liberal education with the humorous result that the ancient runner “Pheidippides” turns into “three fip disease” during Olympic coverage, and a commentators view that British youth’s rioting as “inchoate” (August 12, 2011) turns into rioting “in Kuwait”!!

In doing so, they shift resources (classroom space, computer labs, faculty lines, technology funds) away from traditional college instruction and to meeting the needs of technical programs. Classes like literature, mathematics, history, communications, psychology, and political science can share the use of standard classrooms, most of the allied health professions and technical fields require dedicated classroom and laboratory space, removing those facilities from the pool shared by all the other regular college courses.

To meet the stringent demands of national accrediting bodies in allied health and technical fields, colleges must staff these programs (new or old) with a core of full-time faculty. There are no such accrediting bodies to make sure that the faculty teaching history, communications, or college math, are up-to-date in their fields, or certified (once they earn the minimum graduate hours), and certainly no oversight bodies to require that courses in history and literature are taught by full-time faculty rather than part-timers and adjuncts. So full-time faculty lines shift to the allied health and technical fields, while instructional needs in traditional college liberal arts and even basic sciences classes are more and more often taught by a growing army of temporary and part-time instructors.

Pressures for both accountability and the need for tuition dollars have placed more emphasis than ever on retaining students, and the research is very clear, the students most at risk for failure and dropping out are those that come to college under-prepared – the students needing multiple developmental/remedial classes. Colleges are motivated to retain developmental students, and the recent flood of grant funding for improving and experimenting with developmental education (see previous post), has placed developmental education at the top of community colleges agendas.

Good, thoughtful, educators and liberals who care about inequality in the schools like developmental education. On its face, developmental/remedial education is an opportunity to reverse educational inequalities, to provide the background and support that able but ill prepared students need to “make it” educationally. If remediation were happening in high schools, if high schools all over the country were seriously addressing the college readiness of all their students, than I would applaud that unreservedly. However, as needed as developmental education is, the attention and dollars available to community colleges for it, are like allied health and technical fields pushing real college instruction to the side lines.

Whole computer labs get removed from use by statistics classes, computer science classes, political science classes, physics classes, etc. and become dedicated laboratories in which developmental math and reading students can spend their days learning the things they should have received in high school. Technology and instructional money comes from grants, but when grants run out, colleges are heavily pressured to continue funding for developmental needs, and faculty lines are shifted from traditional college level classes where adjuncts can fill in the gaps to developmental instruction.

In the quest to retain developmental students, subtle shifts in course designations begin to take place. New “college” credit bearing courses are invented to provide ways for developmental students to work towards graduation requirements while struggling to bring their skills up to college level, and instructors in traditional college classes are pressured to become part-time developmental instructors by adding “supplemental instruction” to their college courses and allow marginal students in before they are able to meet testing guidelines.

Thus the gap between the quality and content of the community college education drifts further and further below that of the four year college or university.

Only half of students who receive a high school diploma in the United States are academically prepared for post secondary education. A recent study of high school juniors and seniors taking the ACT college entrance exam confirms this; half of the students were ready for college-level reading assignments in core subjects like math, history, science, and English. Yet two-thirds of high school graduates head to post-secondary institutions to continue their education.

Most four year colleges and universities deny admittance to students who do not attain college level readiness as evidenced by tests like the ACT and the SAT. So those students unprepared for college, but desiring a college education any way, head for the nations community colleges where all comers (with a high school diploma or GED) are welcome. Ill-prepared students feel the need for a college degree because American businesses rely on formal educational credentials to narrow their applicant pool, and because bottom-line oriented businesses have decided that they no longer want to waste their resources with on-the-job training, more and more occupational specific training has been pushed to community colleges. More and more blue-collar, construction, manufacturing and even service industry jobs are requiring community college certification as a minimum occupational entrance requirement.

Consequently community colleges are flooded with students lacking basic reading, writing and mathematical skills – students that require developmental (what we used to call “remedial”) education in multiple areas.

The failure of American high schools to prepare students, to actually educate students in the basic skills and knowledge expected of a high school graduate much less of a college entrant, is widely recognized in the United States. In recent years a deluge of money, from government agencies, corporations, and charitable foundations (such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), has been directed to programs to better provide developmental/remedial education.

One might think that this flood of funding to provide students with high school level skills and knowledge would go to high schools. This is after all high school topics that students are failing to master. But that is not where the money is going. Instead, the grant funding is sloshing into the doors of Adult Education programs and especially community colleges. So that students, their families and society end up paying twice (taxes for high schools and taxes and tuition for community colleges) to education students to the level of a high school diploma. [See “Paying Double: Inadequate High Schools and Community College Remediation”]

The key question is why? Why does the funding go to community colleges and adult education programs instead of high schools. The answer, I believe, is quite simple. It is that in the United States, high schools, like all public education is locally controlled by local political entities, and therefore subject to all the abuses and corruption of local politics. Local schools may be constrained to hire only teachers with a college degree and a teaching certificate, but from the pool of all possibles it is the rare locality that doesn’t place kinship, friendship and political patronage above skills, knowledge and even subject matter certification when hiring teachers.

There are outstanding elementary and secondary schools in the United States – in communities made up of upper middle class families, where parents are all college educated and very knowledgeable of what is required for their own children to enter the nations top colleges and universities. Local control works in these communities to insure high quality secondary education – at least for those in the college preparatory tracks of the school. But in most of the country, high school education is in the control of an electorate and their political representatives who care more about the quality of their athletic fields and protecting their babies from being infected by heretical ideas like evolution, than they do for actual education.

I’ve personally known school boards and many working class and lower middle class parents, who want their children to have access to jobs, but are quite clear that they don’t want those children to be contaminated by education. They want degrees without all that troublesome knowledge.

The funders of developmental/remedial education know this about American secondary education. They know that the schools that would actually use funding to raise the skill and knowledge level of students don’t really need the funds, and that the schools that need the funds won’t be able to use them appropriately. So they turn to community colleges, which are generally governed by state-wide bodies and accountable to regional accrediting agencies, and are therefore more likely to actually provide the needed developmental/remedial education. Moreover, high schools are motivated to get rid of poor students students quickly, while colleges who receive tuition payments, are motivated to hang on to poor students as long as the possibly can.

I’ve noticed that almost all the traffic to this blog comes from people looking for the terms “permafrost,” “Chersky,” or “Russia” — I wonder why that is? Would any visitors like to explain this?

I accompanied my significant other to the doctor yesterday, and found the waiting room conversation quite fascinating. By late in the afternoon, only a small number of patients were left, most of whom were women over 60. As is often the case in waiting room, one particularly vocal person holds forth (loudly) on her (or his) views about what’s wrong with people today, and what should be done about it.

Her sermon yesterday was prompted by another woman in waiting room talking about how hard it is to keep up with her great grandson, whom she takes care of while her daughter and granddaughter are at work. This touched off a diatribe about how young people today are lazy, and expect their parents to take care of them and their children. The sermonizer started describing in detail what her life as a mother had been like, and all the work that she did, cooking, serving, cleaning, washing, gardening, canning, and so forth. The other older women in the waiting room, accompanied each addition to this litany with some secular version of “amen.”

The speaker declared that she didn’t care what kind of paid job a person had, there was no job on earth that was harder than being a stay at home mother raising several children. Moreover, she declared that the job was so hard, and so important, that women ought to be given a pension just like anyone with a paid job. This received a very enthusiastic chorus of approval.

So it was fascinating that less than two minutes later, the same woman was talking about how awful it was that women were able to stay at home and take care of their children and get welfare. They were lazy she said, and ought to be out earning a living.

Given that she’d just said that taking care of children was more difficult and more important than any paid job, and that women who did it ought to be paid by the government in the form of cash pension; her lack of awareness that welfare did exactly what she said she wanted — recognized the importance of mothering, and gave women (technically their children) a stipend to stay at home and do this important job.

It’s just all part of making “the poor” into “them,” who don’t deserve the same as “us”.

A young mother of my acquaintance is vehemently anti-abortion. To her “all life” is precious and should be protected, and abortion should never be allowed for any reason. She strongly supports the idea of “personhood” being established at the moment of conception.

She is also quite vehement about wanting to have her anti-anxiety medications to help her cope with the pressures of pregnancy and being the mother of multiple small children. Medications which most recent medical knowledge says can cause miscarriages and birth defects.

Wonder how she’ll feel when some law enforcer tells her that she can’t take her precious medications on which she is so totally dependent, because they might result in a spontaneous abortion?

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