Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Two-Tier Economy...

The following is an excerpt from Moral Politics by George Lakoff.

There is a persisitent and terribly damaging myth about our economy, namely, that in the American economy poverty can, in principle, be eliminated - if only there is better education, more jobs, more opportunity, and if people will just work hard, save, invest, and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. This is simply false. Our economy as it is presently structured requires substantial poverty.

The present American econmoy requires that certain jobs have low wages: cleaning houses, caring for children, preparing fast food, picking vegetables, waiting on tables, doing heavy labor, washing dishes, washing cars, gardening, checking groceries, and so on. In order to support the lifestyles of three-quarters of our population, one-quarter of our workforce must be paid low wages. These are the people who make two-income families possible, because they take care of the house and the children, allow fast-food outlets, restaurants and hotels to exist, and perform other tedious, unpleasant, unsafe, and physically difficult jobs that support middle, upper-middle, and upper class life.

It is a myth that all the people so employed can lift themselves up by their bootsraps, get educated, spend thriftily, save, invest, and get out of poverty - that is, to get decent housing in a safe neighborhood, adequate food, health care, and education for their children. Even if all the present lower-tier workers moved into the upper tier, the country would still need a quarter of the population, working at low wages, to take care of the children, clean the house, work in fast food places, pick the lettuce, weed the lawns, wait on tables, wash the cars, and so on. This economy absolutely relies on hard-working people whose pay does not reflect their contribution to the economy.

In short, those on the ground floor of our economy are holding up those on the upper floors - and they work hard to do so. But the structure of our economy does not allow their pay to be commensurate with their contribution to the economy as a whole.

A free-market economy is one in which labor is seen as a commodity that people should be able to sell for what it is worth. But in our economy, individual employers cannot, for the most part, afford to pay lower-tier workers a wage that reflects what they contribute to the eocnomy overall.

In an important sense, lower-tier workers are working for the conomy as a whole, since they make upper-tier lifestyles and incomes possible. In a well-run market, people should be able to get what their labor is worth. But we do not have a well-run market. What is needed is a market correction - a way that the conomy as a whole can reward those whose labor it depends on but cannot adequately pay. The machanism is simple: a negative income tax (that is, a serious expansion of the earned income tax credit).

What do lower-tier workers deserve for making middle and upper-class lifestyles possible? What is the least they deserve? Adequate health care, adequate nutrition, decent housing, and full access to education. Can the economy as a whole afford it? I suspect so, but the question has not been asked, at least not properly: Can we afford a moral economy - a fair, well-run economy in which people are paid what they have earned, that is, what their work is worth to the economy as a whole? Can we at least provide a "moral minimum" - the least that lower-tier workers deserve? Anything less is simply immoral, and a market that pays less when it could do much better is not a well-run market. This is a national discussion we need to have. It is a discussion that makes clear that markets are not forces of nature; they do not just happen; they are not totally "free"; they are constructed and run, and the question we must ask is how they should be run.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Progressive, Liberal and Proud...

It is high time that Progressives and Liberals stood up and reclaimed the moral high ground which the conservative movement has wrongfully usurped. Liberalism is founded on compassion, empathy, and true concern for yourself, those around you and your environment. Yet we have allowed the conservative movement to brand liberal as an insult, as if being a good human being should be seen as some sort of problem. If you, as we, believe in the most basic of religious teachings, that a good, moral person is one who seeks to help without harming, then stand up and declare it with us...I AM PROGRESSIVE AND I AM DAMN PROUD OF IT.

We know it is our moral system that is based upon nurturing and caring for other human beings and the environment we rely on for life. It is our moral system that develops people of strong character that seek not only to better themselves and their own situation, but to better those around them.

It is our moral system that is grounded in the ideals which created this nation. We understand that the first European settlers in this country survived through a strong sense of community and lifting up those that are struggling. We understand that it is our obligation to help those that have difficulty helping themselves, we recognize the absurdity of a moral system that built around the notion that if you are not fabulously wealthy it is because you are lazy and unworthy. We recognize that the basic premise of the American economic dream is that if you work hard you will get ahead, and if that is not possible, you should at least be guaranteed adequate food, shelter, medicine, education and dignity necessary to pursue happiness. We understand that it is not enough to talk about individuals repaying their debt to society without acknowledging the debt that society owes to individuals.

We believe that America, at its core, is a system striving towards equality of opportunity, and that, although it has seriously erred in the past in fulfilling that promise, the course of history and the American people have worked to progress towards that goal, but that a false belief in American infallability hinders efforts towards further progress. Our moral belief system is based in hope, on the understanding that people respond best to nurturing, education and opportunity rather than the threat of severe punishment. Our morals are those that led to end of slavery, the end of child labor, the end of disgusting working conditions, and the rise of equal rights for women and minorities. Our beliefs are those that recognize the right of all peoples to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Do not let them call you un-American. You are, in fact, the very embodiment of the ideals that are America. So stand up and proudly declare, I am a Progressive, I am a Liberal, it is morally right, and I am damn proud.

Please pass the message on.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Truth About Taxes...

To many people, taxes are seen as "penalties" to be avoided at all costs. This is a misguided view of what it is that taxes accomplish for society. When one examines just what it is that taxes have done for this country, it is easy to understand that a progressive tax scheme is the only fair approach, and that tax cuts are really just another term for benefit cuts.

Tax money built this country and it's infrastructure. Tax money built the roads in your town and the interstate highways that connect them. Tax money helped to build the airports you fly in and out of. Taxes built the communications infrastructure utilized by every person and corporation in this country. Taxes built the internet infrastructure that helped bring about prosperity in the technology sector. Taxes pay for the court system in this country, a court system with the vast majority of cases dealing with corporate law and the legal framework necessary for a capitalist economy to run. Taxes pay for the protection of the people and their property, from traffic signs and beat cops to billion dollar planes. Without taxes, the United States would not be possible.

As you can see, everyone benefits from taxes. Taxes are part of what we pay for the benefits derived from living in a society. Unfortunately, those benefits are not equally accrued by all. Rather, some become much more prosperous compliments of the infrastructure and system provided by taxpayer money. It is only fair then, that those accruing a greater benefit from the system also pay more for that benefit. It can be likened to seating arrangements at events. The benefit of sitting in the best seats is much greater than the benefit of sitting behind a pillar, thus, patrons pay more for tickets to the best seats than they do for those in the back with an obstructed view. We accept this as fair. This is why a progressive tax scheme is the only fair way to approach taxation.

When people speak of tax cuts, they really speak of benefit cuts, because that is the inevitable result. For instance, returning to our theater analogy, if all tickets are the same price one of two things must happen: (1) the theater cannot maintain itself at peak levels due to the lost revenues; or (2) the single ticket price must be expensive to make up for the lost revenues, thereby forcing those behind the pillar to pay more for the same benefit. We would not accept this as fair. Equal payment is only fair if the benefit is also equal.

The same happens in society, cutting the payments of those receiving the greatest benefits leads to a loss across the board. It also allows those that benefit the most from all that tax dollars provide through increased prosperity and security made possible by the tax-built infrastructure to escape paying a fair share of the upkeep of that infrastructure. In the long-term, that infrastructure will then collapse, which will result in those that rely on it for their benefits to collapse. Without tax dollars to support all that makes America possible, everyone loses.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Funding Elementary and Secondary Education...

"When I was a freshman in high school, I discovered a deep love of history and a desire to share that with others through teaching. In hindsight, I am able to recognize that my World History teacher that year reached me in a way that few others had. At the time I did not realize how lucky I was to be in her class. She was able to find ways to make world history engaging for all the students, especially those that often found little or no reason to find any use in their own education. She was no longer teaching when I graduated from high school." - P. Linnenburger, New Whig Chairman.

The exodus of the best teachers is a frightening problem that needs to be addressed, and needs to be addressed now. The stresses on those responsible for educating our youth have multiplied and magnified over the years as close-knit communities and involved parents fade away. (When one is struggling to earn an income suitable for feeding, clothing and sheltering a family, it is near impossible to be active in the community, or even in the home). As our educational system falters, the easiest problem to address is a lack of qualified and dedicated teachers. We demand our teachers be educators, mentors, parents, police, friends, coaches, and pillars of our community. Yet, other than in the richest of districts, they are paid an income making it near impossible to raise a family on. This is lunacy. Dedicating one's life to educating future generations is one of the most noble tasks an individual can undertake. They should be compensated accordingly.

This is especially trouble in the areas of math and science, two crucial subjects when it comes to innovation and ingenuity at the heart of American economic growth. Can we blame the teacher who decides the long hours, low pay, constant fighting, and dealing with inept management is no longer worth it when the private sector offers an immediate fivefold or higher increase in wages? Congress gives themselves an extra $3,000 yearly, yet teachers fail to receive a raise to cover the cost of inflation. This is unacceptable.

The system of funding education in this country is seriously flawed. The localized scheme results in embarrassing inequalities that could easily be addressed by intelligent oversight and a proper distribution of resources to those that need it the most. Affluent neighborhoods inevitably have the highest property tax revenues, and thus the most available funds for their schools. Thus, the children of affluent parents, the same parents who have the time and resources to be involved in the community and in the lives of their children thereby alleviating the need for schools to play such a large role in the child's development, are the only ones to receive a school from an institution properly equipped to play that large role, even if it is unnecessary.

Go to the other corner of town and you will find children of parents working two full-time jobs to simply put food on the table and a roof over their heads. You will find classrooms that are severely overcrowded due to the lack of funds to hire the necessary number of teachers. You will find less qualified teachers with more responsibility because the pay is not suitable for the best and the brightest, even though they are needed there the most. You will find students without supplies, outdated books in insufficient numbers, and dilapidated buildings. Worst of all, you will find a population of students with dwindling hope, stuck in a cycle of poverty. We refuse to accept that these children are not entitled to all the benefits that I received simply because they were not born into an affluent family. In fact, we believe the head start that middle class birth provides over them provides a greater justification for any inequality of resources to favor those that could gain the largest benefit from it, the children of poverty we too often hide on the other side of the tracks.

We propose not just equal funding of education, but adequate funding of education given the situation within which a particular community finds itself. A distribution of resources in education that realizes the best use of those resources necessarily includes a greater share of them going to those that need them the most, rather than those that never once doubted they would attend college. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. So why is it that in education we strengthen the strongest links, and do nothing to strengthen those already straining to hold together?

This is exactly why school vouchers are a misguided approach to helping students in struggling schools. They will lead to yet another drain of much needed resources from the schools that need it the most. Furthermore, the children that would end up leaving these schools will be those with parents that have the time and resources to devote to shuttling their children across town to a different school. These will inevitably be the best students within that school. Thus, not only will there be a drain on resources, but the school will be drained of it's best students, and the remainder of the students will be deprived of the vast benefits accrued through interaction between higher level and lower level students, benefits which have been shown to go both ways, uplifting the educational experience and value of both student groups. We fail to see the logic in saving a struggling school by destroying it.

Thus, our proposal involves a system put into place to ensure resources are distributed in such a way as to create what our founding fathers dreamed of, a well-educated and informed populous, not just a well-educated and informed elite. Each state will be required to collect an amount of funds for educating it's children. These funds need not necessarily be collected through property taxes, thereby alleviating the need for a state like Nevada to implement one. Furthermore, in a state like New Mexico, the federal government will still be required to provide funding based on the amount of federal land within the state as they are now.

From there, a committee which will include members of each district will determine which schools have the greatest need for resources, given the opportunities outside of school for children in the community, the lack or abundance of qualified teaching at that school, the economic circumstances of the area that feeds into that school, etc. With this determination, the funds, collected and supplemented by the federal government, will be distributed to ensure that each school at least meets a base level, and from there, those that are struggling are provided with the resources to turn things around rather than depriving them further. Teacher salaries can be boosted in areas desperately needing the best teachers. Crumbling schools can be provided with the means to provide a welcoming place for children to congregate. After school programs can be financed in those areas where they community is unable to offer them and where it is especially crucial to give students an alternative to the street. Schools filled with children who's families cannot afford textbooks and to supplement those text books with other tools will be provided with the means to purchase those books. Some will tell me such a system of equality of opportunity is an impossibility. If that is the case, we challenge this nation to embrace the impossible and give each and every one of our children the hope of a better future.