Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Fight for 15 in Buffalo: A Real Lesson in Economics and Social Justice

This morning we went to a Fight for 15 labor rally. Despite the dirty looks from onlookers (not those participating) and whispering that it was no place for kids, we brought the kids because it we want them to understand the real economic power structure. Before the financial crisis, many were lulled into the belief that there is economic justice simply because there appeared to be a path to a better life through education. Recently, it appears to be debunked. With failing schools, the high cost of college, student loans that can't be discharged in even the most dire circumstances and the fact that many people with degrees are working in low wage jobs, it is harder and harder to believe in fairness and the American Dream. (I am sorry for the picture, but with my fibro bad, I had trouble being steady enough to take one of the kids walking.  The only good one was Tom holding the sign.)

The rally was very educational. First off, several religious leaders, including St. Paul's Cathedral's Rev. Mebane, spoke about what the Bible says regarding workers. None of it was a surprise to me, but it doesn't jive with our media's constant portrayal that religious people are and should be aligned with those who make a big deal of supporting the “free market”.  No one in the media mentions that corporations are the beneficiaries of regulation. Even the ones that don't benefit from many regulations benefit from the limited liability corporate law affords them. What about property rights? Don't they confer certain advantages? Yes, many people own property, but anyone who plays monopoly knows that it is easier to acquire more cash and property if you already have more. Hunter-gathers were the original state of things and any property ownership means the exclusion of some from the land and all the related benefits. The Bible takes these fairness issues into account and makes a point of dictating how and when workers should be paid.

Other speakers juxtaposed the volume of profits against the amounts the state has had to spend on the workers who, via their low income, are often eligible for Medicaid, Food Stamps, and HEAP despite working full-time. Who is really being subsidized, the workers or the companies who have a substantial amount of the compensation of their workers covered by the government. Is this fair to companies that pay a living wage without needing their workers to access the social safety net? Often these are smaller corporations, medium size businesses whose workers are more skilled. Why should the largest corporations benefit and not small and medium sized companies?

There were indirect lessons too. Many of the workers talked about not being able to afford a car. To me cars are luxury items, but they are necessities if workers are released from work so late that there is no bus, a more affordable alternative. Walking in the daytime is not a big deal, but in the middle of the night, many workers say they are afraid. Ironically, for the rally today, there were many police officers watching us. About half were chatting and acting like they were only there just in case, but the rest appeared to be watching us with displeasure in almost an intimidating way. Where are all these police officers in the middle of the night when people need to walk home from work?! It was a good opportunity to talk to Thomas and Carmella about the power structures. Do the wealthy corporations directly send the police the day of the rally? Of course not, but aren't the laws and police procedures slanted in their favor and against the gatherings of peaceful people. Why are their procedures and practices to assume there will be violence or damage? Is it inherently understood that there is real unfairness and the expectation is that workers will level the playing field through any means? There are no absolute answers here, but certainly the rally was a great real world occasion for us to explore these issues.

What is the alternative to taking the kids to such a rally? Economics class that covers micro issues and history textbooks blessed by the state of Texas that glorify everything about our country as if it were ordained by the divine. I went to excellent catholic schools that did a great job of covering some social justice issues such as drugs and prisons, but never comprehensively covered the economic system from all angles (I mean ALL angles rather than capitalism versus capitalism on steroids). In my adult life, I have spent some time seeking out alternative voices in economics and education. I highly recommend listening to online lectures by Richard Wolff, Noam Chomsky, Michael Parenti, Morris Berman, John TaylorGatto, Alfie Kohn, and John Holt. Although one difficulty is that often those most likely to fight for living wages, think highly of compulsory education. Few people see the tie in to the origins of schooling and the desire of such by the large corporate interests to create good employees and get people used to doing what they are told.  This likely includes susceptibility to advertising. They also had to quash the independent spirit of small farmers and business who, may not have had much, but had livelihoods free from the the constraints of employment. Now, living independent of large corporations via self-employment or consumption is extremely difficult due to the pricing out of smaller businesses. One example: my great-aunt felt like she had to buy her microwave at Walmart because it was the only place she could get a good price. I suspect it was the only place she could afford.

Anyway, the benefits of homeschooling are these opportunities to explore alternative views and take on a different worldview from limited one promulgated by the corporate media and the school system.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Give Me Half of What Buffalo Public Schools Spends Per Student

I came across a news story about a controversial tax credit proposed in NYS so that some students could choose to go to private schools.  The concern is that private school tuition cited in the article is getting to be approximately $8,500.  With Buffalo schools spending over $22,000 per student.  This sounds like a bargain and perhaps a fair way for lower income students to attend elite schools.  Teachers unions don't like it, of course.  I don't either because it discriminates against homeschoolers.

If I can provide an education as good as a private school, shouldn't I get a credit?  I say if the governor is concerned about children learning, then fund any means by which children learn.  It will never happen because it isn't about learning as much as it is about a system that benefits large corporations.  They need obedient employees who are used to doing what they are told similar to what children are expected to do all day in school.  They also want the benefit of two parents in the workforce to bid down the wages.  Several of the online lectures by Richard Wolff explain that part of the reason wages are so low now is that women entered the workforce in such large numbers.  More supply of workers means businesses can pay less for their labor.  It is the straight up supply/demand dynamic in economics.  I am not against women's equality of course, but he explains that while some women sought careers, many went to work because the family needed more money. Only about thirty years ago some in our society looked down on women working outside the home.  Now, our society looks down on stay at home parents, particularly mothers, as being lazy.  It is time to provide incentives to reverse this.  Any incentive to have either parent home giving children high quality, one on one care would benefit society more than any of these programs.

One on one education is one area.  If low class size is desirable, homeschool is it.  What about the healthcare system?  Isn't everyone concerned about obesity?  Allow for one of the parents to have time to make home cooked meals and this one is improved.  What about peer pressure to do drugs?  Take children out of school and impressing their peers will be unimportant.  Rather, the values of the parents will be more influential.  This would hurt big corporations, of course, because if their student doesn't need to impress his/her friends with their brand name clothes, they will not spend as much on clothing.  Advertising depends on peer pressure.  What about poverty?  Allowing poor parents to earn money teaching their children one on one is a great idea.  Please don't tell me that poor parents are not capable.  Most parents can teach their children to read and use the library.  No, they are not bad people, most parents want to do right by their children as long as they are not stressed about making ends meet.  What about the environment?  Take away the need for kids and both parents to leave the house every day and fossil fuel use goes down.  The exact amount would be difficult to determine, because there will be errands and fieldtrips, but surely it won't be every day reducing emissions somewhat.  Oops, the oil companies will suffer.

Governor, I hope you are listening to me and really concerned about education.  If you are, I think you know that discriminating against homeschoolers in your tax credit proposal is unfair.  My guess is that you will ignore this, but I challenge you to at least respond.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Why Do We Distrust Teenagers?

Earlier this week, when I was trying to get our midday family meal ready (yes - one of the luxuries of homeschooling and a Dad with odd work hours), I was listening to NPR and heard this story:

With Pressure To Succeed, High School Suicides Rise

It was about teen suicide and the rising level depression and anxiety among teenagers.  I was mesmerized by what was considered as the possible solutions.  The causes, of course, were lack of parental connection, hyper competition and expectations and such, all of which were discussed in a way that I imagine means simply tweaking the status quo.  If parents offer their students a snack before asking about the math test, for example, it will stave off depression.  One caller suggested throwing out homework, but it was dismissed along the lines of tweaking it to make it more meaningful.  Apparently, the experts never read the  The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn.

One valuable thing mentioned was making real free time more available to teens so their entire lives are not school, activities and homework, but don't forget the culture of our society is wary of teens with too much time on their hands.  Often news stories imply that when teens are left to their own devices, they will resort to drugs, sex, and even crime.  Isn't it why we push for afterschool activities to be available.    Perhaps some of the anxiety teens experience is that they feel this profound distrust in the way we go out of our way to structure and regulate their lives.

Why is it off the table to propose completely revamping the teenage years?  Being told exactly what to do 6-7 hours a day is demeaning.  Studies show adults have more job satisfaction with higher degrees of control.  Teenagers are biologically adults even though our educational and economic systems necessitate that we tell them they aren't mature enough for real responsibility.  How bad would it be for them to be homeschooled where they would take on a challenging real life project or work part-time and read the great books?  How bad would it be if we let them explore the world more freely to find their own path?  It would certainly be better than all the students who rush through college lost about what to study and what career to pursue.

I think that the anxiety stems from the feeling that they have little control over their lives while having to work harder than adults often times.  At least adults have some, albeit sometimes minimal, choice about what job to have.  School plus activities plus homework is often more hours than their parents work and they have no choice in the school hours or the homework.  Working hard enough to become independent is not an option for them in our system, at least not at their ages.  They are probably also anxious when they see their twenty something counterparts struggling to become independent.  And why is independence so important?  Families used to live multigenerationally where it was expected that adults take on a fair amount of responsibilities often in their teens, but not necessarily that they achieve independence.  Independence, nowadays, is resource intensive.  Housing costs are high, planning is around cars, and internet access is almost mandatory.  This doesn't even cover the peer pressure to have more than the basics.  By the way, isn't school the best place to learn what happens when you don't fit in?  Your life is often miserable.

I have already mentioned work volume, but what about bonds in other aspects of life?  They can fall in love, but can't get married (or move in - after all it is OK for their parents to engage in cohabitation).  Their parents can have a beer after a stressful day, but it would be illegal for a teen.  Parents can vote when something in the society upsets them, such as it is given the money in politics, but teens can only write their representatives with no real leverage.  Parents can transport themselves where they want to go, teens must ask for a ride.  Parents can have friends over in the middle of the night if they want, teens can't. The laws support these restrictions too with curfews and limits on the number of teens in a car with a teen driver.

This is the quagmire - we have affirmed that teens are biological adults because their work volume is so high, but they get none of the choices in their lives as if they are children.  They have adult responsibilities, but few of the privileges.   Why is no one talking about the stress related to this which we have amplified with the hyper-competitive high stakes going on in school today?

What is scary is that we are too far down the road on controlling teens.  I can't imagine the media beginning to advocate for more free time for teens let alone real freedom.  We also don't offer them much at the end of all this extra homework and high stakes testing.  You would think after working that hard, we would have a living wage job available afterwards so that they don't need to put off the rest of their lives.  We don't anymore.  College is almost mandatory.  It comes with crippling student loans and no guarantee of a living wage.  In fact 40% of unemployed are millennials.  Many more are in low wage jobs even with college degrees.  They feel that they must put off starting families as a result.  Is it any wonder why teens are anxious or depressed? 

This is the just the general problem, of course.  Teens can have specific problems too.  What about health problems? Broken homes?  Specific problems fitting in? Bad breakups?  Poverty (21% of school children are in poverty)?  I can see where more teens are anxious and depressed.

Getting back to my original point, is distrust of teens a sort of sacred cow in American society?  I can't prove it but I think it may have replaced or be code for some of the distrust we continue to have regarding minorities.  Why is it so out of the main stream to consider managing the teen years differently?  Why do I only hear it discussed in homeschool circles if at all?  How many teens will need to kill themselves or report anxiety/depression to be able to have a conversation?