Saturday, March 05, 2011

When testing surpasses teaching as a priority education reform is on the wrong path

Diane Ravitch, an education historian and member of the first Bush and Clinton administrations’ Education Department, was an early supporter of No Child Left Behind and the promotion of testing and charter schools. However, after reviewing the evidence following the enactment of the legislation became very disillusioned with what she calls the myth of charter schools. She now argues against the practice of rigorous testing that has become so popular with state and national legislators. She believes that education reform should focus on getting children out of poverty, not on vilifying teachers.

Above is an interview with her on the Daily Show this past week.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Democracy advocates in Burma set up Facebook page to organize against dictatorship

While it is easy to over-estimate the role of electronic social media in the recent wave of revolutions challenging and sometimes toppling authoritarian leaders, Facebook and other such sites still can be useful organizing tools of varying importance from country to country. Democracy advocates in Burma have now set up their own Facebook page to emulate what happened in Egypt. This from The Irrawaddy:
In an attempt to emulate the democratic revolution in Egypt that was sparked by a Facebook campaign, a group of Burmese activists operating inside the country have set up a Facebook page dubbed “Just Do It Against Military Dictatorship.”

The social networking campaign denounces the country's military dictatorship, calls for Burmese military chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe and his family to leave the country and urges the army to join with the people.

The campaign began on Feb. 13—just two days after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned from office under pressure from protesters.

The Facebook page, now known simply as “JD,” has prompted the distribution of anti-government material in a number of places across Burma and raised security levels in Rangoon.


Facebook is the second most popular site after Gmail among the estimated 400,000 Internet users inside Burma. Twitter, the micro-blogging website, is banned in the country.

Due to the limited access to the Internet for many people inside Burma, it remains uncertain how much further the Facebook campaign can go. But the Burmese authorities, notorious for brutal repression against any form of dissent, have apparently heightened security in Rangoon.

Rangoon residents said they saw anti-riot police trucks driving around the city center on Wednesday morning, although this is not unusual and there is no confirmed link between the security measures and the Facebook campaign.

The Burmese state-run media made no mention of the protests in North Africa and private journals were restricted in reporting the news.
You can read the entire article in The Irrawaddy here.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Right-to-work -- a semantic flim-flam

The latest assault on working people in this country has been a revival of advocacy for so-called “right-to-work” legislation. In most other countries, right-to-work usually suggests something positive as in a guarantee for safe and meaningful employment with fair compensation for that employment. In the United States it means something different – a semantic flim-flam.

Since the enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 right-to-work laws are used to weaken labor unions that represent workers. In right-to-work states the government has intervened in the private contract process between employers and employee representatives prohibiting the collection or dues or fees from employees benefiting from the contract unless they volunteer to pay. Anti-labor ideologues present this as protecting the rights of individual employees when in reality all it really does is weaken the organization that represents that employee’s interests before the employer. This is what economists refer to as the “free rider problem”. (The textbook example is if people were given the choice of paying a fare or not when using public transportation the transportation system would soon be overwhelmed and not have enough money to operate.)

Of course, those same proponents of right-to-work would never consider an equivalent right-to-use policy or law for voluntary payment for an individual’s or business’s work product or invention. Dean Baker explains:
"Right to work" is a great name from the standpoint of proponents, just like the term "death tax" is effective for opponents of the estate tax, but it has nothing to do with the issue at hand. It is widely believed that in the absence of right-to-work laws workers can be forced to join a union. This is not true. Workers at any workplace always have the option as to whether or not to join a union.

Right-to-work laws prohibit contracts that require that all the workers who benefit from union representation to pay for union representation. In states without right-to-work laws, unions often sign contracts that require that all the workers in a bargaining unit pay a representation fee to the union that represents the bargaining unit.

The logic is straightforward. When a union is recognized as representing a bargaining unit, it legally must represent every worker in that unit, whether or not a worker opts to join the union.

This means not only that nonmembers get the same wages and benefits that the union negotiates with the employer, but the union is also obligated to represent any nonmember individually if that worker gets in a dispute with the employer over an issue covered in the contract. For example, if a nonunion member is threatened with a discipline action or firing, the union must defend this worker's rights just the same as if they were in the union.

Right-to-work laws prohibit workers from being required to pay for this union representation. What right-to-work laws actually guarantee is the ability for a worker to benefit from union representation without having to pay for union representation.

Copyrights provide a good analogy to this situation. As we know, it costs money to produce recorded music or movies. All the people who take part in the productions, musicians, actors, technical assistants, and others need to be paid.

Copyright is a mechanism that allows these people to be paid for their work. (It is not the only mechanism for financing creative work, but it is currently the main mechanism for generating revenue for those involved in producing creative work.) Under copyright law, the holder of the copyright is given a monopoly over the distribution of the copyrighted material. The copyright holder can sue for damages anyone who distributes or uses copyrighted material without their permission.

If we applied the logic of right-to-work laws to copyright, then copyright holders would be prohibited from taking steps to enforce their copyright. If people chose, they could pay the copyright protected price for music or movies, but they would also have the option to freely download copyright protected material without paying the copyright holder. And there would be nothing the copyright holder could do.

This would be the parallel of "right to work" in the copyright world. As it stands, copyright holders are having a difficult time enforcing their copyrights and getting paid for their work (which might suggest a more modern mechanism for financing creative work would be desirable), but imagine that copyright holders had no legal recourse.

It is unlikely that many people would choose to pay for the music they listened to or the movies that they watched if there was nothing stopping them from enjoying this material without paying. This is the situation in which right-to-work laws put unions.

The outcome is obvious; unions will have a much more difficult time staying in place, as many workers will take advantage of the opportunity to get all the benefits of union representation without paying for them. The unions that do survive will be much weaker if the government forces the union to represent people who don't have to pay for its services.

This is why the states with right-to-work laws have much lower rates of union representation than states without such laws. If the government rigs the deck against unions, then it will be very hard for them to survive, just as it would be hard to sell copyrighted material in a world where copyrights were altogether unenforceable.
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander – or so one would think. Of course, the right to work (or use) really isn’t what this is all about – it’s about crushing unions.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Why unions have a crucial role to play in the United States

Americans have mixed feelings when it comes to organized labor. According to the New York Times while a third of Americans surveyed view unions favorably and a quarter view unions unfavorably (the remainder undecided) U.S. citizens “oppose weakening the bargaining rights of public employee unions by a margin of nearly two to one: 60 percent to 33 percent.”

Labor history has certainly been messy giving many people pause but unions also represent a threat to the powerful both financial and political. Efforts to destroy the union movements have a long history in the United States and elsewhere. The ongoing effort to crush public sector unions in Wisconsin is only a continuation of the forces set in motion with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act passed by the Republican congress in 1947 which conveniently undermines a key Democratic Party constituency.

If the reactionary forces in our society are successful in destroying labor we will all – union member or not -- be poorer for it. Ezra Klein explains why unions have a crucial role to play in the United States today:
….First, they give workers a voice within—and, when necessary, leverage against—their employer. That means higher wages, but it also means that workers can go to their managers with safety concerns or ideas to improve efficiency and know that they’ll not only get a hearing, they’ll be protected from possible reprisals. Second, unions are a powerful, sophisticated player concerned with more than just the next quarter’s profit reports—what economist John Kenneth Galbraith called a “countervailing power” in an economy dominated by large corporations. They participate in shareholder meetings, where they’re focused on things like job quality and resisting outsourcing. They push back on business models that they don’t consider sustainable for their workers or, increasingly, for the environment. In an economy with a tendency toward bigness—where big producers are negotiating with big retailers and big distributors—workers need a big advocate of their own. Finally, unions bring some semblance of balance to the political system. A lot of what happens in politics is, unfortunately, the result of moneyed, organized interests who lobby strategically and patiently to get their way. Most of that money is coming from various business interests. One of the few lobbies pushing for the other side is organized labor—and it plays a strikingly broad role. The Civil Rights Act, the weekend, and the Affordable Care Act are all examples of organized labor fighting for laws that benefited not just the unionized. That’s money and political capital it could’ve spent on reforming the nation’s labor laws.
It is no coincidence that as organized labor has declined in membership over the past decades wealth and political power have become more concentrated. The future of our shared prosperity and democracy depends on institutions like labor unions to play the role of the countervailing power in our economy and polity.

You can read the New York Times article here and Klein’s piece here.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Reading the Constitution aloud and the preconceptions of what it says

This week the United States Constitution will be read aloud in its entirety in the U.S. House of Representatives compliments of the new Republican majority leadership. This, of course, is pandering to the so-called “tea party” movement whose members claim the nation has drifted away from the rule of law established by the founding fathers during some mythical golden era. Despite all that, the reading is probably a good idea. Not only would conservative Republicans and tea-partyers learn that the U.S. Constitution is a living/evolving document (it has been amended many times) but that it may say something different from what they believe it to say. Garrett Epps explains:
Conservative Republicans tend to go on and on about how the Constitution puts shackles on Congress. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) recently explained that "although the Constitution does give some defined powers to the federal government, it is overwhelmingly a document of limits, and those limits must be respected."

DeMint has, usually, a very clear view of his own eye. The intention to limit Congress is, to me at least, pretty hard to actually find in the Constitution itself. Article I, which sets up the House and Senate and lays out their powers, is the longest Article in the document. Its 2500 words amount to fully one-third of the Constitution, even today after 27 amendments. In Article I, about 450 words are devoted to specific powers of Congress; about half that many to things Congress can't do. And in case you begin, Ron Paul-style, to claim that Congress can do only what is in Article I § 8, please look carefully at Article I § 8 cl. 18, which gives Congress the power "to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof." (Italics mine.)

If in fact you are Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), please volunteer to read the specific text that gives Congress the power to conduct the kind of investigation of the Federal Reserve you plan. You can take the day off, Dr. Paul; it isn't there. To most readers, though, it is clearly implied--as are a lot of other powers Rep. Paul claims to find illegitimate, including the power to issue Federal Reserve notes instead of gold or silver certificates.

New members: Please don't leave the floor after George Washington's name is read either, because the Constitution has actually been changed since 1787. The following amendments all add to Congress's power: 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 19th, 20th, 23rd, and 24th. To the extent that you really care about the text, it's hard to discern Sen. DeMint's "overwhelming" list of limits.

There really are significant limits in the Constitution, of course--but the majority of them are limits placed on the states. The Constitution's text forbids the states from conducting their own foreign policy, printing their own money, taxing goods shipped in or out of their borders, or engaging in military operations. Many things they can only do by asking Congress's permission; states can't even negotiate among themselves unless Congress consents. In fact, the federal government retains veto power over each state's constitution, which must create a "republican form of government."

The idea that states have "rights," or that they are "sovereign," appears nowhere in the text of the Constitution.

I hope the members will listen carefully when their favorite amendment, the 10th, is read aloud. Conservatives like to sneak the word "expressly" into the amendment's statement that "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." It's not there. That's not an accident; the Articles of Confederation did have a similar provision including "expressly." Madison, a nationalist in 1789, pointedly omitted the word in his proposal for what became the 10th Amendment. And note that the amendment doesn't even "reserve" anything directly for state governments. The words "or to the people" mean something--they are not just another word for "state governments."

Listen carefully to these words as well, which are in the Constitution: "treaties . . . the law of nations . . . admiralty and maritime jurisdiction." These words refer to something called "international law," which was recently banned in Oklahoma but was a subject of much study for the Framers. Perhaps attempts to interpret the Constitution without it won't be accurate.

If the Members actually listen, they may notice that the document they are hearing is nationalistic, not state-oriented; concerned with giving Congress power, not taking it away; forward-looking, not nostalgic for the past; aimed creating a new government that can solve new problems, not freezing in place an old one that must fold its hands while the nation declines.
You can read Epps' entire piece here.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Threat on debt ceiling to attack Social Security

William K. Black explains the motives of certain congressional Republicans in threatening to refuse to approve raising the government debt ceiling in coming weeks. A significant factor in this bluff is an effort to destroy the American Social Security system.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Don't raise the age for Social Security retirement, lower it

Demographic shifts over the decades have raised concerns about the future viability of the Social Security system in this country. Those who oppose any public retirement insurance program are not bold enough to publicly come out for its outright abolition. Rather, using the cloak of concern about the viability of the program (even when their math doesn’t add up) they argue the retirement age should simply be raised. In other words, put retirement out of reach for many people dependent upon Social Security. The rational is that since we are living longer we should work longer and retire later.

But as James Galbraith argues this logic is misleading and to the contrary, the Social Security retirement age should be lowered:
… in the first place, "we" are not living longer. Wealthier elderly are; the non-wealthy not so much. Raising the retirement age cuts benefits for those who can't wait to retire and who often won't live long. Meanwhile, richer people with soft jobs work on: For them, it's an easy call.

Second, many workers retire because they can't find jobs. They're unemployed -- or expect to become so. Extending the retirement age for them just means a longer job search, a futile waste of time and effort.

Third, we don't need the workers. Productivity gains and cheap imports mean that we can and do enjoy far more farm and factory goods than our forebears, with much less effort. Only a small fraction of today's workers make things. Our problem is finding worthwhile work for people to do, not finding workers to produce the goods we consume.

In the United States, the financial crisis has left the country with 11 million fewer jobs than Americans need now. No matter how aggressive the policy, we are not going to find 11 million new jobs soon. So common sense suggests we should make some decisions about who should have the first crack: older people, who have already worked three or four decades at hard jobs? Or younger people, many just out of school, with fresh skills and ambitions?

The answer is obvious. Older people who would like to retire and would do so if they could afford it should get some help. The right step is to reduce, not increase, the full-benefits retirement age. As a rough cut, why not enact a three-year window during which the age for receiving full Social Security benefits would drop to 62 -- providing a voluntary, one-time, grab-it-now bonus for leaving work? Let them go home! With a secure pension and medical care, they will be happier. Young people who need work will be happier. And there will also be more jobs. With pension security, older people will consume services until the end of their lives. They will become, each and every one, an employer.
And what about any potential shortfall in Social Security funds to pay for retirement benefits? That’s easy – raise or eliminate the cap on annual income taxed for Social Security so those who draw the most on the system pay the most as Gail Collins argues:
The theory behind raising the retirement age is that people are living longer these days. However, the Americans who do all this extra living tend to be wealthier than the ones who expire before they can cash their first pension check. Right now, only the first $106,800 in annual income is taxed for Social Security. Get rid of the cap, and you will be making the folks who are causing most of the problem pay for the solution.
If there is a problem with funding then fix the funding but don’t undermine the program for hard working Americans who have earned retirement and should retire opening up employment opportunities for the next generation.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

The future of Israel and the West Bank: Jewish state or democratic state?

Jeffrey Goldberg, on his blog for The Atlantic, raises a question about the future of Israel:
…. there's very little Israel's right-wing government has done in the past year or so to suggest that it is willing to wean itself from its addiction to West Bank settlements, and the expansion of settlements bodes ill for the creation of a Palestinian state -- and the absence of Palestinian statehood means that Israel will one day soon confront this crucial question concerning its democratic nature: Will it grant West Bank Arabs the right to vote, or will it deny them the vote? If it grants them the vote, this will be the end of Israel as a Jewish state; if it denies them the vote in perpetuity, it will cease to be a democratic state.
The West Bank, the landlocked territory between Israel and the Jordan River, has been under military occupation by the Israeli army since 1967. That military presence was somewhat reduced following the 1993 Oslo Accords. As of 2007 the Palestinian Arab population was 2,345,000. Close to 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank settlements and annexed East Jerusalem.

An occupation of forty-three years seems hardly temporary but the fate of the West Bank and its inhabitants is still unsettled. Proposals for a two-state solution are not without risk for Israel. A formal Palestinian Arab West Bank state would mean the establishment of a potentially hostile nation on its eastern border with a potentially unstable (given the current state of Palestinian politics) government. However, a one-state solution, whether by formal annexation or by default through unending occupation and expanding Israeli settlements, means a fundamental change in the nature of Israel. The question Goldberg raises above is whether or not West Bank Arabs should be granted the right to vote as Israeli citizens in a single state. A single state solution means Israel will cease to be Jewish or will cease to be democratic.