Monday, June 27, 2011

The Early Hours of November 7, 2012

Read this piece in The Atlantic, and read it very, very carefully:

 If you’ve read it, then please move on . . .

 I just had a cold sweat panic moment when I realized that my Governor understanding the nuanced elegance of what's implied in that piece would actually get odds (with a '1' in the denominator and something at least as big as a '2' in the numerator) in Vegas.

 But it doesn't stop there.  On a personal note, I'm willing to post similar (but probably at least slightly better) odds for any number of the ideologue-driven (Walker-apologist) friends and acquaintances I've encountered since February 11th.  I hope not to experience anything (anytime soon) that will sadden me more than these engagements have.  Heartbreak doesn’t always have to be tied to romance.  I didn’t realize this until recently, but it’s unfortunately settled unwaveringly into my take on the world these days.  

Here’s what’s really disturbing, what no amount of cold sweat panic can ameliorate.  When I try to imagine a rational world, I can no longer see its face.  I no longer have context.  Like when Tom Hanks gave Matt Damon advice in ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ I’m trying to get my head around a situation, a story . . . anything . . . that allows for me to see it, but I can’t.  I'd like to say something like, "Why isn't the message of this piece a front and center topic of conversation dominating every news cycle of every day of every week of every month?"  But that would be dishonest.  I already know the answer. 

 And my guess is . . . even though it’s hard to confront . . . you do to. 

 And if you can step back from what drives you in this ongoing struggle—be you a fan or a foe of the Governor—and you can evaluate the deeper meaning of this journey—and you can truly, honestly do it objectively—then you see it for what it’s become—and you see it for what it’s about to become.  And you realize that this isn’t even about Wisconsin (If only we could claim to be that lucky.)

 “We had a good run.”

 “It was great while it lasted.”

 There’ll be no shortage of catch phrases and cliches.  That much is certain.  But the dearth of public attention given to the issues raised by this piece (and, to be sure, pieces like it that are out there if you know where to find them) is its own undeniable reality.  I’m sorry, but it is . . . and I won’t feel bad or ashamed in pointing it out. 

The author Chris Hedges recently wrote, “Democracy . . . is based not on personal gain but on self-sacrifice.  A functioning democracy must often defy the economic interests of elites on behalf of citizens, but that is not happening.”

 I’m still waiting, and I’ve set out the challenge now more times than I can remember, for someone to make the case that what’s happening right now in America belongs in a different category as compared to all the other democratic systems that ultimately went the way of oligarchy.  The best response I’ve received is that something like that wouldn’t happen here . . . which is to suggest the following:  I’ve not received a serious, grown-up response. 

 And this brings me back to my earlier point:  Even though it’s hard to confront . . . you know what’s going on, you know the answer, you understand.

 Like me, you’d just be more comfortable discussing something else.  The weather’s always a good standby.

 On the stages-of-grief spectrum my hope for those who ‘get it’ is to move as efficiently and effectively as possible to where I am, somewhere between stage 4 (depression) and 5 (acceptance).  I’m of the strongly held opinion that the former informs a transition to the latter. And the latter (which I’m just now beginning to dance with) is not the worst place to be.  At least that’s my initial take.

 There’s nothing worse in my opinion than being on the sidelines when you’re wanted on the field, so nothing’s being quit.  My side . . . which is the only side that’s interested in the survival of the Republic  . . . for now, still has a voice.  The traditional mechanisms for hearing this voice are being kneecapped seemingly every time an appellate court issues a ruling in this state and nation . . . but they (the mechanisms), weak as the signal may be, are still tripping a flutter into the volume meter’s dial.  So long as the smiling countenance of a democratic system is in place there will be loopholes worthy of exploitation for those of us desiring a path other than the astonishingly predictable one this nation is presently navigating.  Maybe, just like Indiana Jones, we can barely squeeze under that iron gate before it drops all the way to the floor. 

 There are State Senators to be recalled. 

 There’s a rock star on the sidelines waiting for an even bigger version of this game, one that will unfold over the course of the coming autumn, winter, and spring. 

 And there’s a general (aka, regularly scheduled) election in a little more than 16 months.

 If we could simply make it so that all those polls opened tomorrow and could swear in all the new office holders the day after tomorrow . . . then I’d be buying several rounds at Hooligans Bar and Grill while Scott Walker would be pitching FOX News executives for the nightly talk show (that I honestly and sincerely predict he’ll have, with an obviously healthy bump in his present salary, by August of 2012).  But, alas, we can’t cue up a Lady Gaga fast forward music montage to drop us off in the late hours of November 6, 2012 . . . champagne uncorking . . . dancing . . . celebrating a victory I suspect will indeed be ours.  So if you’re here on the edge of what we have holding us upright then, if I may, in the words of Lady Gaga, ‘I’m on the edge with you.’

 I’ll be there, and I’ll even maybe moonwalk a little during the victory bash, but when the acceptance speeches are done and the confetti is swept up I’ll still be the guy who quit drinking in 1992.  And that means I’ll be taking a tired but clear-headed moment to sit on the steps of the Capitol Building before clambering (again, soberly) into my car to get back to Shorewood High School for November 7th’s first hour class (which, hopefully, I’ll be teaching). [For the record, I picture a light snow falling and me in a long, black trench coat gripping a bottle of Sprecher Root Beer covered by a brown paper bag.] 

 That moment will be mine.  It won’t belong to anyone else but me. 

 And I don’t intend to squander it.

 Right here, right now, I’ll make one thing very clear:  That moment will be to measure if we’re any different from them.  That moment will be to appraise our aptitude for this game of chess, whether we can see the board ten moves out . . . because that skill will be the only chance we have.  And if we don’t seize it on November 7, 2012 then the next version of Scott Walker will move into town by 2017 (if not 2015) and, when he or she drops the next bomb on middle class America it will be middle class America that truly deserves the carnage because middle class America won’t be able to claim shock the second time around.

 Make no mistake about it, this is a battle—a fight to human-dignity and quality-of-life death . . . and a fight we’re supposed to lose.  History suggests strongly that it won’t end well for anyone, but the oligarchic side of the spectrum will likely outlast all challengers until some form of reckoning brings the whole thing crashing down. 

 Think of it like a game of musical chairs where eventually every chair in the circle is removed. 

 On November 7, 2012, in the state of Wisconsin . . . where some will say the first indicators of the reckoning revealed themselves twenty-one months earlier . . . there’ll be a unique window of opportunity to make America a place where it’s worth it to work longer hours than any other teachers in the world.  I won’t lie. I have deep suspicions that the whole thing’s irreparably broken; that I should be planning a big garden out in the country . . . far, far away from everyone and everything else.  I study history and analyze current political and economic patterns for a living . . . and these moments where I look up from the screen and around the room, palms turned up incredulously at shoulder height, giving the, “Are you all seeing this?” look to whoever will notice . . . they’re getting old.

 So onward.  Let’s take back the state.  And then we’ll see if what we did was worth it . . . or if we only managed to throw a temper tantrum to outdo the one over which they just hyperventilated their silly, impractical, fantasy-world-believing selves.  At present, the picture of this 11-7-2012 world is still fuzzy, but it cannot look at all like it did on 2-10-11.  We cannot aspire to return to what we had.  That’s gone. 

 We can, however, aspire to go somewhere new . . . somewhere that embraces the idea of confronting the most egregious disparity between the haves and have nots this country has ever seen . . . somewhere that equates democracy with the will of the people and not the will of deep pockets . . . somewhere that understands freedom as a concept which inherently must include limits, lest the vast majority of those who live in this nation have no reasonable chance to experience it.

 But, most importantly, this needs to be somewhere that takes several big steps back from what looks more and more like a national insanity.  That’s what’s still fuzzy for me when I try to bring the 11-7-2012 picture into focus. 

 We’ve got sixteen months to figure it out.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Irony of "Small" Government

“Twain comes down on the side of the liberties of the people as opposed to the ambitions of the state, pitting the force of his intellect against the ‘peacock shams’ of the world’s ‘colossal humbug,’ believing that it is the freedoms of thought that rescue a democracy from its stupidities and crimes, the courage of its dissenting citizens that protects it against the despotism of wealth and power backed up with platitudes and billy clubs and subprime loans.”
~Lewis H. Lapham on Mark Twain

Six weeks ago, I was literally reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when I realized I needed to drop everything and go to Madison.  I’m embarrassed to admit that, at age forty-six, it was the first crack I’d taken at what Hemingway called the point of origin for “all modern American literature.”  I remember it took maybe fifty pages before I started getting it, understanding what all the fuss was about. I also remember the moment when it hit me, the moment when I got my head around why Twain has been so celebrated over the years:  He was (and is) a subversive, and his subversive nature derives from the conclusion rendered by Lapham.  

Since then my bookmark hasn’t moved, and our state’s capital has become a sort of home away from home.  When I’m not doing my day job (social studies teacher) I’m working on whatever needs my attention the most in what now has to be viewed as a two year battle:  Recall of State Senators in the summer and fall, recall of the Governor next spring, general election in 2012.

I don’t anticipate my life will be normal until around January of 2013.  That would be the first opportunity to feel sane again, ostensibly because I’ll have my state government back. It’s a small price to pay for what I’ve been able to do these past 22 years, teach in one of the great public school systems in the nation.  The Shorewood School District is indeed just that.  I’m a lucky guy.

I last wrote about the dynamic between the public and the private sectors and what it means to be a true conservative in the glare of a Walker-Fitzgerald led faux conservatism that’s swept through my state [as well as the nation proper].  In keeping with this theme and employing a tactic frequently used by certain members of the right, I’d like to do here what I pretty much do for a living:  Read and analyze a part of our nation’s highest level of documented legal authority.

Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution’s first article requires that, “No state shall . . . pass any law . . . impairing the obligation of contracts . . .”  While this certainly isn’t one of the most widely discussed pieces of our Founding Fathers’ work, it stands as a litmus test for what many would consider to be a passport to authentic conservative standing.  It’s why even the largely right leaning Washington Examiner makes the claim that Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels is taking a more authentically conservative stance by opposing ‘right to work’ legislation in his state.

Those who fashion themselves as being somewhere in the middle on the political identity spectrum feel as if they’ve been thrust to the left by (cue irony drum roll) the government expansion policies of the right.  Scott Walker’s budget repair bill would, by any other name (and any Democratic Party authorship), be the stuff of GOP target practice if looked at through an even slightly libertarian lens.  The degree to which the Walker-Fitzgerald-Fitzgerald triumvirate takes an interventionist approach to running the state of Wisconsin would make a card carrying socialist blush.

And the U.S. Constitution’s quasi-libertarian language concerning freedom of contract is exemplary of just how un-Tea-Party palatable their policies truly are.

Let’s try this thought experiment.

As I’ve mentioned, I teach for an excellent school system in Shorewood, Wisconsin.  My reading of Twain’s classic was literally interrupted by a phone call from a colleague alerting me to the fact that our school board had just called an emergency meeting.  I drove back to school, sat down in our library, and watched with pride as all five members of my district’s governing body signed a letter to Governor Walker and the state legislature stating their opposition to the budget repair bill. 

I was moved.  With what amounted to an effective permission slip (from them) I left for Madison the next morning.

I mention this in the way of setting up the thought experiment.  What if this same school board decided, in spite of a law that prohibits collective bargaining on everything except salary (which is tied to the Consumer Price Index, so you really can’t even negotiate there either), to go ahead and just bargain?  What if both sides (the school board and the union) said, “To run this school system, we need to operate as a team.  We need to be able to sit down at a table and work out the complex problems that arise in the day to day running of a school system.  We’re willingly going to negotiate a contract together, and we’re going to do it by allowing for conversation on all topics that are typically associated with a negotiated contract.”

What would happen?

The state of Wisconsin would invalidate the contract.

That’s right, big government would step in and say, “You weren’t free to do what you did even though you did it of your own accord.  Start over.  What you have is not legally binding because you talked to one another and made agreements with one another. Then you took the agreements you made when you talked to one another and you put them in writing.  We, the state of Wisconsin, won’t allow you to talk to one another and then put stuff in writing as a result of talking to one another.  It doesn’t matter that you were willing to talk to one another.  You don’t have the freedom to talk to one another.”

How one could look at this outcome and call it small government friendly is simply beyond me.  How one could look at this outcome and claim it to be in line with the ideas professed to be sacred by the Tea Party is simply beyond me.  How one could look at this outcome with favor and express even a hint of personal allegiance to the fundamental principles of libertarianism is simply beyond me.

And how a small government advocate, Tea Party membership card or not, could read the U.S. Constitution’s freedom of contract guarantee and find any of this acceptable is simply beyond me.

WWTW? [What Would Twain Write?]  I’m guessing it would be funny as hell and not at the expense of the left.  The platitudes of wealthy despots and the silly opportunism born of their subprime loans would, I imagine, be more than enough artillery to slash hard and mean at a hypocrisy quite unlike anything we’ve seen in years.

I actually tried to engage a Tea Partier on these topics during one of the bigger Saturday rallies in Madison.  We had about 80,000 people.  They had maybe (a largely bused in) 2,000 or so.  I encountered nearly two dozen people who didn’t even know there was a Tea Party rally happening at the same time.  It was that easy to overlook their presence.  Major media didn’t portray anything close to this type of numbers disparity (as I expect doing so would have been less interesting).   Regardless, in spite of a lot of plastic snow fence between us, there were more than a few chances to chat---or to at least try. 

Needless to say, it didn’t go well.  Once you’re locked into a belief (small government is good) and a party (Republican) there’s no going back.  Reality be damned.  I can only imagine what Mr. Clemens would have written about my attempts to plum the depths of this incongruity with people who were best suited to yelling at me (Disclosure:  I yelled back.  In fact, I think I even initiated some yelling after I got tired of trying to talk.  In this regard, I ended up being no better than them). 

The Wisconsin GOP expansion of government goes beyond a negotiation table.  If all politics are local, no one told them. Along with the collective bargaining madness we have the budget cuts being handed to school systems across the state.  This fiscal nightmare arrives on the doorsteps of superintendents with the simultaneous dictate that no local government may fully compensate, ostensibly with a form of taxation, for the loss.  In other words, “We’re cutting this money from your school district and we’re not allowing you, as a local government entity, to fully make up for the loss.  You can make up for some of it, but we’re telling you exactly how much money you, as a local government, can get back.  It doesn’t matter if the people in your community want something different.  They can’t have it because we say so.”

What it is the Wisconsin GOP is trying to solve with these mandates isn’t entirely clear.  I’m the son of a local government official.  I’m here to tell you, it’s not an ivory tower existence.  If a constituent has a problem, you’ll hear about it at church, at the grocery store, dining with your family, etc.  Access isn’t a problem.  In the same spirit of the thought-experiment (and ‘rogue’) school board having the audacity to collectively bargain with its teachers union, there seems to be some sort of parental admonition of people talking with (and problem solving with) other people. [John Nichols pointed out recently that not all local governments have taken kindly to these restrictions.]

Throw in the occasional no bid contract (Your state government will just handle that decision without any pesky conversations regarding choices between competing parties) and you’ve really got yourself a nice little power consolidation unfolding here.  And the irony is obvious.  The claim of reducing the footprint of government is being “achieved” in Sasquatch-government-footprint fashion.  The Wisconsin GOP wants to put out a grease fire with a bucket of water.

If freedom of thought occurs when people at negotiation tables and village hall meeting rooms sit down and talk about what they want, then what will rescue Wisconsin’s democracy from “its stupidities and crimes” should this freedom be erased by a Republican sponsored amplification of government intrusion? What ‘peacock shams’ await the Dairy State? (And what ones are already here?)

In keeping with Lapham’s take on Twain, one has to put faith in the power of dissenting citizens.  They’ve served as a personal battery charger for me ever since that first day in Madison, and I expect them to keep us all going right on through January of 2013 when, one way or the other, the battle we’ve joined will have found closure. 

So I suggest everyone dig in, get comfortable, and (if it suits you) pass the time by imagining what a debate would be like if Huck Finn and Scott Walker were stuck on a raft together whisking down the Mississippi.  A true conservative, in that imagined scene, wouldn’t need but an exchange or two before taking the side of the subversive.

Perhaps Scott Walker should go find a spot in the woods, settle under a fine tree, and have a good think on it.  

John Jacobson, who still hasn't finished The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is the Social Studies Department Chairperson at Shorewood High School in Shorewood, Wisconsin. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

On Having Two Sectors in Society

by John Jacobson

Wisconsin now becomes the 6th state to prohibit collective bargaining for teachers.

Here are the combined ACT/SAT ranks of the 5 other states (that have operated under said prohibition for some time now): 44th, 47th, 48th, 49th, and 50th.

Wisconsin is presently 2nd.

Understanding why is best achieved by looking at the free market. In a free market economy, talent frequently goes to where it is best rewarded. One of the easiest metrics for understanding reward is salary. For those who make the decision to teach, there's already been a bit of a departure from this reality as most talented teachers could easily earn more money in the private sector; however, one need not refute the principle entirely. Educational talent will cluster near districts where the ‘reward’ is highest. Pay has something to do with it, but so too does the enriching nature of the school system’s learning culture. I’d make more actual money teaching in the Chicago Public School system, but I prefer to make what I make in the Shorewood School District. The combination of my pay and the learning culture of the Shorewood School District provide a situation where the “reward” is worth the work it takes to operate at the expectation level we have at Shorewood. This helps to explain why, at Shorewood High School, we typically see 300-500 applicants for teaching jobs while other schools will see less than one third this amount for near identical teaching jobs with near identical pay. It’s also why, in the private sector, you have a right to expect a given level of performance if you intend to pay someone $250,000 a year or more. I pick that number arbitrarily. It’s a good salary, much more than most people make. But if you want it, your employer has a right to be picky about what you ought to be able to pull off while on the job.

An enormous component of this has to do with problem solving. The public sector simply cannot work the same way the private sector works because the nature of our problem solving is necessarily different. If I’m in the private sector and, for instance, I sell a product, then the problem solving will have an endgame in mind: What needs to occur for customers to want to buy the product? Certainly there’s more to it than this, but the question holds an amazing amount of ‘organizing principle’ potential. And when a product is sold, revenue is generated immediately, over the course of installments, or a little bit of both. But the point is this: The reward is measurable and immediate in a near term and/or long term sense.

Teaching will never work this way. I can have my most “killer” year in the classroom where I’m just ‘bringing it’ every day with instructive quality that’s out of this world. If you’re in my class you’re going to get the best education there is to get.  I’m “in a zone” as they say in the sporting world.  Let’s say that happens. I knock it out of the park for the whole academic year.

You won’t see dividends on my teaching talent for a long, long time, and you’ll have an even harder time measuring them because they’re not going to show up in the form of a check. There’s no way to pay me a bonus. You’re going to have to trust that I’m doing good work. You can (and should) evaluate me, but a great evaluation doesn’t produce a near term bump in the school’s “profit.”

The same value system that got me into the business of teaching is the same value system that will require a school to work as a cohesive unit handling the incredibly complex challenges that go along with being the daytime home to over six hundred 14-18 year olds who have to be prepared for college and the real world. If you haven’t taught then pardon me for playing this card, but you simply can’t imagine. If I could be guaranteed over six hundred well fed, well rested, biochemically balanced, not abused (I could go on with this for a while) children, every hour of every day, then the problems we’d need to solve would be few and far between.

But, of course, that’s not how it works. And because that’s not how it works, and because a school is a functioning machine where all the pistons have to fire correctly and in sequence, you can’t treat the employees as individual units. There are going to be more than enough common concerns on a faculty to warrant a discussion about how the workplace needs to function such that (a) teaching talent can be retained and (b) the mission of the institution can be achieved.

This is why, dare I say, it’s the school boards themselves who fear the end of collective bargaining in Wisconsin. Just ask them. Most will say they’re petrified by the prospect. Because as much of a pain as it can be to actually negotiate with another party, it’s preferable [in a mechanism as complicated as a public school] to having a top down arrangement where everything is dictated to employees. View a faculty as a bunch of individual employees at your own peril should you be tempted to see it as a good idea. The ACT/SAT score data are merely conversation pieces. In fact, the whole thing is an iceberg where the real dangers are beneath the surface. Simply put, you will now start to see Wisconsin, a champion in public education, begin a fairly swift decline, and you’ll see it for reasons that fit quite nicely outside of the political spectrum and inside the revered principles of the free market. 44th, 47th, 48th, 49th, and 50th? That’s not a coincidence. It’s a pattern, and one we’ve determined we should join here in Wisconsin. Schools are too complex with too many sophisticated challenges to successfully fold under the private sector tent. It doesn’t work. All available evidence points to this conclusion. You have not a data leg to stand on if you believe that what’s been done here will add to the educational health of the Dairy State.

And the ripple effect will be visited upon each and every one of you in terms of the value of your homes, the economic empowerment of your consumer base, etc. The disruptive aspect of these most recent changes in Wisconsin stands as the defining reality for two simple truths: The public sector needs the private sector and vice versa.

You’ll see it because the market will give you quality in line with what you “pay” where the word “pay” should be viewed in the context of the opening paragraph (In other words, “pay” means a lot more than income.  Remember, I could make more money in other school districts.  But the “pay” in Shorewood is very attractive which is why Shorewood retains such a talented faculty.)

I fully respect that the arrangement where a workforce is defined as a collection of individual employees [who receive directives from management sans input] can work in the private sector (although we all know that even there, give and take is frequently valued and even professed to be good practice in business management programs). That’s fine.

But at some point we’re going to need to ask ourselves what exactly it is we’re basing our beliefs on when we want to move public sector institutional functions over to private sector models. I’m serious. Does the following statement deserve some scrutiny?

“If it’s good enough in the private sector then it ought to work in the public sector.”

I posit that it does indeed deserve some scrutiny. In fact, I maintain that it deserves a lot of scrutiny. Society is served by the functions of both a private and a public sector.

But they are sectors.

This means they’re separate aspects of society, and society depends on both. But to say that one of them must ultimately impose its operational functions on the other gives little respect to what I’ve taken some time to explain regarding the workings of schools. You either want compulsory education or you don’t. If you want it, then you need to help me understand how we can force children into school and simultaneously apply the bottom line driven principles of the private sector while we do it (Do any of you raise your children this way? I doubt you do). If you don’t want it then install electrified razor wire to run the perimeter of the wall you plan to put around your home. You’ve got about ten years tops (marked from the first day when we tell society we’re no longer going to provide K-12 educations) before you’ll need it. Think that’s hyperbole? Show me a society that’s pulled off what you’re proposing without the whole thing crashing down in the end.

I recommend we maintain one set of standards for the private sector and another set of standards for the public sector. I propose that doing so makes me more of a capitalist than anyone who would propose a single set of private-sector-celebrated standards across the board. I’ll even go so far as to use this line of reasoning to call myself a true conservative [and not the brand being peddled today]. My conservatism operates in the spirit of Burke who preached that, above and beyond all else, moderation in all things was a must, nuanced and subtle change in society was an imperative, and balance among the various needed components of society was key to its survival.

A real conservative wraps his or her arms around the whole situation and realizes the merit behind the gears operating in tandem with one another. But a “conservative” who makes no apologies for the latter day avenue of policy is, if I may, simply charging down that most predictable of roads traversed by any empire struggling to maintain a semblance of its greatness.  And this is ironic since the chosen road has little to do with a society being great and a whole lot to do with a dwindling number of people enjoying a disproportionately large percentage of the empire’s riches. In other words, the latter day conservative is increasingly one who allows him or her self to be taken in by the gravitational pull of the following simplistic notions:

“Shared sacrifice is the mantra of the weak, and the weak do not deserve what I have. What I have is exclusively mine, and I will continue to view it as exclusively mine in spite of the fact that the society in which I live has been enriched by the coordination of its private AND its public sectors. I will simply not acknowledge that my society has been enriched by this coordination. I will instead hold steady to an ideology which states that only one of these sectors has merit. And I will hold to this ideology because to do anything else is to acknowledge the need for shared sacrifice. Shared sacrifice is the mantra of the weak.”

John Jacobson is the Social Studies Department Chair at Shorewood High School in Shorewood, Wisconsin