Saturday, July 11, 2015

OpEdge Redux: The ideological subtext of just accepting that unregulated market forces rule the textbook publishing industry

By Marc Jampole

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on March 19, 2010.

Most of the first round of hand-ringing about the Texas Board of Education’s decision to infuse inaccuracies in social science textbooks is over.  I’ve noticed a very interesting fact about the comments in the main stream news media.  Here is a sampling of what four mainstream and four regional media said about the Texas school board.  Most but not all are against the school board’s reckless pushing of one point-of-view, but for or against, they all make one assumption. 

First the sample stories:
  • Washington Post reports historians hate the changes.
  • Wall Street Journal has an opinion piece by Thomas Frank that looks on the school board’s actions as a much needed anodyne to liberalism.
  • The New York Times bemoans the decision of the Texas School Board to introduce so many distortions into the study of history.
  • The Economist cheerfully reviews what happened in a half-satirical tone, ending with a note that even Texas Republicans are “growing weary of the board’s antics.”
  • Kansas City Star columnist also bemoans the decision.
  • Washington Monthly reporter gives a good history of what happened in Texas
  • Columnist for the Toledo Blade likes the move to reconsider standards but is concerned that the Texas curriculum was "deliberately dumbed down by hard-core ideologues tweaking textbooks to indoctrinate instead of inform."

The assumption all these opinion-makers take for granted is that the textbook industry will bend over and say “yes sir” to Texas.  The underlying ideological subtext is unregulated free marketplace in which it is natural and appropriate for there always to be a seller for the buyer.

Let’s take a look at that assumption: When a corporation or individual wants an attorney to help in creating a fraudulent business structure or covering up a crime, don’t we assume that virtually all lawyers will turn down the work?  What about when a client asks a PR agency to knowingly lie?  My agency would turn the work down and so would most agencies I know, which is the expectation stated in the industry’s ethical standards.  Accountants asked to fudge the numbers? An architect asked to cut costs by substituting unsafe materials?  A food store asked to sell unsafe food?  All against ethical standards of the industry, and mostly against the law.

Now I know that corrupt people and organizations can always find corrupt professionals to do their bidding, unethical and/or illegal as it might be.

But the textbook industry is much smaller.  There are perhaps a handful of publishers, whereas there are millions of lawyers, so many that you could even find one or two who would write that torture is legal.  

Additionally, textbooks are typically written by experts in the field: historians, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists.  These professionals all have standards of ethics.  If the small number of textbook publishers hewed to these standards of expertise in the writing and revision of textbooks, then a body of elected no-nothings like the Texas Board of Education would not be able to dictate changes that introduce inaccuracies and lies into textbooks.

Companies and industries walk away from “bad business” all the time.  Certainly, if the textbook industry walked away from Texas, someone would fill the void.  But that would take time and a greater outlay of resources by Texas, as new books would need to be written.  The resulting impact on the rest of the country would be smaller, because the new or rogue publisher wouldn’t have the contacts and database required to sell to the thousands of school districts across our 50 states.  I understand that the voters of Texas hate new taxes more than they like right-wing myths and homilies, so facing the need to recreate the industry in its own image, there might suddenly be a lot of pressure on the Texas Board of Education to reconsider its lunacy.

But did one of these columnists chide the textbook publishers for rolling over and playing dead?  Did one of these columnists advocate that publishers close ranks against Texas?  Or did any of them suggest publishers’ create a voluntary set of standards that prevent any from publishing what are known to be historical inaccuracies in textbooks for public schools?  Did any of them call for associations of historians take action?  Did any even recommend that school districts outside Texas refuse to buy Texas-poisoned texts? No, no, no, no and no.

No, because to do so would be to question, even if it’s only in a small way, the total dominance of the free market ideology in all thinking about all social issues.  The assumption that everything is for sale and that the market dictates all decisions by economic entities is so engrained in the ideologies of those who write for the mainstream media that the idea of exercising a little ethical self-control would never occur to any of them.

Friday, July 10, 2015

OpEdge Redux: Praise and Blame is Harder to Assess than You Think

By Marc Jampole

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared November 10, 2009.

Whenever Congress talks of raising taxes on the wealthy, as in the current House bill on healthcare reform, people complain that it isn’t fair for the government to take a greater percentage of wealth from people who are successful.  Inherent in these statements is the belief that at least in the U.S., if you earned it, it’s because you deserved it: you worked harder or came up with a smarter idea.

In any free market society, all values over time reduce to the lowest common denominator of free exchange, and that’s money.  And that goes for success as well.  In the U.S., we learn that to seek money is one of the greatest goods and that those who have more money or earn more money deserve to be praised and do not deserve to be punished through higher taxes.

I would assert that for virtually all people who have or have earned large sums of money, factors other than personal virtues, including the infrastructure of the society in which you live, are more responsible for your success than anything you do yourself.  My argument of course is that if you didn’t contribute that much to your own wealth, then to take more of it away from you to help people who weren’t so lucky is a proper role of government.  Maybe my own brand of weirdness deforms my perceptions, but I think that to most people, redistribution of wealth from the lucky to the unlucky sounds a whole lot better than redistribution from the wealthy to the poor.

But first I have to prove that most of success is luck and therefore deserving of no great praise or reward.  In doing so, I’m going to simplify (but hopefully not distort) the ideas that Daniel N. Robinson, a philosopher who teaches at Georgetown, expressed in Praise and Blame: Moral Realism and Its Application.

Here’s my short version of Robinson: There is more luck than individual effort in all success.  For example (and I’m sure I’m deviating from Robinson is some of what I list), here are some types of luck that contribute more to success than hard work:
  • Mental or physical talent with which one is born that some would call god-given.  If you have it, you will be able to do something naturally that most others have to struggle to learn.  No matter how hard others work, they will have trouble keeping up with the talented person.  But keep in mind that there is less real talent, or genius, around than most people think.  My point is if it’s god-given, you did nothing to obtain it.  Even if you work hard to hone that talent, someone with less talent could work just as hard.  Wouldn’t he or she be just as deserving of praise, and reward?
  • Social-economic standing of your family:  Over the 200+ year history of the United States there has been very little social mobility—which means people moving up or down from the class in which they were born—and recent studies show that there is less mobility today than ever before.  Rich families can pay for lessons, send kids to specialty camps, pay for private tutors and educational consultants, contribute sums to prestigious schools, call friends of friends of friends to introduce children to influential people in their chosen careers and finance business or artistic ventures.   Middle class families can do some of these things and poor families very few, if any.
  • Family’s Emotional Situation:  The individual has no say in whether he ends up in a loving, stable family or in a family of drug addicts.
  • Secular conditions, referring to the social and economic conditions of the era: Imagine turning 20 in 1950 when the economy started booming and there was a dearth of qualified engineers?  Or in 1970 when you could draw a low draft number and end up in Viet Nam? Or living in L.A. in the 30s when it was rapidly growing into the entertainment capital of the world? Would you rather be an African-American today or in 1850?  Would you rather be an astigmatic math genius during the days of hunting big game or today?
  • The value society puts on your talent: Bankers, attorneys, neurosurgeons, professional athletes, business owners—all these people get paid more than high school teachers, players in classical symphony orchestras and plumbers, who may work as hard and be just as talented in their field.  That’s called the luck of the draw.  A plumber could work just as hard as an investment banker does and make far less money.  Does that make you less praiseworthy than the banker
  • Just plain old “luck” luck, such as the luck to be in an intersection 10 seconds before or after an accident or for your professor to bring you onto his long-term research team.
  • Robinson also spends pages demonstrating that those whom we blame—the bad guys—aren’t all that bad.  I recommend getting a copy of Praise and Blame, but be forewarned, Robinson writes in a precise, but tortuous prose that considers every aspect and condition of the topic of the sentence, engages in complicated thought experiments and references the thoughts of other philosophers on the topic.  It’s a hard read, but worth it.

If you want real-world proof that luck has as much to do with success as personal attributes such as hard work, select any profession and spend a week collecting the names of those under 30 who have been quoted in mainstream news media.  Then check their backgrounds and see how many are children of prominent people in that or another profession, or went to a prestigious college or come from an upper middle class or wealthy background.

I don’t want to demean successful people.  For one thing, it would be hypocritical of me, since I strive for success and enjoy the measure that I have achieved.  Yes, successful people often work hard.  Yes, they deserve to be singled out.  It’s okay to have winners and losers. 

But we shouldn’t forget that so much of success is a matter of multiple kinds of luck, and in a real sense, society bestows success on successful people.  So when the government wants to tax rich (successful) people to make sure that nobody dies or suffers because of a lack of access to proper health care, then people with money should embrace the idea of giving back a small part of what society and that irrational chaotic force called luck have given us.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

A modest proposal to end the Greek debt crisis: Let the rich pay the rich

Let’s face it, when we remove the complex financial structuring, the obfuscating economic theory and the strident political posturing and just look at the flow of money, the Greek debt crisis reduces to one kettle of rich folk owing money to another kettle of rich folk. Kettle, by the way, is the name for a group of vultures. 

Here’s the simplified version: The debt Greece owes is primarily in the form of loans from private (not state) banks and bonds. For the most part, rich folk own bonds and the stock of banks. So when Germany and the rest of Europe refuse to let Greece off the hook for this debt, they are doing nothing more than protecting the interests of the wealthy. 

Let’s look at why the Greeks owe so much money. The primary reason is that the country has never done a good job of collecting taxes from the wealthy.  Tax evasion by the wealthy in Greece is notorious and has been covered in recent years by virtually every mainstream news media, Reuters, Bloomberg News, New York Times, The Economist, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, Slate, Der Spiegel, all of them. 

If these wealthy and upper middle class Greeks had paid their fair share of taxes, Greece would have the revenues to pay off the interest and pay down the principal on the loan and to make bond interest payments. Thus, it’s really the debt of the rich that we’re talking about.

My modest proposal is to have European governments and regulators get out of the way, and let the one kettle of rich pay the other directly. I’m fairly confident, that some part of this debt will cancel itself out, as some of those wealthy Greeks who avoided paying taxes invested their scofflawed income in Greek bonds and European banks. 

Here’s how my plan would work:

1.      Freeze debt at remaining principal.

2.      Assess a special income and wealth tax on the top 1%-2% of Greek earners that is earmarked to paying off the principal on the debt and bonds over a 20-year period.

3.      To make the assessment work, Europe will have to agree that any wealthy Greek citizen living or working in another Euro country must pay it, as must any wealthy Greek who changes nationalities for 10 years after becoming a citizen of his or her new country. The Eurozone countries would also have to insist that the nations with which they trade agree to the same policy for wealthy Greek nationals as a condition of all treaties.

4.      Europe will also have to help the Greek government learn how to collect taxes more efficiently, with grants that pay for training, new technology and pumped-up enforcement. 

With the debt spun off—in a sense privatized to the appropriate private parties—European leaders will be free to put together a package of loans to the Greek government to jumpstart growth and create jobs—technology investments, infrastructure improvements, product commercialization, foreign investment. It will represent a kind of reboot for Europe and Greece after the disaster that austerity induced.  Another way to look at my solution is to think not of Greece but of the Greek debt as the sick patient that needs to be isolated. My plan isolates this debt by giving it back to the people whose problem it would be if governments followed policies to help all the people, and not just the wealthy.  

The big objection to my plan is that after having to settle for the return of principle over an extended time frame, the rich folk who are creditors won’t have enough money to invest in new jobs. We hear that excuse for lowering taxes in the United States all the time, despite the growing evidence that in most cases, raising taxes on the wealthy produces more jobs, because the government spends the money, which boosts the economy.  While not the enormous gap we have in the United States, Europe has nevertheless seen a large increase in wealth and income inequality over the past 30 years. Like everywhere else, the ultra-rich and the merely wealthy have so much new money that they have been piling it away in cash and bloated assets. They haven’t been investing it because of market conditions. If and when market opportunities exist, the rich folk hurt by having to absorb the entire brunt of the Greek fiasco will still have plenty of cash on hand to take advantage, and thereby create jobs. 

Of course, given the fact that most elected officials in Europe, as in the United States, vow their fealty to the interests of the wealthy, my modest proposal has less chance of being enacted than Jonathan Swift’s modest proposal of 1729 to ease the economic troubles of the Irish by having the poor sell their children to the wealthy for food. After all, we are used to sacrificing children and young people to war. But it’s a rare occurrence in history for rich folk to sacrifice to solve any problem, even those of their own creation.