Is Obama playing the race card? Is McCain a racist?

August 5, 2008

Sunday talk shows included comments that Barack Obama, by suggesting that his opponents would state that he looked different from other Presidents, had introduced the race card, and in so doing, had made a bad week for himself that included slippage in the polls.  In so-doing, they were taking their lead from the McCain campaign which had received Obama’s suggestion as a charge that John McCain was a racist.  It is important to see that if a race card was being played, it was being played by both campaigns.  By suggesting that his opponents would state that he looked different from other Presidents, Obama was, of course, referring to his race, and by claiming that Obama had accused McCain of being a racist, the McCain campaign was, of course, introducing race into the political campaign. 

But Obama had not accused McCain of being a racist, even if he had said that McCain’s campaign might suggest he looked different.  This may seem like splitting hairs, but it isn’t.  Two points make this clear: first, John McCain and the McCain campaign are two quite distinct entities, just as Barack Obama and the Obama campaign are quite distinct entities.  Of course, John McCain must accept responsibility for his campaign, just as Barack Obama must accept responsibility for his.  My simple point is that the McCain campaign can make a point about Obama’s race as a tactic independently of whether McCain is or is not a racist.  But secondly, the McCain campaign cannot afford to be explicitly racist.  If the McCain campaign openly made recognizable racist statements, the McCain campaign would be dead in the water.  Not only would the media jump on this, but the the majority of Americans who share a basic sense of decency would be highly offended.  So if the McCain campaign is going to play the race card, be assured that it will be below the radar, and at as imperceptible a level as possible.  By the same token, Obama can not afford to play the race card.  The same Americans that would be offended by explicit racism coming from the McCain campaign would be offended by any suggestion from Obama that his opponents would intentionally use race to defeat him. 

So is Obama playing the race card?  and Is McCain a racist?  Is race an issue in this campaign, and if so, how has it become an issue?  There is no simple answer to these questions.  There is no simple answer because for most Americans at this point in our history, it is no longer socially acceptable to engage intentionally in forms of thought and action which are readily identifiable as racist.  Evidence for this claim is found in the quickness with which most of us (including Senator McCain) deny that we are racist at the first suggestion that something we have said or done may be so-perceived. This fact about American culture has not, of course, put an end to racism.  It has driven racism underground and led to more subtle and devious ways of expressing it. 

With respect to the parallel issues of whether Obama is playing the race card, or whether McCain is a racist, my position is that all of us are racist, and neither Obama nor McCain can escape that reality.  The root of racism is in the perception that someone or something is different from, or other than ourselves, and the further perception that what is different from, or other than ourselves, in some way, at some level, poses a threat to either our enterprise, or in the worst case, to ourselves.  The root of racism is biological in two ways.  First, the differences that initially fuel our fears are biological differences, including our physical appearance.  Secondly, the fears arising in response to these perceived differences are fears relating to survival.  It is important to note that the fear response can arise in the context of perceived physical differences far less evident than race, and that differences in physical appearance are only one set of differences that can generate a fear response.  When the cold war began, in my childish imagination I imagined every Russian to be much larger in size than the average American, and believed that their disposition could only be compared with that of bears.   Perceived cultural differences can generate the same biological response of fear related to survival.  In urban areas in which persons of diverse cultures live in contiguous pockets, there has historically been a significant level of tension at the edges of these pockets where interaction between persons of different cultures becomes unavoidable.  Every immigrant group had its particular biases, jokes, and terms of abuse for persons from groups other than their own. 

Of course, with the passage of time and the acquisition of experience, most of us try to outgrow our fear of that which is different, and to mute those responses growing out of our primitive fears revolving around our survival.  And to varying degrees we succeed.  But our success is never complete.  There are traces of racism in every last one of us.

So what does this mean for the first Presidential campaign in which an African-American is running against a Caucasian?  It means that racism is going to be a factor no matter who says or does what.  Racism shapes our sensibilities, even if it has a limited affect on what we say or do.  So I think there should be two simple rules:

First, everyone involved in this campaign, whether candidates, campaign staff, citizens, and especially, representatives of the media should resolve to work as hard as they can to avoid saying or doing anything that can be construed as racist.  This applies not only to explicit forms of racism, but to the myriad of below the radar, subtle forms that racism can take.  The race card simply should not be played.

Secondly, charges and counter charges of racism should be taken off of the table, not only by the candidates and their campaigns, but also by the media.  They should be taken off the table, not because race will not be a factor, but because no one can make such a charge without being guilty of the very thing of which he is charging others.  To be sure, any explicit expressions that are obviously racist have to be seen for what they are.  When either candidate makes an explicit reference to race, they should be held accountable for doing so. 

Two things must be avoided at all costs:

First, neither campaign should set itself up as the judge of whether the other campaign is playing the race card, or being racist.  The resolve of both campaigns should be to have the greatest degree of integrity possible by doing everything possible to prevent making race a factor in this campaign.

Second, media personnel should get off of their judgement seat and recognize that because of their personal history with racism, they are in no position to make judgements about whether either Obama and his campaign, or McCain and his campaign are playing the race card, and therefore, trading on racism.


Is the 2008 election a referendum on Obama?

July 26, 2008

I have heard representatives of the McCain campaign state that McCain’s most effective stragegy is to keep asking in the context of every issue “whether Obama is ready.”  I have heard numerous pundits state without qualification that this election is a referendum on Senator Obama.  As the campaign gets under way the assumption is being made that Senator McCain by virtue of his war experience and his longevity in the United States Senate has demonstrated his qualifications to serve as President.  The situation is reminiscent of the Democratic primaries during which it was always assumed that Hillary Clinton had somehow demonstrated her qualifications to serve as President, and the burden was repeatedly being shifted to Senator Obama to demonstrate not only that he was qualified, but that he was justified to challenge her claim to be the destined nominee.

OK, as a campaign strategy for Obama’s opponents, it is understandable that pressure would be kept on Senator Obama to demonstrate that he was qualified to serve as President.  Obama’s recent trip abroad appeared to be a result of goading by McCain that so much time had passed since he was last in Iraq that he needed to be brought up to date on changes on the ground.  Interestingly, when Obama did not change his views on Iraq after visiting, McCain claimed that he only went there to confirm his policies, not to listen to Petraeus and others. 

It is less understandable that pundits would continuously buy into the notion that Obama did, and McCain did not have to establish his qualifications.  What is disturbing, however,  is that implicitly the Obama campaign is also giving free play to the view that the burden of proof belongs to Barack Obama.  How so?  Bent on maintaining a campaign that takes the high ground, the Obama campaign rarely mentions Senator McCain.  Not only do they refrain from personal attacks, they do not raise questions about the positions he has taken, not to mention his qualifications to be President.  The closest that they come to criticising McCain directly is to say that the election of McCain would result in a third term for Bush.  I am sorry, but given the continued support for McCain, it appears that most voters are not moved by this.  Consequently, the image of McCain developed by media (long ago seduced by McCain) that he is an independent maverick prepared to break away from the shiboleths of the Republican faithful and religious conservative diehards continues to drive the opinion of voters. 

After losing to Bush in 2004 McCain began by becoming something of a nemesis to Bush.  He may have played this role as recently as his criticism of the way the Iraq war was being conducted and his strong advocacy for a huge troop buildup in Iraq (something well beyond the surge that actually took place.)  But at some point not too far into the Bush presidency, when he realized that he wanted to run again in 2008, McCain began to become the advocate for Bush’s policies, and began to vote consistently with Republicans and religious conservatives on the issues important to them.  He backed away from opposition to Bush’s tax cuts.  He voted with those opposed to abortion.  He has backed away from the bill bearing his name on campaign finance reform.  It is clear that McCain is simply not an independent maverick,  His record as a Senator needs to be examined and subjected to criticism not only by the media, but by Senator Obama’s campaign. 

So on a day to day basis what is the shape of the horse race upon which the media insist on focusing their attention?  It takes the form of airing McCain’s most recent criticism of Obama, most of which are demeaning and demonstrate a complete lack of respect (e.g. Senator Obama would rather lose in Iraq so that he can win the presidency, he just doesn’t understand the consequences of losing in Iraq).  Media representatives then turn to Obama himself,  or to a surrogate for his campaign, and request a response.  The response is inevitably a defensive comment.   Defensive comments make any person appear weak, and detract or undermine all of the positive positions a person sets forth. 

One further evidence that the Obama campaign is sliding into compliance with the McCain strategy is the loss of the advantage that Obama had when he spoke about the need for change.  One of his major emphases was on changing the way that politics is carried on in Washington.  This clearly resonated with voters.  But he also spoke about needed change in government policies on taxation, education, health care, foreign affairs, and America’s military involvements.  Somehow the emphasis has shifted away from the specific changes for which Obama stands to the question of whether he can bring about change.  So McCain without having to put his own ideas for change alongside of those proposed by Obama is left free to develop an image of himself as the person most qualified to bring about change by virtue of his age and experience.  Clearly, based on his actual voting record, McCain needs to be held accountable for articulating the specific changes for which he stands.  The point is, that the same burden of proof needs to be placed upon McCain as is being placed on Obama.  Only the Obama campaign can take the initiatives necessary to make this happen.  But this won’t happen so long as the Obama campaign is willing to accept a one-sided burden of proof.

If this pattern continues, McCain will slide into the White House unscathed by the campaign.  What is worse, he will never be foreced to set forth his own positions and defend them from criticism,  just as his predecessor George Bush found his way into the White House without having to inform Americans of what he would do once he got there.  And under McCain we will continue to live with a presidency which exercises imperial power without accountability.  To the Obama campaign I make an open appeal:  Please hold Senator McCain accountable not only for demonstrating that he has the qualifications to be President, but also for articulating and defending the course of action on which he would set our nation if he were elected President.

So who is whining?

July 24, 2008

Recently, a top economic advisor to the presumptive Republican nominee indicated that the perception that the American economy is in trouble is psychological, rather than an objective indicator of the state of the economy, that the fundamentals of the economy are sound, and that the American people are just a bunch of whiners.  This should not have come as a surpise.  President Bush has consistently maintained that the economy is in good shape, and John McCain himself indicated only a few months back that he thought that most Americans were better off than they had been at the beginning of the Bush presidency, and that the economy was doing well.

So if Americans are really whiners, who is doing the whining?  Oops! Maybe that is the wrong question.  We should be asking who has been helped economically by Republican policies, and who has been hurt. The key policies in question are, first, the unfettered operation of a global free market.  The Bush administration has been a strong supporter of free trade, and has not set down any preconditions for free trade.  Specifically, the present administration has not addressed the working conditions, or the wages and benefits paid to workers, or the levels of government subsidy of manufacturing in countries with whom trade is being carried out.  American companies have been free to establish plants in other countries with no accountabiliy to the federal government with respect to these matters.  Nor have any expectations been set forth to other governments for their native industries whose goods are finding their way to US markets.  Moreover, many American companies have created a legal fiction that their headquarters are in some low tax overseas locality in order to avoid the payment of taxes in the United States.  Such policies have indirectly put the American worker in the position of having to accept lower wages and fewer benefits when it has seemed important to keep American industries competitive with those in other countries.  

Secondly, the policies of Republican administrations, as well as the Democratic administration during the Clinton years, have inclined toward deregulation.  Historical regulations of the creation of secuirities as well as of the trading of commodities have been set aside.  This has led to such practices as the bundling together of loans that are then sold as securities, although the loans may not be well secured.  It has also led to extensive trade in commodities by persons who are not in the supply and demand chain of those commodities, but are interested in no more than buying and selling futures with no interest in ever receiving delivery of those commodities, in other words, speculators.  These are just two practices that have contributed to current economic problems.

Thirdly, Republican administrations have consistently pressed for tax cuts which benefit large investors such as reductions in capital gains as well as the general lowering of tax rates on high end incomes.  While middle class workers have received some reduction in their taxes as well, the greatest beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts have been for those in higher income brackets. 

In any capitalist economy there are investors and there are those whoe livelihood depends on the prodction of goods or the provision of services.  Investors make their living by risking their capital by purchasing shares in companies that provide goods and services.  Providers of goods and services make their living by their labor whether mental or physical.  To be sure, to the extent that providers of goods and services own shares in pension funds, or have their own IRA they are also among the investors.  It is clear that all of the Bush economic policies have favored the investors, rather than the providers of goods and services.  Republican policies have resulted in the creation of jobs domestically.  But they have also had two results which adversely affected the providers of goods and services.  First, they have resulted in the massive movement of manufacturing jobs, as well as many service jobs, overseas.  Secondly, they have driven down wages and benefits for those working in the United States. 

So if there is whining going on, it is far more likely that those who primarily depend for their livelihood on making investments are the ones who are whining.  They are whining because there are circumstances that have made their life more difficult–a credit crunch, the decline in the value of the dollar (although that benefits those selling goods and services in foreign markets), foreign competition, inflation, the possibility of higher interest rates, etc., etc.  As for those who depend for their livelihood on the provision of goods and services, it is clear that the policies that have favored investors have hurt those who live by the value of their labor.  Average, middle-class white collar, or blue collar workers, are not whining.  They are reeling from the consequences of the reduced value placed on their labor even as the prices which they have to pay for goods and services are rising rapidly.

Is the Bush administration using Obama to send up trial balloons?

July 22, 2008

This title is, of course, a rather weak attempt at humor.  The Bush administration no doubt shares the view of the McCain campaign that Senator Obama is just not ready to take on the foreign policy responsibilities of the U.S. president.  Unlike McCain, he can not say “I know how to win wars.”  Bush would probably also echo McCain’s view that Senator Obama is just too inexperienced to protect the American people from terrorists.   Interestingly, during the primary season, these views of Senator Obama’s foreign policy expertise were shared by Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton as well.

Before we write off the young Senator from Illinois as the best qualified Presidential candidate to lead American foreign policy, we should take note of a rather strange phenomenon.  It appears that the Bush administration is now using Senator Obama to send up trial balloons to guide it in changing its foreign policy positions.  Consider the following:

Iraq:  Obama has called for a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.  At the same time, he said that the US would have to get out of Iraq as carefully as it carelessly entered the war.  During the primary season this was labelled as a “cut and run” strategy.  It was characterized as accepting defeat.  But lo and behold, as Prime MInister Nuri al-Malaki is calling for a time table for the removal of US troops, the Bush administration is agreeing to at least a time horizon for their removal.

Going after al quaeda targets in Pakistan: During the primary season Obama suggested that if there were actionable intelligence regarding the presence of al quaeda leadership in Pakistan and if the government of Pakistan were unwilling to act on that intelligence, then the US should carry out attacks in Pakistan on its own initiative.  This was greeted as sheer irresponsibility and madness.  But since taking that position, the US military has used a drone plane to carry out an attack on a suspected al quaeda position in Pakistan.

Afghanistan:  Obama has insisted that the primary war against terror needs to be conducted in Afghanistan.  To carry out that war he has said that troops need to be transferred from Iraq to Afghanistan.  This was at odds with the Bush administration’s consistent position that the most important front for the war against terror was Iraq.  Now the Pentagon, President Bush, and presumptive Republican nominee McCain are all willing to recognize that the situation in Afghanistan is “serious” (McCain’s descriptor), and that additional US troops are needed to keep the situation from turning into a disaster.  Obama and the Pentagon recognize that this can occur only by reducing troop levels in Iraq.  It appears that the President may be aware of this.  It is not clear that McCain has realized this as yet.

Iran: During the primary season Senator Obama strongly advocated direct diplomatic talks with Iran.  This, too, was viewed as an evidence of total inexperience.  A nation can not hold direct talks with another nation that it regards as an enemy, or at least as a rogue nation.  Besides until Iran pursued a policy consistent with our wishes, that they cease and desist from a program of enriching uranium, there would be no direct talks with them.  Recently, Assistant Secretary of State Burns was sent to join the talks with Iran.  There was even talk of opening a diplomatic mission in Iran. 

Maybe I am missing something here, but is Senator Obama currently the leading developer of United States foreign policy?  Is the Bush administration so impressed with the Senator’s credentials that it looks to him for guidance in US foreign policy?  Why is it not looking to Senator McCain who has suggested that we will see war upon war, even as we spend a century in Iraq?

Hello World!

July 17, 2008

First, let me extend a welcome to any reader who is interested in serious (but, hopefully, at times, humorous) discussion of issues in philosophy, religion, or politics.  Philosophy is the discipline through which I prepared for my career.  I have strong avocational interest in religion.  And I have spent the last four years completing an unpublished book on American politics entitled “Beyond Polarization.” 

As a senior citizen I can not recall a time when my concern for the future of the country has been greater.   Over the last forty years,  as both parties became less pragmatic, and more ideological in their focus, American politics has become very polarized.  During this period of time, very serious problems have developed which need to be addressed.  The United States has not adjusted to the free market global economy.  While both political parties have been supportive of a free market approach and for less regulation, neither party has addressed the negative consequences that have resulted from this approach for large segments of the American population.  The gap between wealthy Americans and those living in poverty has grown larger with fewer Americans falling in between.  The Social Security System will be facing major problems when large number of baby boomers begin to retire, but no political solution has been found.  The number of Americans without adequate health care insurance is approaching 50 million.  For those Americans who do have health care coverage, the cost of that coverage is escalating at an unsustainable rate.  The nation is facing a growing energy crisis as the demand for oil increases around the world, and the per barrel price of oil moves toward $150.  Major concerns are developing concerning the environment.  The American education system at the elementary and secondary levels is falling behind in the global context.  All of these problems are recognized by both political parties, but very little progress has been made   To the extent that the problems facing the nation cannot be addressed through the political process, that  process has become dysfunctional. 

Another sign of the dysfunctionality of the American political process is the struggle over the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court.  At this point the most significant variable in the appointment of these judges is their ideological stance.  Their position on a specific set of issues has become a litmus test for their appointment.  Their experience and qualifications as lawyers and judges has become less important. 

A final evidence that the U. S. political process has become diysfuncitonal is that because the two parties are polarized by ideological differences, it has not been possible for the two parties to work together and to compromise their respective positions so as to arrive at pragmatic solutions.  Historically, compromise has been the key to working toward the solution of problems through the US political process.  But with ideological differences being assigned the relative importance which they have for both parties, compromise has been out of the question.

One sign that ideology is at the heart of the current polarization of the political process is the role that religion has come to play in American politics.  Christian conservatives believe that America has been formed in a covenantal relationship with God to serve as a beacon on a hill to all the other nations of the world.  They believe that the founders of the nation were Christian, that the American Constitution rests on Christian principles, and that it is legitimate to use the political process to impose these principles on all Americans.  The traditional separation of state and church implied in the non-establishment clause has been challenged by Christian conservatives.  And in the most recent primary season candidates stumbled over one another to make public their allegiance to the Christian faith in spite of the fact that the Consititution includes the specific prescription that there shall be no religious test of office.  A major problem for Obama has been created by a minority of Americans who are convinced that he is Muslim.  This problem has been addressed by Obama and his defenders by repeated insistence that he is a Christian.  The sad part about this is that even if he were Muslim, this should not stand in the way of considering him for public office. 

It is my intention to use this blog site to explore issues in philosophy, religion, education, and politics in the hope of assisting others to move beyond polarization toward a pragmatic and effective political process.

Economics and Education

July 15, 2008

When those who support a global free market are asked whether the United States can maintain low unemployment with so many manufacturing jobs being shifted overseas, the usual response is affirmative.  That affirmative answer depends in part on the transformation of the American economy from a manufacturing economy to a service economy.  It depends further on the belief that in a service economy a higher level of skill is required for most jobs than is the case in a manufacturing economy.  Higher levels of skill require more education.  American success, especially, in the area of post secondary, or higher education, is in part responsible for the transformation of the economy to a service economy.  It also holds the key to the future growth and development of the American economy. 

Those public figures who make a more realistic assessment of American education. may be somewhat less confident about the future success of the American economy, especially, in sustaining low unemployment.  Alan Greenspan, e.g., believes that the American economy can be successful as long as there is a well-educated work force.  He recognizes that the American educational system, especially, at the elementary and secondary levels is not being successful at the present time.  He basis his hopefulness on the capacity to attract an educated work force from other countries.  To the extent that the success of the American economy depends upon attracting educated workers from other countries, there may be huge segments of the American workforce that may end up unemployed because of their lack of the higher order skills on which a successful service economy ultimately depends. 

Before taking a look at education in the United States it is important to recognize that, presently, the expansion of jobs in the service sector that require less skill will not solve the problem of unemployment for many American citizens.  This can be seen by reflecting on the immigration debate.  Those politicians defending temporary work permits for immigrants often argue that the presence of these immigrants in the workforce is necessary because American citizens will not work in the jobs that immigrants typically fill.  This claim overlooks two major realities.  First, the nature of the jobs being filled by immigrants is not a fixed pool..  Over the past ten years immigrants are seen doing more and more jobs beyond those which they were filling ten years ago.  Ten to twenty years ago immigrants were most frequently observed working in agriculture.  Today immigrants can be observed working in restaurants, engaging in domestic work, and more importantly, filling positions in the construction industry.  What is of interest with respect to all of these positions is that prior to their being filled by recent immigrants, they were routinely filled by American citizens with varied racial and ethnic backgrounds.   The second reality overlooked by those defending temporary work permits for immigrants is that If these jobs are no longer appealing to the American citizens who previously held them, it is because the wages and benefits associated with these jobs have dramatically declined.  One cannot sustain even a modest lifestyle for a family on the basis of the compensation received for these positions.  Immigrants are able to sustain a lifestyle by having multiple families occupy the same household and pooling incomes, as well as by working multiple jobs. 

It should be noted further that the development of a service economy with jobs requiring higher levels of skill will not automatically result inthe availability of more jobs in the United States.  Many service sector jobs for which higher levels of skill are needed are being shipped overseas along with manufacturing jobs.  This is true for many jobs in the area of customer service, computer technology and programming, and in such business functions as accounting. 

But is it possible that through education a sufficient quantity of jobs in the service sector can be created to assure that there will always be jobs available in the United States both for those with lesser skills, and those whose skills can only be developed through post-secondary education?  An affirmative answer to this question depends on the effectiveness of the American educational system.

So how effective is the American educational system?   The National Center for Educational Statistics has reported the following trends in high school education:

[NCES publishes an annual report that allows readers to compare dropout rates over time (McMillen, 1994)].

1.    Nationwide, dropout rates have declined during the last decade:

·        The status dropout rate for 16- to 24-year-olds declined from 14.6 percent in 1972 to 11.0 percent in 1992 and 1993;

·        The event dropout rate for ages 15 through 24 in grades 10 through 12 has fallen from 6.1 percent in 1972 to 4.5 percent in 1993; and

·        The cohort rate [3] for students who were sophomores in 1980 and dropped out between grades 10 and 12 was 11.4 percent, while the cohort rate for a comparable group of 1990 sophomores was 6.2 percent.


2.    Even though the rates are declining, they still represent a large number of people. In 1993, approximately 381,000 students in grades 10 through 12 dropped out of school, and approximately 3.4 million persons in the United States ages 16 through 24 were high school dropouts.

3.    Dropout rates are about the same for males and females, but the rates are not the same for students from different ethnic groups or different income levels. In general, rates are higher for minority students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The 1993 status dropout rate was:

·        7.9 percent for white students, compared to 13.6 percent for black students and 27.5 percent for Hispanic students; and

·        2.7 percent for students with a high family income level, compared to 23.9 percent for students with a low family income level.

 4.   Rates for American Indians and Alaska Natives are quite high, while those for Asian-American students are quite low.  The dropout rate is greater in cities than in other locations, and is highest in the West and South (OERI 1993).


Education has been seen as a prerequisite to getting a job.  Education has been seen as the key to assuring that even as lower skilled manufacturing jobs shift overseas, the American workforce will have sufficient knowledge and skill to qualify for higher-skilled jobs, primarily in the service sector.  To this end, the federal government with the support of both parties has strongly supported two forms of post-secondary education: education that focuses on vocations or careers that involve primarily technical skills, and traditional college or university education leading to professional degrees, or liberal arts degrees that can be utilized to achieve appropriate employment. 

Both parties have emphasized teaching and learning in the schools and the need for accountability for both teachers and students.  Achievement levels have been set and frequent testing has been introduced.   Administrators, too, have had their feet held to the fire.  Under the No-Child-Left-Behind Act, entire schools are threatened with a loss of federal support if they are not effective in educating students.  Here and there one can find evidences of some improvement.  Democrats have continued to stand behind the public school system and have supported the provision of the necessary financial resources to fund improvements in facilities, in technology, and in the compensation of teachers.  Republicans have inclined toward taking a market approach to education, offering parents a choice among the public schools in their districts, as well as offering a choice among private schools by means of a voucher system. 

The drop-out rates, especially, for inner city schools, completely undermine the strategy of using education as a door to opportunity.  The situation is compounded by the lack of preparedness of students who do graduate from high school for college level work.  A recent report indicated that half of the students currently entering the nation’s colleges and universities require remedial work.  The failure of the educational system to provide graduates not only of high school, but also of college, with the necessary knowledge and skills for better paying jobs, mostly in the service sector, thwarts the nation’s strategy for keeping the United States economy competitive in a global, free-market economy. 

It is easy enough under such circumstances to cast about looking for persons and institutions to blame.  More recently, Democrats have joined Republicans in stressing the importance of the family, specifically, of parents in working toward the success of schools.  Both parties have emphasized the need for transmitting moral values and developing character through such institutions as the family, the church, and also the schools themselves.   But the schools themselves, administrators and teachers (and the National Education Association, the teachers’ union) have been assigned most of the blame for what many readily describe as the failure of the schools. 

There is, however, a reality with which both parties need to come to terms.  There is an inverse relationship between the expectations that are directed toward schools and the capacity of schools to meet those expectations. As the expectations directed toward schools have increased, the capacity of schools to meet those expectations has declined.  For example, for the past forty years the schools have been the battle ground for combating racial discrimination.  Schools and the children attending them have been expected to achieve a level of integration which the parents themselves have been unwilling to achieve in their own personal lives, and especially, in their neighborhoods.  Schools are expected to feed children who come to school hungry, to provide hygiene and health care for those children who have no support for or access to these through their homes.  It has become the responsibility of the schools to prevent very young children from coming to school with loaded fire arms, or with various illegal drugs in their possession.  It has become the responsibility of schools to provide personal counseling to students who come from homes and neighborhoods in which there are repeated patterns of irresponsible and sometimes violent behavior, or homes from which a parent, or parents, are missing.  It has become the responsibility of schools to care for children before and after school while a parent, or both parents, are working.  There is nothing pertaining to the total experience of the child for which some expectations are not directed toward the schools.  In an urban school system millions of dollars are spent on the retention of a school police force to assist in maintaining discipline. In these schools there may be more social service providers than teachers.

The families and the neighborhoods from which the children come to urban, intercity schools are not looking for the government to intervene and begin to control their lives and the lives of their children.  It is far better for many of the problems of the inner city to be addressed by those living there, and for the solutions to the current problems surrounding the lives of children to be developed by the family and neighbors of those children.  But some government initiatives and some government funding may be needed.

It should also be pointed out that inner cities and urban school systems are not the only contexts in which the circumstances described are to be found.  Increasingly, similar problems are to be found in suburban and small town and rural communities.  Columbine High School which witnessed one of the worst events ever to occur in a school was a suburban high school.  In all of these contexts the expectations being directed toward schools go far beyond the qualifications, experience, and resources of those responsible for education.  Simply throwing programs, especially, federally-developed programs at cities, suburbs, towns, and neighborhoods will not solve the complex problems to be found in these places.  The problems in society—in cities, suburbs, towns, and neighborhoods—will not be solved without government funding, but this funding should not take the form of simply throwing large sums of money in the direction of problems in the hope that somehow they will be solved.   For the problems that stand in the way of schools carrying out their proper functions simply to be discovered and addressed, not to say, solved, there needs to be immense involvement of citizens, families, religious institutions, voluntary associations, and as an initiator and facilitator, government, especially, local government, with financial support from the state and federal governments.  But it is time for practical politics to enter the scene, for ideological critiques of the American social order and the endless playing of the blame game to be set aside.  The pubic interest in education must be at the front of center stage.   Partisanship needs to give way to rolling up the shirt sleeves and getting down to hard work. 

Concerns about the future of the country:concerns about the economy

July 12, 2008

Introduction to Sagebrush38’s Weblog

First, let me extend a welcome to any reader who is interested in serious (but, hopefully, at times, humorous) discussion of issues in philosophy, religion, or politics.  Philosophy is the discipline through which I prepared for my career.  I have strong avocational interest in religion.  And I have spent the last four years completing an unpublished book on American politics entitled “Beyond Polarization.” 

As a senior citizen I can not recall a time when my concern for the future of the country has been greater.  We face serious economic problems stemming from an unbridled capitalism which results from the thought that the market should function with complete total freedom.  It is no accident that the person under whose guidance our economy has sunk into difficult circumstances, Alan Greenspan, does not even characterize himself as a Republican.  He is a self-identified Libertarian.  Today, I was thnking about Adam Smith who was one of the first to recognize the importance of the market in the development of the economy.  Smith was to the best of my knowledge strongly influenced by Scottish Calvinism.  The importance of this is that he would have seen his views of the economy and the market in a larger context shaped by religious convictions.  Two convictions stand out: the sovereignty of God who through his providence would be looked to to make all things work out well to those who served God through good hard work; and a belief in original sin and the consequent total depravity of every last man, woman, and child on the face of the earth.  What has this to do with economics?  I believe that Smith thought that the economy operated under two major influences: divine providence and human weakness.  A free market was the only mechanism through which humans inclined toward greed could work synergistically with divine providence.  A less lofty way of making the same point is to say that the free market evolved as a necessary evil.  Any human attempt to regulate the economy would fail due to the basic sinfulness of those attempting to regulate it.  The best that could be accomplished in a sinful world in the economic sphere would be to let humans compete with one another with as great a measure of freedom as possible in the hope that through that competition rooted in self-interest some check on greed or excess would persist that would lead to results less negative for all involved.  The fact that this human struggle occurred in the context of a benevolent providence would further assure that the results would be less negative than might be suggested by the sinfulness of human nature.

All of this reflection on Adam Smith may seem irrelevant to today’s economic problems but it is not.  Economics, along with other academic disciplines, has evolved in a purely secular context.  Any theological assumptions about God or humans have played little or no role in the subsequent development of economics.  The result of this is that the greed of humans has operated in the free market context that politicians have worked for since Ronald Regan without any checks and balances.  Regan made an important point about the need to maintain the safety net.  That was a recognition of the imperfection of a purely free market system.  But under his administration the process of removing regulations that had been put in place to check greed already began.  It has continued for the last 28 years which have included eight years of the administration of a Democrat, Bill Clinton. 

What has free market dogmatism without checks and balances led to:

  • It has resulted in taxes coming to be seen negatively as depriving investors of resources
  • The reduction in taxes or failure to assess taxes to pay for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has led to a bloating federal deficit much of which has been bought up by foreign interests which may at some point decide that it is better to hold Euros of yen instead of dollars.
  • It has led to a growing gap between investors and workers in the United States as capital has sought out cheap labor in various corners of the globe. 
  • Trade agreements have been indifferent to equity in compensation appropriate to the hours and conditions of labor, and with indifference to the total benefits provided to those who labor.
  • The safety net spoken of by Reagan was replaced with references to the need for compassionate conservatism which in turn has become nothing more than hollow rhetoric.  More recently, an aspirant to the presidency has described social security as a disgrace.  On the abstract premise that the market provides every participant with equal opportunity the view seems to be that if any one is suffering economically it is due to their own failure, and, therefore, there is justice in their suffering, so that those of us who are prospering need not feel any obligation to help them beyond whatever pity we may stir up within ourselves for them. 
  • It has led to a return to inflation as consumption of energy has been a higher priority within the United States economy than conservation or developing alternative sources of energy.  This has translated into unreasonable jumps in oil prices as greed has triumphed over regulation in the sale and purchase of oil futures.
  • It has led to outlandish costs in the field of health care as employers have bailed out of any obligation to provide this benefit, and individuals have been unable within their wages to find sufficient funds to pay the high insurance premiums required to assure access to health care.
  • It has led to a credit or mortgage crisis which is resulting in more and more people having to give up their homes.

There is, of course, more that could be said about economics and the policies advocated by politicians.  I will conclude this discussion with just one reminder.  If you have not read it lately, look at the preamble to the United States Constitution:

“We, the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

In this preamble specific goals that extend to all the citizens of the United States are adopted as defining the role of government.  Note the presence of the need to “establish justice, to promote the general Welfare” and “Secure the Blessings of Liberty.”  These goals are often forgotten as politicians focus excessively on providingfor the common defence (translate: big military spending budgets) and insuring domestic tranquility (translate: allow people to own guns to defend themselves, their homes, and their families, get more policeman into the streets, put more and more citizens in prison.)

We are at a cross roads in the history of our nation.  We need to choose what the highest priority of our political process will be:  Will it be to promote democracy for all of our citizens and to model what is possible through democracy for the rest of the world?  Or will it be to promote a global free market that is less and less influenced by the interests of the people, whether the people of the United States, or people around the globe?  The domination of politics by economic issues instead of serving the country, has now become a threat.

I have other concerns about the future of our country, but will address these in later blogs.

Thanks for letting me share my thoughts with you.