Wednesday, March 16, 2011

War on Public Servants

For the last decade or so, it seems that there has been a war on teachers and public education. You can’t watch the news or open a newspaper without reading about how American students are failing to make the grade compared to students around the world, and how that is the fault of public schools and teachers.  Now, it seems like the war has expanded to include anything public and anyone who works for local, state, or the federal government. Some people seem to have decided that those who have dedicated their lives to public service are somehow living an easy life thanks to those who work in the private sector, for business. Maybe the two are related. Maybe our schools have failed to educate the public about the importance of government services and the necessary and valuable contributions made by public servants, including teachers, policemen, lawyers and others who work in courts and prison systems, road departments, highway and airline safety, health and human service agencies, public lands, diplomatic corps, and so on. 

We teachers have failed to teach the American public how to delve deeply into subjects, how to explore both sides of issues, how to analyze data, how to draw reasoned conclusions. For example, I heard a politician yesterday say that “salaries in the public sector are higher on average than in the private sector,” to make his argument that public servants should take pay and benefit cuts. A recent analysis of census data by Queens College demographers prepared for the New York Times shows that while that statement is true, the educational level of the average state employee is higher than that of the average employee in the private sector. When you compare state employee wages to private sector employees with similar educational levels, in almost all states, the public employees’ wages are lower. 

We all know factories have shut down and whole industries have moved overseas. The average salary for non-college educated Americans is either stagnant or decreasing, and their benefits are shrinking. Some argue that public employees should suffer equally. How will we attract and retain great teachers with reduced pay and benefits? A third of teachers don’t stay in the profession after three years as it is.

I’ve been teaching for a couple decades, and the teachers I meet are dedicated. They didn’t go into education primarily for the money or benefits, but with hopes to better the lives of their students. I suspect most state and federal employees have gone into public service because of their idealistic nature as well.  And I’ll bet they’ve felt the same sense of sympathy I have in recent years as we’ve seen people in private industry stripped of their promised pensions or laid off and unable to find a job that pays as well.

Republicans say they are against deficit spending. However, when they had the reins of power, they cut taxes in ways that mostly benefited the rich and ran up huge deficits. The current deficits we are now experiencing can be almost wholly attributed to the Bush tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Great Recession, which has lessened tax revenues. Because of deregulation of the financial industry, we are in the midst of the deepest, widest recession since the Great Depression. It would have been a depression had the Bush and Obama administrations not convinced Congress to pass legislation that saved the banks, the American auto industry, and kept people working and state governments afloat with stimulus spending. In Wisconsin and New Jersey, Republican governors give tax breaks to business and then scream that the deficits they’ve created need to come out of public employees.

The Republican majority elected in 2010 was put in place by an electorate impatient with the pace of the recovery and desperate for jobs. While still a minority, Republicans held out for extending  the Bush tax cuts for the rich, threatening to filibuster all legislation unless the Democrats agreed to the deficit-increasing measure. Since taking office and promising to concentrate on jobs, the Republicans in the house have not passed job measure one. Instead, they and Republican governors have been mounting attacks on programs for women and the poor, labor, and the middle class. They attack collective bargaining, threaten to shut down the government if their budget cuts are not passed.

There was a time when Republicans declared war on “welfare queens”, claiming that huge numbers of Americans were gaming the system to live a life of ease. Under Clinton, programs went into effect to help women with children find work, and offered them only temporary assistance. How does that work when unemployment rates hover near 10%? A few billion dollars are saved, though more Americans live in poverty and there is increasing income disparity. Now Republicans are coming after public employees. When they passed No Child Left Behind, they said by setting the bar high, achievement gaps would close, otherwise they would declare schools failing and fire the staff or send the children to other schools. What will they do when public employees don’t meet their unrealistic expectations?

This essay was publised as an op-ed by the Charleston Gazette (WV) on Monday, March 6, 2011 

Friday, March 4, 2011

Tunisia and Egypt Prove the Neo-conservatives Wrong

Is it possible that the Neoconservative theories that George W. Bush and his gang implemented by invading Iraq are coming to fruition? They theorized that after deposing Sadaam Hussein the Iraqi people would rise up and create a democratic government that would protect their rights and open up the economy to all. One Arab democracy would then inspire other Arab people to rise up against dictators. Instead, Iraq has suffered eight years of sectarian violence, government gridlock, and economic stagnation on a bumpy road to what no one is sure will become a stable democracy or even a unified nation once the U.S. withdraws completely. Iran is poised to end up with more influence in Iraq than the U.S.

Iraq may have served a purpose as an example for reasonable people in Arab countries with dictators of what to avoid in demanding change. Like Iraq, for years, Tunisia and Egypt have been faux democracies, one party states led by a president for life. As American allies (as Iraq was until Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990), their leaders have benefited from American largesse by moderating Arab extremism toward Israel, and in Egypt’s case, maintaining peaceful relations with Israel. Mubarak has maintained power with an iron fist toward any political rivalry and against any sign of Muslim extremism. His police have used tactics including torture to maintain absolute power, but thirty years of a “state of emergency,” has finally come to an end by popular demand.
The protestors in Egypt and Tunisia have included broad swaths of the populace. They are not led by Muslim extremists, and their anger has been directed against the dictator and his police rather than Israel and the United States, anger that too often Arab dictators stoke for their own benefit. Unlike in Iraq, where Sadaam, our ally against Iran, had created an elite sectarian Sunni army to repress the majority Shiite and minority Kurds, the armies of both Egypt and Tunisia have stepped forward as defenders of the people against police forces that were viewed as the repressive arms of government.

Should these anti-dictator movements result in more democratic governments it is far from clear that they will be friendly to America and American interests let alone be willing to seek peaceful relations with Israel. And should they spark similar movements in Jordan, Yemen, or other Arab states with greater fundamentalist anti-Western constituencies, the Middle East may start looking more like Iran than Turkey, which  has a strong tradition of secular government.

President Obama has walked a tightrope in his response to the situation. To anyone who criticizes him for supporting Mubarak until now, you must give equal blame to every president going back to Jimmy Carter. Every one has pragmatically supported the Egyptian government while talking about the need to implement democratic reforms. At least Obama gave a stirring speech in Cairo in which he called on all Arab countries to implement democratic reforms. Combined with the evidence that he is keeping his word by pulling American troops out of Iraq, this may have something to do with the lack of anti-Americanism evident in these uprisings.

It seems our government is trying to support a peaceful transition to democracy, understanding that there is a long way to go from deposing a tyrant to full democracy. Mubarak ceded power first to a newly appointed vice-president, Omar Suleiman, former security chief, and then the top brass of the army. Egypt’s military is almost as much an economic force as a defense force, a secondary effect of peace with Israel which caused the Egyptian army to find creative ways of keeping it’s vast military employed. The army controls large swaths of various industries and resources: water, agriculture, gasoline, even automobiles.

Protestors should keep up the pressure, but let the country return to normalcy as the new leadership tries to design and implement a new constitution. The Egyptian people seem to have set their hopes on the army to carry out reforms and allow free and fair elections, but they should follow Ronald Reagan’s advice to “trust, but verify.” The people of Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated to the world they are capable of peaceful protest and deserving of the opportunity to elect governments that will maintain their security while allowing them the full freedom of representative government and human rights. They may achieve democratic reform more quickly and with less loss of life and economic hardship than the “regime change” George W. Bush sought through preemptive war. Let us hope that these peaceful revolutions result in true democracies that play a role as moderating influences in the Arab world.

first published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on Sunday, February 26, 2011