AT CROSS PURPOSES

Posted in Rants on January 4th, 2017 by Ed

If someone running for office insists that government is bad you can rest assured that if they get elected the government that follows will in fact be very bad. Anything else would undermine the premise upon which he won support. When we are critical of the government we get from such people we are speaking past one another. A necessary part of proving that private enterprise or the free market or Jesus or rugged individualism or whatever can do something better than the state is setting the bar so low that crony capitalism can't help but trip and fall over it. To tell a modern conservative that what they advocate is bad public policy offers no new information to anyone involved in the conversation; the whole point is to make it as bad as possible.

The same is true of the consequences of policy changes, which liberals often interpret as bugs when they are in fact the main feature. Repealing Obamacare will cost many people who cannot otherwise afford it their health insurance? Yes, that's the whole point to right wingers. More poor people getting sick and dying is something close to an autoerotic fantasy for conservatives. They lie, including to themselves, and pretend that what they advocate is some kind of solution, but they're not very good at convincing anyone. They know that tax cuts for the wealthy aren't going to Trickle Down and create anything for the rest of the country, but they know they need something better than "Look, we just really want the tax cuts and couldn't give half a shit what happens to working people" when they're on camera.

The mistake Our Side makes so often (see Obama's first couple years in office) is assuming that the right is acting In Good Faith and earnestly desires the best policy and the best government. This is a poor assumption. They just want to get what is best for themselves, and they believe that their political opponents have the same motivation – i.e., that poor people vote for left wing candidates just to get free stuff from the rich taxpayers and the noise about improving society as a whole is a smokescreen. In this way, politics to the current American conservative is a zero sum game of resource competition. The talk about policy objectives and grand strategies for a better society is a shiny coat of paint over everyone's true motives.

Keep this in mind as the Secretary-to-be of the Department of Education, Betsey Devos, is approved by the Senate in the coming weeks. Her selection in November brought the moribund issue of charter schools back into the national conversation, if briefly, and will do so moving forward. Since I get a paycheck in higher education, this issue does not affect me directly but I do have an awful lot of K-12 educators in my social circle. I see people argue in circles about charter schools regularly and to no effect. Right wingers chant School Choice like it is the prayer that will get them into heaven; liberals fire back statistics proving that at their top-dollar best, charter schools are roughly as good as public schools once we account for their power to take only those students they choose to take. Again, these two viewpoints are at cross purposes. The left assumes that charter school advocates 1) believe that charter schools are better and 2) are interested in "better schools" as the ultimate goal.

A full summary of the conservative movement's support for things like vouchers and charter schools is as follows: it's cheaper.

The way they see it, half the kids coming out of public schools today are basically illiterate. To them, this is fine. We have enough competition for the kinds of jobs a college degree is supposed to qualify one for as it is. Our options are to pump a ton of money into public schools and maybe see some incremental improvement in outcomes, or we can just create a system that selects out the half-decent students for a real education and future and then warehouse the rest until they're no longer minors and they're ready for the prison-poverty-violence cycle to Hoover them up. Vouchers and Charter Schools are not, to the conservative mind, a better way to educate kids well. They are a cheaper way to educate them poorly. What matters is that it costs less to people like six-figure income earners and home owners. Those people can afford to send their kids to a decent school anyway. Public education, to their way of thinking, used to be about educating people just enough that they could provide blue collar or service industry labor. Now that we have too much of that, a public high school is just a waiting room for prison. So why throw money into it? They don't think education "works" anyway; people are born Good or Bad, Talented or Useless. So it only makes sense to find the cheapest possible way to process the students who were written off before they reached middle school. If charter schools manage to save 1% of them, great. If not, well, then they're no worse than public schools. And they're cheaper! Did I mention that they're cheaper?

When two people are trying to put together a puzzle, it's not going to go very well if one person is pointing at the box and saying, "Look, we're trying to put together a sailboat" and the other is off trying to rearrange the pieces to make a dinosaur. Both will fail, but at least in this case they'd understand that they failed because they had radically different goals. The big difference in our political system is that the dinosaur guy smiles real big and swears he's trying to help you make a sailboat, then resumes his task as soon as he gets his hands on the pieces.