The Privilege Walk Of Life

The college admission scandal now consuming our news cycle speaks to the many contradictions that now confuse our discussions about privilege and power in America today. To be shocked that the rich are able to buy their way into opportunities closed to the average person speaks to either an enormous naïveté or ignorance about the power of wealth across the timeline of civilization. Money has always been the lubricant of choice to make life a smooth and untroubled path for the fortunate few, and the wealthy always exert outsized influence on the world around them. To presume otherwise is sheer foolishness, and this is the primary reason why those with money and power are typically obsessed with yet more money and power—it is always nice to be very, very rich.

This scandal also is an object lesson in the importance of social and cultural signifiers in a world where developing your “personal brand” is now far more important than being a thoughtful and decent individual. Given that a degree from one of the most elite colleges in the United States—the ones with the name recognition necessary to improve your coddled child’s personal brand—is now considered a critical life accessory by the fashionable elite of Hollywood stars and corporate heavyweights, it should not be a surprise that a well-paid industry of fixers exists to plow the road to admission. A CEO whose child has to settle for a degree at a state college in East Podunk sees this “failure” an implicit rebuke of the parenting abilities of mommy and daddy, so such a sad state of affairs simply cannot be allowed to exist. Bring before me the “consultants” who will ensure my spoiled scion will succeed and reflect well on me!

However, this scandal perhaps most clearly points out our misunderstandings about privilege—and who actually has it—in America today.

Several years ago a former colleague related to me the dismal failure of the “privilege walk” she had her students complete. For those who are unfamiliar with this activity, it requires individuals to stand in a line and then take steps forward or backward based on “privileges” granted them by society. Below is a list of these privileges and deficits (you might want to grab a cup of coffee first), courtesy of Pennsylvania State University:

  • ​If your ancestors were forced to come to the USA not by choice, take one step back.
  • If your primary ethnic identity is “American,” take one step forward.
  • If you were ever called names because of your race, class, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If there were people who worked for your family as servants, gardeners, nannies, etc. take one step forward.
  • ​If you were ever ashamed or embarrassed of your clothes, house, car, etc. take one step back.
  • If one or both of your parents were “white collar” professionals: doctors, lawyers, etc. take one step forward.
  • If you were raised in an area where there was prostitution, drug activity, etc., take one step back.
  • If you ever tried to change your appearance, mannerisms, or behavior to avoid being judged or ridiculed, take one step back.
  • If you studied the culture of your ancestors in elementary school, take one step forward.
  • If you went to school speaking a language other than English, take one step back.
  • If there were more than 50 books in your house when you grew up, take one step forward.
  • If you ever had to skip a meal or were hungry because there was not enough money to buy food when you were growing up, take one step back.
  • If you were taken to art galleries or plays by your parents, take one step forward
  • ​If one of your parents was unemployed or laid off, not by choice, take one step back.
  • If you have health insurance take one step forward.
  • If you attended private school or summer camp, take one step forward.
  • If your family ever had to move because they could not afford the rent, take one step back.
  • If you were told that you were beautiful, smart and capable by your parents, take one step forward.
  • If you were ever discouraged from academics or jobs because of race, class, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back
  • ​If you were encouraged to attend college by your parents, take one step forward.
  • If you have a disability take one step backward.
  • If you were raised in a single parent household, take one step back.
  • If your family owned the house where you grew up, take one step forward.
  • If you saw members of your race, ethnic group, gender or sexual orientation portrayed on television in degrading roles, take one step back.
  • If you own a car take one step forward.
  • If you were ever offered a good job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.
  • If you were ever denied employment because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you were paid less, treated less fairly because of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you were ever accused of cheating or lying because of your race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you ever inherited money or property, take one step forward.
  • If you had to rely primarily on public transportation, take one step back.
  • If you attended private school at any point in your life take one step forward.
  • If you were ever stopped or questioned by the police because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you were ever afraid of violence because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If your parents own their own business take one step forward.
  • If you were generally able to avoid places that were dangerous, take one step forward.
  • If you were ever uncomfortable about a joke related to your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation but felt unsafe to confront the situation, take one step back.
  • ​If you use a TDD Phone system take one step backward.
  • If you were ever the victim of violence related to your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • Imagine you are in a relationship, if you can get married in the State of ___ take one step forward
  • If your parents did not grow up in the United States, take one step back.
  • If your parents attended college take one step forward.
  • If your parents told you that you could be anything you wanted to be, take one step forward.
  • If you are able to take a step forward or backward take two steps forward.

Quite a long list, to say the least….

Apparently some of my former colleague’s students vociferously and angrily objected to many of the items on this list (or one similar to it) because they felt these simply reflected wise or responsible life choices made by themselves or their parents and grandparents rather than some inherited “privilege” that is presumed to be unearned and unfair. Of course, those who believe in the veracity of this exercise would assert such an annoyed or disbelieving reaction is proof of an inborn sense of entitlement that is the result of privilege, so a discussion of the individual items on the list might be considered by some to be beside the point. However, there does seem to be cause for reasonable questions about the benefit of this exercise and the purpose of some of the items used. For example, a reliance on public transportation is perhaps more indicative of whether you live in a city rather than the sometimes dubious privilege of individual car ownership.

There are, of course, items on this list that perhaps reflect a tougher road ahead for some because they touch upon issues of discrimination or disability that obviously speak to challenges that no one wants to face, but the overall problem with the exercise might be that it focuses on “micro” rather than “macro” issues that affect success and failure—and some important problems are curiously omitted.

It is surprising that being a victim of sexual abuse or violence is not included—only the threat is mentioned in this list—but it could be the case that the authors wanted to avoid prompting any uncomfortable self-disclosures in a classroom setting. However, it is well known that victims of sexual assaults, which sometimes sadly begin in childhood, are at far greater risk of depression, low self-esteem, drug and alcohol abuse and suicidal ideation or attempts that add up to a far greater loss of “privilege” than whether your parents rented instead of owned your home as a child. Moreover, it is surprising that no direct mention is made of household income as a child. Although some items, such as summer camp attendance or household servants, might function as effective proxies for family wealth, there are still too many individual variables—maybe your summer camp was, for example, designated specifically for low-income children—to make a completely reliable connection.

What this type of list also fails to recognize is that privilege is often a more multifaceted conundrum. Sheer physical attractiveness or athletic skill opens a great many doors for a great many people—and to refuse to acknowledge this seems shortsighted. In addition, basic intelligence—or the lack thereof—is a significant precursor of both academic and career success. Moreover, the implication that a multi-lingual upbringing presents an all-but-certain life deficit also seems unsupportable when applied across a broad population. What about those who leverage their foreign language skills into well-paid positions in business?

However, one item does seem to me to be highly predictive of the type of privilege that many find both frustrating and disheartening: “If you were ever offered a good job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.”

Moving back to the college admission scandal now in the news, the mastermind of this scam did not have a billboard up on the highway offering to help bribe Ivy League team coaches or assist students with cheating on their SAT tests—wealthy parents learned about this “service” through word of mouth networks comprised of other wealthy friends and family. As with a great deal of what has passed for “privilege” since the dawn of civilization, most life advantage accrues through personal connections who provide inside information: the stock tip, the job opening that has not been advertised, the great deal on an expensive purchase, the zoning change that is suddenly going to increase the value of a piece of property. These conversations that are leveraged into more money, power, and influence are impossible to track—and unavailable to all but the most privileged few. As a result, the highest circles of power in most societies tend to be both self-perpetuating and supremely exclusionary. Prejudices and poverty obviously impact many lives, but our understanding of privilege tends to be both overly preoccupied with labeling and oblivious to the fact that some realities have more weight than others when it comes the exercise of privilege.

These privilege walks might be an interesting activity that provides fodder for the kinds of heartfelt and clueless conversations that fill many college classrooms today, but they also demonstrate a gigantic blind spot regarding our understanding of how power, privilege, and elites actually operate. Our preoccupation with labeling one person as privileged—and another as not—tends to reinforce simplistic explanations for individual success and failure that fail to account for the many complexities of life and grotesquely understate the enormous influence of family wealth in terms of providing access to information and opportunities that are not available to the average person.

We do still, thankfully, live in a nation that generally rewards hard work and personal initiative, although government enabled—or mandated—mediocrity is a real and growing problem. Moreover, we have to recognize that laws and regulations that are written to allow the elites to invisibly and effortlessly skim money from the economy ultimately turn the American Dream into a a cruel joke for those not born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

As long as government officials continue to trade campaign contributions for one-sided and destructive legislation that is designed to pit the poor against the slightly less poor, the lives of many Americans will continue to consist of catching the crumbs that drop from the tables of the rich and powerful. We don’t need a privilege walk; we need a People’s March against the fixers and insiders who devote their lucrative careers to robbing the many to enrich the few. That would be far more useful than expending our time and energy parsing degrees of victimhood or fighting with one another over matters that are ultimately of little or no importance to the futures of our children, families, communities, or country.

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Is Free College Really The Best Idea?

One of the pillars of Democratic Party orthodoxy today is the push for free college for all.  At the state level, one of the most ambitious programs is to be found in New York, where the Excelsior Scholarship program has rendered tuition-free both 2 and 4 year public colleges throughout the state for students whose family income is under $125,000 per year.  Approximately 17 states now offer some form of free college to their residents, and it seems likely that more states will develop these sorts of programs in the years ahead.

These free college programs are not, of course, without their critics.

Many have pointed out that these programs many times actually function as a massive subsidy offered to middle class families that previously did not qualify for income-based scholarships; poor students have long paid nominalor zerotuition costs due to existing federal and state aid programs targeted to low-income students and their families.  Moreover, these free college programs are typically available only to those who attend full-time, which locks out those who need to work while attending school in order to cover their daily living expenses.  Although the college tuition might be free, students still need food in their stomachs, clothes on their backs, and a roof over their heads, which may greatly restrict the use of many these free college programs.

In addition, freeis a deceptive term to use because these programs are certainly not free for taxpayers.  The New York State program, although much more limited in actual scope than advertised because of the many restrictions attached, still carries a price tag of $87 million this year alonewith costs estimated to rise to at least $163 million annually when fully implemented.

However, the fundamental problem with free college is simple and direct: Access does not equal success.  The scandalous and continuing national crisis of inadequate college preparedness at the K-12 levelwhich decades of incredibly expensive education reformhas yet to addresstranslates into a great many students starting college but failing to complete.  

How widespread is this problem?  Tennessee has for many years offered free tuition to the states community colleges at a taxpayer cost of only $45 million annuallykeeping the outlay lower by covering only that portion of tuition not already picked up by federal Pell Grants.  

However, although the costs might be relatively low for Tennessees taxpayers, there is still ample reason to question whether this is a wise investment of state funds.  Data shows that during the 2016-2017 school year nearly half of the states high school graduates required remedial coursework during their first year of collegeand nearly half had dropped out after two years.  No matter how much educators might want to try to talk their way around it by desperately pointing to other factors that sometimes affect college completion, it is plain that the promised economic and individual benefits of free college are colliding headlong with the disappointing academic preparation that is the daily reality of Americas public schools.

Therefore, looking at the soaring promises of the politicians and educators who advocate putting taxpayers even further on the hook for the costs of free college, a reasonable person might be prompted to ask if the reality is somewhat different from the rhetoricand whether the estimated $70 billion needed to fund the College For Allplans supported by many Democrats is a good use of scarce tax dollars when our national debt now tops $22 trillion.

The many well-meaning promises attached to college that is freestill will be hampered by the vast number of American high school graduates who are academically unprepared to succeed in collegefree or otherwise.  If we want these taxpayer dollars to have the impact we hope that they will, we need to be smart enoughand brave enoughto ask whether college for allactually means failure for many.  Rather than asking taxpayers to pay for college students to again try to learn material that should have been mastered in high school, perhaps a more impactful program would tie taxpayer support to documented student academic preparedness for college-level coursework.

However annoying this discussion might be for those politicians who are anxious to create yet another endlessly expensive entitlement funded by already beleaguered taxpayers, it seems sensible to ask a few difficult questions now about this hazy dream in order to prevent a great deal of money from being pointlessly wasted in the years ahead.

Higher education is important, and we now knowall too wellthat our burdensome and outrageous student loan programs have been an unmitigated disaster that has both enabled obscene increases in college costs and created a gigantic debtor class of Americans whose financial futures are terribly hobbled.  Perhaps it could be persuasively argued that any college experience is beneficial, so free college would be a worthwhile taxpayer expenseregardless of the outcomes.  This is a viewpoint deserving of careful considerationas is the idea that money spent on education can never truly be wastedin the manner that other tax dollars often are.

Nonetheless, it might be worth stopping and thinking before we rush to pay for many students to make a pit stop on a college campusonly to later leave with little learning and no credential.  College is a great experience for many, but it may be the case that we still have thinking to do about how we pay for itand whether freeis the best path forward.  Perhaps some combination of grants and merit-based scholarships will be the mix that provides the magic.  Before any further decisions are made to create a new line in the federal financial ledger, we need to carefully study the long-term experiences of state-level programsparticularly regarding the impacts on student success.

However, whatever direction we ultimately take from here, we also need to give immediate consideration to the question of how we can relieve the frightening burden of the student loans that are now ruining the lives of many.  We cannot continue to ask so many to pay for a grievous past error in government policy that became a trap for so many Americans and their families, and I believe this is the step we must first take before we decide how to help those who will attend college in the future.

The Death Of Education Reform?

Just a few years ago Democrats were playing a lead role in pushing for broad-based reform of our nation’s public schools. Using rigorous and regular testing of student academic progress to generate the necessary data, money and resources were poured into a “moon shot” effort to make quality education available to all children by turning government and private philanthropy into partners in creating a new paradigm for a national public education system that seemed unable to shake off its bureaucratic mindset and incrementalism. Billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars and private wealth washed into our nation’s public schools, and the high hopes attached to all this money seemed a sure sign that monumental changes were at hand.

Watching the momentum for K-12 education reform now grinding to a screeching halt around the nation, one cannot help but be struck by the shocking efforts of so many leading Democrats to now reduce or de-emphasize academic assessments, roll back charter schools, and embrace the ossified civil service approach of the nation’s teacher unions.

Were reformers fooling themselves all along regarding the possibilities for dramatic progress?

Even putting aside the strong political headwinds now facing school reform advocates, the sad truth of the matter is that change always required a willingness to both stand up to the political power of teacher unions and aggressively deregulate public education in order to introduce real market incentives—and market risk—to a system that both has historically been run according to the priorities of teacher unions and is populated by many teachers and administrators who have no interest at all in abandoning their entrenched civil service protections.

Improvements in the quality and academic outcomes of our nation’s public schools was also always an uphill fight because resistance to reforms was made all the easier by the extraordinary “local control” baked into our nation’s tens of thousands of autonomous public school districts, which have shown themselves to be largely impervious to any changes beyond the most cosmetic simply by virtue of their sheer numbers. The net result is that school reformers have spent decades banging their heads into a brick wall of fantastically fragmented bureaucratic obstinacy designed to protect well-paid but marginally competent teachers and administrators who find any effort to quantify outcomes, develop cost-benefit analyses, or (gasp!) insist upon accountability antithetical to their mutual goals of ironclad job security and guaranteed salary enhancement.

The real lesson of the past several decades of education reform is as simple as can be: You cannot force changes upon a system that has little real interest in what passionate—but too often ineffectual—reformers are trying to sell. It is always easier for the education insiders to insist that the problems with student learning are due to external societal and cultural factors, so miserable academic outcomes cannot be blamed on the schools themselves.

However, the challenge today facing reformers is the increasingly close relationship between teacher unions and the Democratic Party. Unless this is somehow severed right now, real reforms will continue to be measured with an eye dropper in the decades to come.

How close is the relationship between teacher unions and the Democratic Party? The numbers tell the story. During the 2018 elections, 95% of the over $30 million dollars they contributed to political parties and candidates went to Democrats. Of course, driven by high profile races in Texas, Florida, and Georgia, this amount was dwarfed by total 2018 election spending that topped $5.2 billion, but teacher unions also provided large and reliable voting blocs in key races and contributed countless in-kind resources to Democratic candidates. The net result of this political symbiosis is that the matter most important to teacher unions—growing their base of dues-paying members—is also rapidly become a driving issue of the Democratic Party.

The most obvious element of the alliance between Democrats and teacher unions is a renewed national push to halt the growth of charter schools, which offer tuition-free alternatives for families that cannot afford private schools. Whether or not charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated, provide better educational outcomes for students—and there is a great deal of hard and persuasive evidence that this is indeed the case—seems to be a tangential concern at the moment. The crux of the matter is that more charter schools translates into fewer teachers paying union dues. Union leaders, feeling besieged after the Janus decision by the Supreme Court struck down state mandates for “fair share” dues across the nation, now seem resolutely determined to reverse the national growth of charter schools. The rumblings are growing louder in many states, although supporters of charter schools have also mobilized to defend parent choice, but we have just seen the most dramatic move in what is likely to be a long and divisive battle in Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school system—and until only recently a major booster of charter schools.

Having just settled a teacher strike with a new contract that has already been deemed financially unsustainable, the LAUSD Board of Education has now voted to declare a moratorium on the growth of charter schools. The 225 charter schools in Los Angeles now serve 23% of the district’s students—112,000 young people whose parents chose to remove them from the city’s troubled public schools. This has long been a sore point for national teacher unions, who see the rapid growth of charter schools in Los Angeles and elsewhere as an existential threat. Is it simply a coincidence that this shocking reversal happened in the most heavily Democratic state in the nation, one that provides 20% of the Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives? Should we be surprised that the often tearful pleas of Los Angeles parents, who were thrilled with the quality of the educations that their children are now receiving, were completely ignored by school board members, many of whom owe their seats to Democratic support?

The political battle lines have hardened in recent years, but one area where politics should be set aside is the desire of every parent to find the school that best fits the needs of their child. Charter schools have offered many poor and middle-class parents an avenue to help their children escape blighted public schools that were robbing them of their right to a quality education. To insist that these children, and more to follow, must hope and pray that their school will be spared from today’s political gamesmanship is both cruel and destructive. The national movement toward school choice—of which charter schools are certainly the most important single component—should not be rolled back so that teacher unions can sign up some more dues-paying members.

The dreams of parents and students for the brighter futures that charter schools can provide must be respected, nurtured, and supported. To do otherwise would be the worst possible betrayal.

Two Terrible Ways Schools Rob Children Of Their Futures—And Make Money Doing So

I recently discussed with a colleague one of the oddities many of us continually encounter when teaching college students, and we both agreed this is one of the maddening truths of dealing with high school graduates today: They simply do not believe us when we explain that they will fail our courses if they neglect to pay attention and do the work we have assigned.  

However, the sheer incredulity that I sometimes encounter when I explain to a young adult that they have flunked is perfectly understandable to me.  We are often today dealing with students who were pencil-whipped through their high school courses, offered phony-baloney credit recovery for those classes where they did not even bother to attend, and were generally taught nothing in K-12 other than that there is no actual consequence for steadfast ignorance.  Therefore, why should they believe that their college teacher has no intention for passing them just because they are carbon-based life forms?  Was this ever the case during their 13 year plod through public schooling?  

Probably not.

K-12 education in America is typical of most entrenched government bureaucracies: There is no connection at all between pay and performance.  In fact, given that school funding is typically tied to nothing other than mere daily attendance, there is truly no incentive for anyone to bother with teaching and learning.  Your local public school will get their cash from local taxes, state funding, and federal grants whether students are studying Calculus or sleeping through a film on penguin reproduction.  Outcomes have no real place in American public education; the point is to keep students in a seat so the funding keeps rolling in.  If youve ever wondered why 35 years of education reform has resulted in negligible results while costing taxpayers a small fortune, this is a good place to begin your inquiry.

This peculiar quirk of how we fund K-12 education perhaps helps to explain at least some portion of the attraction to our latest American educational fad: Restorative Justicediscipline in our public schools.  

Despite any reliable research to demonstrate the efficacy of this punishment-light approach to school discipline, one that exchanges suspensions and expulsions of troublemakers with methods more akin to plain wishful thinking, Restorative Justice—“RJin todays lingohas taken hold across the nation.  Aside from promising that a more nurturing and sensitive approach is somehow better than dealing forcefully with those who disrupt classes, instill fear, and injure others, this method also puts money directly into the pockets of any district that adopts it because students who are expelled or suspended do not count as being in attendance, which means the money that follows them in the door will not be forthcoming.  Consequently, RJ can be a moneymaker disguised as compassionalthough the compassion seems to extend not at all to the victims of the bullies, stalkers, and abusers who now need not fear many (if any) consequences for causing physical and emotional harm to others.

Forgiveness does, of course, have a place in the classroom because young people always make mistakes, which is the reason we place them under the care and supervision of adults, and learning from mistakes is a necessary part of emotional maturation and development.  

Therefore, public schools have an obligation to model and teach the necessity of engaging in respectful behavior, obeying reasonable rulesand accepting the punishment that follows if respect is not offered and rules are not followed.  The alternative is to enable the most selfish attitudes and the rudest possible behavior among our young, which is going to further harm these children and adolescents as they proceed through life and discover just how many doors are closed to them due to learning from their public schools that lashing out has no consequence attached.  Educators who tacitly encourage misbehavior by failing to nip it in the bud are actively harming the young people in their care, and parents should be appalled at what is being taught—or not being taught—to their children through the Restorative Justice model of school discipline.

The same misguided compassion(not to mention the same yearning for the cash tied to school attendance) that informs our nations misbegotten embrace of Restorative Justice also animates the continued movement toward dramatically reducingor outright banninghomework in our nations public schools.  Setting aside for a moment the boon these practices provide for classroom teachers who will no longer need to deal with stacks of assignments to grade, policies that reduce or eliminate homework also keep many students coming to school because the stress of the academic workload is dramatically lessened.  Everyone may enjoy the opportunity to relax more and study less, but the negative impacts are rarely discussed.

Although some argue that any policy that keeps students in school is most definitely a good one, it must be pointed out that actual learning requires mastering the skills necessary to study andwork independently.  Moreover, the complex and time-intensive assignments that are necessary in middle and high school to enable students to learn the higher level academic skills they will need later in lifeparticularly if college is part of their life plansimply cannot be squished into the confines of the regular school day.  Homework is a critical adjunct to classroom instruction, and the failure to learn how study and work independently perhaps helps to explain why 30% of college freshman across our nation do not return for their sophomore yearsthey are simply unable to sustain the study habits necessary for classroom success.  

Would assigning and grading homework in K-12 have helped the millions of students who will abandon higher education this year? Would abandoning Restorative Justice discipline policies improve our schools and help our students?  I would argue that the answer is yes to both questions, but I am certain the Education professors will continue to publish academic papers suggesting otherwise.  Why is this the case?  Darned if I know, but at least their learned studies provide plenty of cover for school districts who care more about the cash tied to attendance than providing safe and academically sound classrooms for our nations children.

The Roots of American Despair

We have long assumed that America is the “Land of Opportunity” for all. Our national belief that everyone is free to succeed—or fail—based on their hard work and personal initiative is a key component of both our self-perceptions and our perceptions of those around us.

However, international rankings of social mobility show that many other nations now surpass the United States in terms of their citizens being able to rise above the socio-economic classes of their births. This increasingly obvious disconnect between our preferred myth and harsh reality is likely one of the root causes of the political and social discontent that has pervaded our nation for many years. Americans, who are generally very hardworking, are perfectly willing to sweat and sacrifice—if there is a payoff. If, however, we are simply treading water or, worse yet, falling deeper into debt and dysfunction each day, our frustrations are likely to boil over.

Although there are many reasons for our extraordinarily divided politics, perhaps we fail to properly acknowledge the role of stagnated social mobility in driving American anger regarding our lives and our leaders. Whether it is the case that our futures are more and more being circumscribed by government that is too activist—or are harmed by government that is not activist enough—is a topic for a very long discussion that will likely do little to sway opinions entrenched on either side of this issue.

It can plausibly be argued that a great many problems that impede social mobility—rampant drug use, single parenthood, poor work habits, lack of personal initiative, the relocation of manufacturing jobs overseas, escalating public and private debts, and a disregard for personal responsibility—have been encouraged by government programs and policies that sometimes seem designed to produce the most destructive possible consequences for individuals and society. However, others argue that it is precisely a lack of more expensive and expansive government programs that leaves so many Americans without the tools they need to improve their lives.

Although I agree that we do sometimes need targeted programs to alleviate local and national problems—I would, for example, love to see more attention paid to our crumbling infrastructure—I also fear the many well-intentioned elected officials, bureaucrats, and policy wonks who seem to excel at producing the least possible benefit at the highest possible price. Anyone who has, as I have, watched a half-century of progressive educational dogma produce generation after generation of students who know very little—but feel really, really good about their ignorance—has to seriously question why any rational person would ever listen to a politician or PhD who claims to be able to improve our lives. Self-esteem, as I have often pointed out, can easily cross the line into self-delusion—and sheer stupidity is one of the most powerful precursors to lifelong poverty.

Access to a quality K-12 education—and the lack thereof—is both one of the persistent challenges now suppressing social mobility and a possible solution to this problem. Effective public schools are probably our single most important mechanism for promoting social mobility. Their continued failures over the past fifty years or so are both very visible and very depressing. We hear the outcome of public schools that fail to educate when employers consistently complain of high school graduates who lack the basic skills necessary for work. We see the consequences of public schools that fail to educate in our packed “developmental” classes at colleges and universities—and the many students who slink off after flunking out their freshman years because they lack the basic skills necessary for academic success.

If you want to cripple the futures of your nation’s people, just be certain they can neither read well, write fluently, nor compute accurately when they finish public school. Next offer them a vast array of social programs that discourage independence and encourage irresponsibility. Be certain that you also promote a range of government policies that drive well-paying jobs out of your communities and country while saddling everyone with frighteningly unsustainable levels of debt that will further retard economic growth and opportunity for all. Repeat this process year after year—and generation after generation—and watch Americans become more angry and less hopeful until they finally turn to drugs and alcohol to numb their pain. Does any of this sound at all familiar?

I don’t worry about Russia; I worry about our own government. Our leaders are much more likely than Vladimir Putin to destroy America—because they want so badly to justify their existence by “helping” us. However, given that the national unemployment rate is currently trending down to levels not seen in half a century, perhaps those who have had their lives sidetracked by decades of government assistance, which has primarily served to assist them into lives of quiet despair, will now have opportunities available to rejoin the labor force, develop a sense of self-confidence heretofore cruelly stripped from them, and begin to reduce some portion of the income inequality that is a legacy of so many decades of government help gone awry.