How Broke(n) Are We?

Some people worry about the threats to our nation posed by ISIS, China, or Russia; I worry about just what in the heck our elected officials are up to. Stuck between the sad tales of living in the Illinois limbo land of no bucks and that of our Washington legislators offering up a federal budget deal that piles another $474 billion onto our nearly $19 trillion of national debt, I believe that I can reasonably wonder whether those in charge have the very least clue that a fiscal disaster unparalleled in human history is now upon us.

What is also worrisome is that so many of our elected officials are apparently still gulping the Keynesian Kool-Aid when it comes to the canard that dumping truckloads of borrowed dollars into the economy will prompt growth. Let us be plan: forty years of deficit spending has taught us that it enriches a handful of insiders and leaves the rest of us with a nice fat bill to be paid. A jolt of deficit dollars is like banging down an entire bottle of rum—today’s hooting hilarity is tomorrow’s horrific hangover.

Of course, my old-fashioned sense of right and wrong may be leading me completely astray when it comes to our nation’s dire financial condition. Moreover, I may be completely incorrect regarding the intentions of our elected officials. Perhaps it is simply the case that our debts now so enormous that, like a massive snowball rolling downhill, they are going to engulf us no matter what we do—and those in charge know this to be true. Perhaps, if you are about to go under financially, a last minute spending spree makes perfect sense. After all, resolving to sober up after your liver is shot makes no absolutely sense if you are a career alcoholic; by the same token, deciding to max out your credit cards and have a stupendous party when your debts are crushing you may, in fact, make a certain amount of utterly perverse sense that one has to squint just a bit to fully appreciate.

Therefore, maybe the question we should now be asking is this: What is our nation going to look like the day after the money runs out? It could be that it will all work out reasonably well because the books will be wiped clean and a harmonious national “do-over” of fiscal renewal will ensue. However, it also may be the case that those with the most beans, bullets, and bottled water will be the ones who survive. All I can guarantee is that public and private pension funds, who are among the largest holders of municipal, state, and federal debt instruments, will start dropping like ripe apples from a tall tree. The unfortunate truth is that debt—and the promise to repay it—is by design someone else’s asset; if Puerto Rico’s current efforts to default on a large portion of their unsustainable debts are successful, expect a stampede for the courthouses of America as lawyers for both sides of the debtor/creditor equation go to war.

It bears repeating that a major contributing factor in the collapse of virtually every “invincible” nation-state in history has been as constant as the hubris and short-sightedness of those who allowed it: unsustainable public sector debt. We could take some comfort from the sad fact that many nations today are even worse off than ours, but this should perhaps instead be a source of keen concern. Nations hobbled by debt tend to withdraw from international commerce, and we are already seeing a stunning collapse in trade and shipping that may foreshadow a global slowdown that will engulf us all. When this occurs, expect an outcry for yet more poisonous stimulus that will create no long-term prosperity but will hobble our nation’s future with yet more crushing debts. As Winston Churchill once famously observed, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” How very true this is.

Given the circumstances in which we now find ourselves, perhaps the only sane response to this catastrophe is, odd as it may be, to engage in one last, insane orgy of borrowing and spending before the wheels of the global economy fall off completely and leave behind a dazed world of debtors.

Who knows?  Perhaps our nation’s leaders are actually smarter than they seem in this regard. Party on, Wayne! Party on, Garth!

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What Next For Illinois Schools?

The results of the first year of PARCC academic assessments in Illinois public schools that are aligned to the more rigorous Common Core Standards are now available – and the news is not good. The abysmally low proficiency percentages now posted for our state’s high school students – 19% in Math and 35% in English Language Arts – are quite disturbing. The bald fact is that very few of last year’s Illinois high school juniors were able to demonstrate they are actually college and career ready.

So here we are. Over the weeks and months ahead we will sift through the numbers and search for answers to why a broad swath of our soon-to-be high school graduates are soon to be enrolling in remedial reading, writing, and math courses when they start college – a fact that will both increase their student debt load and drastically lower their chances for college success.

I have an explanation to offer regarding the dismal outcomes now in front of us: too many of our state’s high school students are still being pencil-whipped through dumbed down curriculum and busywork assignments in order to raise the graduation percentages for local school districts. This is happening both because many state school officials are more interested in public relations than actual learning outcomes and local school administrators understand that nothing riles up local voters more than keeping Janie and Johnny off that graduation stage – even if they can barely read their high school diplomas. After all, what could be the possible harm in allowing them to receive their meaningless credentials?

This year’s Illinois PARCC Test results, which serve only to throw decades of concerns about both Illinois and U.S. public school outcomes into ever starker relief, also lead to a more provocative question: Are we dutifully paying our school taxes in order to support a broken system that is robbing our nation of any hope for a better economic future?

A very intriguing study recently carried out by the economists Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford and Ludger Woessmann and Jens Ruhose of the University of Munich suggests that educational improvements that would bring every U.S. student to the level of competency – or perhaps mastery – across all basic academic measures would add $32 to $76 trillion to our nation’s GDP over the next several decades. Imagine a country where the career aspirations of so many adults were not routinely hobbled by deficits in reading, writing, and math skills – the explosion of human potential that is now being wasted would be an economic miracle of the first order.

We, unfortunately, seem to continue to believe that substandard educational outcomes are inevitable – despite worldwide evidence to the contrary which amply demonstrates that students can routinely achieve much more than what we expect in American public schools. To placidly presume that American children and teenagers are less able than those living within the borders of virtually all of our major economic competitors surpasses all understanding.

After over thirty years of promised improvements, “edu-speak” blather, and hundreds upon hundreds of billions of public dollars spent, it is time to put the power to change our state’s public schools right where it should have been from the beginning: in the hands of parents and students.

I believe our best course of action is to actively explore ways to convert our state’s entire education system to school vouchers and thereby allow parents and students to choose any school – public, private, or religious – anywhere they want to attend. Student funding would, as is currently allowed to some degree in half the states in our nation, follow the student instead of being handed to local school districts, and the continued funding of that student in that particular school should be designed to be contingent on both their PARCC Test scores and school grades.

In other words, we would flip the responsibility for success more toward the student by making a very direct bargain the centerpiece of this reform: if you like the school you are attending and want to remain there as a student, you had better pay attention in class and do your homework.

Individual student funding levels and test score targets for retention at a school of choice still would need to be determined through our legislative process, but I believe this plan of action would be an important first step toward both empowering our students and putting the responsibility for their success squarely on their own shoulders. This would, moreover, provide school districts with a clear choice: improve instruction and measured student outcomes or watch your students go elsewhere for better teachers and curriculum.

The biggest question is, of course, whether bold action is possible in the face of the headwinds of partisan politics that protect the dysfunctional status quo at the expense of our students and our state’s future. This is, I am afraid, still a very open question, and I cannot help but wonder whether I will be re-running this very same commentary several decades down the road because we are still trapped in the same system – but still dreaming that the results will be different some day in the far, far distant future.

Recent Campus Unrest (Maybe) Could Be Beneficial

Like many Americans, I have watching the recent outbreak of campus protests with keen interest – and not a little concern.  The recent turmoil at the University of Missouri, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Yale University, my alma mater, and an ever growing list of campuses has gained particular attention due to cell phone videos that capture vitriolic interactions involving students, faculty, administrators, and the media.  The question is should we be celebrating the courage of students and faculty who are attempting to highlight persistent injustices or denigrating their message and methods?

One core problem that any campus protesters face is one of perception.  We instinctively react negatively when those whom we perceive to be in positions of great privilege are doing the protesting.  We see students and faculty shouting and marching on gorgeously appointed campuses and tend to shake our heads because they seem so spoiled and screechy.  To those who are simply trying to work and survive, it can sound very much like Hillary Clinton complaining about being “dead broke” or Donald Trump fussing about the property taxes on one of his mansions.  Add to this the smug certitude of youth and the often incredible insularity of academics – both spewing flame-throwing messages on social media that could at times benefit from a little forethought – and you are sure to raise the hackles of someone who has more experience with the messy, compromised world beyond the ivied walls of a college campus.

Nonetheless, it is necessary to parse out the message and listen to the frustrations of the protesters.  The horrid persistence of hate and the grim existence of want collide headlong with the perhaps unrealistic – but still laudable – idealism that is the hallmark of all youth.  Remember that we would be criticizing these same students for their apathy if they were exerting the same energy drinking and ignoring the many alarming problems in the world around them.  To cluck about coddled college students whose perceptions we believe have been skewed by a sense of victimhood and entitlement that many believe bears no relation to the reality outside the walls of their campuses seems both a bit churlish and terribly shortsighted.  After all, is it worse to care too much or care too little?  What are we to think about all of this energy and anger?

Perhaps, when all is said and done, the message is reasonable – but the methods are not.

To deny college students the opportunity to speak out about issues that concern them is to deny the core function of higher education, the open examination of ourselves and the world around us.  After all, injustices – economic, racial, and sexual to name just few – are everywhere.  To presume we are free from the bigotries that have haunted our history is simply wrong, and it is the duty of every American to continually ask ourselves how we can improve our nation and fulfill its highest ideals.

However, I believe that those students and faculty raging against poverty, war, and injustice must remember that it is both necessary and valuable to listen to viewpoints other than your own.  Anyone who insists that they – and only they – speak the truth is simultaneously demonstrating both their arrogance and laziness, and any notion that free speech must be suppressed or controlled in order for discussion to proceed is incredibly wrongheaded and dangerous.  Any belief is valuable and useful only to the extent that it can stand a cold blast of rigorous examination.  To blithely dismiss all who disagree with you as either bigots or fools is to betray your own inability to engage in reasoned debate.  An idea that cannot survive outside the hothouse environment of a “safe space” devoid of free and open discussion is likely to be nothing but an effete intellectual dead end that will result in nothing other than a dissertation no one will ever bother to read.

Finally, keep this in mind, campus protesters: ISIS and a host of other worldwide threats will not engage in mere micro-aggressions; their actions will, as we have already seen, be macro to the max.  This type of existential threat to freedom and democracy is perhaps the best reason of all to “privilege” free speech and open debate on all our campuses in pursuit of the common good, and we need to loudly insist that this be the foundation of all discussions regarding the form and future of our nation.

America’s “Can’t Do” Attitude

As anyone who has read any of my many commentaries has likely already guessed, I have a tremendous interest in the issues facing our world today—and I am ready for a good debate most any time someone else is willing to engage in a discussion devoid of the typical invective.  Although my obsessive writing—and far more obsessive reading—generally put me a good position to debate many issues on their merits, I find many opportunities for thoughtful discussion are more and more stymied by a single factor: pervasive pessimism regarding the possibilities for positive change in our nation.

One cause of this problem seems to spring from the belief that any changes are impossible because well-funded and media-savvy interest groups will defend their favorite programs and perks to the death—without the least regard for the well-being of our nation as a whole.  So many of my recent discussions with family and friends about how we might get America back on track end up dying on the same trump card: “[Fill in the Blank] will never allow that to happen.”

Have an idea about how to reduce income inequality?  “The 1% will never allow that to happen.”  Have an idea about improving public education?  “The teachers’ unions will never allow that to happen.”  Have an idea about reducing corporate welfare?  “Big corporations will never allow that to happen.”  I could provide additional examples, but you get the idea.

This weary cynicism about the capture of our political processes by myopic and well-funded single-interest lobbyists (thank you, Citizens United!) does not spring from thin air, and I must admit that I am not immune from the urge to throw up my own hands in despair.  It sometimes seems that all we have left in our nation’s capitols are a bunch of back-scratching buffoons who decide the fate of our country at ritzy resort retreats ringed by security guards.  The message to the average citizen is plain:  “Unless you have a few million dollars to hand over, don’t waste my time with your pipsqueak opinions.  I have rings to kiss and campaign donations to collect!”

Yet another source our pessimism seems to spring from our belated discovery that, as regards the ability of government to spend and spend, the party is definitely over.  Given that so many have spent decade upon decade believing that more government is the solution to every problem, I suppose that running out of money is a real downer for those who seek to improve our lives by raising our taxes.  Our collective imaginations are now so limited by our bureaucratic mindset that our range of options for almost every issue that confronts our nation has been ruthlessly narrowed to (a) spend money, (b) spend yet more money, or (c) impugn the character and values of those who no longer want to spend money.  I am not certain what the end game will be when our ability to tax and borrow finally comes to a cataclysmic end, but I know we can at least expect lots of shock and screaming.

Finally, we often find that our ability to change the course of our country runs—again and again—into yet another barrier: Special interest groups, corporate lobbyists, and unions have worked over the last half century to encase our national existence in a rubber room of regulations that protect the few at the expense of the many.  Every effort to effect changes (all of which can, of course, be viewed as either positive or negative—depending on your perspective) inevitably devolve into endless court battles.  I suppose that Washington’s bold crossing of the Delaware to defeat encamped British mercenaries at the Battle of Trenton violated overtime statutes, impinged upon somebody’s human rights, or inadvertently destroyed the habitat of some tadpoles—and I am eternally grateful he was not hauled into court to defend his actions through endless discovery, depositions, and administrative hearings.  However, now that the bedrock of our democracy is courtroom combat, the Father of Our Country might today need to first check with his team of attorneys before proceeding.

I wonder if we will be ready—or able—to cross our own “Delaware” when the time comes.  It is certain that we cannot continue as we are, but perhaps we are now too timid a people to get our feet wet—even though the boat is going down—and we prefer our leaders homogenized, sterilized, and smiling as we sink.

Are Big Changes Ahead?

I have to wonder if we are on the cusp of a watershed election next year.

I do not mean watershed as it pertains to a stupendous change in the form of big new government programs; Obamacare will likely go down in history as the last of its kind.  Whoever is elected next will be busy trying to keep the lights on in the face of ever increasing national debt that will be the dead weight of American political and economic life for decades to come.

I suspect the greater likelihood is that “confused” Americans–also known as those who are confounding the elites by rejecting the approved wisdom and supporting the likes of Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Ben Carson–are preparing to gleefully extend a middle finger to all those whose jobs consist of demanding our mute compliance with rules, regulations, “voluntary” guidelines, laws, and international trade agreements that strip us of all basic control over our own lives and livelihoods.  Watching grass roots movements from the Tea Party to Black Lives Matter seize the national podium on a daily basis and drive the discussion past the boundaries of what was once considered acceptable or reasonable, one cannot help but note that the connection between those who have ruled from on high for the past half century and those who are trying to work and raise families has frayed beyond all repair.

I suppose the question that might naturally follow is how is this different than other times of discontent in our nation’s history?  We are, after all, not on the brink of a civil war, no cities or government facilities are aflame, and we have, more often than not, continued to re-elect the very politicians we so claim to hate.  Therefore, isn’t this all just a bunch of fairly typical complaining amplified by social media and the 24 hour news cycle?

I must admit that I believe something fundamentally different is happening now, but to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, those whose paychecks depend on maintaining the status quo are simply unable to see it.

First of all, given how gerrymandering and campaign finance law are explicitly designed to protect incumbents, it is little wonder that so many legislators are re-elected.  However, the bolt out of the blue, big name defeats, such as that of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor last year seem to provide some bit of evidence that voters are just a tad annoyed with those in charge and ready to rumble if given the opportunity, which they will most certainly have in a Presidential election year.

In addition, the breathtaking influence of government in our day-to-day lives provides plenty of opportunity to anger the electorate.  If you sit down to think about it, there is scarcely an hour in our lives anymore when our mundane daily routine is not being monitored, regulated, or recorded by some level of government.  Given that we are all being reduced to data points to be controlled instead of citizens with the right to determine the courses of our own messy and unpredictable lives, it is sometimes difficult to remember that there was a world before Big Government / Big Brother.  Moreover, because marginally capable government functionaries and their contractors tend to kind of stink at the business of monitoring, regulating, and recording our lives in a manner that respects both our privacy and personal beliefs, opportunities abound to keep on stoking voter anger.

Finally, there is that pesky problem of debt.  For the last half century the deal has basically run as follows: We give you anything you want while allowing our buddies to (legally) skim a bit off the top, and you keep re-electing us with the promise that more goodies are yet to come.  However, now that virtually every level of government is laden with debt and unfunded pension and retirement obligations that beggar all belief, this business model is strained to the breaking point.  Indeed, the very notion that steep cutbacks in services and programs are on the horizon combined with the suggestion that promised pension and retirement benefits might need to be adjusted in order to keep those systems solvent seems to have been sufficient to drive those with a vested interest in the status quo into a tizzy of righteous indignation.

It should be an interesting year ahead.