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The Dangers of Wealth Inequality

Abe Lincoln reading, illustration from Children’s Weekly Reader, drawing by Paula Hutchinson, from Gutenberg Project.

One of the important ideas in Capital In the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty is that wealth inequality supports the domination of public policy by the rich for their own benefit, without any regard to the damage to society. One way to think about that danger is to ask what the richest 50K households want from all their money. Northwestern Professor Jeffrey Winters writes about the three goals of the oligarchy: wealth preservation, freedom to use their wealth as they see fit, and freedom to pile up more money. We continuously see the first goal in action, for example, in the millions the creepy Walton heirs have spend trying to destroy the Estate Tax lest their precious spawn lose a penny of their inherited wealth. We know something about the efforts of the Koch Brothers to use their wealth in furtherance of the third goal, to make the state and federal regulatory system compliant with their desire to make tons more money. We rarely talk about the second goal, freedom to play with their wealth as they choose.

A lot of these hyper-rich people think making or inheriting a fortune qualifies them to run other segments of the public sector. Sheldon Adelson, the gambling billionaire, thinks he should be able to define US policy towards Israel. Others think they can run public education, regardless of their lack of experience or knowledge of the area. Here’s a small part of a long report in Jacobin Magazine by Beth Sondel & Joseph L. Boselovic on the charter school takeover in New Orleans, discussing the lives of kids at a charter school run under the rubric No Excuses, a project largely staffed by Teach For America:

Silence seemed to be especially important in the hallways. At the sound of each bell at the middle school, students were expected to line up at “level zero” [utterly silent] with their faces forward and hands behind their backs and, when given permission, step into the hallway and onto strips of black duct tape. There they waited for the command of an administrator: “Duke, you can move to your next class! Tulane, you can walk when you show me that you are ready!”

Students then marched until they reached the STOP sign on the floor, where their teacher checked them for hallway position before giving them permission to continue around the corner. Throughout this process, students moved counter-clockwise around the perimeter of the hallway (even if they were going to a classroom one door to the left).

This system of control was administered through intricate systems of reward and punishment.

The article makes it seem that the educational goal of the teachers is to control the body of the child, and then to pour education into the stilled body like filling an empty glass from the teacher’s pitcher. The authors don’t think the system is working as a model for actual education.

What then is the purpose of exercising this level of control of the bodies of the children? What is the most likely outcome of this education? In law, we say that people are deemed to intend the expected outcome of their actions. If they aim a gun at another person and pull the trigger, we say they intended to shoot the person. In the same way, we would say that the teachers at this charter school intend the likely outcome of their behavior. The writers say:

At best, the “No Excuses” approach attempts to develop within students the compliant dispositions necessary to accept and work within the status quo.

That is contrasted with the writer’s suggestion that “… the purpose of schooling goes beyond raising test scores, and is in fact tied to preparing citizens to engage in and deepen our democracy…”. These charter schools are funded by corporations and by the foundations established by the filthy rich. Teach For America is funded by the same groups. The teaching techniques and the control techniques are designed and taught by professionals. What kind of results do these corporations and rich people want from these schools? What characteristics to they want in their fellow citizens, and in their employees and customers? Perhaps compliant is a good description?

I think it’s worse. Hidden below the surface of the alleged pedagogical surface, and the compliant persona level, there is another level. I think that these teachers do not see these kids as growing and maturing humans, but as objects to be manipulated to achieve the goals of the teachers and their bosses. I think the control techniques are the point. The point is to control the bodies of the children, and everything else is secondary to that goal.

Here’s what the writers say about the teachers in the schools they observed:

With limited public oversight and transparency, these CMOs and independent charter schools also have stronger control over personnel — teachers unions are virtually non-existent post-Katrina — which diminishes the ability of professional educators to shape the daily experiences of students and staff and heightens labor exploitation. Teachers often work over seventy hours a week, getting to school before seven in the morning and working through the day, sometimes without bathroom breaks, until they return home to grade papers and answer student phone calls until nine in the evening.

The bosses control the teachers, just exactly as the teachers control the children. The teachers are no more autonomous agents than the children. How many people have jobs like these teachers and students? How many people lead lives under control of their bosses, whether it’s the inconsistent scheduling of work hours, demands about dressing, demands about physical activities, minute control over bathroom breaks, firing for minor infractions and the rest. How many of us willingly turn over large portions of our supposedly off-hours to extra production for the boss? What is it that drives the filthy rich to assert this kind of control over the bodies of others?

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I read a lot of books.