Poor, poor, poor Bobo. He’s stuck with trying to make the best he can of Mittens, and it seems to be wearing thin. He has a question in “Thurston Howell Romney:” Did you hear about Mitt Romney’s comments from a fund-raiser earlier this year? They seemed to suggest that Romney doesn’t understand America. Bobo is shocked, SHOCKED I tell you, to learn this… Mr. Cohen, in “Never Wrong for Long,” looks at the perils of “churnalism” and the new Middle East. Mr. Nocera tells us “How to Fix the Schools,” and says in Chicago, they’re fighting over the wrong things. Just look at what the top-performing education systems do. Here’s Bobo:
In 1980, about 30 percent of Americans received some form of government benefits. Today, as Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute has pointed out, about 49 percent do.
In 1960, government transfers to individuals totaled $24 billion. By 2010, that total was 100 times as large. Even after adjusting for inflation, entitlement transfers to individuals have grown by more than 700 percent over the last 50 years. This spending surge, Eberstadt notes, has increased faster under Republican administrations than Democratic ones.
There are sensible conclusions to be drawn from these facts. You could say that the entitlement state is growing at an unsustainable rate and will bankrupt the country. You could also say that America is spending way too much on health care for the elderly and way too little on young families and investments in the future.
But these are not the sensible arguments that Mitt Romney made at a fund-raiser earlier this year. Romney, who criticizes President Obama for dividing the nation, divided the nation into two groups: the makers and the moochers. Forty-seven percent of the country, he said, are people “who are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to take care of them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”
This comment suggests a few things. First, it suggests that he really doesn’t know much about the country he inhabits. Who are these freeloaders? Is it the Iraq war veteran who goes to the V.A.? Is it the student getting a loan to go to college? Is it the retiree on Social Security or Medicare?
It suggests that Romney doesn’t know much about the culture of America. Yes, the entitlement state has expanded, but America remains one of the hardest-working nations on earth. Americans work longer hours than just about anyone else. Americans believe in work more than almost any other people. Ninety-two percent say that hard work is the key to success, according to a 2009 Pew Research Survey.
It says that Romney doesn’t know much about the political culture. Americans haven’t become childlike worshipers of big government. On the contrary, trust in government has declined. The number of people who think government spending promotes social mobility has fallen.
The people who receive the disproportionate share of government spending are not big-government lovers. They are Republicans. They are senior citizens. They are white men with high school degrees. As Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution has noted, the people who have benefited from the entitlements explosion are middle-class workers, more so than the dependent poor.
Romney’s comments also reveal that he has lost any sense of the social compact. In 1987, during Ronald Reagan’s second term, 62 percent of Republicans believed that the government has a responsibility to help those who can’t help themselves. Now, according to the Pew Research Center, only 40 percent of Republicans believe that.
The Republican Party, and apparently Mitt Romney, too, has shifted over toward a much more hyperindividualistic and atomistic social view — from the Reaganesque language of common citizenship to the libertarian language of makers and takers. There’s no way the country will trust the Republican Party to reform the welfare state if that party doesn’t have a basic commitment to provide a safety net for those who suffer for no fault of their own.
The final thing the comment suggests is that Romney knows nothing about ambition and motivation. The formula he sketches is this: People who are forced to make it on their own have drive. People who receive benefits have dependency.
But, of course, no middle-class parent acts as if this is true. Middle-class parents don’t deprive their children of benefits so they can learn to struggle on their own. They shower benefits on their children to give them more opportunities — so they can play travel sports, go on foreign trips and develop more skills.
People are motivated when they feel competent. They are motivated when they have more opportunities. Ambition is fired by possibility, not by deprivation, as a tour through the world’s poorest regions makes clear.
Sure, there are some government programs that cultivate patterns of dependency in some people. I’d put federal disability payments and unemployment insurance in this category. But, as a description of America today, Romney’s comment is a country-club fantasy. It’s what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other. It reinforces every negative view people have about Romney.
Personally, I think he’s a kind, decent man who says stupid things because he is pretending to be something he is not — some sort of cartoonish government-hater. But it scarcely matters. He’s running a depressingly inept presidential campaign. Mr. Romney, your entitlement reform ideas are essential, but when will the incompetence stop?
His “entitlement reform ideas” are appalling, and his incompetence is a feature, not a bug. Does that answer your question, Bobo, honey? Here’s Mr. Cohen:
A colleague from a TV news network was telling me the other day that its informal slogan was now “Never wrong for long.” News goes on air as it emerges in a furious competitive scramble, and then if it proves inaccurate it is supplanted rather than corrected.
That, I guess, is what is meant by the new “churnalism.” So intense is the churn that nothing has much weight. Accuracy sometimes seems a quaint journalistic concept. As for truth, it belongs to a distinct moral universe.
On the 11th anniversary of 9/11 the Middle East has erupted, driven by a meme — one of those notions that spreads across the new media ecosystem at lightning speed once a spark has been provided, in this case a pitiful porn-like trailer for a movie in which the Prophet Muhammad appears as a highly sexed buffoon.
The movie was initially attributed to a Jew who proved not to exist although he had given interviews to The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal. It was later found to be the work of right-wing Christians in California, one a convicted felon. They were aided by a member of the Coptic diaspora in Washington who managed to propel a clip onto a popular Salafist TV station in Cairo, setting off riots across the Islamic world that drove up the clicks for the trailer on YouTube. Suddenly “Innocence of Muslims” was trending.
The whole thing sounds like a bad churnalistic joke. But of course people are dead and the least funny aspect is this really is the world we live in. (The offending video almost makes one nostalgic for the time a century ago when conflagrations were set off not by meta-events but by something as tangible as Gavrilo Princip’s bullet.)
Argument now rages over whether U.S. diplomats killed in the convulsion were the victims of a planned or spontaneous assault or some combination of the two. In Republican eyes, the more planned the killing was the more President Obama is at fault. The facts, as Mitt Romney’s various hallucinogenic outbursts on the subject illustrate, are secondary to the agenda.
Before I get to what all this says about the new Middle East, a little more on the new media landscape.
In a hyperconnected world possibilities increase for a minority of extremists to manipulate the moderate middle: Look at what a handful of idiots in California helped ignite.
But memes don’t just happen through curious symbiosis. As Evgeny Morozov, the author of “The Net Delusion,” told me, “It’s not necessarily true that memes are born rather than made.” In this case, a ferociously anti-Islamic Copt named Morris Sadek labored hard to interest an Egyptian journalist in the movie; only then did the infernal cascade begin.
New media often need the help of mainstream media before viral critical mass is achieved. Once it is, the algorithms kick in. Outfits like YouTube are agnostic intermediaries. They want, as Morozov put it, “more clicks, more traffic, more knowledge about viewers and so more advertising.”
And here we are after a week of engineered tumult. The right thinks its case is proved: “You see, we told you so, the Arab Spring was a false dawn. Muslims are incapable of democracy. They are all anti-Western fanatics. Obama was wrong to support the democratic transformation that has brought Islamic parties to power.”
The White House is on the defensive; it even requested at one point that Google, the parent of YouTube, consider removing the movie — an ill-considered request wisely resisted. Free speech is meaningless if it does not extend even to views that are loathsome.
In fact the violence does not change the critical evolution underway in the Arab world, one that needed more support from Obama, not less. Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian president, was slow to react to violence. But it is far better to have his Muslim Brotherhood grappling with Islamic extremists than an isolated U.S.-backed dictator; and the debate now raging from Cairo to Tunis — a debate that would have been impossible before the Arab Spring — is a necessary part of the slow evolution of societies from terrorist-breeding passivity to citizen-breeding agency.
This change is generational. The folly of this September may be viewed one day as part of the evolution of the Brotherhood toward the conservative pragmatism that has served Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development well in Turkey.
That, I know, is an optimistic scenario. Memes have their own destructive energy. Listen to Benjamin Netanyahu on CNN eliding the truth for maximum panic: “All the things that you see now in these mobs storming the American embassies is what you will see with a regime that would have atomic bombs. You can’t have such people have atomic bombs.”
Who are “such people”? No matter that these were Arabs, not Iranians. No matter that they were far from Tehran. No matter that Persians despise Arabs and vice-versa. Netanyahu understands marketing: keep it simple in a hyperconnected age because you won’t be wrong for long — and the dead can’t issue a correction.
Don’t get me started on Netanyahu… Now here’s Mr. Nocera:
No matter how quickly the Chicago teachers’ strike ends, whether it is this afternoon or two months from now, it’s not going to end well for the city’s public school students. Yes, I know; that’s the hoariest of clichés. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
It’s not just the school days that are being lost. Far more important, the animosity between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his administration will undoubtedly linger long after the strike ends. The battle will end, but the war between education reformers and urban public schoolteachers will go on.
Teachers — many of them — will continue to resent efforts to use standardized tests to measure their ability to teach. Their leaders — some of them — will denounce the “billionaire hedge fund managers” who are financing many of the reform efforts. Reformers will continue to view teachers’ unions as the greatest roadblock to higher student achievement. How can such a poisonous atmosphere not affect what goes on in the classroom? Alienated labor is never a good thing. “It is not possible to make progress with your students if you are at war with your teachers,” says Marc Tucker.
Tucker, 72, a former senior education official in Washington, is the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, which he founded in 1988. Since then he has focused much of his research on comparing public education in the United States with that of places that have far better results than we do — places like Finland, Japan, Shanghai and Ontario, Canada. His essential conclusion is that the best education systems share common traits — almost none of which are embodied in either the current American system or in the reform ideas that have gained sway over the last decade or so. He can sound frustrated when he talks about it.
“We have to find a way to work with teachers and unions while at the same time working to greatly raise the quality of teachers,” he told me recently. He has some clear ideas about how to go about that. His starting point is not the public schools themselves but the universities that educate teachers. Teacher education in America is vastly inferior to many other countries; we neither emphasize pedagogy — i.e., how to teach — nor demand mastery of the subject matter. Both are a given in the top-performing countries. (Indeed, it is striking how many nonprofit education programs in the U.S. are aimed at helping working teachers do a better job — because they’ve never learned the right techniques.)
What is also a given in other countries is that teaching has a status equal to other white-collar professionals. That was once true in America, but Tucker believes that a quarter-century of income inequality saw teachers lose out at the expense of lawyers and other well-paid professionals. That is a large part of the reason that teachers’ unions have become so obstreperous: It is not just that they feel underpaid, but they feel undervalued. Tucker believes that teachers should be paid more — though not exorbitantly. But making teacher education more rigorous — and imbuing the profession with more status — is just as important. “Other countries have raised their standards for getting into teachers’ colleges,” he told me. “We need to do the same.”
Second, he believes that it makes no sense to demonize unions. “If you look at the countries with the highest performance, many of them have very strong unions. There is no correlation between the strength of the unions and student achievement,” he says.
Instead, he points to the example of Ontario, where a decade ago, a new government decided to embrace the teachers’ unions — to treat them as partners instead of as adversaries. The result? Ontario now has some of the best student achievement in the world. (Alas, relations between teachers and the government have recently deteriorated after a two-year wage freeze was imposed.)
High-performing countries don’t abandon teacher standards. On the contrary. Teachers who feel part of a collaborative effort are far more willing to be evaluated for their job performance — just like any other professional. It should also be noted that none of the best-performing countries rely as heavily as the U.S. does on the blunt instrument of standardized tests. That is yet another lesson we have failed to learn.
The Chicago teachers’ strike exemplifies, in stark terms, how misguided the battle over education has become. The teachers are fighting for the things industrial unions have always fought for: seniority, favorable work rules and fierce resistance to performance measures. City Hall is fighting to institute reforms no top-performing country has ever seen fit to use, and which probably won’t make much difference if they are instituted.
The answer lies elsewhere — in a different approach to teaching education and to dealing with the unions. It won’t be easy, but it is not impossible. It’s the way forward.
Want a novel approach to improving public schools? Try FUNDING them. I know — unthinkable, right?