Monday, September 27, 2010

Assault on a Public Good

Since at least the Reagan administration and before, conservative zealots in this nation have been hard at work trying to dismantle government and all it stands for. Attacks on the EPA, the FDA, social security, and most regulatory agencies have become standard fare. In recent years, though, the most sustained attack has targeted public education—witness the school districts in Washington, DC, New Orleans after Katrina, and New York City under Michael Bloomberg. With Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the rallying cry of “accountability” has been codified into a mantra that Democrats, including President Obama, have slavishly echoed.

Now we have a book that tells us what all this has been about, and it is not pretty. Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, goes behind the scenes to explain the programs, the facts, and the failure of charter schools, testing regimes, and much more. If you’re at all interested in education (and what is a democracy without an educated electorate?), it’s a must-read. Ravitch might seem an unlikely critic of these conservative dogmas, because she’s been on the conservative side for years. She supported the takeover of the NY Public Schools, NCLB, charter schools and all the rest. But to her credit, she stopped to examine the data and, horrified by what she found, has written a stinging criticism of the whole mess. Whether it will stop the train wreck that’s coming is something else, but this is a noble effort.

To begin with, let’s be clear: conservative Republican hatred for the public schools has its roots in racism (and classism). That’s what the public schools signify: mixed-race classes, busing, early childhood education to compensate for years of discrimination, and teachers’ unions encouraging black and brown people to enter the education workforce. Vouchers were an attempt to have government pay for private schools—“school choice” in their lingo—which was a thinly-disguised way to get separate-but-equal back. It was also a convenient way to get god back in the classroom, and godless evolution out. But vouchers were too transparently discriminatory. So the always-busy conservatives came up with charter schools and now NCLB, and that seems to be working. If, that is, you can call destroying public education “working.”

Ravitch slams NCLB from several angles (and isn’t it strange that anyone expected George W. Bush, one of the dumbest men ever to sit in the White House, to come up with a plan to improve public schools?) To begin with, NCLB never refers to what students should learn, i.e. there’s no curriculum in it at all. That’s left up to each state. All NCLB did was demand that schools produce higher test scores, proficiency, in basic skills—math and reading. Even so, proficiency might seem a reasonable goal until one realizes that the states are left to determine what “proficiency” means as well. All they are told is that their schools have to show regular increases in proficiency (average yearly progress or AYP), until—and this is the laughable part—in 2014 all schools in all states produce students who are fully proficient. If schools fail to show AYP, or, in 2014 fail to show full proficiency (fully mastering the grade standards) for ALL students, they will be closed, teachers will be fired, principals will lose their jobs, and “some—perhaps many—public schools will be privatized.” According to Ravitch, this is an impossible goal. But there’s more:

the most dangerous potential effect of the 2014 goal is that it is a timetable for the demolition of public education in the United States….indeed, scores of schools in New York City, Chicago, Washington DC, and other districts were closed because they were unable to meet the unreasonable demands of NCLB. Superintendents in those districts boasted of how many schools they had closed, as if it were a badge of honor rather than an admission of defeat. 204.

Now one might think, well, those schools in those districts were ‘bad’ schools and deserved to be closed. But Ravitch has the facts:

…In the year 2006-2007, 25,000 schools did not make AYP. In 2007-2008, the number grew to nearly 30,000, or 35.6 percent of all public schools. That number included more than half the public schools in Massachusetts, whose students scored highest in the nation on the rigorous tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)….To date, there is no substantial body of evidence that demonstrates that low-performing schools can be turned around by any of the remedies prescribed in the law. Converting a “failing” school to a charter school or handing it over to private management efforts offers no certainty that the school will be transformed into a successful school. 204.
So what can we expect from public schools and states put under this kind of gun (“in 2008, a team of researchers funded by the National Science Foundation predicted that by 2014, nearly 100% of California’s elementary schools would fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress”)? You guessed it, they will cheat. States, that is, define “proficiency” themselves. So a state like Mississippi recently claimed that 89% of its fourth graders were at or above proficiency in reading, but, according to a national test given by NAEP, only 18% were proficient. How does this happen? The variety of ways to cheat is impressive. First of all, under the testing regime, teachers are incentivized to teach to the test (in some cases, this means actually giving the children practice in the actual test they will take.) Second, states change both the tests (making them easier) and the scoring required for “proficiency,” to make it easier to pass the tests. This is what New York State did. So,

Between 2006, when the state introduced a new test, and 2009, the proportion of students in grades 3 through 8 who reached proficiency on the state math test leapt from 28.6% to an incredible 63.3% in Buffalo, from 30.1% to 58.2% in Syracuse, and from 57% to 81.8% in New York City….But in reality, state officials made it easier to pass the tests. In 2006, a student in 7th grade was required to get 59.6% of the points on the test to meet state standards in math; by 2009, a student in that grade needed only 44% to be considered proficient. 157.

The same thing is documented in Chicago—where Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, took credit for huge increases in scores. You get the picture: if you can’t make the grade, cheat. One wonders how teachers in such a system can urge students to be honest when cheating reigns all up and down the line. As Ravitch concludes: “This sort of fraud (fiddling with scores, teaching to the test) ignores the students’ interests while promoting the interests of adults who take credit for nonexistent improvements.”

Perhaps the most alarming news in Ravitch’s book comes from her chapter called “The Billionaire Boys’ Club.” This refers to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart) and the Broad Foundation, among others, who are now pouring billions of dollars into the effort to change American education in the ways noted above. The basic idea of these “venture philanthropies” is to reform education to mimic the business model that made them their money: schools should be accountable (or be closed, or fired), should advance school choice (charter schools or vouchers), be competitive as in business, and move towards privatization as a final goal. In this effort, they fund charter schools (many run as private enterprises by people who know nothing about education; in that regard, the foundations have funded the hiring and mayhem of “chancellors” such as Joel Klein, a lawyer, in New York and Michelle Rhee, with two years with Teach-for-America and no education training, in Washington DC) that will compete with the public schools. The irony, pointed out by Ravitch, is massive:

There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in a common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions…The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one…They are bastions of unaccountable power. 200-01.

She also quotes the Broad Foundation: “We don’t know anything about how to teach or reading curriculum or any of that. But what we do know about is management and governance.”

There is much more in this crucial book. It deserves to be read and brought to the attention of all legislators, including the President himself—who, as Ravitch points out bitterly, has “warmly endorsed” the Gates-Broad agenda by hiring Arne Duncan, one of the biggest beneficiaries of foundation money when he headed the Chicago public schools. Not surprisingly, and despite his hype, the schools there are still failing. Thousands more will be put on the chopping block in 2014 when NCLB comes due. Which will be nothing less than a tragedy, this death of American public schools, for, as Ravitch points out, going to school is not like shopping: “Schools are not businesses; they are a public good.” Privatizing them makes about as much sense as privatizing police and fire departments. What should be attended to is not testing, but what is being taught—the curriculum. One of the few states that does this is Massachusetts, and its students have the “highest academic performance in the nation on the NAEP and rank near the top when compared to their peers in other nations.” In other words, we know how it should be done, and it is not by testing, not by privatizing, not by killing public education in America. Most decidedly, it is not by letting the worst boondoggle in education history, the NCLB, to come to its bloody fruition. Look to it.

Lawrence DiStasi

The Fallout of War

Two books I’ve read recently have led to my musings on the fallout from humanity’s favorite pastime—and I don’t mean the obvious stuff like thousands of deaths, more thousands with absent limbs or battered brains, and still more with PTSD and other anti-social maladies. I’m talking about the lovely by-products of war which shape our societies for years afterwards. Jaron Lanier in his recent book, You Are Not a Gadget, for example, points out that modern computers were developed to guide missiles and break secret military codes. He lumps chess and computers as having derived from violence and competition. Even more specific, however, is Sandra Steingraber’s Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment (first published 1997; recently expanded and reissued). There she points out the often-direct relationship between war innovations and the chemicals that cause cancer. In commenting about the steep rise in lymphomas, for example, she writes that they seem to be correlated with exposure to synthetic chemicals, “especially a class of pesticides known as phenoxy herbicides.” And where did these originate? They were “born in 1942 as part of a never-implemented plan by the U.S. military to destroy rice fields in Japan” (52). Never implemented, of course, because we dropped two atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki instead. Nonetheless, the chemicals referred to are the now-infamous 2,4,5-T (2,4,5 trichlorophenoxyacetic acid) and 2,4-D (2,4, dichlorophenoxyacetic acid). In combination, they are known as Agent Orange, which the military was finally able to use in Vietnam between 1962 and 1970, and which contributed to uncounted deaths among Vietnamese, and a still rising incidence of non-Hodgkins lymphomas and lesser ailments among American veterans of Vietnam. The combination was outlawed in 1970, but one of the pair, 2,4-D is still in use, having become one of our most popular domestic weed killers for lawns, gardens, golf courses and farm fields. Its use on lawns may be one of the reasons why so many of our dogs—rolling happily in our chemicalized lawns--have been contracting lymphomas.

More generally, war provides industry, including the chemical industry, with a wonderful testing ground for all kinds of products. And when the war is over, those products find a new home in our homes. Steingraber again points out that after 1940,

…synthetic organic chemical production [doubled] every seven to eight years. By the end of the 1980s, total production had exceeded 200 billion pounds per year. In other words, production of synthetic organic chemicals increased 100-fold between the time my mother was born and the year I finished graduate school. Two human generations (90.)

These “synthetic organics” are marvelous little concoctions, perfectly designed, because of their similarity to our natural body chemicals, to react with us, but different enough to be hard to excrete. And what they do? “Some interfere with our hormones, some cripple the immune system, and some overstimulate the activity of certain enzymes.” And they are associated with what the World Health Organization concluded are the “80% of all cancers attributable to environmental influences.” Yes, you read that correctly: 80%.

Why don’t we know this? Why isn’t someone investigating this stuff? That’s the job Steingraber assumed. And her conclusions are not encouraging. First of all, cancer is not some random misfortune; it is specific in that fully “one-half of all the world’s cancers occur among people living in industrialized countries…especially North America and Northern Europe. Breast cancer rates are 30 times higher in the U.S. than in parts of Africa.” The places, in other words, where the fallout from two world wars and countless smaller ones has been greatest. Among them are those chemicals we’ve been hearing about recently, the estrogen mimickers which, “at a low level inside the human body mimic the female hormone estrogen.” Regarding this estrogenic fallout of war, Steingraber then gives us this zinger:

Many of the hypermasculine weapons of conquest and progress are, biologically speaking, emasculating (109.)

Read that again. And then consider further facts: In 1939 (i.e., pre-WWII) there were a mere 32 pesticidal active ingredients registered with the federal government, while

At present, 860 active ingredients are so registered and are formulated into 20,000 different pesticidal products. Current U.S. annual use is estimated at 2.23 billion pounds….82% of U.S. households use pesticides of some kind….Between 45,000 and 100,000 chemicals are now in common commercial use…Of these only about 1.5 to 3% (1200 to 1500 chemicals) have been tested for carcinogenicity. (95 & 97).

You get the picture. We are being bathed in a chemical soup (much of our drinking water is also contaminated; worse, the effects of bathing and showering in such water may be as bad or worse than drinking it, so don’t count on bottled water) whose effects are unknown to us because governments pass laws that sound good, but lack implementation. For example, in Illinois, Steingraber’s home state, the legislature passed a Health and Hazardous Substances Registry Act but though the State Cancer Registry compiles cancer deaths, it does nothing to try to correlate these deaths with exposure to hazardous substances: the state funded the cancer registry, but not a hazardous substances registry. In fact, from the data that Steingraber compiles, it is clear that a concerted effort has been made to keep the environmental causes of cancer out of the public’s consciousness.

This is clear from Steingraber’s rundown of the information on cancer prevention. There’s the much-heralded “war on cancer.” There are marches on behalf of funding for breast cancer and other cancer research. But with regard to causes, the onus is placed on—your guessed it—the victims. DNA, we are told, will solve the cancer puzzle because cancer is hereditary (you got it from your parents.) Or it’s your lifestyle that’s at fault: eat less fats, eat vegetables, don’t smoke, get lots of exercise. After that, if you still get cancer, it’s your own fault. But what Steingraber points out (with some suppressed fury, for she herself got bladder cancer in her teens), is that hereditary cancers are rare: “Collectively, fewer than 10% of all malignancies are thought to involve inherited mutations.” That leaves 85 to 90% unaccounted for; and thus likely due to environmental influences. It also leaves 30% to 40% of Americans due to get cancer in their lifetimes.

What are those environmental influences? Consider the class of chemicals called “triazines.” These must be some of the most diabolic substances ever conceived. Why? Because some of these emissaries from hell actually “strike directly at the process by which plants use sunlight to transform water and carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen.” That is, they block the most fundamental process in life—photosynthesis—the process whereby earth produces plants not only to eat, but to be used as food by herbivores upon whom we depend for meat and dairy products as well. In short, the entire food chain. Imagine this! Aside from the question (which is all the pooh-bahs would like to consider) of whether such chemicals cause cancer, consider, as Steingraber puts it, “the wisdom of broadcasting over the landscape (atrazine is one of the top two most widely used pesticides in U.S. agriculture) chemicals that extinguish the miraculous fact of photosynthesis—which after all, furnishes us our sole supply of oxygen” (160). I mean, if this be not madness, what is? Soluble in water, traces of atrazine have now been found in ground water, 98% of surface waters in the Midwest, and in raindrops. Meanwhile, the EPA dithers and delays, no doubt influenced by mega-farmers and the chemical industry, to the point that 30 years from the time they were introduced, we still do not know the cancer risks of triazines coating our corn, our peaches, our plums, our apples, our cherries, peaches, cranberries, blueberries, strawberries, grapes and pears. Not to mention the long-term effects of interfering with photosynthesis (algae are also affected).

There’s more in this courageous, disturbing book, and I haven’t even looked at the updated edition. Read it if you dare. And the truth is, we all need to dare, or have our lives controlled by the conscienceless hucksters who now drive our agriculture, our household cleaning habits, our drinking water, our immune systems, our entire way of life. DuPont used to have a commercial slogan: “Better things, for better living…through chemistry.” We don’t hear that too much anymore. I wonder why.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Toxicity on Wall Street

A couple of recent pieces on the late financial debacle have me puzzling over this stuff again—mostly because I still understand little of it (the big boys, naturally, like it that way). But here goes.

Too Big to Fail is a 2009 book by reporter Andrew Sorkin treating the agonizing days in September 2008 when the system almost collapsed. It’s a fascinating read, if for nothing else than the fact that it familiarizes us with the major mandarins of finance and government. We become chummy with then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and NY Fed chairman Tim Geithner, the latter now Obama’s Treasury Secretary. Of the two, Paulson comes off as the better man—more capable, more sensitive to the personalities he had to deal with (and therefore more respected by them), more concerned to save the system. Geithner strikes us as a bit of a tyrant, jealous of his perks, prone to order his bankers to jump through the hoops he has set for them. Paulson, by contrast, always solicits the ideas of those he tries to persuade. We also get the feeling that the entire ordeal—having to bail out the free-market system he was and is so much a part of—was one Paulson would have avoided if he could. He was perfectly happy as CEO of Goldman Sachs. As Treasury Secretary, on the other hand, he has to persuade, cajole, and take crap from Congress; at various points, we are told that he actually vomits from the political tension he is under. No wonder. If all reports are to be believed, the financial system was on the very brink of collapse. The way Sorkin tells the story also indicates that the renowned TARP bailout of major financial institutions was actually a political/psychological ploy meant to calm markets and the American people—a plan that forced nine major banks to accept an infusion of billions of dollars each, whether they needed it or not. Many did: Citibank, Morgan Stanley, and AIG. Others, especially Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo, did not. But in order to create the illusion of equality and stability, Paulson’s plan required all banks to accept the money.

The story begins with the impending collapse of Lehman Brothers. We feel almost sorry for the CEO, Dick Fuld, who had spent his life building the firm, and who, until the very end, thinks he can work a deal to get another bank to rescue his. Such a buyout is what Geithner and Paulson spend most of their time trying to arrange. But Lehman’s problems, coming after the bailout of Bear Stearns, suffered from bad timing: the public was already alarmed by the first bailout and it was clear another would ignite a firestorm of protest. So Lehman’s failure was political as much as financial. Indeed, one of the failings of this book is that we never really get a clear explanation of why any of these financial giants was hemorrhaging so badly. We learn about the fall in their stock prices; we hear that the “short sellers” are driving their price down; but we don’t really quite understand what the root problems or mistakes are. What we get mostly are vignettes dramatizing little episodes in the long series of near-mergers and deal collapses. Some of these vignettes are telling: Bob Diamond, CEO of Barclay’s Bank, approached by Geithner to buy Lehman, wants the Federal Reserve to guarantee the deal (it is amazing to realize how alergic these financial “geniuses” are to the free market economics they’re always preaching).

“We need to be seen, to be invited by you and shepherded by you,” Diamond insisted. “You guys asked me if there was a price at which we’d be interested and you asked me, if so, ‘What do you need?’ That doesn’t mean I’m gonna call Fuld. That’s completely different.”
Giethner, growing frustrated with his equivocation, asked again, “Why can’t you just call Fuld? Why can’t you do it?”
“I’m not going to ask a guy if I can buy him, you know, at a distressed price,” Diamond said. “It only works if you guys are looking to arrange a deal. If you’re not, fine, no hard feelings, we’re okay.”

Then comes Sorkin’s comment:

However much Barclays may have wished to avoid giving the impression that they might be taking advantage of someone else’s misfortune, it was, of course, precisely what they were seeking to do. (p. 262)

This is really the key to the entire skein of deals and deal-making that Sorkin portrays. All these pooh bahs knew each other, played golf with each other, sat on boards together, had dinners together (at the finest restaurants on the planet, of course). They wanted to appear to be friends; but, in fact, they were sharks, circling each other, keen always to detect the smell of blood from a wounded competitor.

Unfortunately, during those terrible days of September, there was a lot of blood in the water. Once Lehman was allowed to fail, fear ruled Wall Street and Washington as well. No one knew who would be next because all the firms were interrelated financially. AIG had written enormous amounts of insurance—credit default swaps—for Goldman Sachs and others. If banks tried to collect on these insurance policies, which many did, AIG was going down. It was this domino of collapses that Paulson and Geithner, in Sorkin’s telling, were so desperate to prevent. At one point, before Paulson promoted his TARP program, we listen in on one of his conversations with Steve Schwarzman, chair of private-equity giant, the Blackstone Group. Schwarzman says:

“I have to tell you, the system’s going to collapse in the next few days. I doubt you’re going to be able to open the banks on Monday….People are shorting financial institutions, they’re withdrawing money from brokerage firms because they don’t want to be the last people in—like in Lehman—which is going to lead to the collapse of Goldman and Morgan Stanley. Everybody is just pursuing his self-interest,” Schwarzman told him. “You have to do something.” (emphasis mine).

What strikes me here is the language: Everybody is pursuing his self-interest. Well now, isn’t that a damn shame! These are the people who have raised the individual pursuit of self-interest to the level of holy dogma: this is what makes capitalism, free markets great. But when it happens within the club, when the dogs turn on each other, then they cry foul! You have to do something! And of course, Paulson did do something, for it was right after this that he put together, and rammed through Congress, the TARP bailout program.

This is fascinating stuff. We actually find ourselves rooting for the Treasury Department, for financial leaders like Dick Fuld, to succeed. I liken this feeling to the similar feeling one gets when watching mafia movies: no matter how heinous their behavior, we root for the characters who are portrayed from the inside as protagonists. Their cause becomes our cause. Sadly, what Too Big to Fail leaves out are the series of fraudulent, near-criminal activities that led these Wall Street powerhouses to run aground: the sub-prime mortgages, the collateralized debt obligations, the credit default swaps, all the exotic instruments whereby they and their executives enriched themselves to obscene levels, and brought the entire financial system and the economy it supports to near ruin. A recent article, “Banks Self-Dealing Super-Charged Financial Crisis,” indicates just how culpable these guys were. What the analysis by ProPublica reveals is that when these Wall Street banks saw how the market for the mortgage-backed securities they’d been packaging at great profit was faltering, they “created fake demand.” They simply bought their own products—the worst of the mortgages in their CDOs—and put them together in new CDOs, which they then proceeded to sell. They knew these new CDOs were junk, because that’s why they’d separated them out in the first place. And when the new ones proved hard to sell in full, they created yet more CDOs to buy those. ProPublica calls this a “daisy chain that solved one problem but created another.” And when the daisy chain could no longer be hidden, when, as we learn in Too Big to Fail, the banks could no longer get away with valuing these toxic assets at the inflated levels they claimed for them, the banks started to collapse.

That’s when we American taxpayers came to the rescue: TARP, Toxic Asset Relief, means that the U.S. government was forced to buy the worst of these bank “assets” to get them off their books—because with them, the big banks would fail.

I don’t know about you, but this just gives me a warm feeling all over.

Lawrence DiStasi