Book Review: Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill


Author: Marc Lamont Hill
TitleNobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond
Publication Info: Atria Books (2016)
Summary/Review:

Hill’s book is a collection of essays focused on the people whose names have become party of a litany of violence against African-Americans in recent years: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin and others.  These people who have been made a Nobody in contemporary America are given their full human dignity in Hill’s account of their lives, as well as the incidents that brought their demise and their aftermath.  But Hill goes beyond the headlines and uses these incidents as a window into the greater societal and political trends that undergird them: “broken windows” policing, plea bargains denying people accused of crimes of their day in court and the incredible power this gives prosecutors, “Stand Your Ground” laws and the arming of America,  mass incarceration, and the neoliberal ideal of running the government “like a business” that leads to the exploitation and disasters of places like Flint, Michigan.  This is a powerful book and important book and one I highly recommend that everyone concerned about the future of our nation reads.
Favorite Passages:

“The case for broken-windows policing is compelling because it lightly dipped in truth.  Yet while there is a correlation between disorder (social and physical) and crime, research shows that this relationship is not causal.  Simply put, there is no evidence that disorder directly promotes crime.  What the evidence does suggest, however, is that the two are linked to the same larger problem: poverty.  High levels of unemployment, lack of social resources, and concentrated areas of low income are all root cause of both high crime and disorder.  As such, crime would be more effectively redressed by investing economically in neighborhoods rather than targeting them for heightened arrests.” – p. 44

“Unfortunately, since modern American society, as with all things in the current neoliberal moment, prioritize privatization and individualism, the very notion of the public has become disposable.  As the current criminal-justice process shows, no longer is there a collective interest in affirming the value of the public good, even rhetorically, through the processes of transparency, honesty, or fairness.  No longer is there a commitment to monitoring and evaluating public officials, in this case prosecutors, to certify that justice prevails.  Instead we have entered a moment in which all things public have been demonized withing out social imagination: public schools, public assistance, public transportation, public housing, public options, and public defenders.  In place of a rich democratic conception of “the public” is a market-driven logic that privileges economic efficiency and individual success over collective justice.” – p. 78-79

“There is plenty of reason to debate the central premise of privatization – that business always does it better – but we don’t have to go there to find this idea objectionable.  In the way that privatization separates government responsibilities from democratic accountability, the notion is flawed from its very conception.  Businesses are not made function for the public good.  The are made to function for the good of profit. There is nothing inherently evil in that.  In most cases, the profit motive will almost certainly lead to a more efficient and orderly execution of tasks.  But it does not necessarily lead to an equitable execution of tasks; indeed, it quite naturally resists and equitable execution of tasks. Furthermore, bu injecting moneymaking into the relationship between a citizen and the basic services of life – water, roads, electricity, and education – privatization distorts the social contract.  People need to know that the decisions of governments are being made with the common good as a priority.  Anything else is not government; it is commerce.  One only needs to look back at Michigan to see this idea manifested because the crisis in Flint, as Henry Giroux has written, is what happens when the State is ‘remade in the image of the corporation.'”

 

Recommended books: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes by Stephen Holmes and Cass R. Sunstein


Author:Stephen Holmes and  Cass R. Sunstein
TitleThe Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes
Publication Info: W. W. Norton & Company (2000), Paperback, 256 pages
Summary/Review:

This is a book that I thought was a response to the widespread idea in the contemporary United States that taxation is a bad thing that restricts liberty.  While it is in some ways that book, it comes at from a different angle presenting the legal and philosophical case that rights actually have a fiscal cost, and therefore taxes are necessary to protect them.  The book is a bit challenging as it has some legalese, but overall the authors do a good job of defining the issues and presenting their case for taxation.
Favorite Passages:

“American liberalism, like its counterparts elsewhere in the world is based on the reasonable premise that public investment is richly repaid, not least of all because reliably enforced property rights help increase social wealth and therefore, among other benefits, swell the tax base upon which government can draw to protect other kinds of rights.  But the strategic wisdom of an initial investment does not undo the fact that it is an investment.”

“Many political conservatives, but not they alone, urge government to ‘get out of the marketplace.’ For their part, some liberals counter that government quite legitimately interferes, or ‘steps into,’ the market wherever disadvantaged Americans are at risk.  But this familiar debate is built on sand.  No sharp line can be drawn between markets and government: the two entities have no existence detached from one another.  Markets do no create prosperity beyond the ‘protective perimeter’ of the law, they function well only with reliable legislative and judicial assistance.”

“Individual freedom, however defined, cannot mean freedom from all forms of dependency.  No human actor can single-handedly create all the preconditions for his own action.  A free citizen is especially dependent… Liberty, rightly conceived, does not require a lack of dependence on government; on the contrary, affirmative government provides the preconditions for liberty.  The Bill of Rights is a do-it-yourself kit that citizens can obtain only at tax-payer-funded outlets.”

“The most common and persuasive criticism of the regulatory-welfare state concerns incentives to antisocial behavior and other undesirable side effects. But ‘dependency’ in and of itself should not be considered one of them.  There are different kinds of dependency, and not all of them are bad.  Although police and fire protection definitely make citizens dependent on ‘public assistance,’ such paternalistic support also increase the willingness of private individuals to embellish and add to their holdings.  Publicly funded education, when operating well, has the same effect.  It, too, is a form of state help designed to foster self-help.  The question is not how to eliminate state intervention, but how to design welfare programs to enhance autonomy and initiative.”

Rating: ***

Book Review: Becoming a Citizen Activist</em< by Nick Licata


AuthorNick Licata
TitleBecoming a Citizen Activist
Publication Info: Seattle, WA : Sasquatch Books, [2016]
Summary/Review:  A Seattle city councilor provides ideas, strategies, and practical advice for how any citizen can effect positive political change in their communities. It includes tips on how to deal with elected officials as well as demonstrating a cause to the public at large.  I read a library copy, but this is such a practical manual it would be handy to have my own copy to refer to.
Favorite Passages:

“Politicians often know what the right thing to do is, but unless there is an organized constituency to put pressure on other public official, they may feel they don’t have enough support to get legislation passed.  The role of a citizen activist is to coax politicians to have the courage to pursue their own beliefs.” – p. 20

“Citizens often find that the biggest obstacle to change is government inertia.  It is difficult to wrestle with, because its reluctance is couched in soft general terms and processes.  But government hesitation will often melt away if opposing parties agree to a common course of action.  This is why it is important to talk to your opponents.  You need to think of how to work with them to overcome a common antagonist; often it is an unresponsive government.” – p. 31

“The lesson for all activists is that you need to have a dual-prong approach to changing the political landscape: being in the streets protesting arouses the public, but afterward quiet organized efforts are needed to get your supporters elected to office so that they can actually change the laws.”

Rating: ****

My Vote For President (and some more important things)


I know everyone has been waiting to see the official 2016 Presidential endorsement of a minor blogger with 289 followers, and here it is!  Actually, I think endorsements are mostly bunk and it drives me crazy how the media constantly speculates over who will endorse who and how many votes an endorsement will gain when I believe endorsements have very little sway in electoral outcomes.  That being said I thought it would make an interesting exercise just to lay out my thought process on voting in November.  And if like-minded individuals stumble upon this post, I believe it may help them too.

So, this November 8th, I will be casting my vote for President for Jill Stein of the Green Party.

I can hear some of you already crying out that a vote for Stein is a vote for Donald Trump.  But you ignore that United States President is elected by the Electoral College.  I live in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts which is perhaps the most Clintonian state in the union.  Even if every Massachusetts citizen voted their conscience, Hillary Clinton is genuinely preferred by most of the voters and would win the state by a comfortable margin.  All of Massachusetts’ 11 electoral will go to Clinton no matter regardless of my vote.  This is true in the majority of the states and the District of Columbia.  If you live in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio,  Pennsylvania, and Virginia, and want to stop Trump, by all means please vote for Clinton even if you don’t like her! If you live anywhere else you can safely vote your conscience for any candidate of you choice (although if your conscience tells you to vote for Trump, you should reexamine your conscience).

Why then, you may ask, will I be voting for Stein and encouraging others to consider to do so?  Here are four reasons:

  1. I think Stein would make a good President – Voting for a candidate one actually likes is such a strange idea in American politics, but I believe that the more people who do so the more likely we’d end up with public servants who best represent our nation’s hopes and dreams.  Too many people chose instead vote for a candidate that they think will win (because they like to be on the side of winners) or the lesser of two evils (because they want to stop the most reprehensible candidate without considering that they are still electing evil).  No candidate is 100% perfect, but I’ve been following Jill Stein’s career since she ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002 and appreciate her efforts.  Her background is as a medical doctor and as an activist she’s had success in advancing environmental and electoral campaign reform issues.  The issues that she puts in the forefront of her platform include those that are near and dear to my heart including poverty-reduction, public education, racial justice, environmental protection, greater equality for all, public transportation, and a foreign policy based on diplomacy rather than militarism.
  2. I believe we need more than two political parties – The Democratic and Republican parties do not come close to representing the full-spectrum of political thought in our country.  I think there needs to be many more viable parties in national, state, and local politics to both encourage greater participation in our democracy and better representation in governments.  A criticism I’ve seen lately is that third parties run “vanity candidates” for President and if they really want to make a change they should start the party at the local level and work up.  I’ve been frustrated that many elections in Massachusetts – from mayor to Congress – feature Democrats running opposed and wish that there were Green Party challengers, but ultimately this criticism misses out on a few points.  First of all, local elections get very little media attention to start with, and third-party candidates virtually nil.  Running  a presidential candidate who can’t win has an air of vanity to it, but it’s also an advertisement that makes people aware that the party even exists.  It’s akin to the fashion designer who makes a complex get up for a model to wear down a runway in order to get people to buy their off-the-rack clothing.  Secondly, many states require parties to win a certain percentage of votes in an election in order to earn and retain access to appearing on official ballots and to get matching funds from the government.  Running a Presidential candidate is a way that third parties can keep their party alive for the next local election.  It’s a screwed-up system, but for the time being, a necessary one.
  3. It can send a message to Hillary Clinton, and make her a better President – Over the course of her long public career as First Lady/”Co-President,” Senator, and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has repeatedly advocated for policies that have hurt the most vulnerable in our nation and abroad.  This includes supporting unnecessary wars for “regime change,” dismantling social safety nets, increasing mass incarceration, privatizing public schools, deregulating the financial industry, and trade deals that allow international corporations freedoms from United States laws and regulations.  For these reasons I cannot vote for Clinton.  The primary election against Bernie Sanders helped push Clinton to abandon some of her older policies and adopt more progressive policies, but I fear that once she is President she may resume her old ways.  If Jill Stein wins 5-10% of the vote in a Clinton stronghold like Massachusetts that will be a sign to Clinton that the status quo is not acceptable and she will need to govern from a more progressive position.
  4. The Presidency is overrated – I expect this may be my most controversial position, but the power of the President is not as great as everyone thinks.  I frequently see charts showing how the country prospered during certain Presidencies and faltered during others as evidence of a particular President’s greatness or weakness.  But these charts treat the Presidency as if it is in a vacuum, ignoring all the other factors that affect the well-being of our country, including Congress and the Supreme Court, state and local governments, business, the actions of the citizenry, and foreign affairs.  While the Presidential election gets up to two years of coverage, and Presidents and candidates have constant media attention, it is dangerous to overlook the other elections for Congress, state and local governments, and ballot initiatives.  The low participation in these elections have moved our governments away from being representative of our communities, and right-wing corporatism organizations like ALEC have taken advantage of this to elect politicians friendly to their interests and pass legislation authored by ALEC.  We need full participation in our politics at every level to counteract this and give power to the people where it belongs.

So I implore everyone reading this to the following things:

  • Verify that you are registered to vote and if not find out the requirements and deadlines, and register ASAP!
  • Find out what will be on your ballot and research every candidate and ballot initiative.
  • Be aware that there may be primary or preliminary elections.  Make sure to vote in these too!
  • Contribute to your favorite candidates by volunteering, donating, or even just talking about them with your friends.
  • Keep voting in every election your eligible, not just in Presidential election years.  Be aware that not all election days are in November.
  • Keep in regular contact with your elected officials – mail, email, phone, in person – and remind them where you stand on the issues you care about most.
  • Make sure that even politicians you like know when you think they are wrong.  Don’t accept the idea that these are “attacks” that “hurt” the good politicians.  Dissent is necessary for healthy government.
  • Remember that electoral politics are just a portion of what makes our democracy work.  Most of the great advancements in US history came when people who cared got together to make a change.  Commit to being active in your community to whatever level you are able.

Book Review: Feminism is for everybody : passionate politics by bell hooks


Authorbell hooks
TitleFeminism is for everybody : passionate politics
Publication Info: Cambridge, MA : South End Press, c2000.
Previously read by the same author:  All About Love: New Visions
Summary/Review:

This book is a short primer on feminism that bell hooks always wanted but had to write it since it didn’t exist.  hooks lays down the basic concepts and theory on feminism and how it intersects with race, class, and lesbianism, among other things. It’s a book that at times is also very critical of some ways in which feminism is practiced. hooks makes an interesting distinction between feminism that seeks to advance individual women in careers, education, and politics without challenging the system within which they exist – what hooks defines as “reform feminism” and notes is beneficial mostly to privileged white women – and a “revolutionary feminism” which seeks to overturn patriarchal systems and create feminist alternatives.  It’s also a personal book as hooks recalls her own feminist journey from the earliest consciousness raising through various conflicts.  It’s a great introduction to feminism if you’re interested in learning more about the theory and practice, especially since feminism is all too often defined by its opponents.

Favorite Passages:

From the outset, reformist white women with class privilege were well aware that the power and freedom they wanted was the freedom they perceived men of their class enjoying.  Their resistance to patriarchal male domination in the domestic household provided them with a connection they could use to unite across class with other women who were weary of male domination.  But only privileged women had the luxury to imagine working outside the home would actually provide them with an income which would entitle them to be economically self-sufficient.  Working-class women already knew the wages the received would not liberate them. – p. 38

While visionary feminist thinkers have understood our need for a broad-based feminist movement, one that addresses the needs of girls and boys, women and men, across class, we have not produced a body of visionary feminist theory written in an accessible language or shared through oral communication.  Today in academic circles much of the most celebrated feminist theory is written in a sophisticated jargon that only the well-educated can read.  Most people in our society do not have a basic understanding of feminism; they cannot acquire that understanding from a wealth of diverse material, grade school-level primers, and so on, because this material does not exist. We must create it if we are to rebuild feminist movement that is truly for everyone.

Feminist advocates have not organized resources to ensure that we have television stations or consistent spots on existing stations.  There is no feminist news hour on any television or radio show.  One of the difficulties we faced spreading the word about feminism is that anything having to do with the female gender is seen as covering feminist ground even if it does not contain a feminist perspective.  We do have radio shows and a few television shows that highlight gender issues, but that is not that same as highlighting feminism.  Ironically one of the achievements of contemporary feminism is that everyone is more open to discussing gender and the concerns of women, but again, not necessarily from a feminist perspective. – p. 112

Rating: ****

5 Favors I Ask of Clinton Supporters Should Clinton Be Elected President


The Democratic Party has determined that Hillary Clinton will be their presidential candidate and many people I know and love are celebrating the fact.  Personally, Clinton’s record of supporting neoliberal ideology and a hawkish militarism make fear she would not be a good President, and I’m anxious that her unpopularity nationwide will mean she will lose the election.  But, I could be wrong. In fact, I hope I am wrong!  Perhaps Clinton will win election and become a brilliant, transformational President or at least hold the line against attacks on our people by an increasingly extreme right wing.  But I don’t think this is going to happen if Clinton is left to her own devices.

So here are five favors cordially ask Clinton supporters to do should Clinton be elected President.

1. Hold Clinton’s Feet to the Fire – I’ve noticed a pattern over the past 24 years. First, the Democrats with Clinton, then Republicans with Bush, and then Democrats again with Obama would speak of the President reverently and would object to any criticism of their President.  They hold the idea that we the people should always stand behind the President, and thus turn a blind eye to things their President would do that they would object to if anyone else did it.  I disagree with this notion.  I believe that one can admire their President and support most of what they do, but still be highly critical when the President does something they disagree with.  In fact, democracy functions better when the people make their voices heard.  So if Clinton switches her support back in favor of TPP, let her know that’s not acceptable.  If you think fracking is bad for the environment and surrounding communities, let Clinton know that she should advocate for cleaner, renewable energy sources.  If there’s pressure to go to war in Iran, Syria, or even Russia, let Clinton know that diplomacy and cooperation are always preferable to unnecessary war.

You will not be betraying Clinton, you will be helping her to be a better President.

2. The Campaign Does Not End in November – the triangulation strategy created by the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1990s has been successful in that 5 of the 6 the popular vote in Presidential elections has gone to Democratic candidates.  But this strategy concedes far too much to neoliberal interests while abandoning the traditional New Deal values of the Democratic Party. As a result of turning away from the working people and ceding populism to the Republicans, the Democrats have been considerably less successful in non-Presidential elections.  The Democrats ruled Congress for 60 years, but it’s been largely under Republican control since 1994.  In 1990 the Democrats controlled 30 state legislatures, but today have only 11. There were 30 Democratic governors in 1992, but today that number has been whittled down to only 18.

I’m of the belief that Congressional, state, and local politics are actually more important than who is President in the many issues that affect the every day lives of the American people.  Someone who shares that belief is the right wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) who’ve been very successful in getting candidates elected in state and local elections who will represent their interests and enact their model legislation.  So please, for the love of God, if there’s an election, or a primary election, or a referendum, get out their and vote.  And vote for progressive candidates who share your values. And campaign for them so others will know who they are and what they stand for.  And if you’re one of those people who likes what Bernie Sanders has to say but thought it to risky to run him as President, then get your feet wet by voting for a progressive Democratic challenger to an incumbent in a local election, or even a Green Party or other independent candidate.  We need to make sure that at every level candidates who are representing the will of the people, not the will of ALEC, are getting elected.

3. Fight for Electoral Reform – With that said, it’s hard to get a sense of who are the true representatives of the people when the system is rigged.  Your voice needs to be heard to insure that every American citizen has a vote that counts.  Many Americans – especially black and brown people – have had their right to vote stripped due to mass incarceration, even for minor crimes.  Their vote should be restored and no one should be disenfranchised in the future. As we have seen this primary season, the primary elections are jumble of dysfunctional systems and rules that are confusing and often suppress the vote.  Each state should instead have primary elections – not caucuses – open to all voters.  Superdelegates and winner-take-all elections should be discarded, and delegates awarded proportionately based on popular votes (or do away with delegates entirely and let the popular vote speak for itself).  No one should arrive at the polls to find they’ve been purged from the voter roll. In fact, all citizens aged 18 and up should be automatically registered and able to show proof of residence if their address has changed on the day of the election.  Elections should take place over several consecutive days (including at least one weekend day) as well as early voting to allow every citizen the opportunity to vote.  And the Electoral College that denied Al Gore the Presidency in 2000 should be abolished, allowing the will of the entire country to decide the election, not just a handful of swing states.

4. Recognize That Elections are Just a Small Part of Our Role in Government – Electoral politics are big news, but there’s a lot more to government in a democracy than one team winning and the other going home.  That’s why I’ve found it so refreshing that Bernie Sanders is continuing his campaign to the Democratic convention.  I’m less committed to Sanders as an individual than to the idea of issues of inequality getting the attention and support they deserve.  Hopefully, the Democratic Party will invites progressives and independents into the convention and make these issues a part of the platform going forward.  But either way, American citizens will have to advocate for many important causes that aren’t going to get attention in Congress or state capitols otherwise.  The issues are many: Black Lives Matter, ending mass incarceration, fighting poverty, LGBT equality, environment and climate change, disabled peoples’ rights, affordable housing, equitable public education, and reducing the influence of billionaires, corporations, and Wall Street on American government.  Read up on the issues. Adopt an issue or more important to you and get involved, even if you can only spare a little bit of time.

5. Listen – My biggest frustration with the primary campaign is that far too many Clinton supporters were dismissive and condescending to Sanders supporters and the issues they cared about.  In the context of a heated campaign that may make sense, but going forward I think it’s important to listen to what people are saying even when you disagree with them.  And I don’t mean this selfishly “LISTEN TO ME!”, you can blow me off if you want to. But listen to the people of America who may be less privileged to you.  Listen to poor and the people of color and the immigrants.  Listen to this suffering from mass incarceration, the dismantling of welfare systems, and from the wars in the Middle East.  Listen to students in urban schools and union workers in manufacturing jobs. Listen to day laborers and refugees from Syria.  And when you do speak, try to amplify what they’re saying.

I thank you in advance.

5 Reasons Why Sanders Campaigning to the Convention is Good for the Democrats


If you listen to the popular news media and supporters of Hillary Clinton, the contest for the 2016 Democratic Party presidential nomination is over and Secretary Clinton won.  But contender Bernie Sanders has vowed to continue his campaign until the Democratic National Convention in July, and even has a path to winning the pledged delegates.  I personally think this is a good thing, mainly because I believe Senator Sanders is not only the best candidate in this year’s election, but the best major party candidate for President in my entire life.  But if you are a dyed-in-the-wool Hillary Clinton acolyte you may feel differently.  Yet, I believe Senator Sanders campaign is ultimately good for the Democratic Party and should continue as long as possible.

Here are five reasons why:

  1.  The Republican Party is down to just one candidate, the odious Donald J. Trump.  While I expect that the mainstream media will continue to give an inordinate amount of coverage to Trump, if they’re looking for fresh election events to cover it’s going to be the campaign events, debates, and elections on the Democratic side.  The Democratic campaign has already shown that politics can be civil and issue-oriented, not only compared with this year’s Republican circus, but also with past Democratic primaries.  And the issues they’re discussing are important left-wing social and economic matters.  Having two months where the top political news story is two candidates courteously focused on substantial progressive issues can only be a good thing for the Democrats leading up to their convention and beyond.
  2.  Speaking of left-wing social and economic issues, Secretary Clinton has a history over the course of her public career of being on the wrong side (or more accurately, the right-wing side). This ranges from her hawkish support of disastrous military engagements in Iraq, Libya, et al to her cozy relationship with Wall Street financial firms and big business that has informed her support of financial deregulation and job killing trade agreements.  Competing with Senator Sanders has already forced Secretary Clinton to move left on various issues ranging from the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the $15 minimum wage.  If Clinton goes head to head with Trump, the temptation will be to tack right on issues such as immigration and defense against terrorism, while abandoning left-wing issues.  A couple more months of dealing with left issues should make Clinton more appealing as a candidate to progressive Democrats and independents as well as making sure she will remain committed to these causes should she become President.
  3. The process of primary elections is not all that Democratic.  Caucuses require massive time commitments and primaries are often closed to party outsiders and/or require registration at a date ridiculously in advanced.  This election cycle has also seen travesties such as massive purges of voting rolls, limited numbers of polling stations opened, and lengthy lines at polling stations that are open.  Pretty much every primary season is weighted toward the states that participate earlier in the process meaning that primaries held in May and June are generally not contested.  This year the Democrats can continue campaigning and holding elections meaning that people in populous areas like California, New Jersey, Oregon, and Puerto Rico can participate in voting, many for the first time in a primary.  Isn’t that one tiny step toward a more inclusive democracy a good thing?  At the very least it will mean that voters in these states will be registered – as Democrats – and on the rolls for the general election in November.
  4. Of course, it’s also important to note that despite everything you may have heard Bernie Sanders is still very much in this race.  As of May 9, the pledged delegate count is Clinton 1706 – Sanders 1419, a difference of 287 pledged delegates with 926 pledged delegates to be decided (this does not include unpledged “superdelegates” who do not vote until the convention.  And Senator Sanders is polling very well in many of the populous states left to vote, including America’s most populous state, California.  Don’t we owe it to our country to let the democratic process play out in such a close race?
  5.  Finally, a contested convention may be good for the Democratic Party’s soul. There is a great divide between the establishment party members who follow the triangulation approach of the Democratic Leadership Council (co-founded by former President Bill Clinton) who have abandoned traditional popular labor and economic issues, and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, not to mention the growing number of left-wing people unaffiliated with either party.  The temptation is to sweep every thing under the rug and turn the convention into a rally for Hillary Clinton (while supporters of Senator Sanders and those who are like-minded are locked out of the convention hall).  But just perhaps it would be a good occasion to hash out all these differences in July, rather than having them come back to bite the Democrats in the butt in the general election and beyond. It could be the opportunity to create a new triangle for the Democratic Party with the DLC old guard only one point while the others represent the Democrats’ progressive wing, and the Independent leftists who could be drawn into the party (or at the very least, convinced to vote Democrat when it counts).

Podcast of the Week: “The Supreme Court’s Loaded Gun” by Decode DC


The topic of this week’s Decode DC is the worst decision ever made by the United States Supreme Court.  Korematsu v. United States validated interning Japanese-Americans during World War II, and has never been overturned.  With the idea of surveillance and internment of Islamic-Americans under discussion in the 2016 election, a lot of people are asking if this Supreme Court decision could allow it to happen again.  The discussion here is alternately chilling and reassuring.

2016 Election Reading List


In 6 months Americans will go to the polls to vote for our next President as well as representatives, senators, and countless state and local officials.  I decided to put together a list of books on political and social topics that I find informative on various issues.  Of course, while I think these are important issues for the elections, some of them just aren’t going to be discussed by the candidates in this election, which all the greater shame.

At any rate, take a gander of this list.  I highly recommend reading all of them.  If you have suggestions for the election reading list, let me know in the comments.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Written as a letter to his son, Coates explains the many ways that bodies of African-Americans are controlled in the United States.  It’s an insightful look into the reasons why the Black Lives Matter movement came into fruition, and the most important book on this list for everyone to read.

The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things by Barry Glassner

Contemporary politics  in the United States is undergirded by a constant stream of fear whether it be terrorism, diseases, or crime (the latter often translating into a fear of black men).  24/7 media and politicians help spread this fear often in ways that distract the populace from more realistic concerns.

The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower by Robert Baer

In recent years, members of both parties have suggested the possibility of war with Iran. Did you know that Iran is twice as large and twice as populous as Afghanistan and Iraq put together? Iran is also much more unified with a stronger military, so Baer suggests that war with Iran would require an enormous outlay of money and military force, which would require popular support of a wartime footing akin to World War II.  Baer suggests instead a realpolitik approach of recognizing Iran as a major player in the Middle East and working to form an alliance.  Definitely a thought-provoking book.

Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill) by David Cay Johnston

Socialism is a scary word, yet it is active in the United States government and economy.  Only in our case, it is large corporations that make enormous profits by getting taxpayer money.

Green metropolis : why living smaller, living closer, and driving less are keys to sustainability by David Owen

Many people think that living “environmentally friendly” means living close to nature, but Owen illustrates that living in large cities is the best way for people to reduce their impact on the Earth’s environment.  The reason is that dense urban living promotes using less space to house each individual, sharing of resources, and reducing driving, all of which results in cities having much lower per-capita carbon footprints than suburban or rural areas.

Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?  by Thomas Frank

If you’ve ever wondered why in the past 25 years, more people are working more hours and barely getting by, while the rich get richer, even under Democratic presidents (and even in states with Democratic governments) this is the book for you.

The new Jim Crow : mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

The history of America is the history of African-Americans having restricted rights compared to white people, and that hasn’t changed despite the victories of the Civil Rights Era.  Alexander details how the War on Drugs was used to create a a massive increase in Americans in prison and on prohibition that inordinately affects Black Americans.  As a result, even when not imprisoned many African-Americans are denied opportunites for jobs, housing, and even the right to vote.

Reign of error : the hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools by Diane Ravitch

Public education is one of the most important services a government provides for its people, but in recent decades politicians in both parties as well as organizations funded by corporations and wealthy individuals have conducted a school “reform” movement that has been disastrous to public education.  Ravitch exposes both the failures of this reform movement and alternative solutions to both improve public education and alleviate poverty.

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by  Naomi Klein

Klein’s expose reveals how the adherents of neoliberalism use natural disasters, wars, and financial crises to push forward their goals of reducing government services to the bare bones and replacing them with exploitative for-profit corporations.

Straphanger : surviving the end of the automobile age by Taras Grescoe

The love of the automobile has caused the United States (and Canada) to fall behind much of the world in public transit systems.  In Grescoe’s narrative he travels the world to various cities with succesful transit systems and offers advice on how they can be adapted in North American cities.

UnSpun : finding facts in a world of disinformation Brooks Jackson

Despite living in the Information Age, it’s become more difficult to separate fact from fiction as “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”  UnSpun offers some solid strategies evaluating news and politics for factual accuracy.

Walkable city : how downtown can save America, one step at a time by Jeff Speck

As you may notice by now, many of my books deal with urbanism.  I believe good cities for people to live and work in are a solution to a lot of our countries social, economic, and environmental problems.  But for a city to be good, it has to be walkable.  Speck’s book details what exactly “walkable” means and how it is best attained.

 

 

Book Review: The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein


Author: Naomi Klein
TitleThe Shock Doctrine
NarratorJennifer Wiltsie
Publication Info:  Macmillan Audio (2007)
Summary/Review:

This book exposes the ideology of neoliberalism, the idea that government should be limited to the bare bones and that corporations should be completely unregulated, a school of thought promoted by Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago.  The book begins with the story of CIA mind-washing experiments which attempted to erase the very self-identity of the subjects.  The shock doctrine applies these same actions (mostly metaphorically, but sometimes literally with interrogation and torture techniques) to entire communities and economies.  This begins with the overthrow of democratically-elected government in Chile and the installation of the dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was advised by Friedman’s own trained “Chicago Boys.”  The same policies pop up again in response to disasters – war, economic collapse, and natural disasters – where neoliberal policies are ready to go at the time when democratic processes are least likely to be followed. Klein examines how both Iraq and New Orleans were deliberately cleared of their past and memory to be remade in a neoliberal model, with much exploitation and corporate profits in the process.  This is a chilling and illuminating book.

Favorite Passages:

Communism may have collapsed without the firing of a single shot, but Chicago-style capitalism, it turned out, required a great deal of gunfire to defend itself.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank


Author: Thomas Frank
Title: Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
Publication Info: Metropolitan Books (2016)
Previously Read By Same Author:  What’s the Matter With Kansas and Pity the Billionaire
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Thomas Frank asks the question – if the Democrats have held the Presidency for 16 of the last 24 years, and have the demographic majority to take full control of the country, and have been in control in many states and regions for some time, why is it that the middle and working class continue in steep decline while Wall Street gets bailouts and the rich get richer?  The answer is that the Democrats have abandoned their traditional base of working class people and organized labor, instead becoming enamored with what Frank calls the professional class.  These are the wealthy and well-educated people credited as being “creative” and “innovators” and who are called upon to resolve problems with their innate brilliance on a revolving door among prominent universities, corporate boardrooms, and political office.  Meritocracy is baked into this idea of the professional class with the people who’ve succeeded being credited with working hard to earn their degrees and get to the place where they are (with the unspoken counter being that those who fail and are poor can only blame themselves for not trying hard enough).

Frank traces the Democrats connection to the professional class to the wake of the troubled 1968 election when Democratic leaders made a conscious decision to move away from their traditional base of organized labor and working people (assuming that these people would have to vote Democratic anyway).  The Democrats lost several Presidential elections over the 1970s & 1980s and the assumption for party insiders was always that they were always too Liberal and moved the party further to the right.  The core of the book is several chapters about the 1990s and Bill Clinton where the Democrats finally could win again and the professional class took control of the reins of government.  Only Nixon could go to China, but only Clinton could ratify NAFTA, approve the sweeping crime bill, dismantle the social safety net of welfare, repeal regulations of the financial industry, and other things that had been on the Republican wishlist for decades.  Frank even details negotiations between Clinton and Newt Gingrich to privatize Social Security, the cornerstone of the abandoned New Deal, that were only scuttled due to the impeachment proceedings against Clinton. With only professionals represented in the Clinton government, alternatives were not considered, and all problems were resolved by doing what would most benefit the professional class.

Frank also covers the Barack Obama presidency  where Obama was swept in to power on a populist movement in the wake of the financial crisis.  Frank notes that Obama had the powers to punish those responsible for the Great Recession, but instead chose to bring Wall Street professional class “innovators” into the government to regulate themselves and work towards bipartisan consensus with the Republicans who were clearly not interested.  The presumptive 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is described as someone working to advance women’s equality, but doing so in a narrow way that only sees women working hard to become successful “entrepreneurs”  (another variation on the meritocracy of the professional class) and working class women are just not seen at her events or in her policies.  The book also details how the place where the New Democrat ethos of the professional class has had it’s greatest implementation – Massachusetts – is emblematic of this  reverence of the “creative class,” and also why the state has the greatest level of inequality in the nation.

This book does an excellent job of explicating what has happened in the Democratic party over the last several decades where it’s gotten to a point that a lot of their ideology is indistinguishable from Republicans and the large portion of Americans have suffered as a result.  The year’s still young, but I think this is going to be one of the most important books of the year and I suggest that everyone should read it.

Recommended books: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander andThe Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Joseph E. Stiglitz
Rating: ****

Podcast of the Week: “How Ann Boleyn Gave Us Our Right To Privacy” by Decode DC


Decode DC once again comes to Podcast of the Week with “How Ann Boleyn Gave Us Our Right To Privacy.”

Today Americans view privacy as a fundamental civil liberty, a right that puts a boundary on what the government can do. Our ‘right to privacy’ has become part of the essential contract Americans make with their government, a system that protects individuals from the government’s ability to intrude into the private sphere.

But it wasn’t so long ago that the very idea of a right to privacy, even of a right to one’s own thoughts, wasn’t such a foregone conclusion.

This week on the podcast, we take you through a history of the right to privacy, where we got our ideas about privacy – specifically personal privacy – and then how that right to privacy has been applied in famous Supreme Court Cases like Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade.

Book Review: The new Jim Crow : mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness by Michelle Alexander


Author: Michelle Alexander
Title:The new Jim Crow : mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness
Publication Info: New York : [Jackson, Tenn.] : New Press ; Distributed by Perseus Distribution, 2010.
Summary/Review:

Alexander’s book demonstrates how mass incarceration  in the United States has succeeded slavery and Jim Crow segregation in creating inequality and an undercaste black and brown people in the country.  While notionally colorblind, policing, trials, sentencing and imprisonment disproportionately affect black Americans even though statistically they are no more likely than any other race to commit crimes.  The tool with which mass incarceration works is the War on Drugs, introduced in the 1980s at a time when the Civil Rights movement had ended legal segregation and made open racism culturally unacceptable and a time when economic downturns had ravaged urban black communities and removed manufacturing jobs the community depended on.  At the time the War on Drugs began, illegal drug use was dropping and police were so unconcerned with enforcing drug laws that the federal government basically had to bribe them with grants and military-style equipment.  While statistically white people are more likely to use and sell illegal drugs, enforcement focused almost entirely within black communities and the Supreme Court repeatedly allowed that  police searches and seizures in the drug war did not violate the 4th amendment.  With the punishment of drug crimes so severe, even people innocent of crimes are encouraged to take plea deals for shorter sentences without being informed that they will be labeled criminals for life.  Alexander asserts that the real effect of mass incarceration blacks in America goes beyond prison time as those with a criminal record lose access to welfare and public housing, are not hired for jobs, lose their right to vote and serve on juries, and often have any income garnished to pay for their imprisonment.  Under these circumstances it’s understandable that people denied the ability to make a living may turn to crime, the War on Drugs in effect creating what it’s supposed to prevent.  This is a powerful and important book that everyone should read.
Favorite Passages:

The impact of the drug war has been astounding. In less than thirty years, the U.S penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran. In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the United States, the rate is roughly eight times that, or 750 per 100,000. The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, D.C., our nation’s capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison. Similar rates of incarceration can be found in black communities across America.  These stark racial disparities cannot be explained by rates of drug crime. Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color.

What is completely missed in the rare public debates today about the plight of African Americans is that a huge percentage of them are not free to move up at all. It is not just that they lack opportunity, attend poor schools, or are plagued by poverty. They are barred by law from doing so. And the major institutions with which they come into contact are designed to prevent their mobility. To put the matter starkly: The current system of control permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy. The system operates through our criminal justice institutions, but it functions more like a caste system than a system of crime control. Viewed from this perspective, the so-called underclass is better understood as an undercaste—a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society. Although this new system of racialized social control purports to be colorblind, it creates and maintains racial hierarchy much as earlier systems of control did. Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.

One senator insisted that crack had become a scapegoat distracting the public’s attention from the true causes of our social ills, arguing: “If we blame crime on crack, our politicians are off the hook. Forgotten are the failed schools, the malign welfare programs, the desolate neighborhoods, the wasted years. Only crack is to blame. One is tempted to think that if crack did not exist, someone somewhere would have received a Federal grant to develop it.”

Clinton eventually moved beyond crime and capitulated to the conservative racial agenda on welfare. This move, like his “get tough” rhetoric and policies, was part of a grand strategy articulated by the “new Democrats” to appeal to the elusive white swing voters. In so doing, Clinton—more than any other president—created the current racial undercaste. He signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which “ended welfare as we know it,” replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with a block grant to states called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). TANF imposed a five-year lifetime limit on welfare assistance, as well as a permanent, lifetime ban on eligibility for welfare and food stamps for anyone convicted of a felony drug offense—including simple possession of marijuana. Despite claims that these radical policy changes were driven by fiscal conservatism—i.e., the desire to end big government and slash budget deficits—the reality is that government was not reducing the amount of money devoted to the management of the urban poor. It was radically altering what the funds would be used for. The dramatic shift toward punitiveness resulted in a massive reallocation of public resources. By 1996, the penal budget doubled the amount that had been allocated to AFDC or food stamps.100 Similarly, funding that had once been used for public housing was being redirected to prison construction. During Clinton’s tenure, Washington slashed funding for public housing by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent) and boosted corrections by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent), “effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor.”

So-called consent searches have made it possible for the police to stop and search just about anybody walking down the street for drugs. All a police officer has to do in order to conduct a baseless drug investigation is ask to speak with someone and then get their “consent” to be searched. So long as orders are phrased as a question, compliance is interpreted as consent. “May I speak to you?” thunders an officer. “Will you put your arms up and stand against the wall for a search?” Because almost no one refuses, drug sweeps on the sidewalk (and on buses and trains) are easy. People are easily intimidated when the police confront them, hands on their revolvers, and most have no idea the question can be answered, “No.”

The resistance within law enforcement to the drug war created something of a dilemma for the Reagan administration. In order for the war to actually work—that is, in order for it to succeed in achieving its political goals—it was necessary to build a consensus among state and local law enforcement agencies that the drug war should be a top priority in their hometowns. The solution: cash. Huge cash grants were made to those law enforcement agencies that were willing to make drug-law enforcement a top priority. The new system of control is traceable, to a significant degree, to a massive bribe offered to state and local law enforcement by the federal government.

It is impossible to know for certain how many innocent drug defendants convict themselves every year by accepting a plea bargain out of fear of mandatory sentences, or how many are convicted due to lying informants and paid witnesses, but reliable estimates of the number of innocent people currently in prison tend to range from 2 percent to 5 percent. While those numbers may sound small (and probably are underestimates), they translate into thousands of innocent people who are locked up, some of whom will die in prison. In fact, if only 1 percent of America’s prisoners are actually innocent of the crimes for which they have been convicted, that would mean tens of thousands of innocent people are currently languishing behind bars in the United States. The real point here, however, is not that innocent people are locked up. That has been true since penitentiaries first opened in America. The critical point is that thousands of people are swept into the criminal justice system every year pursuant to the drug war without much regard for their guilt or innocence. The police are allowed by the courts to conduct fishing expeditions for drugs on streets and freeways based on nothing more than a hunch. Homes may be searched for drugs based on a tip from an unreliable, confidential informant who is trading the information for money or to escape prison time. And once swept inside the system, people are often denied attorneys or meaningful representation and pressured into plea bargains by the threat of unbelievably harsh sentences—sentences for minor drug crimes that are higher than many countries impose on convicted murderers. This is the way the roundup works, and it works this way in virtually every major city in the United States.

The central question, then, is how exactly does a formally colorblind criminal justice system achieve such racially discriminatory results? Rather easily, it turns out. The process occurs in two stages. The first step is to grant law enforcement officials extraordinary discretion regarding whom to stop, search, arrest, and charge for drug offenses, thus ensuring that conscious and unconscious racial beliefs and stereotypes will be given free rein. Unbridled discretion inevitably creates huge racial disparities. Then, the damning step: Close the courthouse doors to all claims by defendants and private litigants that the criminal justice system operates in racially discriminatory fashion. Demand that anyone who wants to challenge racial bias in the system offer, in advance, clear proof that the racial disparities are the product of intentional racial discrimination—i.e., the work of a bigot. This evidence will almost never be available in the era of colorblindness, because everyone knows—but does not say—that the enemy in the War on Drugs can be identified by race. This simple design has helped to produce one of the most extraordinary systems of racialized social control the world has ever seen.

Despite the brutal, debilitating impact of these “collateral consequences” on ex-offenders’ lives, courts have generally declined to find that such sanctions are actually “punishment” for constitutional purposes. As a result, judges are not required to inform criminal defendants of some of the most important rights they are forfeiting when they plead guilty to a felony. In fact, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys may not even be aware of the full range of collateral consequences for a felony conviction. Yet these civil penalties, although not considered punishment by our courts, often make it virtually impossible for ex-offenders to integrate into the mainstream society and economy upon release. Far from collateral, these sanctions can be the most damaging and painful aspect of a criminal conviction. Collectively, these sanctions send the strong message that, now that you have been labeled, you are no longer wanted. You are no longer part of “us,” the deserving. Unable to drive, get a job, find housing, or even qualify for public benefits, many ex-offenders lose their children, their dignity, and eventually their freedom—landing back in jail after failing to play by rules that seem hopelessly stacked against them.

The entrapment occurs in three distinct phases, each of which has been explored earlier, but a brief review is useful here. The first stage is the roundup. Vast numbers of people are swept into the criminal justice system by the police, who conduct drug operations primarily in poor communities of color. They are rewarded in cash—through drug forfeiture laws and federal grant programs—for rounding up as many people as possible, and they operate unconstrained by constitutional rules of procedure that once were considered inviolate. Police can stop, interrogate, and search anyone they choose for drug investigations, provided they get “consent.” Because there is no meaningful check on the exercise of police discretion, racial biases are granted free rein. In fact, police are allowed to rely on race as a factor in selecting whom to stop and search (even though people of color are no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than whites)—effectively guaranteeing that those who are swept into the system are primarily black and brown. The conviction marks the beginning of the second phase: the period of formal control. Once arrested, defendants are generally denied meaningful legal representation and pressured to plead guilty whether they are or not. Prosecutors are free to “load up” defendants with extra charges, and their decisions cannot be challenged for racial bias. Once convicted, due to the drug war’s harsh sentencing laws, drug offenders in the United States spend more time under the criminal justice system’s formal control—in jail or prison, on probation or parole—than drug offenders anywhere else in the world. While under formal control, virtually every aspect of one’s life is regulated and monitored by the system, and any form of resistance or disobedience is subject to swift sanction. This period of control may last a lifetime, even for those convicted of extremely minor, nonviolent offenses, but the vast majority of those swept into the system are eventually released. They are transferred from their prison cells to a much larger, invisible cage. The final stage has been dubbed by some advocates as the period of invisible punishment.13 This term, first coined by Jeremy Travis, is meant to describe the unique set of criminal sanctions that are imposed on individuals after they step outside the prison gates, a form of punishment that operates largely outside of public view and takes effect outside the traditional sentencing framework. These sanctions are imposed by operation of law rather than decisions of a sentencing judge, yet they often have a greater impact on one’s life course than the months or years one actually spends behind bars. These laws operate collectively to ensure that the vast majority of convicted offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society. They will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives—denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Unable to surmount these obstacles, most will eventually return to prison and then be released again, caught in a closed circuit of perpetual marginality.

The vastly different sentences afforded drunk drivers and drug offenders speaks volumes regarding who is viewed as disposable—someone to be purged from the body politic—and who is not. Drunk drivers are predominantly white and male. White men comprised 78 percent of the arrests for this offense in 1990 when new mandatory minimums governing drunk driving were being adopted. They are generally charged with misdemeanors and typically receive sentences involving fines, license suspension, and community service. Although drunk driving carries a far greater risk of violent death than the use or sale of illegal drugs, the societal response to drunk drivers has generally emphasized keeping the person functional and in society, while attempting to respond to the dangerous behavior through treatment and counseling. People charged with drug offenses, though, are disproportionately poor people of color. They are typically charged with felonies and sentenced to prison.

The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.

The colorblindness ideal is premised on the notion that we, as a society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other fairly or with genuine compassion. A commitment to color consciousness, by contrast, places faith in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial differences.

 

Recommended BooksBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner

Rating: ****1/2

Podcast of the Week: “How Did the Flint Water Crisis Happen?” by ProPublica


How Did the Flint Water Crisis Happen? is an important podcast by the investigative journalism agency ProPublica about one of the greatest criminal acts performed by a government against its people in American history.  This is an important listen for gaining better understanding of this still under-reported humanitarian crisis in Michigan.

Podcast of the Week: DecodeDC – “When Words Speak Louder than Actions”


 

The Podcast of the Week is episode 122 of DecodeDC: “When Words Speak Louder than Actions”  Who’d of thunk that the remedy to low congressional approval would be as simple as being nice?

What is the Future for Public Schools in Boston?


Once again, Massachusetts public schools are ranked the the best in the nation. This may be surprising to many based on the constant political rhetoric that public schools in Massachusetts are a “disaster.”  One of the major issues is the great gap in achievement between low-income students and their more affluent peers.  For me and many others, the obvious solution to this problem is to look at what is making schools succeed in more prosperous communities and apply the same type of resources, facilities, and teacher support to schools in impoverished communities.  By working to make education equitable across class and racial lines and through other programs to address poverty, we believe these gaps can be narrowed significantly.  Unfortunately, this goal is undermined by the efforts of our governor, mayor, corporate philanthropic organizations and those who support them to take drastic measures to “fix” public schools and  perhaps replace them outright. Worse, the proponents of this type of corporate education reform often seem to have ulterior motives at odds with the goals of creating equitable schools or alleviating poverty.

Some of the challenges to creating equitable public education in Boston and Massachusetts include:

  • Annual cuts to city education budget as well as cuts to education funding statewide.
  • School closures, usually in the poorest communities
  • Continued emphasis on frequent testing which takes up learning time with testing and test preparation which leads to “teaching to the test” (not to mention profiting companies that publish the test and preparation materials)
  • Using test results to justify “high stakes” measures such as firing teachers and closing schools
  • Funneling public money into privately-run charter schools at the expense of local school districts
  • The Boston Compact plan for unified enrollment which doesn’t seem to reflect any constituents’ desires for improving schools and has been funded by out-of-state interests

Thursday night the Boston Education Justice Alliance is hosting a Town Hall for parents, teaches, students and concerned citizens to discuss these issues and how we can create just and equitable public education in the city.  I encourage you to attend.  Here is a flyer and I’ve included links to the websites of the organizations involved:

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I don’t get to write on education issues as often as I’d like to as by the time I get my thoughts together it’s usually no longer topical, but if you want to keep up with the issues I encourage you to follow the websites, blogs, and Twitter accounts of the many people and organizations below.  There is an incredible amount of passion, knowledge, and creativity behind this campaign.

Boston/Massachusetts Organizations and Blogs

National Organizations and Blogs

Boston/Massachusetts People and Organizations To Follow on Twitter

@AnEducationBlog, @bledwine, @BostonActivist, @BostonEdJustice, @bmadeloni, @BPSNightmare, @BSACbuzz, @caren4btunity, @ckollett, @clanghoff1, @ClayHarper, @ColumWhyte, @CPC_BPS, @dembinskis, @DowntownSchools, @dunneteach, @Fara1, @girlact75, @GoogieBaba, @Hcinjp, @jessicatang4btu, @johnflerner, @JonathanCohn, @jshoreboston, @kathoderaytube, @KeepTheCapMass, @KrissyCabbage, @mattwbennet, @mauraotoole, @NaamaGoldstein1, @parentImperfect, @Quality1st4BPS, @RWwatchMA, @StopTheCompact, @TracyNovick,@wheresmyporsche

National People and Organizations to Follow on Twitter

@alfiekohn, @AnthonyCody, @BadassTeachersA, @Dems4PublicEd, @DianeRavitch, @Edu_Historian,@EduShyster, @ESQPolitics,  @jerseyjazzman,  @lacetothetop,  @NEPCtweet, @StevenSinger3

 

Book Review: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado


Author: Linda Tirado
Title: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America
Narrator: Linda Tirado
Publication Info: New York : Penguin Audio, p2014.
Summary/Review:

Tirado writes and narrates this extended essay on the poor in United States, unflinchingly and wryly explaining why the poor do the things the do and how both right-wing and left-wing  stereotypes of the poor are off the mark.  It’s an intelligent and honest account based on lived experience, not shying away from anything (especially an insightful chapter on sex among the poor).  This book is build off an essay widely circulated on the web which captures the gist of the matter, but the whole book should be required reading.
Favorite Passages:

“If the average rich person had to walk around for a day wearing a polyester work uniform, they’d need Xanax.”

“You can’t tell us that our brains and labor and emotions are worth next to nothing and then expect us to get all full of intrinsic worth when it comes to our genitals. Either we’re cheap or we’re not.”

“I once talked to a neighbor about the fact that people who lived on our block were statistically likely to die earlier than the people who lived five blocks over in the wealthy neighborhood. He told me that it was just life, it was the way it was.  He’d stopped questioning it.  So if you already figure you’re going to die early what’s the motivation for giving up something that helps get you through the here and now?”

Recommended booksNickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and The Price of Inequality by Joseph E. Stiglitz
Rating: ****

Book Review: Pity the Billionaire by Thomas Frank


Author:Thomas Frank
Narrator: Thomas Frank
Title: Pity the Billionaire 
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2012
ISBN: 9781427223128
Previous books read by the same authorWhat’s the Matter With Kansas?
Summary/Review:

Thomas Frank explores the ways in which the crash of 2008 and ensuing great recession failed to lead to a populist revolt against capitalists nor for greater government intervention into the economy, as it has in past recessions.  In fact, we got the Tea Party instead where the government was blamed for over-regulating business and banking instead.  Frank examines the common explanations for the rise of the Tea Party, dismisses them, and proposes the long growing movement that paints capitalists as victims of government overreach drawing from the works of neoliberal economists and Ayn Rand.  It’s all very interesting, and well-composed, although nothing I’ve not read before.  My favorite part of the book turned out to be the last chapter where Thomas Frank condemns the Democratic Party for failing to have any populist ideology to counter the right, nor drawing on what made them successful in past recessions, while at the same time maintaining cozy relations with Big Business.  The Democrats failure to act on the historic principles of their party makes it somewhat plausible that they can be blamed for being affiliated with the banks that bankrupted the country while at the same time too strictly regulating those banks.

Recommended books:  The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History by Jill Lepore, and Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill) by David Cay Johnston.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch


Author: Diane Ravitch
TitleReign of Error
Publication Info: Knopf (2013)
Summary/Review:

This is the most important book I’ve read all year and one that I think every American should read.  Educational historian Diane Ravitch unravels the multi-pronged attack of the “school reform” movement on public education, teachers, and the core principles of democracy.  While school reformers appropriate the language of the civil rights movement, Ravitch details how their programs are often untested (despite grandiose claims), increase segregation, and divert public money earmarked for the least privileged communities to corporate interests.

Ravitch doesn’t just criticize and complain, though, as she also offers solutions that will address educational achievement gaps in schools as well as addressing the crisis of poverty that often undermines even the best intended educational programs.  I’ve listed them below, but please be aware that each solution is accompanied by a chapter-long description and action plan.

  • Solution No. 1: Provide good prenatal care for every pregnant woman.
  • Solution No. 2: Make high-quality early-childhood education available to all children.
  • Solution No. 3: Every school should have a full, balanced and rich curriculum, including the arts, science, history, literature, civics, geography, foreign languages, mathematics, and physical education.
  • Solution No. 4: Reduce class sizes to improve student achievement and behavior.
  • Solution No. 5: Ban for-profit charters and charter chains and ensure that charter schools collaborate with public schools to support better education for all children.
  • Solution No. 6: Provide the medical and social services that poor children need to keep up with their advantaged peers.
  • Solution No. 7: Eliminate high-stakes standardized testing and rely instead on assessments that allow students to demonstrate what they know and can do.
  • Solution No. 8: Insist that teachers, principals and superintendents be professional educators.
  • Solution No. 9: Public schools should be controlled by elected school boards or by boards in large cities appointed for a set term for more than one elected official.
  • Solution No. 10: Devise actionable strategies and specific goals to reduce racial segregation and poverty.
  • Solution No. 11: Recognize that public education is a public responsibility, not a consumer good.

Favorite Passages:

“In this book, I show that the schools are in crisis because of persistent, orchestrated attacks on them and their teachers and principals, and attacks on the very principle of public responsibility for public education. These attacks create a false sense of crisis and serve the interests of those who want to privatize the public schools.”

 

“I contend that their solutions are not working. Some are demonstrably wrong. Some, like charter schools, have potential if the profit motive were removed, and if the concept were redesigned to meet the needs of the communities served rather than the plans of entrepreneurs. It is far better to stop and think than to plunge ahead vigorously, doing what is not only ineffective but wrong.”

 

“Testing in the early grades should be used sparingly, not to rank students, but diagnostically, to help determine what they know and what they still need to learn. Test scores should remain a private matter between parents and teachers, not shared with the district or the state for any individual student. The district or state may aggregate scores for entire schools but should not judge teachers or schools on the basis of these scores.”

 

“If you want a society organized to promote the survival of the fittest and the triumph of the most advantaged, then you will prefer the current course of action, where children and teachers and schools are “racing to the top.” But if you believe the goal of our society should be equality of opportunity for all children and that we should seek to reduce the alarming inequalities children now experience, then my program should win your support.”

 

“The “reformers” say they want excellent education for all; they want great teachers; they want to “close the achievement gap”; they want innovation and effectiveness; they want the best of everything for everyone. They pursue these universally admired goals by privatizing education, lowering the qualifications for future teachers, replacing teachers with technology, increasing class sizes, endorsing for-profit organizations to manage schools, using carrots and sticks to motivate teachers, and elevating standardized test scores as the ultimate measure of education quality. “Reform” is really a misnomer, because the advocates for this cause seek not to reform public education but to transform it into an entrepreneurial sector of the economy. The groups and individuals that constitute today’s reform movement have appropriated the word “reform” because it has such positive connotations in American political discourse and American history. But the roots of this so-called reform movement may be traced to a radical ideology with a fundamental distrust of public education and hostility to the public sector in general.”

 

“Disabling or eliminating teachers’ unions removes the strongest voice in each state to advocate for public education and to fight crippling budget cuts. In every state, classroom teachers are experts in education; they know what their students need, and their collective voice should be part of any public decision about school improvement. Stripping teachers of their job protections limits academic freedom. Evaluating teachers by the test scores of their students undermines professionalism and encourages teaching to the test. Claiming to be in the forefront of a civil rights movement while ignoring poverty and segregation is reactionary and duplicitous.”

 

“The states of Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Colorado, which volunteered to participate in TIMSS, ranked among the top-performing nations in the world. Massachusetts, had it been an independent nation would have been ranked second in the world, behind Singapore.”

 

“Eliminating unions does not produce higher achievement, better teachers, or even higher test scores. Eliminating unions silences the most powerful advocate for public education in every state. It assures that there will be no one at the table to object when the governor or legislature wants to cut the budget for public schools. The union’s main role is to advocate for better working conditions and better compensation for its members. Better working conditions translate into better learning conditions for students, such as reduced class size and more resources for the schools. Better compensation attracts and retains teachers, which reduces teacher attrition. That too benefits students.”

 

“The claims made by Teach for America distract the nation from the hard work of truly reforming the education profession. Instead of building a profession that attracts well-qualified candidates to make a career of working in the nation’s classrooms, our leaders are pouring large sums of money into a richly endowed organization that supplies temporary teachers. If we were serious about improving teacher quality, we would encourage all future teachers to get a solid education and preparation for teaching, and we would expect districts and states to construct a support system to help them get better every year. Instead of expending so much energy on whom to fire, we would focus energy on making teaching a prestigious profession in which classroom teachers have considerable professional autonomy over what and how they teach.”

 

“Charter schools satisfied a long-standing ideological drive by libertarians to remove schools from government control and shift public assets into private hands. ALEC—the American Legislative Exchange Council—immediately saw the possibilities. ALEC, an organization of some two thousand state legislators and business leaders, promotes privatization and corporate interests. ALEC’s model law for charter schools is called the Next Generation Charter Schools Act. It has several key points: first, it insists that charter schools are public schools, even though they may be controlled by private boards and operate for profit; second, charter schools should be exempt from most state laws and regulations applied to public schools; third, charter schools may be authorized by multiple agencies, such as the state board of education, universities, and charter-friendly organizations, which maximizes the opportunities to open new charters; and fourth, the governor should have the power to appoint a board to authorize charters and override local school boards, which are often reluctant to grant these charters because they drain resources from the school system whose interests they are elected to protect. This legislation encourages the acceleration of privatization and undermines local control of schools. The corporate agenda of privatization and free markets, in this instance, takes precedence over the traditional conservative belief in small government and local control. In that sense, the reform agenda is not really a conservative agenda but a radical attack on local control that serves corporate interests, not Main Street.”

 

“At present, our national policy relies on the belief that constant testing will improve the education of children in the poorest neighborhoods. But this is the cheapest way to supply schooling, not the best way or the right way. The children with the greatest needs are the most expensive to educate. They will not have equality of educational opportunity if their schools focus relentlessly on preparing them to take state tests. Like children in elite private schools and affluent suburbs, they need the arts and sports and science laboratories and libraries and social workers; they need school nurses and guidance counselors. They need to learn history and civics, to read literature and learn foreign languages. They need the latest technology and opportunities to learn to play musical instruments, to sing in groups, to make videos, and to perform in plays. They need beautiful campuses too. It will not be cost-effective to give them what they need. It is expensive. What is needed most cannot be achieved by cutting costs, hiring the least experienced teachers, increasing class size, or replacing teachers with computers.”

 

Recommended booksThe Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz,  Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill) by David Cay Johnston, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Joseph E. Stiglitz and Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights by Thom Hartmann.
Rating: ****1/2

Worst Night of the Year Won’t Go Away


Believe it or not it’s been three years since I posted how much I hate Daylight Saving Time, and particularly the night in which we must “spring forward” the clock 1 hour.  I’m not looking forward to waking up tomorrow and dragging myself through the day.

I’ve nothing new to write, but here are my previous four posts on the topic:

EDIT ON MONDAY:  Here’s something that might make me wonder.  How about instead of having the time change occur on a weekend in the middle of the night, why not have the time change on a Monday afternoon.  That’s right, at 1 pm on Monday afternoon everyone sets their clocks ahead to 2 pm.  A shorter workday for everyone once a year!  And yes, employers, you still pay your hourly workers for an 8-hour day.