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The Dumbest Idea I’ve Heard in My Adult Lifetime

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Congratulations, America. We Did it Again.

One of the fun parts about someone who essentially thinks for a living (hey, I didn’t say I always did it well) is that I spend time combing through and poring over ideas. Headlines, tweets, books, articles. Ideas, ideas, ideas. Good ones, and bad ones. The middling ones — easy to discard. The good ones go in my little mental file. What do they mean? What values and perspectives shaped them? What are they really trying to say, reveal, offer?

And then there are the bad ones. The ones that make me gawp and chuckle and drop my jaw. Most of those, these days, come from America. Arming teachers? Letting hedge funds raid pensions? LOL — those are just the medium grade bad ideas. Try obsequiously profiling fascists as brave free-thinkers and bold renegades, like the New York Times now specializes in.

Bad ideas are interesting in a different way. Those examples prove that what I think of as bad ideas aren’t often the ones many people do. What does it take for an idea to be so catastrophically foolish that, in these fractured times, we can reach something like a consensus on it? Let’s talk about a really bad one.

Allow me to introduce you to the most foolish idea I think I’ve ever heard. So far, anyways. I know, that’s a high bar. But as I reflected on it, sipping my coffee, trying to write about something else, a little voice in my head kept saying to me: “Wait. There’s nothing dumber than this — nothing. This is the dumbest idea you’ve ever heard.

Arizona has a plan to pay people to pay people to withdraw their kids from public school. How much? $4,400 precisely. That’s about a month’s income, on average. Courtesy, of course, of a band of politicians so extreme they make the Taliban look like Gandhi, crackpot economists, and pundits who’ve never read a book that wasn’t on the bestseller list at Faux News. This isn’t a “school voucher” — in a classic Orwellianism, it’s the very opposite: you can’t choose, say, different public schools within a district and so forth — only private ones. Writ large, across America, it would basically mean that public schools cease to exist, at least in many places, and certainly as we know and think of them.

Remember when I said the ideas I think are bad aren’t usually the ones many of you do? I can see plenty of you objecting now — “what’s wrong with that? I’ll save money! And I can educate my kid the way I want, too!” And then there are those of you who’ll be quite naturally repelled at this strange and bizarre proposal. What other country would be so laughably, hilariously backwards, ignorant enough, to pay people not to send their kids to school? Many countries on the planet, poorer ones, are trying to build schools, and send kids to them, from sweatshops, for heaven’s sake. Has America still really not learned that stability, democracy, and prosperity are made of progress — not medieval regress?

Who’s right? In some things, my friends, there is no right and wrong — maybe if we’re writing a song. But in some matters right and wrong do exist — and one of these matters is educating children. One way will lead to more wrong, more bad, more ills of the bodies economic, social, and politic — and one to more good, more expansion and realization of human possibility. So let’s think about — LOLWTF— paying people not to send their kids to school is a bad idea. Now, you might object to my phrasing — “paying people not to send their kids to school”, versus “paying people to withdraw their kids from public schools.” Unfortunately, I’m speaking in simple but lethally accurate terms. Let me prove it.

American incomes have been stagnant since before I was born. Costs have exploded. Hence, the average American too often falls for the stupid and foolish thought — one which doesn’t much thought in it, to be frank — that he can “save money” by paying “less taxes.” The result is that he ends up paying capitalist not just a little more, or even twice as much, what he would paid his fellow citizens — after all, that is all government is — for the very same things: he pays an order of magnitude more.

Take the example of insulin. It costs pennies, maybe pounds, in countries which have public healthcare. It costs Americans thousands. The same is true across every single sector of the economy, more or less. Without working public retirement systems, the average American pays Wall St a fortune for the privilege of “managing his money” — if he has any, that is — when he could just put it an index fund himself, and save, over a lifetime, enough to buy a new car, maybe a house. And on and on. Everywhere, Americans have been duped by capitalism into paying an order of magnitude or more for the very same things which public goods could provide them best and cheapest of all.

These economics are, though, are never so true as in education. A surgeon might just save your life. But a child will receive much the same education in a public school as he will in a private one — in fact, he will probably receive a much better one. He will read the same books, and study the same theories, and solve the same equations. Only in a public school, he will learn something more than all this — what it means to be a civilized person, rubbing shoulders with children from all walks, of all colors, practicing all creeds. Public schools are not the cosseted bubbles private ones are — and one of the great keys to building a successful society is to invest in public education.

Investing in world-beating public education has been just fine for every other rich nation to vastly outperform America in nearly every regard — longevity, happiness, trust, democracy, equality. Because America invests the least, by a long way, it also has decrepit schools, subpar curricula, and grossly underpaid teachers, who try to correct, bravely, for just the above. The solution to this problem is obvious — pay teachers more, and spend more money on schools. Let every neighborhood and country have the kind of shining high school equipped with a cutting edge physics lab and theater and music studio that rich ones have. A prosperous society is built on those things — not billionaires and hedge funds versus GoFundMes and gig economies.

Hence, in economic terms, we’d say that strong investment in public education has significant, society-altering externalities — its uncounted benefits far exceed its costs. It breaks apart old hierarchies. It fosters norms of equality, decency, respect, truth. It generates trust that cuts across social strata and groups. It undoes the ill effects of inherited power and privilege. It creates something like a truly level playing field for a society’s children — who are, of course, its future. And yet all these things are what are badly missing in America today, aren’t they?

So good — robust, equitable, accessible — public education socializes children into being intelligent, critical, thoughtful citizens of functioning democracies, and you only have to look at America to see what a deficiency of investment in public education cheats a society of: a functioning democracy. That’s not to say “charter schools are bad!” Not at all. But is to say that without functioning public education — not attacks on it — a modern democracy cannot really function as one, because it sets a floor, a unifying standard, norms, values, it is a civilizing mechanism. Nor is this idea really about “vouchers” — it is about destroying public education — Arizona’s system loads the “money” people are paid “back” onto debit cards, which can be spent only on…capitalism, because the condition is they cannot send their kids to public schools anymore.

Consider for a moment there are people who simply pocketed the money, and didn’t send their kids to school at all. But should we blame them, in a society where making ends meet has become an ordeal? Yet there are many things people should not have the choice to do if we are all to live in a civilized society. I don’t have the choice to shout slurs at you on the street, without paying a price. Nor should I have the choice to teach my kids that bizarre superstitions and rank misinformation are true — let alone that racism, fascism, bigotry, and hate are OK — because that way, I am not just cheating me, or them of democracy: I am cheating you, too. And if enough people want that — that way, my friends, lies the abyss. Madrasas which indoctrinate, authoritarian youth leagues which control, instead of schools which educate. I am reneging on my social contract to you if I don’t invest in public education.

So now let’s think about what happens if enough people in a society take their kids out of public school. What happens next? LOL — capitalism does. But just like capitalism has no incentive to provide you decent healthcare — only to take you for all you’re worth, while delivering the lowest quality and most subpar standard of care at the highest imaginable price, even if it’s staggering, amoral, unethical, and beyond belief, like hundreds of thousands for that drug which used to cost mere hundreds — in exactly the same way, capitalism has no incentive whatsoever to educate your kids well, thoroughly, or even at all.

Instead, capitalism will probably build something that looks like a cross between a McDonald’s and a theme park, where you drop your kids off, as they scream with excitement. There, it’ll give them the lowest common denominnator at the cheapest possible cost — probably something like iPads with YouTube videos on them. Nobody will care, and nobody will be watching, because nobody will be paid enough, to check if they’re not clicking on weirdo fascist videos instead. “Ah — but then they’ll fail the tests!” you cry. In fact, since the capitalist are also in the business of making the tests, they’ll probably pass with flying colors — even if they can barely read a book.

And when it comes time to bill you for all this? Well, prepare for a shock. The first year, it’ll be cheap, and you’ll be happy. Five years in, you’ll frown — that’s what you used to pay for public school, isn’t it? A decade in, and the price will have skyrocketed to something like a college tuition. Why? Because by now, private equity funds will have “rolled up” all those school companies — made a monopoly of them, and that monopoly, just like all the other ones, will laugh while it jacks up prices to levels that would have made the moneylenders Jesus kicked out of the temple staggered in awe. Isn’t that exactly what happened in every other privatized industry — healthcare, finance, retirement, and so on? It’s not a coincidence — it’s how economics, specifically the economics of capitalism, work. You’ll have panic attacks at night, lying awake and wondering how you’ll send your kids to school. College? Forget about that — now it’s just about eighth grade.

Only you’re not really sending your kids to school. You’re sending them to a McDonald’s crossed with a theme park, where they watch YouTube videos, while no one really looks after them. They’re not students, and they’re not even customers — you’re the customer, and they’re the raw material to make a product. Since you’re the customer, maybe you’ve chosen a school where they’re taught dinosaurs walked the earth in living memory, or maybe one where exterminating the weak is perfectly fine, or maybe one where, secretly, there are no dirty, filthy immigrants allowed.

You’re sending them to capitalism, not school. In other words, because you’re the customer, and you’re paying through the nose for the privilege, capitalism will give all kinds of ways to miseducate and misinform your kids. Those theme parks crossed with McDonald’s will soon enough become something more like madrasas crossed with Hitler Youth leagues. They’ll teach your kids any kind of folly and stupidity and ignorance — as long as you pay them to. But teaching someone to be ignorant is not teaching at all, really, is it?

(Now, the richest will probably happily take the money they’re being paid not to educate their kids, and use spend it on private schools. It’s the poorest who’ll suffer most, as public education crumbles and withers, and capitalism begins to laugh, sneer, and bite down.)

At this point, desperate just to save money, maybe you think — “I’ll just send Little Johnny back to public school!” So down the avenue you drive. Unfortunately, the local public school is now a boarded up wreck. Why? Because it takes a critical mass of people to fund schools, which of course depend on economies of scale. Together we can afford a dozen teachers much more effectively than we can if we are all reneging on our social contracts to one another. If we don’t invest together, soon enough, public schools will close — just like healthcare systems, hospitals, pensions, and so on did. Too late: now you have made an irreversible choice. You can decide to unmake public goods, like education — but when you need them, suddenly, they are not there, because they take time, effort, and investment to build. They don’t reappear by magic, after all.

What is the product capitalism was really selling you, to lead you down this path of folly? Hate, my friend, hate. “If I take my kid away from those dirty, filthy subhumans, he will have a better chance! If only little Johnny doesn’t have to learn these strange, dangerous theories of evolution and gravity and the earth being round!” . The only reason, really, that a person would assent to being paid to take their kids out of school is if they do not believe in the idea behind education itself — which is that learning, knowledge, trust, and decency are all forms of public goods. Things which inhere to the benefit of all. You do not care about all. Just some — yours, your tribe, your colour, your caste, which must rise supreme. Therefore, a true education, and the greatest of ideas it carries, that civilization rests upon public goods, is something you must repudiate and reject. “Little Johnny must secure the future of my people!!” But it is thinking about everyone else, in moral, social, and historical terms that makes Little Johnny an educated child.

Capitalism is soothing your fears away, by telling you your kids will be separate and safe, a different caste and stratum. You are the customer, your paranoias, anxieties, fears are the need, and the product is hate, to put it simply. The result, eventually, probably, a little child who contains all that, too. One who, like his parents, hopes for a triumphal future for his own — but not for anyone else. That is what happens in countries that choose sectarian ideology, superstition, and folly over education, the madrasa and the youth league over the school — do I really have to name them?

So now, growing up, such children will probably just recapitulate all the hate, blindness, and folly of the past, won’t they? After all, that is what they’ve been taught — or made ignorant enough — to do. And that is the problem. In the infinite regress of capitalism eating away at people’s decency, intelligence, and wisdom, democracy is hardly likely to survive. It might not in America, anyways. And that raises the question: how do you even come up with an idea so amazingly, brain-meltingly, shatteringly stupid as paying people not to send their kids to school?

Remember when I said this was the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard? It’s because all the other dumb ideas — fascism, ecocide, the notion that violence can solve our problems, that hate will make us great again, that clawing others down can lift us up — are born from even more foolish ones like this. They are results of all that, too — but in the real world, the causality goes the other way. If you want to make an idiot, a ignoramus, or a fool — I repeat myself — don’t send a child to school. Take the money and run. If you want to make a society, or even a world, collapse — there’s no better method than that.

October 2018

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