The Power and the Mediocrity of the Sign

In “What Americans Keep Ignoring about Finland’s School Success,” Anu Partanen reveals capitalist Anglo-America’s elephant-in-the-room-sized blind spot, why its focus on competition and “excellence” results in diminishing performance in order to promote concentrated power and idealism.

The Finns (Per Sahlberg) on education reform that demands accountability from teachers: “There is no word for accountability in Finnish. Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” In Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility.

The Finns (Samuli Paronen) on competition: “Real winners do not compete.” There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The driver of education policy in Finland is not competition amongst teachers and schools, policy forcing the ideal conservative conditions of bellum omnia contra omnes, but rather cooperation. School choice is not an issue, nor is putting education in the hands of the private sector and profit motive. This is in distinct contrast to America, Sahlberg observes, where “schools are a shop.”

The Finnish education reform goal was always equality and equity, never “excellence” or whatever conservative daydreams that word stands in for. “Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.” What the world dominated by conservative Anglo-american capitalist dogma still cannot face is that it is equality that most efficiently produces star performances and substantive excellence.

Tiger Moms’ genius boys in Shanghai and Singpore can put in 20-hour days of rote memorization and exhaustive cramming, and only manage to approximate in performance the Finnish children who are simply well cared for and supported by valued, independent, unionized teachers and their egalitarian society. Surely, the East Asian genius boys are better poster boys for conservative capitalist discipline; but just as surely they are inefficient…and 99% of these memorizers and crammers will never be able to write a non-plagiarized essay, that is, communicate independently, like humans can.

Why does egalitarianism more efficiently make excellence? The answer is right in front of our nose, right in front of our blind spot. It’s because in the inequality tradition, poor people are overwhelmingly, structurally prevented from attaining their human potentials, and, a factor that perversely torments conservative theorists much more, the rich enjoy the comfort of knowing that surrounded by throngs of shackled “competitors,” they can enjoy many a good old slack.

In such a conservative culture, it is the appearance and ideal of excellence that matters, because the sign unmoored is directed by and justifies power. To be chosen is a sign, necessarily imposed upon the material world. The grim “play” of signs, only ordered by the mystified, atopic distribution of power in a reified collective imagination (a world not made but given, or made by all because you cannot choose unfreely), is Anglos’ obsession, and the more people you can induce to submit to this obsession, the more human life chances are allocated by market power and the more absolutely necessary capitalism (or its feudal and slavery complements)  is for any life chance at all.

At or adhered to central nodes of global capitalist accumulation, Anglo-Americans are altogether too kind, too attentive to, too solicitous of the promotional, the unmoored sign, constantly mistaking it for the legitimate, autarkic limits of knowable (meta)reality. Our literature, for one example, is far too ready to believe that the con man is the true knower.

Primitive Accumulation, Negative Externalities and Growth

Over the years, Stefano Bartolini has modeled economic growth, showing that whereas most models of economic growth feature accumulation and technical progress as engines of growth, a third engine is needed to ensure self-perpetuating economic growth. History, the theory of Polanyi & Hirsch, and Bartolini’s models suggest that third engine is 2 negative externalities that combine to drive growth: 1) positional externalities, and 2) externalities that reduce social and natural capital.

Pagano 1999 defined a positional good: consumption by an individual of a positive amount of a positional good involves the consumption of an equal negative amount by someone else. Power and status are fundamental positional goods; others include education and housing.  The positional goods/services/externalities theoretical tradition extends from Veblen 1899/1934 and Hirsh 1976. In addition to Bartolini, Robert H. Frank (“Falling Behind”) has continued to explore this tradition as well as Bowles and Park 2002, Schor 1998, and Corneo and Jeanne 2001.

“Industrial revolutions are the paradigmatic example of this (Growth as Substitution) mechanism: they are the most striking processes of labor supply and accumulation increase because they are the most striking processes of social and environmental devastation recorded by economic history” (Stefano Bartolini, “Beyond Accumulation and Technical Progress: Negative Externalities as an Engine of Economic Growth.” 2003: 9).

Williamson 1995, Krugman 1995, and Bartolini et al have shown that the transition to an industrial economy has always been associated with explosive growth in the labor force participation rate.

Such growth-propelling negative externalities are discussed within the Marxist tradition as primitive accumulation. To further explore: The relationship between primitive accumulation and other capitalist strategies of promoting profit-restoring growth to the point of increasing contradiction / social and environmental irrationality.

Bartolini’s growth-model can better explain the failure of conservative economics’ predicted relationship between growth and happiness (Bartolini 2003). Inter alia, political scientist Lane 2000 shows that American growth is not associated with increased happiness.

The How & Why of Privatization Touts

At the Ivies, the students are instructed by only the most high-status, most fail-tastic privatization marketeers (AKA conservative economists) that only the best-funded gentlemen’s networks can float.

How privatization and class warfare is sold to future US leadership: with lies, covering obscene kleptocracy and its further socialized costs.

Note: Larry Summers may have long since lost his royal Harvard throne, but not just because of his sexism (the putative cause) and racist ecological imperialism (There’s that too.), or even just being an evil overlord of the rampant social, economic and environmental mega-destruction that is neoliberalism. Rather, his Harvard departure is likely due to this: Summers decided to use Harvard funds to pay the costs (The US Justice Department fined Shleifer $26.5 million) of Andrei Shleifer’s massive kleptocratic privatization profiteering in post-communist Russia.

Yee-ha! Good ole fancy boys! Creme de la…uh… I’m guessing Summers himself has enjoyed many, many such back-scratching indulgences over the years, and it’s all par for the course for that highly-oiled and polished ruling mafioso. What was that? Did someone mention Goldman Sachs owns the Fed and the US government? You don’t say. Now what were we talking about? Berlusconi?

Harvard University: You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.

Mazzucato’s The entrepreneurial state

Mazzucato’s “The Entrepreneurial State,” in which Mazzucato questions the neoliberal orthodoxy on public spending–that the state must be cut back to make room for entrepreneurship and innovation, to prevent the public sector ‘crowding out’ the private sector. Mazzucato argues that the neoliberal policy program draws on a belief that the private sector is dynamic, innovative and competitive, in contrast to a presumably sluggish and bureaucratic public sector.

The Entrepreneurial State challenges the “minimalist view” of economic policy. It finds that successful economies result from government doing more than just creating the right conditions for growth.

Instead, government has a key role to play in developing new technologies whose potential is not yet understood by the business community. State-funded organisations can be nimble and innovative, transforming economies forever — the algorithm behind Google was funded by a public sector National Science Foundation grant.

 This pamphlet forces the debate to go beyond the role of the state in stimulating demand, or crudely ‘picking winners’ in industrial policy. Instead, it argues for a proactive, entrepreneurial state: a state that is able to take risks and harness the best of the private sector. It imagines the state as a catalyst, sparking the initial reaction that will cause innovation to spread.

–From the abstract

“The Entrepreneurial State” sounds super Peter Evans-derivative (Hello? “Embedded Autonomy” isn’t that old, people). It sounds a little dumber than Evans, actually, since it seems, from the abstract, not to include Evan’s key observation that when a state fosters innovation, capital, being capital, will turn around and try to destroy the conditions of innovation, the state.

I think the argument has to advance. The neoliberal myth about private innovation/public stagnation is designed not to promote minimalist economic policy. There’s no evidence for that. Rather, it’s designed to promote primitive accumulation.

Attacking Teachers’ Unions with Neoliberal Tactics

In LA, a neoliberal coalition involving the ACLU got a court to reduce teachers’ union-negotiated seniority protection, on behalf of poor students.
The Principal Established: “In Social Crises, Unions are Not Compatible with the Public Good”

In “partly” getting rid of seniority, the point is the establishment
of a governance principle: “The public good is diminished by unions’
negotiating power in establishing work conditions (in the form of linking both
compensation and job security with experience).” That principle is
what the neoliberal education reform industry was trying to achieve,
because it lays further ground for the claim that working class
organization (unions) violates civil law, which can be diffused across
American law and education policy.Why seniority is essential to quality jobs, unions and education quality:

Protecting seniority protects workers against being fired when their
union-negotiated wages and benefits begin to compensate for both
training and experience. Without seniority, the compensation won in
negotiations cannot be realized, and this means the union involves a
lot of work without being able to secure any effect. The union becomes nonviable.

Further, education is destabilized.The for-profit motivation for neoliberal education reform tactics:

The commercial interest promoting this antiunion governance principle
is that making working class organization illegal allows private
education firms to offer competitive products to replace public
education. Private education products are competitive insofar as their
profitability (required) to owners, top management and shareholders is
dependent upon 1) Rents: The private firms use education
infrastructure paid for by the public, and 2) Paying teachers
deskilled workers’ poverty wages (perhaps after a seductive
introductory offer good until teachers are no longer unionized).

Inasmuch as this is the motivated interest behind the neoliberal education
reform and privatization campaign, it is not always sufficient to make
the case that this private interest (opposed to unions) represents the public good.

This is why it is important for neoliberals to make the case that the poor
and/or people of color’s interests are also opposed to unions or union

The neoliberal crisis-exploitation strategy

The justifying context is crisis; conveniently for neoliberals, the poor are always in crisis in capitalism.

A situation in which the state is laying off teachers en masse (and
rehiring) and this is disrupting education is one hell of a basis
to claim that the cause of poor childrens’ educational disruption is
the union’s teacher seniority protection. I find the neoliberal actions of the
ACLU lawyers disgusting; but it’s my fault for being naive and romantic about the (Orange County!) ACLU. Orange County goes to show: Neoliberalism is conservatism, often dressed up in multiculturalism.
Consequences of education privatization and deunionization:
Labor market, economic, educational, political and social-psychological

The market discriminates in providing goods and services. (Or, if you think the public education system discriminates against the poor, you aint seen nothin yet…) Those education consumers who have the effective demand (wealth) will (have to) get a much better product in the market than those who do not, and this drop in service quality to the working class will be much larger than with a publicly-provided good or service. That’s why charter schools underperform public schools.

Teachers’ unions are the basis for a middle class in society. When the education market is privatized, individual families and the public pay largely for privatized profits, instead of middle class wages for educated professionals. With privatization and deunionization, profit must be generated out of education (a no- to low-profit sector in the poverty, working class and middle class markets), so you have to rid society of a large sector of middle-wage skilled jobs and replace them with a few highly-compensated upper management jobs and a large sector of low-wage junk jobs.

This deskilling labour market transformation reduces consumer demand and economic growth, and so the tax base is further reduced, even as for-profit education companies must be subsidized by the public in order to profit, and thus drain public resources. So this immediate-cost-saving strategy, deunionization/privatization, has significant and broad long-term economic costs, including state revenue decline that necessitates the  withdrawal of the very voucher system that enabled public education dismantling–leaving nothing but the smoldering shell of the education system, and transferring more superfluous money into the already-overstuffed pockets of the superrich elite. This is a formula for gutting a once-affluent economy.

Deunionization/privatization also produces a mismatch between the cost
of education required for the job (high) and the job compensation
(low), which will on a slight time lag result in more education system

Unions professionalize teachers; and devolving education decision-making power to professional–that is, responsible, judicious, skilled, competent–teachers, in interaction with parents and communities, creates the best, most responsive education decisions and innovation. Without the cultural respect for education and educators that strong unions can promote, education is degraded and devalued, as in Arizona for one example; skills and competencies consequently decline across the region.

With no academic incentive but for efficient junk job training, by and large students and people lose the comparative perspective, leadership and decision-making skills, and other middle class approaches and competencies that education can provide. One of the most profound cultural competencies lost, which only professional, respected, semi-autonomous teachers can deliver on a broad basis, is critical civic competency, including antiracism. The idea of the cross-tribe public good, today used by neoliberals as a tool for promoting private interest, is lost in a high-inequality society.

These are all reasons why, with loss of union density, happiness decreases across society, see this study.

Over 100 years ago, W.E.B. DuBois critiqued the neoliberal approach to educating African-Americans; in that era of “commercial triumphalism,” the neoliberalism was racist. In our era, it’s both racist and classist, as needed. No matter how pragmatically or sentimentally the strategy is marketed, in any era, the goal and effect of neoliberalism is to institutionalize extreme inequality and a high rate of exploitation.

From Chicago is the opposite to the LA deunionization approach.

Privatize Libraries, Destroy Communities and Lives

A response to the NYTimes article on the privatization of libraries in the US. The privatization firm is called LSSI.

Let us be clear. LSSI is for-profit. That means that in pushing privatization, these towns’ leaders have chosen to supply one parasitical sociopath (the capitalist Pezzanite) with a steady, fat hoard of local public wealth that once went to the public good, forcing its information-skilled citizen-librarians out to eat catfood under the bridge, and reducing libraries to no more than romance and true-crime paperback lending mills, the beach books doled out for now by a dying generation of volunteers with leisure time, the remnants of an age of lower inequality. Thereby one of the vestige democratic institutions in American society, the public library, is flattened and extinguished.

This is done, as it is done repeatedly throughout our society, to save society from paying workers pensions. This is always justified by claiming that workers don’t do anything. Putting aside the abject, venal inanity of this claim, you might think that there is zero thought going on in our nation’s decentralized public management class about what happens when you take away pensions from most workers. It’s true, the management has no other ideas. Their only ambition was to make it into the management class. And here they are, with all these devolved public services, and no tax base.

If they were to think about what they’re building, they would realize that the only world they can imagine or desire is a giant slum full of cheap labour, with themselves sailing above it all in personal helicopters. Some of our economic priests claim that reducing US workers to the global peasant standard will save America by reducing the trade deficit. But that’s like saying a tsunami will clean windows.

The sheer size of the US, besides giving us in the context of high economic, social and political inequality a vicious, debased national civic culture, means that the weight of 3 decades of outrageous, hegemonic, ideological bankruptcy drags each and every community further and further down one 2-rut road heading into a gorge, with no braking.

In one rut is the majority of Americans, quickly being ground down into a cat food-grubbing peasant class. In the other rut is the ever-solipsistic would-be nobility class, wasting their every bonus, speculation winning, and raise on competing with each other to drive up the cost of positional goods so that, like U Chicago’s infamous Todd Henderson, they can never take enough wealth and blow it.

"Nonprofit" Corruption

A revealing article, dubbed wonkishly enough “The Pennsylvania Community Health Reinvestment Agreement”:

This article provides an overview of one of the many, many problems with a private health care system. Here we see the many opportunities for corruption available to the insurers that enjoy non-profit status, Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

The historical roots of Blue Cross/Blue Shield are in the efforts of the AMA to maintain “provider sovereignty”–that is, to prevent the majority of Americans from access to health care, so that the health care market would be calibrated to the incomes/wealth of the most affluent Americans, thus maintaining medical doctors’ financial elitism in addition to their elite status.

It should be made clear to non-Americans that Blue Cross/Blue Shield do not primarily service needy populations.

These insurers’ unregulated status makes public accountability impossible, as this article demonstrates.

Blue Cross/Blue Shield provide an excellent case of the widespread corruption and inefficiency that dominates US businesses via “creative” accounting. They went from no reserves to pay claims in the 1980s and 1990s–when they poured insurance income into outrageous golf junkets and Paris headquarters–to a new amassing of massive wealth at the public and social expense. While companies and individuals paying for health insurance fork over ever higher premiums for the “confidential” ends of the private healthcare insurers, this wealth has been dedicated to ridiculously high executive salaries, the retention of armies of ridiculously overpaid legal firms, and political lobbying.

In exchange for minimal and insecure commitments to low-income health insurance subsidization (covering 100,000 people), the Pennsylvania Agreement effectively relieves these unaccountable companies and their for-profit subsidiaries from contributing to the public welfare through taxation. Crazily enough, the PA Community Investment Agreement appears to be the very best the privatized US health care system can do to provide health care coverage. It is hailed as a cutting-edge model for states hoping to cope with the devastating health care crisis. For in most states, governments have no ability to regulate these “nonprofit” monsters.

And by regulate, I mean to say: Governments have no ability to determine whether a nonprofit is acting in any “benevolent” (as opposed to bilking) manner whatsoever. They have no access to information about rates and expenditures. This brings into question the whole point of even having a “nonprofit” category in public governance. Since its a capitalist country, why assume that any private business is “benevolent” at all? Blue Cross/Blue Shield themselves deny it! Here is the reason for the “nonprofit” category in the US: It’s an avenue for graft.

Blue Cross/Blue Shield are a clear cut case that privatized health care is socially inefficient and socially damaging.