More Reflections From The Political Prism

Occupiers--Next Steps

When the Occupiers got evicted from their sites in a number of cities, some commentators remarked that it was the best thing that could happen to them.

I agree. The Occupiers have made their point, and made it very well. But demonstrations per se are mindless. Dozens of brilliant ideas may have been generated in the Occupiers’ minds, but none have been conveyed to the general public. It is time, as they say, to move on.

But the Occupiers don’t have to stop demonstrating. They can decentralize across the city, demonstrating at any number of spots for a few hours or a day at a time. (Think of all the mini-parks in Lakewood.) These mini-demonstrations offer much better opportunities for contact with members of the public than the mass demonstrations seen so far. And this leads to the next step, which is…

Recruiting and education: For every Occupier, there are probably scores or hundreds of individuals who are sympathetic but who for one reason or another have not joined the demonstrations. They must be recruited, and they must organize. Recruitment can be done by person-to-person contact. Education can be done partly in the same way, but mainly through the media and through teach-ins--which are a logical next step in any case.

For the benefit of those living on another planet, I note that a presidential election, along with congressional elections, will be held in about a year. This is just about the right amount of time to form an effective organization. Occupiers and Friends of Occupiers could form neighborhood organizations devoted to self-education and all the day-to-day jobs that make up the so-called ground operations of political campaigns.

Such an effort would require, first, the definition of goals and principles; second, identification of candidates who agree with these goals and principles; and, third, working to elect these candidates. And this brings up some problematic issues:

Organization and decision-making: Consensus and complete egalitarianism--which seem to be the custom in the Occupations so far--simply aren’t adequate to the job of large-scale action. For example, to bring various local Occupations into relation with one another, there must be representation. To carry out new activities, there must be someone to direct them. To make decisions, there must be some procedure that isn’t crippled by the need for absolute consensus. All this implies some sort of hierarchy, however mild.

Goals and principles: What are the goals and principles to be asserted, and how are candidates expected to respond to them? Defining the goals and principles should pose no particular problems--it will just require a lot of work. The statement of principles should be specific enough to generate actual policies, but broad enough to allow flexibility.

Candidates should be asked to agree with these principles in substance, not to bind themselves to any one specific policy. Indeed, an office-holder should never be required to commit absolutely to any specific policy--an example being the no-tax pledge, which is as despicable as it is pernicious. But even without any requirement of absolute commitment, it should be easy to distinguish the sheep from the goats.

Nor should the Friends of Occupiers identify with any one political party. To do so makes for easy betrayal.

Having acquired goals to work toward, the Friends of Occupiers could work on a local level--though related to each other through networks on a statewide or even national level --to bring about the change that the Occupations have called for.

On a Favorite Analogy of Deficit Hawks

In arguing against government expenditures, some ideologues draw a comparison between the national government and the family. (State governments are generally excluded because their constitutions require a balanced budget.) Reality, they say, dictates that the national government follow the example of a family. A family must live within its means--if it doesn’t have enough income to meet expenses, it must cut its expenses. It can’t borrow. FALSE. Many families borrow--they borrow the money to buy their homes. That is what happens when they take out a mortgage.

Just as the eligibility of a mortgage applicant can be open to question, so can the advisability of government borrowing be questioned in any particular case. But to decide the question absolutely on the basis of the government-family analogy is hogwash.

Teachers--Who Goes?

One of the most contentious questions in the recent battle over Issue 2 concerned the place of teacher seniority in the process of staff reductions. Issue 2 supporters argued that the iron rule of seniority allows incompetent teachers to remain in their jobs at the expense of new generations of young, dynamic and idealistic teachers.

On this general subject I plead much ignorance. As a student I have known some incompetent or lazy teachers (or so I thought), and I have heard complaints about incompetent and lazy teachers. But as to the specifics--how many incompetent teachers hold their jobs in this district or that, how their incompetence manifests itself, how performance is measured--these are things I wish I knew more about. Our School Board, or any school board, would be doing a service if they educated us about these things.

One question in mind concerns the teachers’ unions. It arises from the distinction between two kinds of union, which I’ll call commodity unions and skill unions.

By commodity unions I mean unions that organize workers whose labor is essentially a commodity, in the sense that one unit of labor can be substituted for another without significant result. In other words, as long as the laborer has the minimum required capability, one hour of his or her work is no better and no worse than any others. Absent a great shortage of laborers (as in the wake of the Black Death, for example), employers will have a decided advantage over employees in setting wages for this kind of job--the employer can set wages on a “take it or leave it” basis, knowing that if one applicant turns down the job there are many others who won’t. Thus unions are formed, presenting a united front. Strict seniority rules are important as a safeguard against firing on arbitrary grounds or because the worker is a “troublemaker” (read: union activist).

In skill unions, by contrast, each member has his or her own skill set and skill level, acquired through education, experience or innate ability. Interchanging the work of one member of a skill union with that of another will probably make a significant difference-- the result attained by one member will be better or worse than that attained by another.

Commodity unions have an important place in the history of the labor movement. Therefore, I suspect, there is a tendency on the part of skill unions to take the perspective appropriate to commodity unions. Is this true of teachers’ unions?

Skill unions stand on the competence of their members. Hence it seems to me that it would be in the interest of teachers’ unions to protect their brand by weeding out those who do not belong in their jobs, either because of general incompetence, laziness or because they are in a situation they are unsuited for. The school administration would be natural allies. (Some school districts may already be making this effort. If so, I applaud them.)

But to talk of weeding out bad teachers brings up the question of how we recognize bad teachers, which is to say, how to measure performance.

Here the question of junior vs. senior comes up. Whenever I hear about the brilliance of young, dedicated, idealistic teachers, I head for the hills. Idealistic and dedicated? Yes, in all probability. Fully competent? I have my doubts. One clear thing my life experience has taught me is that it takes a few years to sort out the good ideas from the bad and learn the tricks of the trade. On the other hand, teachers have to be young before they can be mature. Where is the next generation of teachers coming from, if they all get fired before at the beginning? Getting rid of young teachers is like throwing away your seed corn.

It’s a dilemma.

Indeed, the whole subject of performance measurement is a quandary. What is the criterion? Test scores? Different teachers have different types of students to work with. Comparison with other teachers? How many teachers in a school are teaching the exact same subject in the exact same situation, and how do we know which teachers are extraordinarily bad and which are extraordinarily good? Principals’ evaluations? That brings in the possibility of personal bias. And common sense tells me that some teachers are more effective in some situations than in others, whether for ethnic, social or intellectual reasons. Perhaps the schools need less punitive testing and more diagnostic testing, along with a focus on best practices.

The complexity of the problem makes me throw up my hands, but it leads to one firm conclusion: Rigid, universal commandments are not the answer. Each school district, keeping the welfare of the students firmly in mind, can best work out their problems in their own way.

--Gordon Brumm

Read More on Minding the Issues
Volume 7, Issue 25, Posted 11:52 PM, 12.13.2011