April 29, 2008

Tell me again: why don't we pay teachers well?

I read this article in the Times. I think it was also on Digg. I have heard no less than 3 co-workers discussing the same New York Times article about a charter school in New York. The basic premise of the newly approved charter school is that the best teachers turn out the most well educated students, and the way to attract the best teachers is to pay them well. “Well” meaning, well paid--in absolute terms--not relatively “well paid for teachers.” The starting salary is $125,000. The implications of this are far more significant than what is covered in the short article.

I say it is brilliant. Schools with the highest needs, which are usually in areas with the smallest tax base, are bleeding young, quality teachers. Teachers fresh out of school, inexperienced, head to these schools for a couple years and then look for a position in a higher paying district. Once they are equipped to best teach, they leave.

The profession of teaching struggles to attract smart, edgy career seekers because it is seen as a life of self-punishing service, in constant financial struggle. There is no way, regardless of talent and performance, for a teacher to make a salary that allows for a comfortable life in a major city. There is just no way to make a life in New York (or San Francisco or L.A. or Chicago, etc.) on $40,000. How could I ever buy a house on that? Granted, experienced teachers in my district make $70-80,000--which makes home-ownership more realistic. But going into teaching, while requiring a master’s degree, will never produce the salary that pursuing a career in i-banking, or engineering, or law will.

Teachers rely on a union to protect them from the district (government) and the administration. So by diminishing the administration, there is one less force attacking them. Then, in theory, if they are doing a good job (which is significantly easier with adequate compensation, for a variety of reasons, need I list them?) good teachers shouldn’t need the protection of a union. After all shouldn’t the students and parents protect them? And the bad teachers… well they will be fired. They will not be worth $125,000 a year to tax payers. But the good teachers can let their art in a classroom speak for itself.

There are more problems in the education system in this country than passengers on the Titanic. But paying teachers well is perhaps one step towards fixing at least one or two of the existing problems.

April 28, 2008

A Man Makes $4 Billion, as Much as All NYC Teachers. Should he be taxed less than them?

Yes, this is a capitalist country whereas people can risk, apply their efforts, and reap huge rewards. Unless, of course, you don't have access to opportunity. Unless, you are already at the top...

But, besides this, if we are all patriots and want to support this country called the United States of America, then the question is: how much everyone should chip into to pot? According to earnings and ability to pay? Is that fair? Whatever you think, this is not how it's done here.

This investor who gambled made $4 billion a year, just as much as all teachers in the NY City public schools made collectively! But, the super-rich have their capital gains taxed at 15% whereas teachers (and other workers) are taxed at twice or more this rate!

Here's an article by Alternet that makes the case. You may disagree with the author's conclusion and suggestions, but the facts remain the facts.

"The United States has the highest inequality rate in the developed world. 28 million Americans -- almost 1 in 10 -- are using food stamps. The average worker has seen virtually no real increase in wages since 1970.

Some hedge fund managers made over a billion dollars last year. Hedge fund manager John Paulson, who made a clever bet against subprime mortgages, made close to $4 billion.
How much is 4 billion dollars? If you work as a sales clerk in a retail store, you'd have to work 200,000 YEARS to make 4 billion dollars.

If you have a steady $50,000 a year job as a laborer and work for 50 years, in all that time you'd make as much as the hedge fund manager gets in one hour at the office."

April 12, 2008

The Politics of Tax & Spend and the Role of Government. Pay Your Taxes But Ask for Accountability too!

Ah, the tax-filing deadline is fast approaching. Have you done your taxes? You should file if you want to receive a "rebate" from our government, because this money (that we don't have but will borrow at great expense) will stimulate the slumping economy--or, that's the idea during this election year! Sure, why not. Our government wastes so much money anyway, what's a few hundred more billions of dollars? What most people don't get is that our political system is responsive to those who get access to it--the multitude who decide to organize and participate or those who buy influence through lobbying and personal connections.

As humans see the benefit of organizing themselves into a civil society--hopefully with a good social contract--the question arises of what the role of the government should be. I think it should be to protect and empower the commonwealth, that is, for the benefit of the greatest number of people possible. Yes, of course, I recognize the principle of protecting the minorities, however small they are, so you can not exploit the few for the benefit of the many either. This philosophical (and I maintain, practical) approach to the role of government is one of the important differences between the progressives and the conservatives today. But, in order for our government to do all the good things for us, it needs money, hence the ..dreadful taxes.

Have you noticed who has the strongest voice against taxes? Those who are better off. They usually get their way of tax breaks and lower taxation as a percentage and ability to pay. This week, NOW produced an excellent piece on the tax policies many states have embraced--policies that place most of the tax burden on those who can least afford it! See, for example, what NOW discovered in Alabama [click on the link to watch the NOW video] one of the most regressive states in the US, where a family of four with as low income as $12,600 has to pay taxes.

The connection to poverty & hunger is crystal clear. Next Friday, the farm bill expires and Congress is working on a new one. In light of our huge budget deficit, this farm bill is "the most lavish subsidies in American history" the Wall Street Journal has decried! The Senate Majority Leader Reid (D-NV) has acknowledged that the insurance companies and the commodities industry are the two most powerful groups that carry great influence with both parties in Congress. Most of the farm subsidies go to rich farmers, big corporations-- a practice which is both wasteful and unethical. This is one of the many cases where we have to stop and think, and ultimately call it as it is.

The smaller government advocated by conservatives means a big enough government to maintain a trough that feeds the few, but small enough that cannot regulate, inspect, and ensure a more fair distribution of the public wealth! This is the bottom line. Oh, OK, there's an exception regarding the size of the government: those conservatives that want the government to be strong enough to shove down our throats a particular religious morality they advocate.Why is there so much hunger in the US today? Why do we increase the farm subsidies to the rich farmers [there's a fight to limit payments to farmers making up to a $1 mil. instead of the present $2.5 ceiling] but we don't increase food stamps to poor Americans? Most rural poor that get food stamps have little food after the 3rd week of the month. We're talking about working people here, who simply do not make enough to feed their families.

There's a great hunger in rural America, 35 million of out citizens, but this is not even an issue discussed in the current presidential race! Bill Moyers has another excellent piece on the farm bill this week. Cash Cows and Cowboy Starter Kits from EXPOSÉ illustrates, some of the subsidies in the current iteration of the bill don't go to the stereotypical small American farmer — or even to farmers at all. See how the farm bill gives billions to people who don't farm, or "drought aid" to people who didn't suffer any drought conditions! Or, how people got money from the space shuttle explosion over Texas for a bogus "livestock compensation"!!!

Poverty exists in the US and it's bigger than we want to admit or pay attention to.There's another class, the missing class, of the near-poor. Katherine S. Newman has a great book on this subject. This video explains more about those Americans who are also forgotten, who live on the margins of the mainstream economy, and on the edge of economic disaster. We can cut hunger in the US by half in one year by eliminating the waste in just one area: farm subsidies. But, we need leadership and political commitment. Oh, yes, we also need a politically educated public, and that Americans start behaving as they are in the economic scale not as they'd like to be or "see" themselves in the undetermined future.

We should have a serious discussion on the role of the government and to dispel some misconceptions about the infallibility of capitalism. The free marketplace is a great but imperfect mechanism and like a good car needs to maintained and occasionally steered in the right direction. We have to examine ways make it work for the commonwealth and not to privatize the profit while we socialize the risk. There is no rational or moral argument to continue doing what we've been doing on many levels of public policy. We should start with our intense focus on being very militaristic and the costs associated with such a strategy, and move on to allocation of resources and benefits in our commonwealth.