The American System

We have a new president-elect and a new approach to governing.  But is there anything that is really new?  Harry Truman is quoted as saying, “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.”[1]  Students of history – especially high school students whose life experience has not provided them with much information on how the world works – can look for parallels in our nation’s past.

Recently, Donald Trump made some phone calls, promised some financial incentives, and kept a few hundred jobs from being shifted from Indiana to Mexico, where presumably they would have been sent had free market forces been allowed to operate without government interference.  Savvy American businessmen jumped on Trump’s incentives and agreed to export only some of the jobs.

If this description of events sounds cynical, it is only because business decisions in a capitalist system require a certain detached cynicism informed by self-interest.  Political decisions are no different.  Trump needed to show that his negotiating skills in the business arena could translate to the political arena.  Credibility is currency in politics, and public support is capital.  There is nothing wrong with recognizing cold calculation for what it is.

But public policy is different from politics or business – although greatly affected by both.  Public policy is the effort through governmental action to arrange resources so as to benefit the public. It can be accomplished through taxing or spending, regulation of commercial activities or even criminalization of certain activities.

Trump’s strategy was to use personal intervention and tax breaks.  Was this a desirable approach?  It is certainly a valid question for citizens in a republic to ask.  It is an important question for students to learn how to ask.  What insights can history offer?

History students will note that government intervention in the economy is one of the oldest political issues in American public life.  Our break from Great Britain was prompted by trade restrictions and tax policies designed to control colonial activity and to funnel the wealth generated by American productivity back to the mother country.  Our first constitution as an independent nation, the Articles of Confederation, gave the national government no authority over commerce.  The result was chaos – trade wars between states, uncollectable debt, and profound economic uncertainty – not at all the kind of stable business environment in which entrepreneurs feel comfortable taking risks.  Something had to be done to calm the chaos and encourage economic growth.

The Constitution gives Congress the authority to regulate interstate commerce.  The question has always been – to what extent should the government intervene in the free market?  In an economic system in which we trust the market to show us the way to efficiency and profitability, what is the proper balance of government action that will create a healthy environment for economic growth without dictating outcomes?

In the early 1800s, the policy issues were different, but the underlying questions were the same.

The federal government raised almost all of its revenue from tariffs – taxes on imported goods.  There was no income tax.  High tariffs gave a competitive advantage to domestic producers of goods, and provided resources for the federal government to finance needed improvements like roads for a country that still had an expanding western frontier.

Roads, canals, and later railroads all received financial support from different levels of government.  These forms of infrastructure facilitated the movement of goods and labor, and so provided a benefit both to farmers on the frontier and manufacturers with goods to sell to a nationwide market.  Government-sponsored transportation projects were known in the 1800s as internal improvements.

The financiers of all these activities benefitted from internal improvements, and from the high tariffs that paid for them.  But the 1800s were a time of minimal if any regulation of the financial industry.  Almost anyone could start a bank, and any bank could issue currency.  In the end, this bank-backed paper money was only as good as the institutions that distributed it.  When the banks went under, as they often did, their paper money became worthless IOUs.  To stabilize the industry without taking it over through regulation, Congress chartered the Bank of the United States, and used it as a depository for all the revenue the federal government received from its tariffs.  The Bank issued paper money that was as reliable as the U.S. government, and imposed rules on other banks with which it did business.  The business community thus had some measure of stability in the financial market, and the confidence to make investments in new ventures.

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Supporters of high tariffs, internal improvements, and a strong banking system called the program The American System.  Its advocates included congressional heavyweights Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, former president John Quincy Adams, and future president Abraham Lincoln.  But it had its detractors as well.

Western farmers and Eastern wage-earners disliked high tariffs that raised the cost not only of imported goods but, because they interfered with the natural competition of the marketplace, they also increased the price of all goods sold in the United States.

Western farmers liked internal improvements because roads made it easier to get goods to market.  But easterners in established cities disliked the allocation of revenue for a resource they did not need.  They saw the settlement of the west as a threat to their political influence.  Complicating the picture further, most Americans took the constitutional grant of congressional authority over interstate commerce as a limitation. Congress had the power to build roads that crossed state lines, but not roads that lay entirely within one state.

Leaders of commerce liked the Bank of the United States, and the stability it provided, but small business owners and western farmers did not.  The banks that would be most agreeable to give loans to struggling start-ups with few assets were the same ones driven out of business by the rules imposed by the Bank of the United States.  They saw the existence of the Bank as a roadblock to their opportunity.

The election of 1832 brought to the fore the conflicts between supporters and detractors of the American System. An increase in the tariffs had led to the Nullification Crisis in South Carolina, which brought the first threat of Southern secession from the Union.  Henry Clay tried a political maneuver to win the White House by making the re-charter of the Bank an election year issue.

In a U.S. history class, students will learn about these issues and circumstances in much greater detail.  But in order to truly understand what was at stake for Americans back then, and to gain insight on how the questions of 1832 can provide suggestions of answers for 2017, students need to look at things from the inside.

History students can be assigned roles for a project in class.  Some will take the role of western farmers, some will be eastern businessmen, some will be bankers, some will be small-town New Englanders.  Many other categories of roles can be created.  Each student will examine how each part of the American System would affect them directly.  Each student will then pick the candidate in the 1832 election whose position best serves their interests, and explain the rationale for their choice.

The best way for students to gain insight on current political issues is to examine how these issues play out in different contexts, and evaluate for themselves the proper balance between market forces and government action.  After all, the only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.

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[1] Miller, M. (1974). Plain Speaking. New York, NY: Berkley Pub., p. 273

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Public responsibility

Schools affect us all, whether or not we have children currently enrolled.  The quality of education available today will impact generations to come, and with more than 90% of American students enrolled in public schools, the question of quality is a very public one.  And one answer we all seem to agree on is that schools could be better.

Education reform means different things to different people.  Betsy DeVos, recently picked to be Secretary of Education for the new administration, is a strong advocate of private schools and an opponent of teacher’s organizations.  She supports the diversion of public funds to pay for tuition.  But I wonder ….

Isn’t the advantage of privatization that we benefit from the efficiency of a market-driven competitive system?  If privatizing a public responsibility like education requires taxpayer support, can you even make the argument that the private sector is more efficient?  Isn’t this proof that education is one of those functions, like national defense and firefighting, that we want to be available for everyone, but that the free market just can’t provide at a uniformly high quality?

Some private school proponents, as well as advocates for charter schools, argue that the greatest stumbling block to reform is teachers’ unions.  But professional educators, parents, and students will tell you that teachers know better than anyone what is needed to make schools more effective.  It is politicians’ interference with schools and their unwillingness to take the advice of dedicated and insightful teachers that has dragged schools so far from their essential mission.

The governor of Georgia recently made a bid to take control of some public schools and turn them over to a state agency that might farm out their operations to for-profit companies.  His “Amendment 1” lost at the ballot box, but look for continued efforts to break up local control of schools.  Look for further efforts by the higher reaches of government to partner with private interests and funnel your tax dollars into someone else’s pockets.

There is nothing wrong with privatization per se, and it is always worthwhile for public servants to consider lessons from the private sector.  But privatization is not the cure for every government program that is struggling to reach its goals.

There are some things that are public responsibilities, and most often our government is the best tool we have for carrying out these responsibilities. Education is a public responsibility that affects every individual who goes to school as well as society at large. It is essential that such an important job be carried out efficiently and effectively.  And in order for schools to serve the many who pass through their doors, governance must be local, and services must be individualized.  Cost efficiency, let alone profit, must take a back seat when it conflicts with quality.  We are talking about our children.

Big government with sweeping mandates that suppress individual talents and potential for the sake of uniformity has no place in schools.

Private profit should never be a factor in education.  How can we justify feeding off the weakest and most vulnerable among us?

The burden on advocates for public education is that there are problems in the system as it exists.  We lose any argument that simply defends the status quo.  But we should stand up for teachers and defend their expertise.  We should stand up for local schools, and get involved personally in making the schools in our communities the best they can be.  And we should be on guard against easy answers from politicians who are looking to score points.

Schools affect us all.  There is just too much at stake to hand our responsibility off to other people.

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Helping some of the victims

The children who were harmed by the notorious Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal are finally getting some help, sort of.  A story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week stated that half of the approximately 6,000 students whose scores were changed on standardized tests dating back to the year 2009 are no longer enrolled in APS.  The story explains that a program has been set up to offer tutoring, counseling, and social services to the “victims” of the scandal – but it is only open to those students.[1]

Some of the students cited in the article seemed unclear about why they were placed in the program.  Some students who had asked for help were required to wait for years to get it.  And many, many students who need extra help are not qualified for the program because they were unlucky enough to have had teachers who didn’t change their answers on standardized tests when they were in elementary school.

This tragic mess was mismanaged from the beginning. It was created in an environment in which test scores have become the unquestioned standard of measurement in education – pushing aside all data about the quality of the learning experience.  It was provoked by a celebrated school superintendent who put enormous pressure on teachers to show improved performance on tests.  It really screwed things up for the number crunchers who misled the public.  And an enthusiastic prosecutor and judge made sure a few teachers and administrators paid the price for everyone’s inconvenience and embarrassment.

But did it adversely affect the students?  I just don’t see it.[2]

A study commissioned by the current superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools goes to great lengths to describe the difficulty in separating the effects of the scandal from the myriad of other influences on a child’s performance in school, and concludes that the effects were “mixed” in math “moderate” in reading and English/Language Arts – “about the same negative impact as a student being taught by a first-year teacher compared to a teacher with five or more years of experience.”[3]

Who was hurt here?  Certainly the former superintendent, whose reputation was pretty much trashed, the educators who were put through the grinder of the criminal justice system, the data collectors who were given corrupted data ….

But were the students – the specific students whose scores were changed – harmed any more than any other students whose education is being judged by standardized tests? Whose learning is directed by overworked teachers forced by their superiors to focus on appearances instead of quality?  Who are caught in a system that focuses on uniformity of outcomes instead of cultivating individual talents and abilities?

Our educational system is broken, and it is laughable to think that a program designed to help a few kids and exclude all others is anything other than a public relations move by Atlanta Public Schools.  It promotes the fiction that the scandal was a discrete event.  It was not.  The truth is that our acceptance of easily-measurable outcomes as a mark of achievement in education is an insult to actual learning, and sustains a serious and ongoing harm to our children.

Every student deserves individual attention.  Every student deserves help in reaching his or her goals.  Every student deserves the best education possible regardless of the actions or inactions of adults in their lives.  It is time we take our obligation to the next generation seriously.

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Washington High School, Atlanta, Georgia

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[1] http://www.myajc.com/news/news/local-education/how-some-children-in-atlanta-cheating-scandal-fina/ns97N/

[2] I have been trying to see it for years, and have written about it before.  https://jmarcuspatton.wordpress.com/2015/04/20/harming-children-in-atlanta-public-schools/  https://jmarcuspatton.wordpress.com/2015/10/19/the-real-victims/

[3] An article on the release of the report.  http://www.clatl.com/news/article/13082960/report-aps-cheating-scandal-had-moderate-impact-on-children-disproportionately-hurt-black-students   and the report itself.  http://www.atlantapublicschools.us/crctreport

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Thanks for giving, again and again

In November 2015, just about a week before Thanksgiving, my father suffered a stroke. Since that time, the entire family has pulled together and discovered new ways to express our love for each other.  It turns out that even when patterns of caring are the most familiar, and the easiest to internalize as unchanging, they do not define the limits of a relationship.  Caretaker can become caregiver.  The helping hand can extend in both directions.  When a child, no matter how old, has been loved unconditionally, the ability to love is not conditional. This past summer, I married a woman who has enchanted me since the moment we met.  It is the second time for each of us, and both of us have had our share of painful missteps.  But we both believe in love, and in the importance of caring, and in discovering new ways to experience the enchantment we feel with each other.  I am thankful for her parents, and for mine, who showed us through their love for us, and for each other, what it is to be in love.

Thanksgiving is a time to take stock and show appreciation.  Today’s post was first published two years ago, and then again last year (when we were actually getting some rain from time to time) but the message is eternal. 

It’s Thanksgiving week and many schools are closed until next Monday.  It is good to take a break from the rhythm of work, and Thanksgiving offers the opportunity to be immersed in the love of a supportive family.

For many students, school is not just a place for work, it is the center of their social universe.  It is the place where they learn how effort and diligence translates into rewards and satisfaction.  Everyone complains about school (just as everyone complains about the weekends being too short, or the weather being too wet) but the truth is that for many students, school is a place of promise and opportunity.  Behind the complaints next Monday will be optimism and a refreshed spirit ready to return to school.

But for others, school is a place of frustration and discomfort.  Instead of imparting the message of empowerment through learning, the institution seems to throw up walls that a child cannot cross.  Rather than being a place for positive reinforcement, school is a daily reminder that the student does not measure up.  For these children, Thanksgiving break is a desperately needed escape from an oppressive and debilitating environment.

Why the difference?  There are differences between schools, to be sure.  But why do some students thrive in a particular setting while others in the same school flounder?  School environment is not the only factor.

Part of the answer is the vast difference in talent that exists within the human race.  Some people are simply better at the tasks that schools require.  Other individuals who may be capable of brilliance in other spheres are stymied by the narrow constraints of formal education.  Schools should do a better job of cultivating human potential, and adapting the curriculum to meet the needs of the young people they serve.

But a large part of the answer lies at home.  The biggest determinant of a child’s success in school is whether he or she brings an attitude of success from home.  It is more than believing in oneself – it is taking joy in new experiences, seeing the connection between effort and reward, accepting setbacks as opportunities for learning and not as defeats.  A child’s attitude towards life is largely determined by the attitudes of the people he or she looks to for inspiration and support.

This Thanksgiving week, I want to thank the many people – especially my parents – who gave me the support and inspired in me the confidence I have felt throughout my life in meeting the challenges and embracing the opportunities I have known.  Thanks for giving me the love and support that have sustained me and allowed me to believe in myself.  Every child deserves such love.

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Roll up your sleeves

The 2016 election is over.  It was close, with the winner actually losing the popular vote.  And for the second time in 16 years, we are involved in a public debate over the purpose and future of the electoral college.  Meanwhile unhappy voters have taken to the streets – and they are not the unhappy voters most people expected to see this week.  Meanwhile, acts of racial animosity, which is to say assertions of white supremacy, have erupted across the nation – and the actors are exactly who we expected to see.  Meanwhile some Americans have hunkered down, satisfied with the outcome and expectant that one guy with a big job will be able to bring about enormous changes.

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Please just stop.

There is only one person who can bring about the kinds of changes our nation needs, and that person doesn’t live in the White House, isn’t spraying hateful graffiti or yelling insults, and isn’t getting it done in a street demonstration.  Go look in the mirror.  Then pick a place to start and get to work.

Our nation is a network of communities, and every neighborhood is made up of people with a direct stake in their own quality of life.  What matters to you?

In Georgia, voters defeated Amendment 1, which would have allowed the Governor to take over local schools deemed to be “failing.”  The amendment faced a deliberate and well-financed opposition.  There was evidence presented that similar plans enacted in other states had produced weak results at best, and fears that tax revenues from local residents would be seized and funneled to out-of-state corporations that would run the schools with no real community input or accountability.  In the end, the argument that local school boards are better representatives of the people seemed to win the day.

My own doubts about the plan were based on the absence of any concrete indications of what the governor’s office – or to be more precise, the state bureaucrat appointed by and accountable to the governor – would do to improve the schools.  Not even a hint.  It’s not like there is an absence of great ideas.  Is there one formula for improving the educational experience for every child?  Probably not.  But that is where you come in.

The chief benefit of having local schools that are accountable to local boards of education, local PTAs, and local school councils, is that it is so much easier for individuals to get involved.  So get involved. Volunteer.  Ask questions.  Discover ways you can help with other people’s great ideas, and come up with a few great ideas of your own.

It doesn’t have to be public education.  The world is crying for attention.  Find an issue that speaks to you and roll up your sleeves.  The way to make the world better is to make an effort.

Voting is important.  Voting is crucial in a democratic society.  But elections lie on the edge of social change.  The election season is finally over.  Let’s get in the middle and make a difference.

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Revolution of 1800

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.  It is its natural manure.”

– Thomas Jefferson (1787)

Thomas Jefferson wrote these words while serving as an American representative in France during the period when Daniel Shays was leading a farmer’s revolt in Massachusetts and Alexander Hamilton was rallying support for a new Constitution that would charter a stronger federal government.  Jefferson was supportive of Shays’ Rebellion, asking, “[C]an history produce an instance of a rebellion so honourably conducted?”  But he was suspicious of the new Constitution that would replace the Articles of Confederation.  He believed that governing power must be kept in check, and that the right of the people to rebel was instrumental.  “[W]hat country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve their right to resistance?”

Over the next dozen years Jefferson became a leader of the Democratic-Republican party and a critic of what he believed to be the excessive use of federal power by the Federalists – the political party of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams.  Jefferson was a proponent of the idea of limited government – with Congress exercising no power beyond those specifically enumerated in the Constitution.

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The election of 1800 pitted the incumbent President Adams against the insurgent Jefferson.  Not only did Jefferson win, but his party was swept into control of both houses of Congress.  It was a contentious election, with the Federalists split into competing factions and a tie in the electoral college vote that had to be settled by the House of Representatives.  But in the end, the Federalists were out and the Democratic-Republicans were in.  It was the first time in our nation’s history that control of the government had shifted from one political party to another.

And there was no bloodshed.  In other countries when the ruling party loses power, the army takes over, civil liberties are suspended, enemies are jailed, and riotous crowds fill the streets.  In the United States, we take it for granted that there will be a peaceful transition of power and the graceful loser will live to fight another day for the favor of the electorate.  We take it for granted because when our system had its first real test after the election of 1800, Americans accepted change.

That was the Revolution of 1800.

But that was not all there was to the story.  Jefferson presided over the beginning of a generation of political domination by his party, but not by its rigid ideology.  Freed from its role as the party of opposition, the Democratic-Republicans discovered that their government needed not to be quite so limited in every case.  Jefferson himself took a spectacular exception to the rule when he made the Louisiana Purchase, using powers not even imagined by the framers of the Constitution.

Jefferson’s tree of liberty quote has been used for many years as a justification for bloodshed in the service of a political idea.  Reportedly, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s favorite T-shirt bore those words.  But on this eve of a very contentious national election, it is good to remember the value of compromise – even over ideals.  It is good to remember that the true revolution is not a fight to the death, but acceptance of an outcome that allows us to live another day.

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Imperfect pumpkins

Children and Halloween just seem to go together.  Marching around the neighborhood at dusk in store-bought costumes – the uniform of the holiday, collecting tolls in the form of sugary treats, playing fast and loose with the images of death – skeletons, ghosts, witches, and vampires – with a few superheroes thrown in.  Even the adult costume parties have an air of carefree childishness.  Halloween gives us a silly break from work and from school.  It’s a time to go out and play.

For a month or more before October 31st, the stores display the implements of the scary season, on sale at reasonable prices for the kid in all of us.  I can’t remember an October I passed by the Halloween aisle in my accustomed grocery store without checking out a costume or two, and trying on a scary mask.

Pumpkins pop up everywhere, not just at the grocery stores.  They fill the lawns of many churches, and families make their pilgrimages to select the perfect specimen for their front steps.

The perfect pumpkin is a uniform orange in color, nearly spherical in shape, and with a stem that is just long enough to serve as a handle when a section of the top is cut to make an opening.  The perfect pumpkin is one of the icons of the holiday.  Witches, ghosts and skeletons have a place of honor on October 31st, but they are welcome to haunt other days of the year as well.  Nothing says Halloween like the perfect pumpkin, carved with the eerie visage of a jack o’ lantern.

But not all pumpkins are the same, and there are always some less-than-perfect left-behinds as October turns into November and the market for big orange cultivar squashes disappears.  So it was with some surprise that I happened upon a particular church lawn that did not belong exclusively to the contenders for the title of perfect pumpkin.  In fact, some of these squashes were quite unusual, and set my imagination to work.

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Do jack o’ lanterns have to be spherical?  Does a Halloween pumpkin need to be orange?   On a night when we put on costumes to step away from our day-to-day identities, do we really want to decorate our front step with the same vegetable as all of our neighbors?

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Individuality is a funny thing.  We prize our own and do not want to be a face in the crowd, but we are wary of differences in others.  When we encounter something unexpected, we catch ourselves wondering if the out-of-the-ordinary is something we need to worry about, protect ourselves against, or seek to eliminate.

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Children may wear different costumes on Halloween, but the differences on the inside are the more profound.  Imperfect pumpkins, all of them.  And yet we tend to choose and reward the ones that conform more closely to our idea of the ideal. The children who don’t fit our preconceived notion trouble us.  We leave them behind.  We try to force them to change.  We tell them they are wrong for being who they are.

But look how interesting they are.  Look how beautiful they are!

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