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Column: A Thousand Points of ... Well, Not Much



For the Valley News
Saturday, August 11, 2018

What length of experiment is sufficient to either verify or reject a hypothesis? Is 38 years long enough? In the cacophony of the Trump era, we sometimes miss the long view.

The United States has been engaged in a social experiment since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. Long before Reagan, tension existed between the public and private sectors, but the dynamics shifted as a result of that campaign and his election.

When Reagan declared, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” he signaled the informal start to this social experiment on a large scale. The political and social hypotheses were that government should serve limited purposes and that free markets and individual choices would liberate a tsunami of productivity and well-being. In the years that followed, politicians, think tanks and aggressive, corporate-funded propagandists advanced the case.

In 1992, George H.W. Bush promised that “a thousand points of light” would advance justice through volunteer efforts in every corner of America. Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, proposed shrinking government to such diminished size that you might “drown it in the bathtub.”

Whether government has been drowned in the bathtub is debatable. That many Americans are drowning in poverty or mired in economic and social stress seems beyond question. I think 38 years is long enough, but the experiment persists nonetheless.

It is because of “a thousand points of light” that the mythology of trickle-down justice persists.

Last week, basketball superstar LeBron James was in the news because of his generous support of a public school in his hometown, Akron, Ohio. Almost everyone but Donald Trump, (who immediately tweeted racist nonsense at James and CNN anchor Don Lemon) praised James for his good work. Several weeks before, New York Times columnist David Brooks waxed sentimental about a program called Threads, which supports poor students with mentors and other volunteer resources. In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg, gave $100 million, subsequently matched by other multi-millionaire friends, to establish a foundation to improve public schools in Newark, N.J. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent several billion dollars on various education reform efforts and used their influence to drive public policy.

These examples are just in the education realm, but they are instructive.

How shiny are those points of light? Not so bright.

James’s generosity is admirable, but one school in Akron, Ohio, does not make for national education equity. Threads reaches hundreds of kids — also admirable — but is a dim little flicker in an increasingly dysfunctional education system. Zuckerberg’s initiative has been a complete and utter failure by all measures and all accounts. I, along with many other educators, believe that Bill Gates has done far more to harm education than to help it. He is an amateur bull in a fragile china shop, using his enormous wealth to press all kinds of useless or damaging programs.

Even he “sort of” admitted so last year when he wrote, “Based on everything we have learned in the past 17 years, we are evolving our education strategy.” According to The Federalist, “He followed this by detailing how U.S. education has essentially made little improvement in the years since he and his foundation — working so closely with the Obama administration that federal officials regularly consulted foundation employees and waived ethics laws to hire several — began redirecting trillions of public dollars towards programs he now admits haven’t accomplished much.”

The greatest damage has been done by the power of anecdote. Because of these kinds of conspicuous examples, communities feel less compelled to properly fund schools. Millions of dollars fund “school choice” propaganda, so politicians stand by as the public schools in their districts wither away. Teachers are fleeing the profession, unions are under corporate attack, school facilities are crumbling, racial segregation is approaching Jim Crow levels, and pyramid scheme oligarch Betsy DeVos is the secretary of education. But we feel good because LeBron is helping one public school and Threads is sewing school uniforms for 255 poor students.

Space precludes a comparable analysis of the outcomes of our increasingly unregulated for-profit health care system, but suffice it to note that the United States spends more money for worse outcomes than any developed nation on Earth. That doesn’t even account for the epidemic of medical expense-driven bankruptcy or the dead family members who had to weigh prescription drug costs against their grocery bills.

I think 38 years is more than long enough. Putting aside the acute crisis created by a sociopath in the White House, it is time to drown a thousand points of light in Norquist’s bathtub and restore our democracy.

I was encouraged by Bernie Sanders’ success in 2016, despite the eventual outcome. I am thrilled at the rise of the Bronx’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a proud democratic socialist who will be elected to Congress in November. There are women and men in communities across America who have had enough and want to take back their country from the rich and powerful plutocrats who were the architects of the Reagan revolution and trickle-down economics.

It’s past time to admit that the stuff trickling down is not drops of gold.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. Email him at stevehutnelson@ gmail.com.