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Selling Austerity With Chutzpah

Editor's note: See addendum added by Deborah Meier after this was first published.

Dear Pedro,

Their ability to sell austerity to white males, whose jobs are disappearing and social usefulness is being undermined, is a tribute to the "good" education the 1 percent got from their privileged schools. But it's also a damning statement about what was happening in the schools the rest of us went to, let's say, the bottom 80 percent. Why didn't we learn to defend our self-interests? So when I argue that we all need schools that prepare the ruling class ("the people") to rule, I can't get nostalgic about the "good old days." They weren't good for us. We need what they got.

Alas, the rich learned to be individualistic, to celebrate their own self-interests without any qualms, and—this is where it hurts—to join together, to pool their resources to overwhelm the rest of us when there was an opening for such ruthlessness. They may even have had liberal-minded teachers (I would guess so), but they set their own course differently.

And they even learned the best trick of all, to make the 80 to 99 percent think that they were undeserving, while those in the 1 percent were being unfairly criticized! They led us to think it was "reasonable" to tax income that was earned—by the sweat of our brow—while "unearned" income went scot-free. With enough tax lawyers in the family maybe we could have figured out how to turn our wages into "unearned" income? Too many, not too few, of us have been sympathetic to the whining grievances against President Barack Obama for making a few mildly critical statements about their greed (while their allies in the Republican party were throwing crude schoolyard taunts at Obama—about his very legitimacy as an American!). Some Americans learned chutzpah in school and from their families. It's time for the rest of us to go to schools that teach us chutzpah too.

"Is It Still OK To Be Rich in America?" appears prominently on the cover of the Sept. 24 Fortune magazine. According to the author, the rich kids are feeling excluded and afraid to display their wealth, their mansions, their many cars, etc., etc. Fortunately for the rich, since most of us still can't quite get our hands around the difference between millions and billions and trillions, we have a hard time following the budget debates (we were too busy trying to make sense of algebra to ever grasp what the difference is between 10 squared and 10 to the 10th power).

The word got around that people like me are living off a too-generous pension and Social Security. We have become the objects of envious rage from those whose union jobs disappeared or whose pensions have gone the way of bankruptcy. (Note: The rise of the black middle class is largely due to the fact that they had a good shot at public employment while being shut out of the more lucrative private sector.) "Why not me, too?" has turned into "Why them?"

The magazine In These Times has a great piece this week by Peter Frase and Bhaskar Sunkara on why this might be just the right time for expanding, not shrinking, the welfare state.

It was fun to read after my two days at a conference in Brussels sponsored by Education International—a coalition of teachers' unions from around the world. It echoed what I was hearing over there: the way the "austerity movement" has crippled education, above all in the so-called "developing" nations. Not to mention crippling, literally, the health and welfare of the world's children. We heard from economists and labor leaders about the steps that must be taken to build an anti-austerity future. There is no shortage of resources—plain, ordinary wealth—but it has been trickling upward and out of our hands at a rapid pace in the past 20 to 30 years. Meanwhile, millions and billions have been redistributed to rich people whose work serves no social purpose at all and who have no intention of sharing any of it because ... they worked hard for it. Unlike you and me. (Yes, definitely, read Ayn Rand.)

More on Belgium—including Belgian waffles—later.

Deborah

ADDENDUM, ADDED AT 2:20 P.M. BY DEBORAH MEIER: As I reread what I wrote, it tells me something about what last Wednesday was like for me—a bad day! Of course, some businessmen do some social good. And I think unearned income is taxed at a lower rate, not quite scot-free. But what got lost was important and the direction I'd like us to move into: what schools need to be like—even if it doesn't close the scoring gap—to give the have-nots the knowledge and skill and disposition to be a powerful force in democracy both locally and nationally. I got side-tracked into a rant!

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