When the gods dance...

Monday, September 10, 2012

Online Education's New Bottom Line



Rose Syracuse retired last week — after 73 years on the job at the Macy’s Herald Square flagship store in Manhattan. Now 92, she started as a bookkeeper at age 17. Rose's first paychecks totaled $14 a week, for 48 long hours of labor.

One of Macy’s top executives back then, the corporate treasurer Beardsley Ruml, put in some long hours, too. In 1943 Ruml led a national business campaign that demanded a special tax break for America’s rich. Ruml did get some of that tax break. But he ended World War II on the losing side of the overall tax battle.

By the war’s final years, America’s wealthy faced a 94 percent tax rate on income over $200,000. And Ruml lost at Macy’s, too. Rose Syracuse helped organize the store's first union. She still remembers marching around Macy's in the bitter cold.

Union locals all over America, stiff tax rates on America's rich: Rose Syracuse and her “Greatest Generation” engineered both these social realities and created, in the process, the first mass middle class the world had ever seen. Rose did her part. Now the rest of us, suggests this week's Too Much, need to do ours.



First auto workers, then teachers, now butlers. In Great Recession America, people who work for a living are doing more and making less. In the case of butlers, relates CNBC's Robert Frank, much less. Butler salaries have dropped as much as 20 percent over the past five years. One big reason: In a hard-times economy, the number of people applying for butler slots has soared. And butlers who do find work are also finding that their deep-pocket employers now want them to fill multiple roles, from chauffeur to nanny. Observes Paul Pearson, a British butler who moved to New York in the 1970s: “Wealthy employers today know they can find someone to do everything at whatever price they want.” Current butler annual take-homes can range from $40,000 to over $200,000 . . .

The global rich have been treating London as a “safe haven” for some time now, and the city’s “top-end” residential space, the latest stats indicate, jumped another 70 percent in 2011. But London apparently doesn’t rate as safe enough. The city’s rich are pouring fortunes into extra — and exotic — security. Wealthy Londoners aren’t just loading up on armored cars and bullet-proof windows. They’re installing home “security fogs,” museum-quality systems that can instantly fill rooms with a dense haze “to disorient intruders.” One London home now on sale for $25 million boasts two “panic rooms” that can be totally sealed off from home invaders and machine gun-proof doors. Still, London tycoon Boris Berezovsky isn’t resting easy. Security may be tighter, he told Reuters last month, but that doesn’t mean that criminals “won’t get you.”

In 2007, shortly before the Great Recession's onset, retired Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill bought a penthouse on Manhattan’s Central Park West for $43.7 million. Last year Weill sold that apartment for $88 million. Across the street from New York’s famed Carnegie Hall, in a new tower still under construction, another apartment has just sold for $90 million, and giddy realtors now expect they'll be celebrating the breaking of the $100 million barrier in a matter of months. What explains the price surge? Luxury digs, claims New York developer Steven Klar, have become pieces of art. Nonsense, counters former Metropolitan Museum of Art curator David Kusin. Billionaires who spend so much for an apartment, he notes, have to justify to themselves what they’re doing. So they dub the apartment “art.” Says Kusin: “At the end of the day, it’s still a piece of real estate.”





Quote of the Week

“In Tampa last week, we heard all about job creators, but at our company, we recognize that job creation requires time and investment and commitment to the long term. It requires companies that plant and grow, not executives who reap and run.”
Jim Sinegal, co-founder, Costco, Democratic National Convention address, September 5, 2012


Australian mining tycoon Gina Rinehart, the world’s richest woman, has some advice for the world’s less-than-rich that she just spelled out in a mining industry journal. Writes the 57-year-old: “If you're jealous of those with more money, don't just sit there and complain. Do something to make more money yourself — spend less time drinking or smoking and socializing, and more time working.” If you want to keep drinking, Rinehart might have added, you do have another option. Just latch on to a mega-millionaire pop. Rinehart, now worth $30 billion, started her rise up the global wealth rankings when her dad died in 1992 and left her the family mining empire. Rinehart’s latest advice, says Aussie union leader Ged Kearney, insults the “working Australians who didn't have the head start of inheriting a fortune.”





Want to help expose the games Wall Street plays? Deal the cards. The 52 Shades of Greed cards. Over two dozen artists have joined with the Occupy Wall Street banking group to fashion a visually stunning deck of cards that zero in on a variety of Wall Street scams and scammers, from “option ARMs” to Goldman Sachs exec Lloyd Blankfein, imagined here by Brooklyn illustrator PJ McQuade. The 52 Shades of Greed team will start distributing the new cards September 17, the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street’s initial occupation. Want a deck? You can grab one with a contribution online.


Take Action
on Inequality

The Other 98% has just shot its first-ever TV spot — on the “welfare” that corporate CEOs are raking in. Help place this spot on the air.

inequality by the numbers


Stat of the Week

How much more can rich right-wingers afford to pump into super PACs in 2012? Plenty, the global analysis firm Wealth-X reported last week. “Ultra high net worth” individuals have contributed less than an average quarter-percent of their wealth to super PACs. Texas homebuilder Bobby Jack Perry has funneled 2.2 percent of his $520 million fortune to super PACs, making him the most generous conservative super PAC donor by share of total net worth.


Online Education's Lucrative New Bottom Line

Corporate execs and billionaire ideologues are creating — at taxpayer expense — a network of schools where learning takes a back seat.

The sounds of September: school bells ringing, looseleaf binders snapping open, sneakers squeaking on gymnasium floors. Next to apple pie, what could be more American than sounds like these — and the public schools where we hear them?

But times change. Blackboards and chalk no longer grace every classroom. We have whiteboards and classroom computers. We have the Internet, the capacity to share lessons across borders.

In this new Information Age, are local public schools now somewhat obsolete? Do we need a new model for educating our young? Some sort of educational revolution in teaching and learning?

Questions like these demand thoughtful and patient democratic deliberation. But we’re not getting that deliberation. In today's deeply unequal America, we’re rushing instead toward a national educational future that profits the awesomely affluent few at the expense of America's many.

The most striking manifestation of this rush: the near quarter-million students enrolled full-time in the “virtual schools” that now operate — at taxpayer expense — in 27 states. These schools have no physical classrooms, no playgrounds, and no in-person teachers.

In these online “academies,” young students sit in front of home computers. Their parents serve as “learning coaches,” following instructions they read on screen. Remotely located teachers monitor and grade the students. One of these remote teachers at the elementary level can have as many as 60 students.

The results from this “learning” process can be ugly. A New York Times investigation last December concluded that K12 Inc., one of the nation’s top two online school providers, “tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload, and lowering standards.”

In Tennessee, where a 2011 law let local school systems contract with for-profit online schools, about 1,800 K-8 students “attended” K12’s Tennessee Virtual Academy last year. Virtual Academy students, data from the state education department show, “performed in the bottom 11 percent of schools statewide.”

Other studies — out of Stanford and Western Michigan University — have shown similarly dismal academic results.

All these online schools owe their existence to our public tax dollars. How could local and state education officials allow public tax dollars to underwrite these virtual schools? Don’t we have rules and regulations designed to protect students from commercial exploitation?

We do. But in more and more states these rules don’t apply. What one analyst has described as a tight-knot network of “right-wing millionaires and billionaires, bankers, industrialists, lobby shops, and hardcore ideologues” is carving out an ever-growing space where “virtually” anything goes.

In Maine, for instance, the state’s right-wing governor has “formally embraced” a ten-point plan that sweeps away hard-won protections for students — and taxpayers.

The plan the governor backs axes “restrictions on online student-to-teacher ratios” and requires taxpayers to pay online providers by the same per-pupil funding formula that covers students in regular brick-and-mortar public schools.

The text for the Maine governor’s executive order earlier this year on behalf of online providers, the Portland Press Herald last week revealed, came directly from a Florida think tank funded by the online virtual school companies “that stand to make millions of dollars” as the governor’s new initiative goes forward.

These same corporations are spending a bundle more on lobbying and political contributions. And behind them lurk a host of super-rich conservative ideologues with a deep animus toward traditional public schools, facilities that they consider “islands of socialism in a free-market sea.”

Among these super rich: Dick and Betsey DeVos, heirs to the Amway fortune. They’re bankrolling the American Federation for Children and an assortment of other innocent-sounding groups that push public funding for private schools.

Meanwhile, regular public schools are facing massive budget shortfalls. In 35 states, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports, state education funding for the current school year has dropped below 2008 finding levels.

School districts have had to eliminate over 328,000 jobs — at the same time the nation’s K-12 student population has increased by 535,000 students.

Schools today don’t just have more students to educate. In today’s depressed economy, they have more poor students. But corporate-friendly education “reformers” don’t like to talk about poverty.

For good reason. If you don’t talk about poverty, the absence of wealth, you don’t have to talk about wealth’s concentration — and the private power over public policy that this concentration inevitably forges.




New Wisdom
on Wealth

Harry Boyte, Did We Build It? Or Didn't We? On the Commons, September 4, 2012. What America's founders meant when they created “commonwealths.”

Victor Fleischer, What’s at Issue in the Private Equity Tax Inquiry? Dealbook, September 4, 2012. The academic who blew the whistle on the private equity “carried interest” tax dodge explains the hottest new private equity tax-avoidance maneuver.

Citizens for Tax Justice, Tax Ideas in the Democratic Platform, September 6, 2012. The new Democratic platform calls on the wealthy to pay their fair share. But the platform's actual planks appear “wholly inadequate to achieve tax fairness.”

new and notable

Howard Steven Friedman, The Measure of a Nation: How to Regain America's Competitive Edge and Boost Our Global Standing. Prometheus Books, 2012, 269 pp.

“We’re number one!” Or so the champions of American “exceptionalism” so like to claim. Well, not exactly, as statistician Howard Friedman details in this new data-rich but highly readable volume that compares the United States to its top 13 peer nations on a host of yardsticks, from life expectancy and homicides to years of schooling and voter turnout. Friedman, a United Nations analyst who teaches at Columbia, believes Americans need to remove our “national blinders” and start learning from other societies. And what lesson might we learn first? Our level of economic inequality — the world's worst — reflects “a fundamental weakness in American society.”



Web Gem

We Are the 99 Percent
These moving individual testimonials from the ranks of the 99 percent remind us why Occupy Wall Street has made such an impact on the

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