Saturday, November 19, 2005

Caught in a Fruitless Argument for what seemed like Hours, Or My Screed Against Bloomberg and his Ilk.

It's been a long time since I got into a serious argument with someone at a party. I don't know what that's about. Have I gotten mellower since my twenties?
I still remember one night at a party of some policy school people in Minneapolis, my friend Alice and I got into a huge argument about NAFTA. One of the the things that I found difficult about such arguments was that everyone seemed to be operating with a completely different set of facts or a different set of basic principles. From within a Marxist universe, it was quite obvious that "globalization" was not good for the global south. The great "job opportunities" around the world were only better than what was available in the countrysides of those countries because of a context going back at least fifty years since the very beginning of the IMF and World Bank. And every good lefist in the 1990s knew enough to know that no matter what else, the IMF and the World Bank were essentially setting the agenda at everyone of those big multilateral agreements. So often, free trade is argued as the big corporations "giving" people in poverty job opportunities otherwise unavailable AND breaking down US and European trade barriers so that developing countries could export goods there and compete as equals. From westerners, I heard the argument like this: "These backward countries are starting off poor and now we're helping them. Why would a leftist like yourself object to that? You must be just like Pat Buchanan." The argument has variations, but it always ends by comparing people who oppose the terms of the multilateral agreements to Pat Buchanan.
Raise your hand if you've been on the other end of such an argument. I can't count the number of times that I've been. Short of sitting people down for a course in political economy and the history of the current trade agreements, complete with books by Walden Bello, I don't know how to make myself heard in such arguments. I would wind up mostly making the argument by saying, "look, NIKE isn't giving people opportunities, they're taking advantage of cheap labor and repressive anti-labor laws. And they're paying people a pittance in comparison with the massive profits that they accumulate by selling stuff elsewhere, and in the long run, this isn't really a climate conducive to locally run manufacturing or anything run by people from the country, and if you want freedom for capital, you should have freedom for labor too. Get rid of immigration restrictions." At that point, people start exclaiming, "But that's Madness! Madness!" (well no, only in the 19th century would they use such terms, but doesn't it sound right?) The problem in these arguments is that there's a humanitarian "liberal" argument for the neocolonialist globalization project. Bill Clinton spoke it well.
And that brings us to this weekend's argument. Friday night, I got into a real verbal battle about Michael Bloomberg and his marvelous management skills. Here's how it started. I was at Freddy's on 6th avenue and Dean street for a friend's birthday. Freddy's is right in the path of the Ratner plan for the Atlantic Yards, and is therefore an active member of the movement to "Develop Don't Destroy" Brooklyn. This naturally leads to conversations about Ratner and NYC politics. I was chatting with some guys about the latest election and mentioned that I had voted for the "Rent is Too Damn High" guy even though I had never heard of him. (turns out he's an anti-semite, which isn't visible in the summary of his campaign in the voter guide.) I then said I would have voted for Ferrer otherwise. So, this guy standing across from me, looking the part in an oxford shirt and stylish spectacles (no bow tie), says,
"what, you would rather have that weak, democratic machine whore?...Face the facts, Bloomberg is good for New York!" His whole argument was that NYC is a big city, and a weak mayor like Ferrer would get eaten by the competing interests and bureaucrats.
My response was, "If you believe that the job of the mayor is to be a business manager, I guess that makes sense, but I don't think that's what Democratic governments are supposed to do. He gives out money to his corporate friends, and he isn't serving the mass of New Yorkers." I went on to talk about his disgraceful treatment of the city's unions, his overseeing of the policing of RNC protests,the collapsing subway, the buying of the election, and the corporate giveways. I talked about the 1.5% offer made to the CUNY faculty.
This guy, who works in the budget office, had a reasonable, technocratic answer for everything. "look, we're all making do with a limited amount of resources. We're all good people who are trying to make things better."
This is why "working within the system" doesn't work. The guy was so brainwashed by his policy-school business model bubble. During the course of the argument.. these remarks were made.
on public schools.
he says: A study was done that teachers improve dramatically over the first four years on the job, and then improve again on the second four years. and then they level out. Therefore, entering teachers' salaries should be higher....and senior teachers' salaries should level off and there should be "merit pay" The teachers' union is bad because *they* are sacrificing entering salaries for the old-guard.
I said...well, the contract reflects unreasonable mgmnt. demands, not what the teachers wanted. Do you know that 40% of the NYC teachers voted "no" on the contract and hate the concession-taking union leadership, and that the AFT is hated by most teachers and hard to oust from leadership, not because they are unfair to taxpayers, but because they take concessions all the damn time?
He didn't know that, but he kept talking about these various reform efforts for education that must have come from some kind of management friendly studies of "teaching effecitveness." This whole "eight year learning curve" sounds like something designed to support a move to get rid of tenure and get rid of teaching as a career path that people go into with the expectation of retirement. This will lead to hiring "promising young kids" who are on their way to something else and then leave teaching. I don't buy the eight year study, and I couldn't find anything about it on the internet.
Right, I said, $90,000 as a salary is just too much to pay teachers. That's good money for CEOS and salesmen and policy wonks as whoever else is in the corporate elite, but teachers getting paid that much is some kind of outrage.
He argued that Bloomberg was "serving the taxpayers" by fighting things like "social promotion" and that teachers were just looking out "for themselves." I said, the things that teachers demand are often good for the taxpayers. Let's talk, for example, about class size.
He says: you can't just "throw money" at the problem..."small class sizes don't cost out. Those people won't pay back in taxes the amount that it costs to make small class sizes."
I said: Whaaa? How can you even say that? It just doesn't make sense. So, if it doesn't "cost out" we should just say "fuck you" to poor people?
The private-school kindergarten teacher then joined in on the discussion with the fact that her students, whose parents pay thousands in tuition are in classrooms of 17 with two teachers per class.
So, if small class sizes didn't matter, why do rich people spend so damn much money making sure their kids are in small classes. Obviously they think it "costs out" or they wouldn't save up for it. Today, I found some evidence to back up the position from the trenches: evidence.

He says: we've got a small pie, a limited amount of resources.
I said: that's especially true after you give all the money to corporations who don't need it. (those are all separate links, check out the numbers). Right, there's a small pie of what's leftover.

And that's what I think. When you talk about "costing out" you're not looking at the bigger picture and you've already accepted the terms of what government's function is: looking out for business and serving the poor within a climate that is set up against them from the beginning. Look at health care. Look at what happened in New Orleans, look at the South Bronx, look at Bed Stuy, East New York and Harlem. This society doesn't care about poor people and isn't prioritizing this problem. You have to look at it broadly. The gentrifying of NYC's neighborhoods is making these populations more and more invisible to the wealthier New Yorkers who don't see the costs of Bloomberg's smooth management style. If you're in Brooklyn or any other borough, the poverty might also be a bit more visible. Didnt' ask where Mr. Policy wonk lived, but probably Manhattan or Brooklyn Heights.
The buttoned-down policy wonk wanted me to see him and his buddies in the policy world (including that stellar manager, Mr. Bloomberg) as doing the best they can in a "bad situation" by each little piece. Teaspoons from the ocean, I say.
But I think that people like Kanye West and Jerry McMillan, who aren't policy wonks can call it like they see it from their own experience...."George Bush Doesn't Care about Black People" and "RENT is too damn high....all the poor people are being forced out of New York City." (As for the stuff about the Jews, if only McMillan would have taken some classes at CUNY...then he could get turned around.)

1 comment:

bartelby said...

Hi,
The old far left and far right actually meeting somewhere off the beaten track is an old "favorite" of mine. Actually from the first time I heard this argument I disliked it. It is sort of like saying "He's so Catholic he's Buddhist."

Your post is especially appropriate in light of the oncoming holiday season and the discussions that happen between eating and television"
First thing to remember is that there is no horror known to mankind worse than streetsigns in a non-Roman alphabet. They they have these in some parts of Bergen County. Last year I shared dinner with a person who asked about immigration "Didn't they used to have a thing to keep the Chinese out?" I was the only person present who knew it was the Chinese Exclusion Act. She then said "We should have that again."

Of course this person was over 90 and I couldn't really engage in heated debate.

But basically I will be spending the holidays with people who have no concept of history and also don't know that the Asian folks in Palisades Park are Korean not Chinese as are the signs.