CAFETERIA CAPITALISTS

Two things happened over the past two weeks that seem to go together. The first is the Pope Francis trip to Cuba and then the U.S.A. and a former hedge fund manager taking over a pharmaceutical company and raising the price of a medication from $13.50 a pill to $750 a pill. This hedge fund person also tried to do the same thing with another medication some time ago. The Pope, on the other hand, warned the world about how greed has hijacked capitalism over the last few decades.

Since I am not Catholic, the question of infallibility of the leader of the Catholic Church is not mine to interpret. It is, however, strange on two accounts that some of our business leaders, and politicians, choose to disregard the Pope on some issues, while supporting him on others. This is not anywhere near what I have come to expect from practicing Catholics.

There is also a question of how such successful business and political leaders can choose certain portions of the capitalist ethos and disregard others. As the politicians are fond of doing, they harken back to the founding fathers (and mothers) to bolster what it is that they are proclaiming. I find that to be true with the Ayn Rand minded tycoons who back up their ways with the writings of Adam Smith.

The rationale for creating an economy that disregards everyone other than the kingpins, was heading for a last roundup. In 2008 and 2009, if it weren’t for the federal government, the entire panoply of pseudo Adam Smith followers, would have been flushed down the toilet. Even though these mavens of the ruling class hate the federal government, they got down on bended knee to have the feds bail them out. I viewed their bleating with a jaundiced eye and did not complain because of the possibility of huge numbers of workers being thrown onto the scrapheap of the unemployed.

As Pope Francis has said, “I am not a lefty.” The term “market forces” is thrown around with impunity. It appears that there are no balancing forces in our time. That hedge fund manager is not the only CEO of a pharma company to raise the price on a drug that was used by a minority of people. We cannot just blame him for entering the “greed machine.” At this time in our civilization, market forces can be manipulated by the very powerful. When the CEOs of companies earn 300 times more than the average worker in comparison to 20 times more just a few years ago, one has to wonder how this happens. As wages stagnate, and worker production increases (as it has), as private entrepreneurs invade the prison system and fight to keep it large, as we charterize our schools, as we give away our veteran’s health to private companies, where do we go from here ?

Our current president has philosophized on these topics. Yet, the band plays on with just a small sound of discord from our erstwhile leaders. Larger and larger companies grow to absorb any small competitors. Large chains have the power to make their suppliers lower their prices dramatically, so that they can sell their goods for lower prices and pay their own workers low wages. The suppliers then have to pay their own workers lower wages to keep up with the lower prices.

Do you really think that his was the first time this kind of thing has happened. Take a look at the early part of the 20th century. The Robber Barons were pretty much doing the same thing. It is called monopolistic practices. If you want to go back even further, even before Adam Smith, take a look at the “Decree Dealing with Monopolies passed by the Diet of Cologne in 1512. It sounds like it just happened yesterday. “This decree, which shall not be construed to prohibit the establishment of partnerships for the purpose of buying and selling of merchandise, applies only to acts by which merchants monopolize supplies, fix prices arbitrarily, and agree among themselves not to see to third persons at a lower price.” Sound familiar?

It even goes back further to the Roman Empire. The emperors recognized that monopolies were not in the public interest and confiscated all of the offender’s property. Guess it all went into the Emperor’s coffers. So it has happened before. Can a balance be struck between the overwhelming desire of the Cafeteria Capitalists to make more and more dough and the public’s need for a fair system of goods and services?

I’m not sure that I will be around to see it. I don’t think it will be the “lefties” who will change the system. At the beginning of the 20th century it was a well heeled member of the ruling class who brought the Robber Barons to heel. He was no liberal, but a man with uncommon sense about the public interest. Theodore Rex understood why those practices were bad for the United States. Wish that I could say that there is one of those around now. After listening to all of the political entreaties by current presidential candidates of both the left and the right, I see no one.

Now that we have internationalized these practices, it will be even more difficult to change things. By the way, Adam Smith was not a fan of international trade. He was a home trade kind of guy.

EDUCATION IN SOUTH CAROLINA

e have only been here for seven weeks. That does not mean that we are now experts on what is going on in our new home state. Since we are fans of Stephen Colbert, there has to be some good stuff here. We are insulated from the outside world by living in a 55+ community. It is also gated. However, the gates are kind of flimsy and it is only gated for cars and not for pedestrians. It’s kind of strange to see cars stop at the gates, which are mostly unmanned (or unpersoned), while people who seem to be running go through both ways.

Carol and I have already gone to one school board meeting and learned a bit about how things work. This school district is growing by leaps and bounds at a rate of 500 new students each year. I believe that I heard the number correctly. They appear to have 21,000 students. That would make it the third largest school district in Pennsylvania after Philly and Pittsburgh. You must understand that this state is a county school district state. While Pennsylvania has 500 school districts, SC has about 64. I say about 64 because I can’t seem to nail that number down.

There seems to be a real distinction between those rural school districts with very few resources and those that are wealthier and are mostly suburban or beach communities. The overwhelming number of school districts is below the average per capita income. That tells you that the wealthier school districts are way above the mean. I have not yet gotten into the monetary differences.

One of the most important and positive things that we have gone is to speak with the Superintendent of Education for the state. Most states chief state school officer is appointed. There are 12 states where that position is elected. That means that the position is independent from other elected officials including the governor. We have not had a chance to figure all of these things out.

Our talk with the Superintendent Molly Spearman lasted about 40 minutes. She was aware of some of our friends in Pennsylvania. She is the former head of the administrators association here in SC. Her view of things seemed to be right on target, as far as we could tell. She understood the problems in her state. She had been a teacher for 18 years and spoke from experience.

She thought that we could be of some help to those districts who were in both financial and academic trouble. We were both satisfied that one of her staff members had pulled some things off google that I had written. For us, this all has a familiar ring. There had been an equity suit that lasted 20 years called Abbeville. The Supreme Court just last year decided 3-2 that there was indeed a gross disparity between school district. However, the court was not specific about how to fix it, but retained an overseer role. So far, the legislature has not gone ahead to repair the system.

Although the Supreme Court in PA said that this was not a justiciable issue, the legislature, finally, last year came up with a plan to fix the funding. The plan has not yet been made into a law to be passed by the legislature.

Carol and I will try and be of some help to any of the rural school districts that might need us. From our own experiences over 35 years, we know that there is great suspicion of “outsiders’ among rural people. Maybe our background and the fact that our children graduated from a high school with 70 students in their class will mitigate some of the hesitation. I will give them a copy of “There Are No Subways in Lickingville.” That should do it. Don’t you think?

LEVELS OF EXPECTATIONS

 

My good friend Mike is trying to help a poor school district in Pennsylvania to try and climb out of a large hole that they are in. It is not altogether clear who put them there. It may well be a confluence of dark clouds that were aggregated by many different people and groups. Mike believes that the community is salvageable and maybe even more than that. He has had no luck trying to get the folks there to get up off their haunches and launch an improvement program.

The most that the local leaders can do is give up on their community, donate their local students to a nearby school district and plunge themselves into a no-win situation that will harm the community over the next generation. Even the right thinking people have given up the ghost.

Since I am not aware of the demographics of the community, it is hard to tell what exactly is going on. Is there a race issue involved? I believe that to be the case. The school district is 94% African American. The students come from impoverished backgrounds. It’s not too hard to figure out why things are not going well. I do believe that with the kind of leadership that Mike is talking about and a community where people work together, rather than separately, some of these demographics can be overcome. It appears that the state is not doing very much to help Wilkinsburg. Right now the state budget, which should have been passed by June 30th, is now 2 and ½ months overdue. It is school districts like Wilkinsburg that suffer, not those who are wealthy and get their money from local real estate taxes.

MONEY DOESN’T MATTER- A RETREAT

Erik Hanushek is an expert on public policy and educational matters. I met Rick a number of years ago attending an AEFA (American Educational Finance Association) conference. I was there as a leader in Pennsylvania’s equity suit in the early 1990’s. He had just produced a controversial book reflecting his conclusion that money does not matter in the successful education of our children.

He accumulated many critics for saying, what was then, an anti-holy grail philosophy. I was aghast at his conclusions and developed a rationale to combat this apostate view of how children did not really need resources to succeed. It all seemed like common sense to me. Rick did not stand alone in this conflict.

Folks like Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch, high flying members of the administration of Ronald Reagan and Geoge HW Bush, believed the same thing. I could have spit wooden nickels at the mention of those things that were so diametrically opposed to what I was fighting for in Pennsylvania.

My own experiences on the ground showed me that those poor and rural schools without resources could not compete with any of the mostly wealthy school districts in the Eastern part of the state. My focus was on their defense and a need to bolster their coffers with state dollars. In some cases the extra money changed the nature of how things worked in a school district. There were more courses, newer technology, extra staff and so on. It looked like money solved a bunch of problems for these school districts. I was riding high on a cloud of increased state revenue for my clients.

However, there were some school districts that seemed to stay in the same rut. They mostly squirreled the money away for some rainy day in the far distant future. It is only this year, twenty years later that the distant future has come to pass. Pennsylvania’s rural schools are in a mess because of a lack of funding and no state budget in sight.

Although Rick has moderated his view over the years, as have I, he still maintains that money is not the complete answer to problems in education. My view is coming ever to much closer to his. Having gone through the first 15 years of the 21st century, I can say that there is an even more important component to how well children will do in school. That will be the leadership of the school district and the individual schools. It is true that poverty is significant to a great degree and that is something that school people and others can’t fix. However, I have seen over the past 35 years that poverty can be overcome to some extent.

Here is one example of the many that I have run across. A young man took charge of an elementary school in the Harrisburg School District. The school is one of many schools in the district. It is filled with children from poverty stricken homes. His enthusiasm and intelligence bled into the entire staff and the community. He augmented his resources by working with a group called the Harrisburg Public School Foundation. Along with help from a local college education dean, he has transformed the school in a short period of time. I have seen it done time after time in rural, urban and suburban school districts. The sad part is that when that person leaves, things seem to go back to the way they were. I have had a similar experience in my own career.

So, I have made my peace with Erik Hanushek of Stanford University. Funny how those things work.

MY SIXTH ANNIVERSARY

I have been blogging for six years this month. I have enjoyed most of those six years on the web. There were a few times that I got angry and probably said some dumb things. In one instance, one of my nieces flayed me for saying some unkind things about a family member. The family member thought it was funny, but my niece did not. I was also castigated a few times by friends who thought that I had made an idiotic political statement. After much soul searching, I did agree with them. I have been corrected for grammatical mistakes by my wife, accused of incorrect references by a noted school finance expert and crushed by some people dropping by the site, who had no idea what I was saying.

All of these instances were overwhelmed by those who liked what I wrote, even though they may have not agreed with me. I have been surprised by the number of people who have looked at a particular blog. The champ is “The Romanian Prostitute,” a two blog entry into the blogosphere. It had over 120 visits. There have been some others of note, but that was the zenith(or is it apex).

The few books I have written on the blog have been met with luke warm interest. One of the big complaints was that people wanted to read ahead of the chapter that I had just written. Little did they know that I had not written anything ahead. I told those people that I would complete the book and tell them when. They could then read the entire book at their leisure.

I have not attempted to have anything go viral. I believe that I know almost all of the people on my blog list. I think they number about 150. They (or you) are a select audience. I try not to be too political. My politics are fairly moderate and I have no need to tell you whether I like Elizabeth Warren or Mitch McConnell, I will tell you that I liked Jon Stewart and still like Steve Colbert. I am not a fan of late night talk shows since Jack Paar left the airwaves in 1962 or so.

I may have a different slant on things down here in South Carolina. I have some more time to think about stuff and more time to go to doctors. With all the talk about Southerners being more laid back, I thought that I would find that here. I do not. I am not talking about the residents of the community in which I live. I am talking about the folks who live in the towns around here. They seem to operate at the same speed as the folks did in Harrisburg. All you have to do is substitute the word(s) Y’all for You’uns and you would feel right at home.

There is one thing though, that I have noticed. Speed and tailgaiting and no signaling are part of the rules of the road. I will have to put on my N.Y.C. offensive drivers hat more often down here, while tooling on route 278 and 170.

All in all this is a nice place to continue by attempt at Jean Jacques Crawb’s musings. From here I salute the King of Crawb, the Knight Frabning the First, the brilliant raconteur, Dr. Hanoch McCarty.

FOREIGN POLICY EXPERTISE

Recently, the GOP frontrunner, Donald Trump was asked some heavy duty questions by a news reporter (from an avowed conservative news source). His questions had the ring of a set up. I am not sure that there were any political candidates who might have answered questions about the names of people and organizations in the current Middle East crisis. Mr. Trump. Rightfully challenged the reporter about the nature of the “gotcha” questions. The reporter responded by invoking the term “Commander in Chief” as a response to Mr. Trump’s “gotcha” rejoinder.

Later in the day another candidate, Carly Fiorina was able to identify some of the organizations in a much more cogent manner than Mr. Trump, but also admitted that she did not know who those names were. This is all very familiar to me. As I began teaching in a high school in Manhattan in 1961, African countries were beginning to become independent from their colonial masters. These names were in the newspapers on a daily basis- Tom M’Boya, Kwame Nkrumah, Antoine Gizenga,Patrice Lumumba, Josef Mobutu, Joseph Kasavubu, Julius Nyrere, Jomo Kenyatta, Moise Tshombe (don’t grade me for spelling errors). We heard about Katanga Province, the Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Togo, Kenya, Tanzania (then Tanganyika and so many more.

There were so many names and places that no one had ever heard of before. The names were difficult to pronounce for us (much like today). The countries that were becoming free were even changing their names. I can remember a frequent visitor on Sunday talk shows (yes there were those then) railing at their t.v. audiences for not knowing the names and places. I can still see V.K. Krishna Menon glaring out from the t.v. screen, castigating us for not knowing anything about his own country-India. He berated us for being so provincial. At the height of the Cold War, Menon portrayed himself as a communist, which did not go over well with some politicians.

So, we are provincial, so we don’t speak many languages. Although I have nothing in common with Mr. Trump, other than being born in Brooklyn, I understand that he was correct about “gotcha” questions. Who would have known about the terrible fate of the Ibo tribesman in Nigeria at the hands of the military government there? The Commander in Chief is not always the person who has a foot in every single country in the world. Even those hot spots are sometimes very confusing. I did not understand about the Qud. I also thought he said Kurds and was mispronouncing.

Somehow Mr. Trump has tapped into a feeling among a part of our country that feels disconnected from the mainstream. Let them get out their frustrations for a while. They can vote for Mr. Trump when he forms his own “Gotcha” political party. By the way, who are the prime minister of India and the Chairman of the Communist Party in China?

OUR NEW DOCS

If you ever plan on moving, before you make those decisions, please read this blog. When we were in the thrall of moving to our new home in South Carolina, we did not conceive of all the actions necessary to change docs to down here. First things first. We had to get papers from our old doctors that allowed them to send the materials in our files to our new doctors. There are decisions to be made here. What kind of materials do you want the old doctors to send? I thought about the fact that I went to the same doctor, our primary physician, for 23 years. How much stuff do you send? What matters most in sending information to a new doctor?

If I told you that it took a bunch of time to actually choose a doctor, or a group of doctors, you might believe me. We questioned lots of people down here. We even went to various websites to see how doctors were rated and what the ratings meant. The whole ball of information was quite confusing. We never realized how many doctors we would have to acquire. Here is a list of medical people that we needed.

  1. A primary doctor or internist
  2. A cardiologist
  3. A dermatologist (for both)
  4. A special ophthalmologist for Carol and one for me
  5. An orthopedist
  6. A dentist
  7. A pulmonologist
  8. A gastro-entomologist
  9. An oncologist
  10. The answer is don’t ask. It is a normal function of age that repairs to your body must take place. We have had two experiences with new doctors, both great. It is amazing that the two docs that we saw had two really different philosophies than the equivalent doctors that we had seen in Harrisburg. It is interesting that you can go to two different doctors and come out with two different views. That is why Carol and I always go into a doctor together. We compare notes when we come out and come to our own conclusions.One of the fun things that I noticed about the outcomes of doctor visits is getting the pharmacy straightened out. The process here is different than back in Harrisburg. We cannot seem to make folks understand that we need a certain number of pills and that we want to be able to order those pills when WE want to. They have this system where they order the pills when THEY want to. It surprised them that I wanted to control my own medication. They are learning fast.
  11. I must tell you that we ran across a specialty that we had never heard of. In the office complex where my cardiologist resided there were a number of other medical offices. One of them was labeled VASECTOMY REVERSAL. What a specialty!