Tuesday, February 14, 2017

They Don't Need No Education

In my last post on sociopaths posing as progressives, I somehow failed to directly address Nicholas Kristof’s central thesis. I mentioned - but did not engage - his shocking and shoddy argument that the world’s penniless poppets needed more sweatshops.

Apologies. Let me fix that.

Of course, Kristof left out something central as well. In one New York Times column, that Dickensian dick claims these kids would be better off toiling in t-shirt factories than picking scraps in garbage mounds. Perhaps, but I think they would be still better off in school with a hot lunch. 

Kristof is hoping that you forgot about school. Oh, he mentions it in passing a few times; but always as a distant personal ambition rather than a baseline government obligation.(1) Kristof wants you assume that poor countries cannot afford such luxuries in their budgets.

Yes and no. Most still do. But corporate globalization abhors schools and other government functions and does its utmost to discourage them.

Doubt me? Then let’s start with a bit of history.  Don't worry, I will salt it with snark.

So, let's get policy wonky. The now infamous International Monetary Fund (IMF) was once a benevolent institution. With the help of the Marshall Plan, they did a great job rebuilding Europe and Japan after World War II. They made loans at very low interest rates because they weren’t trying to take advantage of anyone’s vulnerability. Their guiding principles were Keynesian, so they advocated buoying the economy by buoying consumer buying power. That meant they encouraged good wages. They recognized that government spending stimulated the economy - and with all the bombing devastation there were plenty of public works projects to do. 

Therefore, developing Europe’s former colonies seemed to be a logical transition once Europe was back on its feet by the late 1970s. 

Unfortunately, Keynesian economics was no longer in fashion in policy circles after the "mean season" of Reagan and Thatcher began, so the IMF got dark. They became loan sharks. For example, at this writing, Madagascar's current interest rate is 60%. As a precondition on its loans, they began to force client countries to accept Structural Adjustment Programs, aptly known as "SAPs.” Saps are like black jacks - they are for knocking people unconscious. But I would call it shotgun Reaganomics instead: Cut social spending and taxes, privatize government functions, etc. Such draconian austerity measures invariably make things worse.

The plot of the story is both familiar and dismal. With Reaganomics, alert critics accurately predicted such polices would made "the rich richer and the poor poorer.” Every graph on growing income inequality confirms exactly that. Likewise, opponents of trade deals that pitted the workers of signing countries against each other in a race to the bottom in wages, hours, and working conditions foresaw the same.(2) Similarly, Clinton Era critics of Welfare Reform correctly guessed its devastating impact on the poor - particularly on women of color. SAPs are supposed to help lift Third World counties out of debt but they accomplish the opposite.

Of course, what is success or failure depends on your perspective. For all the praise of trade and aid, it has been repeatedly proven that rich nations extract far more wealth out of poor countries than they put in. That is why the critics of corporate globalization often call it "soft imperialism." Both at home and abroad, such pro-corporate "anti-poverty" programs mirror conservatives’ Orwellian proposals to "save Social Security." They all extol "the magic of the market” and lament "government handouts.” And they all fail exactly as predicted because their flaws are obvious to everyone who has not drunk the Kool Aid. If it’s not conscious sabotage, it's gross incompetence.(3)

The IMF now belatedly admits its policies have done horrific harm.(4) If only they had listened to their critics decades ago. Perhaps Nicholas Kristof and Thomas Friedman can make their apologies as well now. After all, why stop at apologizing for promoting Welfare Reform?

This free market philosophy has a body count. The IMF Bank had privatized Africa's healthcare infrastructure in the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. No longer employed by their governments, doctors had to charge their patients - who frequently could not afford treatment. Care followed profit and consequently skipped the country. It’s simply supply and demand, except with the deadly caveat that human need does not always create markets. Even if privatization were a good idea (and it's obviously not), this may not have been the best time to make the transition. But of course, conducting medical experiments on the poor is nothing new. 

Seventeen years ago, The Nation ran a heart-rending dispatch entitled "Letter from Zambia." It detailed the impact of SAPs on that nation's healthcare. But it also looked at SAPs' effect on education, which is what I am raking Nicholas Kristof over the coals about now. The IMF has actually required countries to charge large fees for public education, which makes a mockery of the concept. Can there be any doubt that the purpose of such policies is to pipeline poor children into sweatshops? And, as the Nation article revealed, Zambia was no exception:
Over the same period [1980-1999] the primary school enrollment rate has plummeted from 96 percent to 77 percent. Half a million children are now out of school, out of a total national population of only 9 million.
These last figures are not accidental. They reflect the results of cuts in public spending and the introduction of school fees. For example, whereas in 1991 the Zambian government spent about $60 per primary school pupil, it now spends just $15. Cuts in public spending–the slimming down of a "bloated” public sector–are a central plank of structural adjustment, as promoted by the World Bank and the IMF.

See? They have schools too. But a 12+ hour shift making sneakers isn't exactly an "after school job."

Of course, those figures are for primary education. Those for secondary education are always worse - especially for the most vulnerable. Fortunately, the situation has since improved 
slightly. According to UNICEF's page on education in Zambia, "Since the introduction of the free basic education policy in 2002, enrollment in basic education levels has steadily increased." 

That sentence should read, "Since the return of the free basic education,” but the takeaway remains the same either way: Making public education public raises participation. Who knew? Everyone familiar with human civilization, that's who.

But UNICEF cautions that problems remain. "However, children from poor households, rural children and girls are the last to enroll in school and the first to drop out, and are significantly underrepresented in the upper grades of basic education as well as the secondary level."(5) 

All of these things are obvious and voluminously documented. We know that government spending stimulates the economy. We know that higher wages boost consumer buying power. We know that high interest rates exacerbate debt. We know that free public schools promote education. Etc. 

But, for some people, rationality rapidly evaporates when a market-based solution is suggested. Institutional memory, history, and basic horse sense all get mysteriously suspended. Nice white liberals suddenly become as naively cynical as Amway distributors. Some know it’s a pyramid scheme while others are innocents. But most are both and rationalize away all uncomfortable thoughts. But make no mistake: 
It's a faith-based creed that does not appreciate skeptics. It's a libertarian religion that has many "liberal" converts. They insist they are still liberals, but they are as credulous and repellent as any Ayn Rand fan - or Trump supporter, for that matter.

In his columns, Nicolas Kristof vividly describes Third World hell-scapes but he never explains how they got that way. There’s nary a mention of debt, the IMF, SAPs, or school fees. Indeed, there’s almost no mention of schools. After all, he does not want to spoil the post-apocalyptic effect of his poverty porn or prompt you to ask "Why aren’t these kids in class?” 

Kristof's false choice between trash mounds and sweatshops is either moronic or dishonest. Take you pick. Either way, he does not deserve a public platform. Schools exist, even in the poorest countries; and the necessity of expanding access to them is obvious to all except those who have conflicting priorities or put the terms labor standards and living wages in scare quotes.(6) 

And I suspect it is obvious to them too.


1) And some of the mentions are beyond absurdity. In his 2000 column on the topic, he writes, "Of course it may sound silly to say that sweatshops offer a route to prosperity, when wages in the poorest countries are sometimes less than $1 a day. Still, for an impoverished Indonesian or Bangladeshi woman with a handful of kids who would otherwise drop out of school and risk dying of mundane diseases like diarrhea, $1 a day can be a life transforming wage.”

Okay, two things. First, diarrhea is a symptom, not a disease: The word he is looking for is "dysentery.” Second, when would she find time for school working 12+ hour shifts, which are typical for sweatshops? She has to sleep. And, oh yes, she has kids. When is she supposed to see them? So, yes, it sounds silly. During the first Gulf War, I learned a new military euphemism for high command: "echelons beyond reality.” It seems to be from where Kristof files his columns.

2) And lest you protest that neo-liberal (i.e. conservative) economic policies have had negligible effect either way (I noticed you guys have backed off claiming they would benefit us, creating millions of jobs), the IMF has admitted that such policies have contributed to economic inequality in developed nations. Interestingly, they suggest more Keynesian social spending as a corrective.

3) Sound like hyperbole? Then consider this: More government debt means fewer funds for the social services that remain. Recall that David Stockman allegedly admitted that the Reagan Administration deliberately ballooned the federal deficit to crowd-out social spending. That was Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's allegation reported in the New York Times, if you think that link is to some lefty conspiracy theory site. And Friedrich von Hayek openly voiced his approval. But whether intentional or not, the effect is the same in both at home and abroad. That is what happened - that's beyond debate. If it’s not deliberate, it’s imbecilic. And if you need another Reganomics comparison, just listen to how corporate globalism’s advocates explain how it helps the world’s poor and ask yourself how it is not "trickle-down” economics. They say great wealth is created and, eventually, some of it filters down to the bottom. So, just sit tight and wait.

4) With all this in mind, I’d like to highlight a strange claim that Nicolas Kristof made in his first column on sweatshops back in 2000. He argued that Taiwan and South Korea boomed by welcoming sweatshops while India stagnated by resisting them. His claim is a combination of cherry-picking, lying by omission, and flat-out lying. First, other countries in the "sweatshop belt” have not fared so well, so of course Kristof ignores them. What about Indonesia and Vietnam? Never mind. Second, Taiwan and South Korea benefited from Cold War era development. We built them up the same way we rebuilt Japan. This was genuine development done before the word became a euphemism for looting. We needed them to be strong, so we didn’t fuck them over. Third, India's growth rate over the last fifty years - Kristof's time frame, not mine - has been simply stunning. Their economy took off as soon as they ejected the British. Indeed, it has recently even surpassed China's so Kristof’s narration of stagnation is nonsense. What China and India have in common (besides sweatshops, because India has those too) is their independence from the IMF. They don’t let global bodies dictate policies to them. Unlike many other countries, they have the strength to resist. 

Interestingly, almost a decade later in 2009, Kristof wrote a column about Vietnam in which he described the nation’s extreme poverty. He, of course, used this to argue for sweatshops. This was the same article in which he framed the issue as sweatshops vs picking garbage. But Vietnam has tons of sweatshops. It stopped being an primarily agricultural country long ago. According to the CIA World Fact Book, "Agriculture's share of economic output has shrunk from about 25% in 2000 to 18% in 2014, while industry's share increased from 36% to 38% in the same period." (The remainder is the service industry.) In that article, entitled "Where Sweatshops are a Dream,” he talks about how Vietnamese long to work in a factory. Well, the Chinese workers who slave away for the Apple subcontractor Foxconn feel considerably differently. For them, the dream is a nightmare – thus the suicide prevention nets installed around buildings to deter jumpers. And the story remains timely since the deaths continueIn another article entitled "Let them Sweat" (/Eat Cake?), Kristof calls sweatshop jobs "the first step on life's escalator." But for most the escalator is actually a treadmill. 

5) This isn't just tradition, but economics too. It's an unholy spawn of the two. Less government social programs means less insulation from the shocks of the market. (And we are still in the midst of a global recession.) When such shocks occur, the most vulnerable become society's shock absorbers by default. Therefore, girls are the first to be removed from school and put to work in the sweatshops. Bigotry plus austerity equals tragedy. Of course, bigotry is a tragedy in and of itself; but austerity sure as shit magnifies the effects. Likewise, stateside, African Americans have always been the "last hired and the first fired." So, during the Great Depression, they were white society's economic shock absorbers. In southern cities, black male unemployment was twice the white male rate and the gap was even worse for black women. Things like race, sex, and class do not operate in isolation from one another, despite what Hillary Clinton suggests.

6) That’s not all that must be done, of course. The debts of the IMF Bank’s victims should be erased and reparations paid for raping their economies and ecosystems. Any additional development should be done honestly along Keynesian lines and free of charge.

And, yeah, Nicolas Kristof actually put the term labor standards in scare quotes - in the very first sentence. The opening reads like something in the National Review.

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