The public sector labor wars are heating up all over, and both parties are fighting the unions. In California Governor Jerry Brown is cutting union pensions; further wage cutbacks for state and local workers are clearly on the way. The events in Wisconsin and Ohio are well known, but in Detroit and Chicago Democratic mayors are also taking on the public unions. Republican Chris Christie in New Jersey and Democrat Andrew Cuomo in New York have each gone for cutbacks, and both parties in Rhode Island are rolling back union gains and slashing pensions.
To many people this looks like the next step in the Great Grim Slide, the inexorable dismantling of the postwar American middle class. Pensions, benefits and wages have been declining in the private sector; now the last sheltered spots where working people could have decent (though hardly lavish) pay, job security and a worry-free pension are being crushed under the corporate juggernaut.
Worse, the decline of the private sector labor movement has left the public unions as the last strong forces in American politics committed to the interests of working people.The battle to save the public unions is not just a battle to protect state workers or, as Republican critics allege, a battle to preserve the privileges of overpaid and under-worked bureaucrats. It is a battle to ensure that working people have a few powerful institutions committed to their interests in a world increasingly dominated by vast, heartless corporate entities.
This is how the world looks through blue-tinted spectacles. For those wrapped in the culture and the politics of blue, the institutions and arrangements of the blue social model are the only ways to protect the interest of average people that can be imagined or put into practice. Many sincere, thoughtful and constructively minded people in the United States wear those spectacles, because that is the way many of us were brought up, and because the progressive movement, the New Deal and the Civil Rights movements made such a deep and unforgettable impression on American ideas and values. Their anger and fear at the break up of their beloved blue social model stems from a genuine concern that America is inexorably sliding back into the brutal capitalism of the 19th century, and that slide is, they believe, the dominant narrative of American life since Ronald Reagan was elected President all those years ago.
At Via Meadia, we have taken the blue spectacles off — though we know how the world looks from behind them. That doesn’t mean we join Ayn Rand and Ebenezer Scrooge in thinking the progressive movement is rotten to the core. We are not of the view that the progressive impulse was always a bad thing. We find much to admire in postwar American political economy, and we regret rather than celebrate the passing of certain elements of the blue social model. But we think the progressive visions of the 19th and 2oth centuries cannot serve as the basis for our social imagination today. The learned guilds, the bureaucratic state, the cozy oligopolies that controlled the commanding heights of the economy — they either don’t exist or don’t work well anymore. The door back to the Blue Age is closed; we can only go forward.
But how, one can ask, can the post-blue world ever give average Americans a better life? In the future, as increasingly in the present, manufacturing will be done by either robots or by low wage workers overseas. Despite the best efforts of the locovores, agriculture will continue to become more mechanized and industrialized, with fewer and fewer people worldwide earning their livings from the production of the world’s food supply. Perhaps a “creative minority” of techies, showbiz types and investment bankers can earn huge incomes from the global marketplace, but that leaves the average American family living in a trailer park and subsisting on food stamps — unless massive redistribution takes the vast salaries of the creative global successes and sprinkles that money across the rest of society.
Again, this is what blue tinted spectacles see when they gaze into the future, and it is an unnerving sight. The sense that this kind of future is barreling toward the American middle class like a meteorite headed in from outer space explains, in my view, a good deal of the anger and determination among the best minds and most honest hearts of the American left.
In one blog post I’m not going to be able to unveil the entire political economy of the future, but if we look at how education might change in a post blue world, it may be possible to see how things might actually be about to get better, much better, for American teachers.
Imagine a system in which our current top down, administration heavy school districts and large schools were replaced by networks of teachers who band together to offer instruction to students in a given neighborhood or district. A cooperative firm of anywhere from half a dozen to a few score teachers might open for business, receiving a government payment for each student they enroll. Parents would have the right to enroll their children with the coop of their choice. The test scores and other information would be available so that parents could assess the firm’s track record.
These firms could compete by offering different educational and disciplinary philosophies. A group of like minded teachers who wanted to use a particular curriculum or approach would be free to do so; if enough parents bring kids, the firm is in business.
These firms could set their own policies about how many teacher aides they had, or even about class size. (Smaller classes would mean smaller revenue, but creative teachers who believed in the importance of smaller classes could find ways to cut other corners.) Teachers would be free to teach as they thought best; they could recruit congenial and like-minded colleagues into their coops. Rather than being evaluated by political hacks and administrators, their coops would stand or fall based on their ability to recruit and retain students from the community that knew them best.
What largely disappears in this model is management as we know it. Some sort of skeleton administration would be necessary, but its size and powers would be greatly reduced. Teachers in this system would have much more autonomy than they do now — and parents would have much more choice. Because less money will be sucked up by administrators, consultants and large bureaucratic offices of enforcement and conformity promotion, more money can go to the people and services on the front lines.
Teachers could form many kinds of coops. Some could organize small schools, covering many different grades. A group of math teachers might form a specialized math practice, subcontracting with a number of different schools to provide the math instruction for their students. Some coops might affiliate with local non-profits: with churches or community groups, for example. Individual teachers could contract as writing or music instructors with several different programs.
This system transforms teachers from employees seeking protection from politicians and administrators in a labor union to owners and stake-holding professionals who direct their own work. It will likely lead to higher pay for teachers, and experienced teachers in successful coops would have the opportunity to recruit, select and mentor younger associates.
Students from difficult neighborhoods and special needs students would come with larger dowries; the vouchers their parents can present would be topped up to account for the issues and costs involved in teaching certain types of children. This could attract high quality teachers to poor neighborhoods in a way that the current system simply cannot.
In this kind of system, where there is a lot of diversity in practice and philosophy, oversight would shift from process to product. Students would need to pass exams at key points along the way to move up in the system, including a comprehensive test to get a high school diploma. But teachers and coops would be free to offer many different approaches by which students could move toward these goals, and parents would be free to find the personalities and educational approaches they thought would be most likely to benefit their kids. And parents can always move their kids to another program if they think the current one isn’t working.
The point is that our society today, with many better educated people than in past generations, does not need the same kind of archaic, expensive, top heavy layers of management and administrators that past generations felt compelled to introduce. We can cut costs and improve performance at the same time by reconstituting more of our institutions as internally managed organizations. It is likely that many functions of city and state government could be cooperatized in this way, with employees liberated to become the directors of their own enterprises and the architects of their own working lives.
The decline of the traditional school system does not mean the marginalization and pauperization of teachers. It means more dignity, secure tenure for teachers recognized by the community, more freedom to teach the way the individual teacher teaches best, less oversight by political appointees and their empowered minions. The transition is a transition to a more empowered, more active, more creative kind of life, and I suspect it also involves better pay.
Teachers in this kind of situation would not need old fashioned labor unions, but many would benefit from membership in service oriented professional organizations that, for example, offered help in coop management and finance issues, developed curriculum ideas to be used with different kinds of students, and provided group insurance and other benefits.
The transformation of the educational system can help us think about the transformation of many other aspects of American life. We are not being impoverished by some terrible catastrophe that is sucking up the wealth of the world; we are adjusting to the first waves of progress and prosperity that will come from the incredibly productive factories, farms and digital workplaces of the 21st century. This means that changes, properly understood and properly prepared for, on the whole can and will offer us more choices and more attractive ones.
Life after blue is a life with more freedom, more responsibility, more dignity and, generally speaking, more money. Transitions, even benign ones, are usually disruptive and hard. But the transitions we face offer so much hope and so much opportunity that the sooner we start, the happier we will be. When more of our intellectuals and social idealists take off the blue tinted spectacles and, looking to the future rather than the past, perceive the startling possibilities for human liberation and development that are coming into being today, then the pace of change will accelerate in this country even as change becomes more humane and benign.