Tag Archives: Economics

Democratic schools and social gaps

I went out for a drink with a friend in a Tel-Aviv pub, and got into a discussion about democratic education and disadvantaged social groups.

My friend works in a democratic school and is doing research on democratic education. She recently visited my school, Sudbury Jerusalem – her first real live encounter with a Sudbury school. We were at an outdoor bar on Tel-Aviv’s famous Rothschild Avenue, and it was the middle of the night. On tall wooden barstools, across a long and narrow wooden table, we sat drinking an Irish stout as she recounted her visit.

My friend loved what she saw at Sudbury Jerusalem and saw in it a place that truly lives the ideals of democratic education. But she also raised a concern: that Sudbury schools are too unusual to attract many families from disadvantaged backgrounds. All I could do is nod sadly.

Radically different

Needless to say, Sudbury schools are open to people of all backgrounds. But Sudbury schools also completely reject traditional ideas of education – curricula, evaluation, adult guidance, etc. – approaching schooling from a radically different direction. It’s difficult for most people to understand, and seems to only attract few families from low-income backgrounds.

When you first tell people about schools like ours, the reaction is often one of shock and disbelief. “So they don’t have to take any classes? How do they ever learn anything? But children need structure!”

Other democratic schools can answer, for instance, that “students have a mentor who helps them identify goals and follow through on them.” This calms a lot of people down.

Sudbury schools, on the other hand, can only answer that the children learn to be responsible for their own time and identify what they want to do and how to do it. Continue reading Democratic schools and social gaps

Preparing to succeed

by Rocpoc, on Flickr

Sudbury and traditional schooling have something in common: they agree that young people leaving school should enter the world well-prepared for a successful life. For Sudbury schools too, this includes professional life – and that’s a good thing.

When talking about Sudbury schools, one point seems to get people a little worked up, at least in Europe. It’s not unusual for Sudburians to talk about students preparing themselves for a satisfying and successful life, including getting a good job. In progressive circles in Europe, a lot of people frown on this; “getting a good job” shouldn’t be so important to us, right?

I think this is all basically a misunderstanding. People don’t like to hear about school preparing children for the job market because traditional schools say they do that – but we don’t mean the same thing.

Continue reading Preparing to succeed

Anti-Germans as anti-Semites

United for global change!

I just got back from Leipzig’s #globalchange festival/demonstration. At one point, I noticed two guys holding up an Israeli flag, and went over to ask what that’s about. It was the only national flag present and I wasn’t sure what it was doing there. “We’re here to provoke,” said one of the guys. “This demonstration is structurally anti-Semitic.” The idea, of course, is that a demonstration with anti-elite, anti-banker sentiment is anti-Semitic, whether the demonstrators know it or not. I tried to argue against this odd rhetoric, but he quickly said he doesn’t want to discuss it.

These counter-demonstrators are, I gather, anti-Germans. This is a movement considered to be left-wing and anti-fascistic, with a commitment to unconditional solidarity with Israel. The paradox of the “provocation” I witnessed is that this was the only mention of the “banking=Jews” stereotype I could detect in today’s demonstration, or indeed in all of the Real Democracy Now activities that led up to it in the past half year. It seems to me like the anti-Germans were the only ones bringing anti-Semitism into the demonstration. It annoys me to no end that they weren’t open to discussion, and this post is my attempt to say what I would have told them if they were willing to listen.

I recently read a pamphlet titled “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere”, a fascinating guide to understanding and combatting anti-Semitism targeted at social change activists. It can be found online and I highly recommend reading it, especially if you are involved in any kind of movement for social change. It makes the crucial point that anti-Semitism is:

“a divide-and-rule strategy that has served to maintain ruling classes, conceal who actually has power, and confuse us about the real systems of oppression that pit us against one another.”
(Chris Crass, Quoted on the pamphlet website.)

Historically, rulers and ruling elites have used anti-Jewish sentiments to deflect the anger of the oppressed masses towards a relatively powerless group (Jews). In a way, it comes down to rulers explicitly or implicitly fostering the belief that the Jews, not the rulers themselves, are the problem.

What those anti-Germans were trying to do today was the same in reverse – delegitimizing an expression of legitimate grievance against the ruling class by claiming it’s an illegitimate expression of intolerance against Jews. This makes me pretty angry, I have to say. If I had detected any anti-Semitic sentiment or rhetoric from the demonstrators, I would go berserk. But I felt very comfortable at the demonstration, felt it was a matter of global solidarity, explicitly inclusive to me (with my irrelevant Jewish background) and to anyone else. The first thing that made me uncomfortable there was the anti-Germans with that big Israeli flag. How dare they insinuate that the German banking system is controlled by Jews? Where the heck did they get that idea?

You know what, I don’t actually know the names and backgrounds of any major German bankers. And I don’t need to. We were demonstrating against the absurd situation in which Europe and the world are in crisis yet the number of millionaires in Germany has only increased. We were demonstrating because we’re told things are going to get hard and we have to live in fear of economic collapse while those who were involved in creating this mess have nothing to fear and they continue to control much more wealth than the rest of us. Even if it so happened that 99% of German bank owners are Jewish, this wouldn’t have been an anti-Semitic demonstration.

Speaking out against someone who happens to be a Jew is not anti-Semitism. Speaking out against “the Jews” or attacking someone because they’re a Jew is anti-Semitism. Is those anti-Germans’ approach supposed to somehow protect Germany from a resurgence of anti-Semitism? Seems to me like at the very least, it muddies the waters and creates confusion about what is or isn’t anti-Semitic, making it easier for real intolerance to fly in under the radar. Even worse, it can actually re-enforce anti-Semitism by suggesting that speaking out against the powers that be is speaking out against Jews – supporting the false equation that “(the) Jews” are responsible for the power structures we live within.

There. I think I got it out of my system now. Has anyone else encountered similar situations, where people meaning to fight intolerance end up implicitly encouraging it?

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Solidarity: for all or none at all; Colonialism: still here

Display of Fairtrade products at the Derbyshir...
Image via Wikipedia

Bjarne argues that while we don’t need a planned economy, we do need an economy that takes people into account and acts fairly and morally. I tend to agree, but I am not sure how this is supposed to look. I would argue that global fair trade must come along with a strong domestic safety net, or not at all, and that financial exploitation is only one aspect of a bigger problem.

Unintended consequences of fair trade

What were to happen if every developed country in the world simultaneously passed good labor laws that applied not only to workers in the country, but also to workers employed directly or indirectly by companies in that country? In other words, what if the first world would suddenly apply the same standards when it came to those it employs in the third world as it does to those employed domestically?

Like any change in a complex system, this would have all kinds of different consequences, some of them unintended. For one, this would, with 100% certainty, mean that almost all goods and services sold in the first world would become a lot more expensive to produce, and somewhat more expensive to consume. This would hurt the middle and lower class hard: they would no longer be able to afford to consume nearly as much as before, at least in the short term. In the long term, this would give companies in the first world less of a reason to employ people in the third world, meaning more people in the first world would have jobs. This would, in turn, also mean that the first world would produce more goods and services, increasing exports. So I imagine it might actually balance out eventually. (I’m trying to think like an economist here – tell me if it’s working.)

A conclusion is simply where you stopped thinking

So in the short term, making world trade fair would harm everyone in the first world but the rich – massively. This is, of course, a bad thing. Should this be our conclusion then, that fair trade is a luxury and forcing it upon society would punish “our own” poor? No, of course not, that would be near-sighted. Rather, I think fair trade is a good argument for social solidarity and a strong safety net in the first world.

After all, there is an enormous amount of wealth in the first world. The existence of poverty is not a force of nature but an aspect of our economic system. With tools as simple as progressive taxation and a basic income guarantee, we could tweak our system to protect all individuals in society from the chaos of post-industrial life. And if we can make sure that even a large, across-the-board spike in the price of goods would not harm anybody too much, we can afford to trade fairly with the developing world.

In other words, global solidarity and domestic solidarity are interconnected. Only enforcing fair trade would harm the first-world poor in the short run. Only guaranteeing economic security in the first world would come at the continued cost of the third-world poor. In fact, presenting the two as separate could be seen as a subtle factor in why neither is terribly popular – if you really care about the basic rights and conditions of all people, why should you want to improve conditions for the poor at home but not elsewhere, or vice versa? But if we consider the two to be one package, one thing, inseparable, suddenly the parts all make sense.

Schooling the world for the wrong jobs – colonialism is alive, and kicking the third world in the face

But fair trade is not enough for the third world, either. The western corporate colonization runs much deeper than that.

This summer, at IDEC@EUDEC in England, I had the opportunity to watch a very difficult film, Schooling the World. What I learned is that what we know as conventional schooling in the west is being forced upon communities in the developing world which have no need for this form of education, nor for the content taught in it – essentially the same content as taught in the first world. Young people there are being trained for western jobs and academic careers where there are none, in communities which have their own way of life, requiring neither. The young people subsequently have no real choice but to move to big cities, where there is at least some chance of finding a job they are qualified for – but there there are still not enough modern jobs for everyone. Imagine being a young adult faced with the choice between poverty in the big city, where you have a chance of finding a job you are somewhat prepared for, and moving back to the countryside, where you might not even speak the language (as many schools forbid native languages and enforce the use of English and/or the state language) and would have to learn traditional crafts from scratch in order to be useful.1

Bringing “modern”, “high-quality” education to the developing world – often motivated by the best of intentions – is destroying cultures and forcing young people to either work for first-world companies or actually move to the first world. And if this is not stopped, universal fair trade could be a disaster for the third world as well, at least until developing economies are able to offer the jobs domestically that “modern” education requires for its graduates.

Exploitation of low or non-existant standards in the developing world is in the end only one facet of what western colonialism has become in the “post-colonial” era. Although the colonies are gone and the developed world’s mindset has shifted, it has not changed completely. In our arrogance, we help the developing world mainly in ways that help us more, and there are many, many fronts to fight on for a more just world, with freedom for all. The past is never gone, no matter how much we wish it so, and we have to be curious, brave, and determined if we are to find and root out its poisonous remnants wherever they may be.

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Footnotes

  1. It’s worth noting that radical democratic schools would not have the same effect, as their content is whatever the people present bring in – not a curriculum designed by someone from the city. []

Guest post: Our immoral economies (Bjarne Braunschweig)

For our second guest post in this discussion about economics, here’s my dear buddy Bjarne Braunschweig. He cites Klaus Werner-Lobo and Jesus of Nazareth as the main influences on his economic thinking, and everyone who knows him knows he cares a lot about Fair Trade. As always, comments below are open for your questions and comments.

Mattan and Michael both talked about the downside of planned economics and I agree with both of them. As Michael wrote, it would need an extremely smart, quick and moral observer standing above everything, but as history has shown, dictators who saw themselves as just that have failed to live up to their own ideologies.

Michael stated that systemic problems within existing systems ought to be recognized, and then we should try to figure out how these can be overcome. Mattan wrote something quite similar: “We should see how permissive we can get, how much we can let people run their own life – and then see where and if it fails and how can we fix it in the least disruptive way.” They described the “system” in different words: Mattan called it freedom for oneself, and Michael simply called it the system of the society we – at least in Germany – live in right now.

My problem is: We already have seen our system fail again and again and again.
If you’re looking at 2008 and the devastating “minus” on the stock-markets or if you look at how Greece is crumbling into little pieces of foreign policy-intruders, you can see it, feel it, sense it.

And what are we doing? Nothing but to curl up in our own little nests of comfort – built of money – which we want to keep as comfortable as possible, by any means necessary. We fail to look at the system itself or the big picture. When I am talking about “this system” or “our system” I am talking about the free market, which is run by enormous companies and governments cooperating with each other. This may not be true for all the markets and economics of every country, but we have infiltrated even the smallest and poorest countries with our “Diet Coke and Snickers” ideology and we are thereby undermining the free and less stable markets in a lot of African and South American states.

Our system is failing. Right now.
Freedom for us and the free market? How about freedom for everybody.

The situation in Germany is grand! We have public schools, for which we do not have to pay. We have a lot of universities at which we can study for free. We have a welfare system, which is failing in some cases to provide personal freedom and dignity, but provides money in exchange for sending a few letters of application per month. There is a serious problem, though. A so called “new lower class” is rising in Germany. What they lack most is not money, but education and perspective. But that is a topic, as Michael also said, that should be addressed in a different post. And seriously, we talk and cry, while we are standing above most of the worlds population in almost every way possible. Health care, schools, money, we have it.

And as much as I see the need of people in this country who try to get a job which does not leave them empty inside, perhaps even heartbroken, I also see people suffering on a much greater scale in so many parts of the world, such as east Africa or China.

We have freedom of speech. We have freedom of religion. We have the right to speak up against injustice.
An estimated 70 to 75% of the world’s population does not.

As Michael stated, we as the wealthy people – living among, beside or away from the poor – have certain responsibilities. We have power, in one of the few currencies power can come in: money. And with great power comes great responsibility. “We are all capitalists: we all agree that where the market works, it should remain, because we realize that free enterprise is a necessity for our freedom and that the free market, where it works, is the only moral way for people to interact in their skills, abilities, time, needs and wants”, said Mattan so passionately (emphasis mine).

The problem is: morality and economics often do not go together. Stephen J. Levitt, economist and co-author of Freakonomics, says: “Morality, it could be argued, represents the way people would like the world to work – whereas economics represents how it actually does work.”

And that is, from my point of view, the problem which makes me so angry and lets our system fail so often in so many different ways. We fail to bring together decent moral standards we use in everyday life in our own (wealthy, democratic) countries – like equality – when we are exploiting workers in so many other countries. We fail on such an enormous scale to apply decent standards of morality to our economic system: Speculation on food prices, modern colonialism in the form of land-grabbing (where people from all over the world buy huge pieces of land in Africa and South America), and not enough money and no sign of ethically right treatment for the people who make our clothes and raise our food. That is exploitation and a new form of slavery. We made those people dependent on our money but we fail to pay them enough.

Our economics system itself is indeed corrupt and the only reason it still exists is because we do not want to see the evil we are doing. The longer we deny that, the longer we live a lie in our wealthy, comfortable homes.

Why are we responsible for children dying in Africa, while we are living in Germany? There are a lot of reasons, but sticking to economics, it’s because we exploit the farmers and manufacturers there and pay them hardly enough to survive on their own, let alone to support a family. Because we export our left-over food and milk and sell it for only a small fraction of what the food costs if it is produced in Senegal itself, for instance. Because we only look at our own well-being, our own freedom and our own human rights.

We don’t need thoroughly planned economics, because that would not work and is an insult to freedom itself. But maybe we should finally see where the system and the free market itself fails and that people should always matter more than money.

On systemic problems (a response to Mattan)

In his guest post, Mattan Mamane argued that any form of central planning of the economy should be avoided, and only turned to when necessary. I have to say, I tend to agree with this approach. But first of all, I think there’s a case to be made for placing severe limitations on freedom when it comes to economics, because such limitations are already – actually, always – necessary. And second of all, there is planning and there is planning – not all planning is the same.

Now, I feel I lack some of the historical background knowledge that Mattan brings along. I can be ignorant sometimes, as I form my opinion in discussions more often than in deep reading. But if I’m not mistaken, the important insight of socialism is that there are certain dynamics in an unrestricted market which severely, systemically, and systematically limit the freedom of vast swathes of the population.

The idea of basing the economy on central planning is not a good one, that’s for sure. It depends on the planners being very smart, very well-informed, very quick, and very moral. With any of those missing, people will suffer. But obviously there are many economies, most economies really, which are based on many individuals making individual decisions without central planning, but within a set of rules and systems designed to protect societies from some of the ills of unlimited capitalism. I said “most economies” but it’s really all modern states, as modern states have laws and modern governments manipulate the economy in all kinds of ways. It’s really a question of how.

Mattan brought up a good example: privatization. Privatization of public institutions can be good, but the calls in the #J14 movement to end privatization in Israel are justified: the kind of privatization pushed there by Netanyahu and others is not the right kind; calls for tenders are tailored towards single corporations or individuals with large sums of money. As a result, privatization is used to drive more economic centralization and harms the competition needed for a free market; instead of a single government carrier for public services, we get a single private carrier, without the checks and balances of public oversight nor those of multiple private shareholders.

So it’s not privatization itself that is good/bad, it’s how you privatize that can be a great thing or a really bad thing. In the same way, combatting economic centralization or poverty can be done in good ways and in bad ways, and I think Mattan’s suggestion of focussing on freedom is a very good one.

However, I would caution Mattan and others from believing the oft-repeated claim that everyone is better off in a USA-style capitalistic society. Perhaps they are when compared to economies based on central planning, but the modern state is a very new thing as far as history is concerned, and we probably have all kinds of economies to try out. I think it is key to recognize systemic problems with existing systems, and try to figure out how these can be overcome.

One systemic problem of capitalistic societies is poverty. Here I mean relative poverty: being poor compared to the people in your society – not some absolute idea of poverty compared to the whole planet. We are all encouraged implicitly or explicitly to be innovative, take charge of our future, and be the very best we can be. Poverty, as I understand it, is a feature of the system of modern society: the existence of a category of person who, from birth, is not so likely to achieve those things which we should all aspire to. Perhaps some people are poor because they somehow have less potential, by nature, but this is not what I mean.There are many brilliant people born into poverty, who simply have the odds stacked starkly against them from the start. ((I believe that people’s ability is affected very much by their schooling and upbringing; specifically, I think that a traumatic childhood – such as that experience by most of us in unjust factory-like child-correction institutions mockingly called “schools” – is key to limiting people’s ability in most areas. But that’s a topic to be tackled separately.))

The measures taken against poverty are many and varied, and some are better than others. Welfare, at least as I know it in Germany, is not a very good one, in my opinion. Under this system, people have access to a living stipend if they meet certain criteria, the main type of welfare being available to people who are unemployed. Even assuming the stipend is enough to keep them from being poor, this system still limits their freedom: they have to go through embarrassing, even humiliating bureaucratic procedures on a regular basis and are forced to take a job, any job, even one they would hate. Such a system makes poverty slightly less awful without making it go away, and diminishes people’s freedom in the process.

Does this mean that welfare as a whole is a bad idea? I don’t think so. The German system just isn’t a good way of doing it. Perhaps all welfare systems ever tried aren’t good, but that doesn’t mean a good one can’t be created.

What I beg you to realize is that systemic problems in an economic system are never “somebody else’s problem”. They belong to everyone in that system, whether you happen to mainly benefit from it or mainly suffer. Like me, you probably have that image in your mind of a self-made man insisting that he made every single cent by his own hard work and wits, insisting that nobody ever helped him, outright raging that he doesn’t owe anybody anything. I’m sure many wealthy and successful people feel this way; if they didn’t personally make the fortune but rather inherited, they might feel this way on behalf of whatever ancestor did. But those who feel this way are deluding themselves. We live within complex social systems which can empower us to do great things or condemn us to lives of hardship. Sure, some measure of luck and some measure of ability are involved – but they do not exist in a vacuum. If you benefit from a system and that same system makes others suffer, their suffering is your problem, and you are benefitting from it whether you like it or not. I don’t mean to say the wealthy or successful are evil or something – just that no matter what they think, they bear a responsibility for the poor and the failures.

I think we have to take responsibility over the systems we live in and be brutally honest with ourselves about what they do right and what they do wrong. And when we recognize a wrong, we have to be creative and find a way to fix it while doing as little wrong as possible. It’s not easy, but it seems to me like an interesting challenge, and I believe it is the right thing to do.

 

I have one or two more guest posts lined up to continue this discussion. In the meantime, comments are open. What do you think about all of this? Are there good ways to improve capitalism? If so, what are they?

Guest post: Give freedom a chance (Mattan Mamane)

As part of my trying to figure out the whole economics thing, I’ll be asking some friends (of different ideological persuasions) to guest-post on the subject, and I’ll try to follow up with some kind of thoughtful response that doesn’t reveal quite how little I know about these things. First up is Mattan Mamane (who has a new blog in Hebrew), whom some may call a libertarian. Your thoughtful responses are most welcome, of course.

While writing this guest post, I tried to summarize for myself what stood behind my political ideology, what holds it all together. It wasn’t hard to come to the conclusion that the single foundation for almost everything I believe in is my freedom. Living through my own resolve and conviction is the thing I hold dearest and is actually the only thing I care about in the political field.  As long as I don’t cause harm to others, no one should care who I have sex with or how, no one should be able to control what I think or read – as no one makes better choices for me than myself. This is the liberal creed, and I believe most people today agree with it, most political beliefs just claim different ways to achieve this. We all realize, though, that freedom can fail; one’s freedom may conflict with another, and most of us agree that some safeguards are needed for everyone to receive the most freedom. Some of us think freedom fails at more places (for example, some will argue that saying certain words hurts people or causes people to hurt other people, depriving them of their freedom) and as a result support more control over people and actions (like taking away someone’s freedom of speech). Others are more permissive and agree to give freedom more of the benefit of the doubt: they first see where freedom fails, and only then see where we should limit it. Today, most people associate the right with the former, as they’re more skeptical towards where freedom works and think a more organized society is better suited to give everyone the most of their freedom, while the left is associated with the latter.

Socialism is seen by many on the left today to be inspiring as a way to achieve better personal freedom and liberty.  Socialist ideas first began appearing around the 18th century in reaction to “liberal” thinkers of the French Revolution. Early socialist thinkers such as Henri de Saint-Simon argued for a controlled society to combat the destructive ideas of the revolutionary “Liberals”, but instead of an aristocratically ruled society he argued for a meritocratic rule. Before the Second World War, Socialism was adopted by the liberal-minded in countries such as England and Germany, who contended that a more organized economy will result in more liberty, with parties such as Labour suggesting reformist adaptation of Socialism, in contrast to the revolutionist adaptation that occurred in Russia.

There is something alluring about a Socialist economy: with so many people acting against each other as they please for no clear goal, how much must go to waste! How much more efficient and productive could we be if we organized the economy under one central plan for the benefit of all of us?

But I would like to refute the claim that Socialism leads to more personal liberty. Actually, I would even go further to suggest that Socialism in its very essence must lead to an authoritarian society.

An economy is always changing; it depends on many factors. It’s the combined preferences, needs and wants of millions of people and their ways of interaction. A planned economy must always look all around in order to receive these inputs and output appropriate measures. The problem is that there is no “right” plan to direct the economy; each field will probably see its own plan as the best – I’m sure the scientists would love to see the bulk of the money going toward scientific achievement, but how much should be given to the farmers, who argue that the bulk of the money should go to them, as they produce the food? Each member of the society has his own plan that is based on his own skills, needs and wants.

It’s clear no democratic institution could establish such a plan by voting, it would take years and by the time any choice is made the economy would crumble through lack of action – so they must outsource the economy to “committees” and “experts”. Like a military operation, leading an economy requires efficiency, quick action and quick decisions – privileges only available to someone who is not under the restrictions of democracy. Each person must have his plan overridden by the central planner. This is the reason every Communist and Socialist regime fell into authoritarian rule: a centrally planned economy is the enemy of liberty and freedom, and history has proven this again and again.

Of course I realize that today most people, even the ones on the further reaches of the left, do not want a Socialist republic or a Communist rule; all talk of economics today stays within the realms of a liberal economy. We are all capitalists: we all agree that where the market works, it should remain, because we realize that free enterprise is a necessity for our freedom and that the free market, where it works, is the only moral way for people to interact in their skills, abilities, time, needs and wants.

But some people are more skeptical of economic freedom, and thus are usually more easily persuaded into giving up this freedom to the controlled alternative: such features of planned economies like welfare, nationalization of companies or assets, etc. I find it curious that they seem to see fighting against privatization and the free market, and for welfare and regulations as the means in themselves. Shouldn’t we let freedom work? We should see how permissive we can get, how much we can let people run their own life – and then see where and if it fails and how can we fix it in the least disruptive way.

Regulations, welfare, nationalization and such are tools to be used where freedom fails, they are used when we must control people for what we assume is the benefit of all of us. This should be the very last resort, the extreme alternative – like taking someone’s freedom of speech.

I think we should always look for the option that involves more freedom and more liberty, and I always try to give freedom the benefit of the doubt as much as I can. Whenever I’m dealing with a problem – like Israel’s housing prices, so high that they resulted in mass demonstration across the country – I try and look for the way to fix it that involves the most freedom, only when I can’t find it I consider the alternatives.

I will leave with a plea: Please, try and give freedom the benefit of the doubt.