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Anti-PC League

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Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

But don't you want to spend money on this?

Glass flower by Dale Chilhuly. Image links to artist's homepage, showing some of his other work in the same medium.
Let me tell you a story. OK, a few stories, really.

I live in Chicago, which in most years is a bleak and gray winter wonderland from November well into what should be Spring. This tends to leave the locals very much in favor of whatever will help them escape those winters. One of those escapes is a pair of domed gardens - they're a little big to be called greenhouses - called the Lincoln Park and Garfield Park conservatories, where one can go in to the 80 degree heat, look at the greenery growing around one, and if it weren't for the 45 mph wind whistling past, one could almost forget that it was winter. This is open to the public, free of charge, courtesy of the tax supported park district. Isn't that wonderful? Surely only a big old meanie could be opposed to tax dollars being spent that way, right, bringing a little cheer into a person's day?

Most of the time, those of us who question that kind of thing hold our tongues, because not being thought of as being the reincarnation of Ebenezer Scrooge does make it much easier to get through one's day. But let's think about that one for a second. It's a nice thing to have, but why do so many people get so upset when somebody suggests that the government ought not be in the business of providing this small urban pleasure? Dig through a lot of indignant rhetoric, and what you'll come to is a very casual equating of the notion of the government doing something with the thing being done at all; ie. suggesting that maybe the city government maybe shouldn't be spending tax dollars on such things is assumed equivalent to saying that it shouldn't be done at all.

Where does such an assumption come from? Gardens were with us for millenia before the government saw the need to subsidize such things; private citizens and groups created such things on their own, and sometimes people would share what they had created with their neighbors. Back before "bleed 'em dry so the government can spend like there's no tomorrow", there even used to be this thing called "philanthropy" where rich people and the foundations they would establish would share some of that wealth with the rest of us. Enough to build a really big greenhouse, you ask? Friend, enough to build entire universities and museums, things that dwarf that friendly little oasis, and yes, sometimes things of beauty. No, a little showpiece like this would be no problem. Yet it is not done so very often, any more. Why?

Because there is no such thing as a free lunch; the wealth and manpower that the government takes control of and puts to its own uses is no longer available for private efforts. Taxation doesn't create wealth, it commandeers wealth, leaving all of us, the rich included, with less control over our own assets which are in no way enriched by the transaction, and what's worse is that as that commandeered wealth is used to do for the people that which they could do for themselves, the people get out of the habit of thinking that they can do such things for themselves or even that they should. Compared to many things that we might want to see done, creating even an elaborate garden is a small thing, indeed. What does it say about the state of private initiative in a community if even creating something like that garden gets to be beyond what the people think themselves capable of?

Image courtesy of the Idaho department of transportation; links to homepage for Lincoln Park Conservatory

Where is the harm? Yes, I'm going to get to a bigger topic than sheltered winter blossoms in a moment, but right now I'm busy leading you down the garden path. A typical example of the problem that arises at this level can be found when one takes a look at the annual chrysanthemum show. Easily their best show, the high point of that institutions display season, or at least it was until a few years ago. What went wrong? One of the park district administrators got the bright idea that if the mum show was started a little earlier, that he'd be able to squeeze an extra show in. The problem? Mums won't blossom in warm weather, and with the man's schedule change, they were now being planted one week after the official end of Summer, and being uprooted at the end of November to make way for the next show. Anybody who grew up in the Midwest should know better - in most years, Summer is followed by Indian Summer, and most of October can be very warm, indeed. For the next few years, some relatively expensive buds were yanked up by the roots; most of the mums didn't have time to open.

If that admin were to go up to some private individual, having done something that incredibly boneheaded, and ask for a donation, he would most likely be out of luck, not just because he needlessly disappointed his visitors, but because his policy lead to him foolishly squandering the money already given to him, doing something that countless others had told him not to do - pride, pride über alles, even over common sense. When it's your own personal cash, the fact that somebody is asking you to let him flush it down a toilet is something that you may take very personally. But with taxation and tax subsidized public services, the person controlling the purse strings is not spending his own money, and given the difficulty in getting a government employee fired or his budget cut for even the grossest exercise in incompetence, in practice the person disbursing the funds doesn't have to answer to anybody, and he feels little personal loss if the money is spent foolishly, because this is not money that would have contributed to his own personal lifestyle. The results were predictable - as badly as the policy change worked out, the admin wouldn't budge and now the same silly thing gets done every year.

We can laugh about this one item because it's only a flower show and the money squandered is, by itself, not enough to sink the city. It certainly contributes, though, to an overbloated city budget - it and a thousand other things as silly - and it should give us something to think about. Even the most developmentally challenged farmer would know better than to plant a late autumn crop just after the close of summer; if our illustrious city government can't handle a decision that simple, just imagine how it will handle something more complicated and important - the education of our children. Non sequitir? Not really. As I've said before, if a student flunks Arithmetic, do you try him out on Calculus?

Dan S. recently wrote about the priorities of the NEA. The subject struck a chord with me; like a lot of people out looking for more regular work, I've done the substitute teaching thing, for the glorious $50/day (before taxes) alloted us courtesy of the generous folks in the Chicago Public School System, and our beloved union. This has allowed me the opportunity to learn how to find cover really quickly to see yet another branch of our local government spend the funds that citizens are forced to give to it at gunpoint, more or less. How were they doing? Let me give you an example of one of those magical work days.

I wouldn't even get to work until late morning, even though I got up at 5 am. Sub center would often take its own sweet time about calling back, and as I would come in at 11 am, I would find myself confronted by a principal who'd want to know where I had been. "I didn't get my assignment until 10:30; considering the fact that I'm on the CTA and had to transfer twice, I think that's pretty good time". Miraculous, actually; my lungs feel like they're going to start bleeding from the running I did to make those miraculous transfers. The principal is stunned for the half-second it takes her to remember how often this has happened in the past. "We called the absence in yesterday", she says. Half the day is now gone, and students have taken advantage of the lack of supervision to start sneaking off of campus. Oh, and even though my academic background is primarily in Mathematics (supposedly a subject the CPS is straining to find teachers in), and I speak not a word of Spanish, I've been assigned two Spanish classes, one gym class, and the rest of the day will be humanities in a variety of forms.

Something that you learn relatively early on is that giving a lecture in one of those classrooms is a lost cause. The students view that as an attempt to establish dominance over them, but you have to teach them somehow, don't you? Not that you do, most of the time, the job usually seeming more like crowd control than like teaching, not really much of a surprise as all that the kids are usually given to occupy an hour of their energetic young lives is a word puzzle that should take them about five minutes to finish - babysitting masquerading as teaching, with the vacuous curriculum dictated from on high, very often - but today I'm feeling ambitious, and it looks like I might even get away with it! The way around the impasse that I've found most effective is to print up lecture notes and exercises, expanding on the assigned material, pass the notes around the class as a massive assignment, and then attend each of the students individually as questions arise. They're too overwhelmed to feel the urge to act up, and the fact that they're calling me over lets them pretend that they're running the show. They keep their pride and don't get their backsides kicked in on the way home. Probably. And I get to teach.

At least, so goes the theory, but today I'm being told that while the principal doesn't mind my expanding on the assigned material, running copies off on the ditto machine is an extravagance that Pershing Road (the headquarters for CPS) can't afford. Amazing. If you've ever been to that building, you know that the word to describe it is cavernous. Six stories or so high, covering a very large city block, entirely populated by administrative personnel. Chicago's a big town, but we're not Tokyo; this is excessive. What's even more excessive is what I get to hear after I come back home, exhausted from yet another unfunded day of fruitlessly trying to keep the students from damaging the facilities too much. I flip on the news, and discover that the many, many employees down on Pershing Road were treated to a steak and lobster dinner at one of those administrative meetings, tonight, full portions of both, apparently. I thank the gods for a cultural background that has provided me with a wealth of recipes for beans, and chow down on my lentils. Not exactly lobster, but at least my lights aren't being turned off. All the same, it would have been nice if maybe a little of that luxury could have been foregone from time to time so that we could, oh, say hire a few extra security guards, something that probably would have come in handy when Benny (a 7'6" student) was busy slamming my puny 6'5" frame into the wall. I turn off the TV, and turn on talk radio (oh, what a mistake), where I get to hear a few people griping about the terrible teachers who let the schools become zoos. "And you know that we're not allowed to give out detentions, right? And that the school can't expel students for disciplinary violations?", I ask after getting on the air. "What are we supposed to do without the system backing us up? Tell a few of the Disciples that we won't like them any more if they won't stop slamming us into the wall?"

As my eldest brother has observed, "these are the wonder years". But I digress.

Oddly enough, very few people, having had the memorable experience of having subbed, ever want to go back to one of those schools. No teaching is encouraged, unless you believe that working a crossword puzzle or a jumble is educational, the environment is chaotic to the point of thwarting any attempt to get anything done, one sees no support from parents or administration, and one gets the final crowning indignity of being scapegoated for the inevitable results of stupidly bad decisions that one doesn't even get to give input on. And the admins can't be fired. At least, not without a near-epic struggle, waged by people with a lot more clout than most of us, and most of them have their kids in private schools, so they have little personal reason to get involved.

What would work better? Here's a possibility to kick around. Let the parent choose the school, and whatever funds would have been allocated for that child's education goes to that school, wherever those fund may have come from (parental contributions, or maybe some sort of financial aid for those children whose parents need help). Just as with those gardens I spoke of earlier, but with so much more at stake, I think that we need to recognize that in the absence of accountability, a kind of entropy takes down performance; those attempting to uphold standards get in trouble for rocking the boat, far more than those who slightly lead the herd as it drifts toward slack. But if schools have to compete for students? Think of yourself as the parent, with these limited funds to be allocated for something you have a personal stake in - and then think of being told at one of those competing schools that all your kids are going to get there is an opportunity to work a few puzzles while ducking garbage being tossed out of the lunchroom. How impressed would you be, and how long would it take you to take your business elsewhere?

Liberals by the score can be heard speaking out about the evils of nonresponsive monopolies, when the monopolies are privately held. Why do they imagine that the same principle will hold any less if the monopoly in question has guaranteed government support?

Who knows? In time we might even get back to the idea of private charity helping out the poor, lessening the need for public aid offices to do so, which given the poor return on the dollar offered by such agencies, might be taken to be prudent management of resources, at the very least. But say this in public and what do you hear? "How can you be against children getting an education?" Which is why I took that detour through the Park District - maybe, before some knew where I was going with this, I got them to think about a few principles they take for granted, because it's harder to get overwrought about chrysanthemums than it is about children. But how sad it is if caring comes to mean not thinking clearly about what needs to be done and why.

(This post has been subjected to open trackbacks at: Stop the ACLU; Mudville Gazette; Right Wing News; Basil's Blog; Stuck On Stupid; Outside the Beltway; Third World Country ; TMH's Bacon Bits; Point Five; Right Wing Nation; The Conservative Cat -Dan S.)