The Federalist #21: Hamilton and Taxation

Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Continuing with my review of The Federalist Papers, I’m going to move to a couple of short excerpts from #21 from Alexander Hamilton (did you know his political career was nearly capsized by a sex scandal?). I love this first line:

The wealth of nations depends upon an infinite variety of causes. Situation, soil, climate, the nature of the productions, the nature of the government, the genius of the citizens, the degree of information they possess, the state of commerce, of arts, of industry, these circumstances and many more, too complex, minute, or adventitious to admit of a particular specification, occasion differences hardly conceivable in the relative opulence and riches of different countries. The consequence clearly is that there can be no common measure of national wealth, and, of course, no general or stationary rule by which the ability of a state to pay taxes can be determined. . .

This is an interesting declaration that I will admit I don’t fully understand. His argument seems to be essentially that there are too many intangibles in determining the true wealth of a nation, which lesson he then turns and applies to the impracticability of imposing a just tax on states. This quick dismissal of any attempt to quantify national wealth seems suspect to me, which is why I think I don’t fully understand this. It may be possible that there are political obstacles to a state tax which Hamilton doesn’t want to address here. He then goes on to examine taxation more carefully:

Imposts, excises, and, in general, all duties upon articles of consumption, may be compared to a fluid, which will, in time, find its level with the means of paying them. The amount to be contributed by each citizen will in a degree be at his own option, and can be regulated by an attention to his resources. The rich may be extravagant, the poor can be frugal; and private oppression may always be avoided by a judicious selection of objects proper for such impositions. If inequalities should arise in some States from duties on particular objects, these will, in all probability, be counterbalanced by proportional inequalities in other States, from the duties on other objects. . .

I also found this interesting. This sounds like an awful lot like a description of the ideals of a free market–that imbalances will organically be corrected, without requiring the constricting oversight of regulation. I suppose this philosophical underpinning in capitalism is unsurprising–Hamilton did become the Secretary of the Treasury, after all. However, my understanding is that Hamilton’s running of said office resulted in more central planning than otherwise.

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The Federalist #10 (cont): A Democracy vs. A Republic

Image: J. Crocker. Statue: Daniel Chester French (died 1931

Building on the subject of faction in federalist #10, James Madison then moves into a discussion of the differences between a pure democracy and a republic:

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. . .

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. . .

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended. . .

In the first place, it is to be remarked that, however small the republic may be, the representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few; and that, however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude. Hence, the number of representatives in the two cases not being in proportion to that of the two constituents, and being proportionally greater in the small republic, it follows that, if the proportion of fit characters be not less in the large than in the small republic, the former will present a greater option, and consequently a greater probability of a fit choice. . .

Hence, it clearly appears, that the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic,—is enjoyed by the Union over the States composing it.

I found this passage interesting because we have become so accustomed to referring to our nation as a democracy that we forget that democracy can assume a variety of forms, and that we have been founded as a democratic republic. Here, Madison demonstrates a distaste for direct democracy, equating it with untrammeled faction. He posits that republicanism is the best fit for the United States, in that the larger a republic is, the more organically it will encompass, as well as focus, a diversity of perspectives, and thus reduce faction. He furthermore envisions a larger republic as a natural fire wall to the spread of corruption.

This presents us with a critical insight into how republicanism was conceived as a focusing lens for a systemic balance and regulation of conflict. This concept of representation and its relation to conflict is well-worth considering, as we need to consider whether that balance continues to be upheld in our system today.

A friend of mine informed me that the US has shifted more towards a direct democracy since its founding, and that this is problematic, given that the system was originally envisioned as Madison proposed here. I don’t know enough about such things to determine this, and would appreciate any further guidance on this from my readers.

Another point to consider is whether technology has shifted the nature of how representation should function, and whether some balance can be achieved through the use of facilitated communication and structured decision-making via online platforms and channels.

I can relate to some of this discussion at a micro-level in that much of my work within public schools has been in the role of facilitating groups, and I know that to allow unstructured conversation and debate results not in democracy, but rather in the domination of the voice of a few. I have found that to enable a more democratic dialogue, conversations must (perhaps paradoxically) be well structured, planned, and guided. Equitable conversation, in other words, requires the willingness to enforce shared rules, and such enforcement must take place through the adoption of set roles and responsibilities.

But beyond such procedural strictures, of course, comparisons are difficult to make in applying those workings to that of a large republic. However, I do posit that perhaps technology can be harnessed to change the nature of representation. One of the great deficiencies of our current system, arguably, is that we often perceive our representatives, even at the local level, as far removed from the realities of the commonweal. We also often see that the given political power of a locality can be determined by unscrupulous mapping. Remove the constraints of physical location and empower more individuals via structured online communications, and perhaps the nature of representation can be shifted to encompass a greater number of people without necessarily leading to greater faction.

The Great Bathroom Debate

Recently Newt Gingrich made some remarks about poor children learning the value of hard work through janitorial duties that has generated some commentary in the Twitterverse and on blogs.

My first thought in reaction to this, aside from a general distate for Gingrich’s firebrandism in general, was that he’s got it completely backwards: it’s in fact the rich kids who must be taught the value of hard work. These are the kids who will most likely never have to really struggle, and that have been raised with the expectation that the world caters to their needs and whims. Though poor kids may struggle with developing a strong work ethic in the menial jobs that many of them are unfortunately slated to endure (more on that below) — they hold no illusions that the world centers around them.

But after hastily posting something to this effect on my Twitter, which I botched since I was using a junky old phone, I rethought the classism inherent in both of these positions.

The fact is, as Andy Rotherham points to in his take on Newt’s statements, ALL kids need to be “systematically taught life-skills.” This doesn’t have to be a poor vs. rich kid conundrum. But the issue it does raise is whether in our frantic push to get all kids “college ready,” we are neglecting those character building experiences that help children to learn the value in hard work. We have a tendency in the United States to demean the challenge and value of technical skills and craftsmanship. Recently, I watched the Kings of Pastry, and was inspired by French President Sarkozy’s speech, in which he wisely advises not to consider “manual knowledge to be less noble than academic knowledge, less capable to create wealth and well being.” This is advice we should learn to heed here in the United States.

I personally learned the value of hard work by cleaning bathrooms. I cleaned a lot of them over the 5 years that I worked at a camp and conference center in South Lake Tahoe, and trained others in how to clean them as well. And I believe that cleaning a bathroom truly shows the nature of one’s character.

To clean a bathroom well, you have to be committed to the personal experience of a complete stranger, whom will most likely not even appreciate, let alone notice, your work. You have to struggle to pick all the hairs out of the crevices of the tile, stuck to the edges of the tub, caught in the base of the toilet. You have to get down on your knees to scrub the grime out of the shower curtain, and the soap residue caked onto the soap dish. Not to get too in depth here, but you sometimes have to witness and clean up the extremely unpleasant aftermaths of a stranger’s digestive issues. That’s a deep commitment to the service of your fellow man.

I don’t think it’s such a terrible idea to suggest that all children should learn to serve others, not merely themselves. Perhaps cleaning bathrooms is a bit too unsavory to expect them to have to perform*, but certainly engaging them in tasks that better their school or community environment, such as cleaning their classrooms, or collecting recycling, or picking up garbage in their local park, or planting gardens around their school, should be considered an essential part of their public school experience.

But let’s remove the prejudice that only certain children need to be taught the value of hard work. And in this recognition, let’s further recognize that we must stop demeaning the value of vocational education and technical skills. We all need to learn to value and appreciate those who serve us, every single day, stocking our supermarkets and convenience stores with produce and products, cleaning our bathrooms and hotels, serving our food and maintaining our cars. There is nothing wrong or undignified with being a plumber, a car mechanic, a janitor, an electrician, or a housekeeper. My grandmother came from Sweden and worked her way around the country, as a single mother, cleaning houses and serving families. In my personal work experiences, I have cleaned bathrooms, made beds, stocked shelves, and served customers in both retail and hospitality industries, and now as a teacher, I serve children and their families. And I value this work I have done and am proud of it, because working hard and serving others is the foundation of our economy.

Until we learn to stop demeaning such work, most children will naturally never learn to see the value in working hard to serve others or to take pride in working their way up through a trade or industry. Especially when it’s perceived as menial labor with no positive outcomes. And while some of our children will be “college ready,” until we teach them concrete skills and the values they will need to succeed, most children will not be “life ready.”

* One of the things Rotherham points to in his article in Time is that cleaning bathrooms is too dangerous for children to perform due to the chemicals that are used. Having cleaned many bathrooms using chemicals, I am acutely aware of this danger, and so as housekeeping manager, I researched and developed my own non-toxic cleaning solutions to protect the safety and health of myself and my employees. These solutions are cheap to make, just as effective in cleaning as the chemicals we unnecessarily invest in, and scalable for larger operations. Please visit my website, Environmentally Sound Solutions, for the specific solutions I used.

Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

I meant to post this yesterday, in order to show my EDUSolidarity, but WordPress was having some issues and I couldn’t log on to finish it. Well, better late then never.

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, when I first entered the field of education, I was skeptical of unions, but was coming to appreciate the protection from short-sighted policy and budgetary broadsides that a union affords. One of the benefits of the events in Wisconsin is that it has served as a clarifying point to many people like me who may have been on the fence or uncertain about their support for unions. It forced me to examine whether I really supported the collective bargaining rights of a union, as well as to consider more broadly whether I felt the field of education might even be better with the power of unions subverted. As I considered these issues, I realized that the tactic which Republicans and businessmen were calling for was not surprising, given the values of management and capitalists in general, but that it brought to the forefront a major issue with untrammeled access of private interests in public education. Education in our country is based on the ideals of a working democracy, and if we can’t handle the messy debates and political process that such democracy entails via a system of checks and balances, then we will be cutting out the legs from under the efforts of education reform, even as it might momentarily appear that we would be gaining greater efficiency.

Simply because our economy is suffering due to misguided policies that benefit the wealthy few does not mean that we should begin slicing away at the very foundations of our democracy. The Economist is heralding the demise of unions, and they sound so eminently reasonable, don’t they? Problem is, they’ve forgotten that they are discussing real human lives in their equations.

Unfortunately, our society likes to pay lip service to our soldiers, our teachers, our firemen, our policemen, etc. But if the issue is ever broached that we would have to raise taxes to pay for those essential services, everybody clams up. And they hide away in their protective ideologies and behind their pacifying Fox news blather and tantalizing talk show hate radio. I don’t care what the situation with the economy is. We should NEVER cut essential services such as education or social services in our budgets. Because those services are the cornerstone of a functioning democracy, and when we cut those services, we cut into the lives of those members of our society who need them the most. We can talk about accountability, sure! I’m all for it. I’ve seen too many of those federal and state dollars go to waste sitting in a closet. We need to invest that money smarter and track the effects of contracted programs in districts. Definitely! But should we be laying off teachers, subverting the roles of unions, and eliminating some of the few incentives and protections that teachers have in a highly challenging role that produces a product (competent students and citizens) that is of utmost value?

We need unions to protect the interests not only of teachers, but of the children who are raised in poverty. When we cut services or diminish rights in the interest of efficiency or economic duress, we cut directly into those children’s lives. Unions serve to balance the power of government and private interests. That doesn’t mean unions are saints or that I agree with all their policies or organizational structure. It means that I believe unions are a necessary counterbalance to bring the interests of various stakeholders to the bargaining table.

Public Schools as Ecosystems: Part III: Open Source Curriculum

A discussion of the concept of transferring the open source model of software development into curriculum development by teachers.

ITEA2 Research Project OSAMI: Logo
Image via Wikipedia

I’m going to branch out from my original premise of fostering interconnectivity and visualizing public schools as ecosystems and extend that concept further specifically into the realm of curriculum development. Right now, most states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which is a promising advancement, as it gives all educators in the nation a common reference point in developing curricula, as opposed to varying state defined abstractions. This is the first step toward developing a basis for educators to collaborate in more innovative ways in developing their units and lessons. It means, theoretically, that an educator in Iowa could collaborate with a colleague in New York and know that they will have a common reference with which to base their objectives and assessments on.

The next step will be to establish a solid curriculum that can be developed, shared and refined by actual classroom practice. Traditionally, schools purchase their curriculum from companies such as Houghton Mifflin, McGraw Hill, or some other company that contracts with schools districts. Then they give the program to teachers, and teachers get these gigantic lesson plan books that have all these boxes and colorful little sidebars, and I’m sure they have some good information embedded somewhere in there. I’m not saying this curriculum isn’t necessarily well developed and effective. But there’s a disconnect between the classroom and the curriculum that does not need to be there.

There’s another disconnect in education that occurs on the level of research. Some researchers do a study on effective teaching strategies and find out some interesting findings and report those findings in a journal that maybe a few teachers read in a master’s class they take and have a classroom discussion about. And maybe those teachers have to apply some principles of that research into their classroom as part of their grade and they then write a paper about it. But that tends to be about as far as much research penetrates into actual classroom practice. I mean, for God’s sake, the concept of learning styles has been essentially debunked according to most research, but you would not know it if you are in the field of education right now. Again, as in the curriculum, the problem is not that the research might not be potentially useful and valid to classroom practice, but rather that the research does not often directly involve the teachers who are in classrooms everyday. It also doesn’t help that often educational research can become highly politicized.

Both of these disconnects can be resolved if teachers were the ones actively doing the research and developing the curriculum themselves in a transparent and rigorous manner. I believe that the potential to do this at a low cost and at a large scale can be found in the example of the open source model used in software engineering. This model has produced amazing work that can often be far superior to traditional, proprietary means. There are parallels in the development of software and the development of curriculum that hold promise for the transfer of the open source method into curriculum development, though there will be some caveats to that, of course.

First, however, it’s important to distinguish what I’m really talking about when I state the “open source model.” There’s a common misconception about what open source means, and most people will probably think I just mean that I think curriculum should be free. But open source refers to a process, not a product. This is an important distinction that I think gets lost in the examples of “open source curriculum” websites that I have seen out there (Curriki, FlexBooks, OER Commons). Note that I don’t know that any of these sites specifically claim to be “open source”, but they do tend to denote that concept by placing the word “open” as a frequent descriptor to content. What they are just saying is “free”. I think what they are doing is great, and I am not knocking them at all. But I think it is important to point out that simply having a repository of free lessons that have been designed by real classroom teachers and ratable by users is not open source curriculum. It’s useful, and it’s a great step in the right direction. But this is not what I am talking about.

What I’m talking about is actually designing units and lesson plans collaboratively using technology, with actual teachers developing them together (for free) from the ground up. The teachers doing this would have to be relatively sophisticated and dedicated pedagogues, as well as capable with technology, but the end users of this curriculum would potentially be any and all classroom teachers K-12 in the US, and eventually, any classroom teacher anywhere, given that our new standards are placing us more on par with international standards. As these end users utilize the curriculum, they would provide feedback and round out the curriculum based on their specific students’ needs, and even join in on the process as they explore the application of the curriculum as a living, breathing, evolutionary product.

Teachers could also collaborate on research using this model, and carry out research in multiple classrooms simultaneously in order to pool their data and observations, thus building a research base of “action research” that can better bridge that disconnect between academic research and actual classroom practice. This research could also feed directly into the curriculum development.

This is the big picture, the big idea of what I’m proposing in the transfer of the open source model into curriculum and research development. There’s a number of issues that are already evident even at this grand level of generalization, such as the fact that many teachers aren’t exactly tech savvy (I’m still trying to get most of my school to log onto Google), for starters. And then just the little nitty gritty details like the fact that you would have to design a platform that would enable this collaboration to take place effectively based on the lessons themselves, not just on conversations about them. This would require some kind of standardized format of a lesson such that it can be modularized and broken into pieces and built upon.

It certainly won’t be easy. But it’s possible. The tools are there and the potential is there. As busy and abused as teachers are, I think there’s enough committed, innovative ones out there to get the community started with just an ounce of dedication and a whiff of extra time here and there. Wanna join me in the effort?

Public Schools as Ecosystems: Part I

A system with high adaptive capacity exerts co...
Image via Wikipedia

In one of my recent posts, I pontificated in a rather abstract manner on the field of education, and advocated for the need for nurturing an increase in foundational systems of interconnectivity. I believe quite strongly in this concept, and I would like to begin exploring it in more practical and substantive terms in a series of blog posts, just as I once did on the issue of poverty (I, II, III, and IV). But first of all: what the hell do I even mean by foundational systems of interconnectivity?

What we’re really talking about here is the concept of a school as an ecosystem. You can’t disconnect or isolate any one component from the other without considering its relation to many other interrelated parts. For example, you can’t completely isolate a student in a classroom from the collective student body in that classroom, nor that classroom from the collective student body in the grade, nor school. You can’t completely isolate a student from their family, nor community, nor society. You can’t isolate a teacher from the professional collective of teachers and staff in the school, nor from the administration and its policies, nor from the state and federal funding and policies.

So in consideration of the school as an ecosystem, we must:

a) acknowledge interrelationships and connections when considering subgroups or individuals by:

  1. considering the school culture
  2. considering the community and culture of the student population that the school serves
  3. considering societal expectations and norms

If we can begin to analyse the components of what I outlined above, we then can begin exploring how we can better harmonize those considerations in order to best foster the conditions for a well-balanced school ecosystem.

In my next post on this topic, I will explore the concept of a school culture further.