Sunday, July 5, 2015

Capitalism Helps Those Who Help Themselves

I've been reading David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle's The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools (Perseus Books, 1995), which is good but slow going since it contains so much useful information.  The part I was reading today addressed the American myth of individualism and self-reliance and its role in hostility to public schools.  But that myth has influence in other important areas of public concern as well, and I think I noticed something about it that the authors didn't.

They write:
Americans tend to assume that most social outcomes are generated by the characteristics of individuals -- rather than, say, by unfair laws, structural forces in the society, industrial greed, accidents, or divine intervention.  And we also believe that schools are given broad responsibility for molding individuals so they are more likely to experience positive outcomes.  This is all very well, but what happens when social outcomes are negative?  And what happens when, as in the past twenty years, social problems escalate in America?  What happens when American industries lose out to foreign competitors, when more and more people lose their jobs, when crime rates soar, when the country must deal with high rates of violence and drug addiction, when the divorce rate shoots up, or when Americans suffer in increasing numbers from sexually transmitted diseases?  By extension of the above logic, the individuals experiencing those social problems are (obviously) responsible for their fates, the schools those individuals attended have (obviously) failed in their missions, and those schools should be brought to account [152].
Not very surprisingly, research finds that
beliefs about individual efficacy were weaker among people who were most likely to have experienced economic failure or discrimination -- namely, those who were young, black, female, impoverished, or from poorer sections of the country.  The researchers commented. "The picture of the prototypical believer in the [myth of individualism that] emerges quite clearly and, perhaps not coincidentally resembles Ronald Reagan: an older, white, male, Westerner with a relatively high income" [153-5].
Believers in individual efficacy can rebut this easily enough, by saying that of course losers will try to blame someone else -- the system, society -- for keeping them down, while winners will modestly and correctly credit themselves or their innate genetic superiority for their success.  And (though I don't agree as a general principle) it's quite plausible that people prefer to blame the System, or other people's malevolence, instead of their own shortcomings for their failures; who hasn't known people who do just that?  I'll return to this in a moment.

Berliner and Biddle distinguish between this myth of individual efficacy and the myth of unbounded instructional responsibility, the belief that "schools can and should assist students in intellectual tasks AND political tasks AND economic tasks AND social tasks" (156).  I'd like to rename the second myth the myth of unbounded institutional responsibility, since it prescribes not only for schools but for our society as a whole.

What they (like those they are criticizing) seem not to notice is that these myths contradict each other.  This turns up in the second sentence of my first quotation from The Manufactured Crisis: blame for failure isn't laid solely on the individuals who failed, but on the institution that should have molded them into winners, but for some reason didn't.  This is important because so much of the debate over white and male privilege has focused on individuals: Nobody gave me anything, I worked hard for everything I have, and look at Oprah or other rich minorities -- if the system is rigged against them, how did they succeed if not by pure grit and determination and hard work?  The losers are just making excuses for not trying hard enough.  But if the fault lies with the schools, who failed to inculcate the traits and habits of Success, why blame the individuals?  The fault can also lie with the Dang Government, which has fostered habits of dependency with its welfare programs.  And so on.

The answer, I think, lies in what happens to privileged people when things don't work out as they wish.  "When American industries lose out to foreign competitors," do the corporations and their CEOs admit they didn't work hard enough?  Do they tighten their belts, hitch up their britches, spit in their hands and put their noses to the grindstone?  They do not.  First they vote themselves higher salaries and stock dividends; then they demand that the Dang Government help them, with trade barriers against the foreign competitors, with tax cuts, with subsidies to facilitate the offshoring of production, and if things get bad enough, with bailouts.

Here's a famous example (via), by no means unusual:
In the 1981–86 period, Prestowitz says, [Steve] Jobs and his executives “had the funny notion that the US government had an obligation to help them…. We did all we could, and in doing so came to learn that virtually everything Apple had for sale, from the memory chips to the cute pointer mouse, had had its origins in some program wholly or partially supported by US government money…. The heart of the computer is the microprocessor, and Apple’s derived from Motorola’s 680X0, which was developed with much assistance, direct and indirect, from the Defense Department, as were the DRAM memory chips. The pointer mouse came from Xerox’s PARC center near Stanford (which also enjoyed government funding). In addition, most computer software at that time derived from work with government backing.”

Prestowitz points out that Apple also assumes the US government is obligated to stop foreign pirating of Apple’s intellectual property and, should supply chains in the Far East be disrupted, to offer the comforting support of the Seventh Fleet. “And those supply chains. Are they the natural product of good old free market capitalism, or does that scalability and flexibility and capacity to mobilize large numbers of workers on a moment’s notice have something to do with government subsidies and the interventionist industrial policies of most Asian economies?”
 A few years later (boldface added),
When an Apple team visited, the Chinese plant’s owners were already constructing a new wing. “This is in case you give us the contract,” the manager said, according to a former Apple executive. The Chinese government had agreed to underwrite costs for numerous industries, and those subsidies had trickled down to the glass-cutting factory. It had a warehouse filled with glass samples available to Apple, free of charge. The owners made engineers available at almost no cost. They had built on-site dormitories so employees would be available 24 hours a day.
This didn't keep Jobs from snarling at President Obama that he was on his way to being a one-term president (this man must be a prophet!) because he wasn't "business-friendly" enough, because "regulations and unnecessary costs" made it "difficult" for corporate welfare moochers to squeeze out a few measly billions of dollars of profit.  To repeat: did Jobs blame his own parasitical tendencies and laziness for those difficulties?  He did not; he blamed the system.  Ditto for the Koch Brothers, who admit they are leeches on the American taxpayer, but it's not their fault!  They couldn't "remain competitive" without the government handouts, because everybody does it!  Nothing is their fault!   If they could just get The Man off their back, not only they but everybody would be better off!  American society, especially the investor class and the media that report the news from their perspective, scorns the excuses made by the poor, but is intensely sympathetic to the same excuses made by the rich.

So it seems that the myth of individual efficacy, like many if not most basic cultural principles, is invoked only selectively, when it can be used to justify one's privileges.  That's not surprising.  But how interesting that even such astute critics of the myth as Berliner and Biddle fail to notice the contradiction in its application to American education.