Monday, February 28, 2011

A CEO, a Tea Partier and a Union Member...

It's the "joke" that's making the rounds today:

"A public union employee, a tea party activist, and a CEO are sitting at a table with a plate of a dozen cookies in the middle of it. The CEO takes 11 of the cookies, turns to the tea partier and says, 'Watch out for that union guy. He wants a piece of your cookie.'"

It's been a hard day, a hard week, a hard couple of years. I'm finding I may have to say goodbye to a number of people with whom I've worked for years. For all I know, my own job was on the chopping block; many others at our school didn't think this would happen to them, and yet it did. We are lopping off entire programs: engineering, architecture, mass media and others. Deep cuts in others. The math is frightening; the state doesn't take in enough to pay for the education it is committed to provide. So the cuts come.

We can take steps; there is talk of offering a voluntary pay cut to save jobs and programs. There are other alternatives being suggested. But all of them represent a retreat from education.

I don't blame our local administrators; they've been dealt the cards they have. Many of them are new at their jobs, having been hired only in the last year or two. We will see how they deal with these hard issues. Today's cuts are the opening move and much is to be negotiated.

I do blame the politicians. I think that the people of our state might be willing to sacrifice a little longer to maintain the education of their children, their spouses, their parents. But there is a group, a political party, that is resisting letting the population even vote to continue a bit longer the taxes and fees that were instituted in the last year or two and are expiring. They should get out of the way and at least let us try to convince the population that education is worth saving.

And there is the bigger issue, the subject of the joke of the day. There is a yawning economic chasm between the rich and the rest of our society. More wealth is concentrated with the highest two percent of the population than at any time in the last century. And no one seems to ask, or even suggest that they could help in this time of dire need, by paying taxes at a rate equal to what they paid only a decade ago, before the Bush tax cuts and others decimated federal and state budgets. Instead we argue among ourselves over the crumbs.

The economists tell us the recession is over. But all I see happening around my community is more store closings, more employees being laid off, more houses being foreclosed. We are living in a depression, and I don't see the end of it. Maybe there is some economist who can explain to me how things are better right now.

A message to the ultra-rich: laid-off workers don't buy your products, invest in your hedge funds, or buy houses. Neither do people who are still working but are worried for their jobs and seeing their salaries cut. I paint with broad brush strokes and I know that there are many well-off people who understand this basic economic truth, but there are obviously many who don't. This society allowed you to become rich; to paraphrase the Bible, from those who are given much, much is expected. It's time for everyone in our society to step up to the plate and work together to get out of this horrific economic mess.

Education made this country and my state great. I knew many of the "greatest generation" who came home from the second world war, got an education, and proceeded to build the greatest economy ever seen on this planet. They went to the moon and the planets, they invented computers that transformed society, they built a society that took care of the aged, the sick, and disabled. They made unbelievable advances in medicine. They built the best cars and transportation systems in the world. I saw these things happen in my lifetime. Our children have that potential, if we can only guide them and inspire them.

But instead we are now in retreat; education is devalued and teachers and professors are demonized by politicians. We are made to do more, far more, with less. I despair and grieve at what our society has come to. We have huge challenges ahead as a society; the end of the oil economy, global climate change, resource depletion, water shortages, food production disruptions and many others in the earth sciences alone. Every other academic field can point to other big problems. And our response is to cut the pool of talented individuals by making education inaccessible to more and more members of our society.
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