Congress is about to pass an additional $32 billion to pay for the war In Afghanistan. It will have overwhelming bipartisan support, with legislators eager to display their fealty to the troops in an election year.
At the same time, the Congress is struggling with a $23 billion bill to forestall the layoff of nearly 300,000 teachers next year, championed by Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. George Miller. This faces a Republican filibuster and the opposition of many blue Dog Democrats, who argue that it shouldn't be considered emergency spending. (Harkin has now given up on passing it in the Senate directly. The only hope is that the House will pass it as part of the military supplemental and perhaps then the Senators will swallow it.)
What kind of country are we? In the worst economic recession in 70 years, competitive industrial nations must choose their priorities -- what gets saved, what must be sacrificed. No sensible leadership would choose to make children -- particularly the children of working and poor families -- pay the cost of the downturn.
The damage is already being done. Hawaii has gone to a four-day school week; districts in Kansas are headed there. Detroit is closing more than 40 schools. Kansas City wants to shutter more than 50% of its school buildings.
Indiana and Arizona have eliminated free all-day kindergarten. One third of districts are considering eliminating summer school this year. Nearly two-thirds anticipate increasing class size next year. Classes may reach 35 students in Chicago elementary schools.
This surely is how great nations decline. Like Rome and Britain before us, Washington now chooses to police the world, even as it cuts back the education of the nation's most vulnerable children. We fight two wars on the other side of the world, spend more defending South Korea from North Korea than the South Koreans do, increase military spending already nearly as great as the rest of the world combined while saying we can't afford vital investments at home.
Last month, an iconic article in the New York Times recorded the costs of this folly. The Times reported from Beijing that the Chinese were preparing a bid to build the bullet train from San Francisco to LA. The director of high speed rail in China, Zheng Jian, noted that "We are the most advanced in many fields, and we are willing to share with the U.S."
High speed rail requires financing, very sophisticated technology and advanced engineering -- and China is ready to supply the cash, the technology and the high end engineers and skilled technicians. They would hire Americans to assemble the parts and lay the track.
Why is China so far ahead? It is estimated that the U.S. will spend $13 billion over the next five years on high speed rail routes (and that only because the president insisted it be part of the recovery act). China will spend $300 billion in the next three years. It is opening 1200 miles of high speed rail track this year alone.
This of course is a stunning contrast to 150 years ago when the U.S. imported Chinese laborers to help build the transcontinental railroad. Then we were laying more rail line than the rest of the world combined, part of our rise to the world's industrial leader. Then we were satisfied with uniting the continental United States. Now we stand alone as the world's globocop. But our schools no longer lead the world. We've moved from a high-wage manufacturing economy to a low-wage service economy. Our trade deficit -- $2 billion a day before the collapse, is back up to over $1 billion and growing. We run a high tech trade deficit with China. We've come a long way. We can only hope that the Chinese treat our workers better than we treated the Chinese immigrants those many years ago.
P.S. Please don't give me lectures on our debt and the need to "pay for it." Conservatives in both parties don't demand we pay for the increased so-called "emergency" spending for Afghanistan. And they oppose many ways to "pay for it" that would be immensely popular with their voters, but not their donors: tax the big banks, slow speculation with a financial speculation tax, end the "carried interest" scam that has billionaire private equity managers paying a lower tax rate than their secretaries.
Nor is talk about waste in public education germane. If eliminating waste were the answer, the entire war in Afghanistan could be funded with the cost of weapons the Pentagon has purchased but cannot locate. Nor is this about reforming schools. It is hard to imagine a reform agenda that would begin by firing 300,000 teachers from the nation's weakest schools... without replacing them. This is about priorities and values. And does not auger well for this nation.