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School Choice Is the Tip of a Titanic Iceberg

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Today's SAT prep question (and answer): Ayn Rand:philosophy as Chuck E.Cheese:fine dining.

Even at age 16, when I waded through Atlas Shrugged out of curiosity, I experienced her worldview as cartoonish, filled with absurd caricatures, and about as philosophically sophisticated as a Batman episode. Complex human issues cannot be effectively addressed by seeing the world in heroes and villains, black and white, absolute right and wrong.

The anti-intellectual climate in America, particularly as seen in the Romney/Ryan candidacy, poses a grave threat to the future of our democratic republic.

Romney draws inspiration from his Mormon faith. Mormonism is, among other things, grounded in opportunistic myth. Joseph Smith discovered the Golden tablets after being directed to them by an angel named "Moroni." Moroni told him he couldn't show them to anyone else. What a name -- Moroni! You can't make this stuff up. Romney demonstrates his faith in part by following Moroni's advice when it comes to his tax returns. Like Joseph Smith, Romney just says, "Trust me."

Paul Ryan derives his worldview from Catholicism and Ayn Rand, the Odd Couple of philosophical guideposts. This inconsistency alone should raise grave doubts about Ryan's capacity for critical thought.

I digress.

The direst threat to our national well-being is posed by the Romney/Ryan highly selective embrace of Ayn Rand's so-called philosophy. While avoiding her atheism and other inconvenient dimensions of her amateurish objectivism, the GOP ticket embodies the Randian notion of rugged individualism. This election may present the most profound political choice of our lifetime.

Nowhere is this threat more acutely realized than in education. Vouchers are proposed as a means to provide choice and "equal opportunity" to all American families. The language used by the GOP is disingenuous and manipulative. Counseled by pollster and image consultant Frank Luntz, the phrase "opportunity scholarship" replaces "voucher." But this is a big lie. Every voucher program currently in place (or proposed) provides a level of funding that is insufficient for enrollment at the schools attended by the children of the politicians and policy wonks who foist the programs on a gullible public. School vouchers will provide a bare subsistence education at poorer schools, while those of greater means can buy a "better" education in the free market, particularly the rapidly expanding market of for-profit schools. This is a natural and pleasing outcome in a society committed to rugged individualism.

The current kerfuffle over Medicare contains the same radioactive seeds. The essence of the Romney/Ryan approach is identical to that of education: vouchers. Perhaps these will soon be rebranded as "health opportunity scholarships." Rational analysis of a voucher program yields the conclusion that an individual's access to health care would vary according to wealth. As with education, vouchers would provide a bare subsistence level of health care with supplementary benefits accruing only to those who could afford them. In a society committed to rugged individualism this outcome is desirable too.

Privatizing Social Security, regressive tax plans, reduced regulation, smaller government, systematic attacks on labor unions, reduced support of public secondary and post-secondary education -- all of these things are intended to move from America's historic social contract to bare knuckles individualism. Though the Romney/Ryan Randian lens, collectivism is weakness -- nanny state, welfare dependence, affirmative action, wealth redistribution -- that throttles the great engine of prosperity, which is driven by noble individual effort and pure merit.

For several hundred years our nation has refined an elegant balance between the promise of individual opportunity and our obligation to one another. But if the GOP prevails, this will change. Don't be hoodwinked. The triumph of Republican rhetoric is that they have convinced millions of Americans to vote against their own interests. The social fabric of America was knit through several centuries of progress. Now it may be unraveled by the persistent Republican pull on this thread.

This is the choice offered by Romney/Ryan. It's a real choice, and I wish they'd just be honest about it. I'd fare rather well in their world, being a privileged white man with good income and a relatively secure retirement on the horizon. But I've never mistaken my good fortune for merit alone. I was born with privileges (not into great wealth -- my father was a college professor) that the majority of Americans don't enjoy.

But when Romney/Ryan et al. mouth platitudes about the well-being of all Americans, they are fundamentally dishonest. They intend to recalibrate this balance and further reshape America to a place where you sink or swim on your own supposed merit. We shouldn't be surprised. Both of these wealthy white men are doing swimmingly well and apparently have no awareness of the raft of privileges they inherited.

Those who support school choice initiatives are wittingly or unwittingly complicit in the disintegration of the great American experiment.