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Tanya M. Acker Headshot

Since Johnny Can't Read, He Probably Can't Spell 'Big Government' Either

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Austerity is under attack! First, Francois Hollande swept Sarkozy from the French presidency, and then Angela Merkel's party took a pounding in German regional elections. Sweet vindication, perhaps, for opponents of the EU fiscal pact, who certainly had good reason to resent certain of the belt-tightening measures advocated by the continent's leadership. Spain is a good example of why: notwithstanding that nation's 17 percent reduction in government spending, the country's unemployment rate remains at almost 24 percent (almost 50 percent of its youth are without work) and S&P downgraded its credit rating two notches. Apparently, you can't starve a country into an economic recovery.

But while Hollande's election may drive home the important point that economic policies that cavalierly dismiss the interests of living, breathing people are destined to provoke challenge and perhaps ultimately to fail (these "living, breathing people" being distinguished from the corporate "people" so beloved by the U.S. Supreme Court), the platform embraced by the French president-elect seems unlikely to usher in an economic renaissance either. His proposals to impose a 75 percent tax on earnings more than 1 million euros and to rollback the retirement age from 62 to 60 hardly seems the way to jump start an economy in a country whose agricultural exports, while including magnificent wine and cheese, do not include any species of money tree. He presumably won't be able to get too far with such a spendthrift agenda -- Merkel may be wounded but she's not down for the count -- but it does seem that Europe is stuck reliving an old conversation.

As are we. On the one hand, there are the government-haters in Washington who seem determined to starve the "Big Government" they so despise of resources (although not many of them seem willing to relinquish their Big-Government health care -- a conversation for another day). On the other hand are their counterparts, who seem unwilling or unable to manage the type of big shift in priorities that would deliver Americans better value for their tax dollars.

Perhaps there is room for a new conversation about public spending. New ideas, of course, require new assumptions, and one cliché that must be revisited if ever we are to think differently about how our tax dollars are handled is that "Big Government" (that would be the federal one) is the power mad harbinger of all that is dark and evil. Indeed, in spite of the protestations of many of the "conservatives" among us, the Founders actually did not uniformly hate the federal government that they lobbied so hard to create. (I put the word "conservative" in quotations for a reason: just because you call yourself one, or think that discriminating against gay people and mandating state-ordered vaginal probes makes you one, doesn't mean that the term really fits.) Rather, at least one among them concluded that tyrants were more often created from the ranks of those whose "specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people" concealed a "dangerous ambition," than from those who advocated for the "firmness and efficiency of government." These mask-wearers, according to Alexander Hamilton, would begin as demagogues and end as tyrants. (I wonder how many demagogues/tyrants-in-training Alexander Hamilton would identify on today's cable news shows.)

So instead of giving a free pass to policymakers who pound the table about how much they hate government with one hand, while collecting "Big Government" money for favored friends and constituents with the other, we might instead insist on a more deliberate approach to public spending and public money -- one that relies on creating actual value for American taxpayers rather than on cute sound bytes about the evils of Washington.

In the American tradition of thinking big and coming up with ideas that no one thinks will ever work, we could first focus that value creation on ensuring that American students are able to read and count. Only 30 percent of American eighth graders can read proficiently, and American students rank 25th in math compared to students in 30 industrialized countries. What if Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell had used the almost $3 billion in earmarks they both requested between 2008 and 2010 to adopt various public schools around the country -- buying books, repairing classrooms and paying effective teachers competitive salaries? A one-percenter recently told me that his objections to the Buffett proposal were premised not on any hatred of his government but instead on the fact that on top of his tax bill he also had to spend $25,000 a year in private school tuition just to ensure his son would be able to spell. Senators McConnell and Reid may not think that earmark spending matters much in terms of deficit reduction, but using our federal money differently would go a long way toward promoting American literacy.

I have no idea how we could get American policymakers to cooperate on something as divisive as fixing the education problem without using it as an opportunity to further various partisan aims, but I also don't know how to build a plane that runs on algae fuel. Someone, however, does -- it's just a matter of listening to what they say, no matter how unsexy it sounds or how quickly they might be dismissed by demagogues more talented at turning a phrase.

Nor am I so naïve as to be unaware of the obstacles to any such "pie-in-the-sky" educational initiative -- teachers unions and culture warriors who object to science-based curricula being among them -- but we've fried bigger fish before. And make no mistake, the problem is not one that "Big Government" can handle alone: perhaps the more effective solution would be to use some of that earmark money and deliver it in block grants to the states. Really -- I'm just throwing out ideas here. Someone more expert than I can figure out how to get the plane to take off with pond scum in the tank.

Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers that "[Divide and command] must be the motto of every nation that either hates or fears us." I imagine that there are a lot of America-haters out there who relish seeing our kids becoming increasingly illiterate while American policymakers stand idly by, thinking their patriotism is best expressed by calling the government nasty names. People who can't read, however, are very easy to divide and even easier to command. No demagoguery can save us from that.