Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Bonds the Bind

We had an election here yesterday. It was the Primary for the governor, and since I'm not registered with either party, I couldn't vote for one of the gubnatorial candidates, but I could vote on the other issues.

We were asked to approve or disapprove the recent tax reform that would put the greater burden of supporting our State government on those people who can afford to pay for specific goods and services (like hotels and restaurants, which function, mostly, as a service to visitors to our state, who are not, currently, responsible for supporting those services that are necessary to accommodate them - like the seasonal increases in our police force, which are paid for with our property and income taxes).

We were also asked to approve or disapprove of $108 MILLION dollars of bonds, which are basically loans taken out by the government to pay for programs that have no income generating potential, usually, but which the government (and apparently most of the people) believes we need.

While I may or may not agree with what they want to spend the money on, the fact is that when we borrow money for these projects, we need to have a very clear idea of how we are going to repay that money. It's like the time I wanted to put an addition on my house, and I went to the bank to get a construction loan. The addition would have increased the value of my house, but wouldn't have given me any money to pay for it, right? In order to cash in on the higher value of my house, I'd have had to sell the house, but then, having all of the extra space wouldn't have done me any good. See where it gets all confused and wrong? If I don't have a way to pay for the house, having done the infratructure improvements has done me no good, and may even result in my ulimately losing the house.

Mainers already pay 8.5% income tax, and some areas of the state pay pretty hefty property taxes, too. We don't want those taxes increased, but we continue to allow our government to borrow money. It's like taking a kid to the store. As long as we allow them to spend money, they will keep buying things. Someone has to be the adult and say no.

It looks like the bond issues will be approved, but the tax reform was not. Makes me wonder where people think the government will get the money? If the government can't charge more in goods and services taxes, they will raise our income and property taxes, and since the proerty tax cap proposal has been denied every time it comes to ballot, there's no restrictions on how much they could charge us for the privilege of owning a home here. In one community south of me, they adjusted the way they calculate property tax, and the greatest tax burden ended up being those people who were in the most "desirable" locations. That is, the people who lived closer to the ocean ended up having a higher tax. The result was that this little old lady, who'd lived in her house for thirty-plus years, and had bought it for a song and dance thirty years ago, ended up owing more on her taxes than she'd paid for the little rinky-dink house she lived in. And to be very clear, she wasn't living in some marble-floored mansion with beach frontage.

The money has to come from somewhere, though, and if we can't charge people to eat out, we'll charge them to own property. The next step is to sieze their property, and then start selling these properties to the out-of-state investors. That will be fun.

We were also asked to approve the proposed school budget, which includes over $6 MILLION for special education (thank you so much George Bush for the No Child Left Behind crap-of-a-wasteful-program), but not one penny for career and technical education.

It just makes me wonder what kind of future we are preparing our publicly schooled children for? Based on the experience of my son, the school seems to expect that every student will go to college, and in fact, many of them do. Unfortunately, while most eighteen year olds pack-up and head off to their chosen institution of higher learning, after only a few semesters, most of them end up back home. My son lasted one semester.

An estimated 75% of the population of the United States does not have a college degree. That's most people.

In looking for the statistics of college graduates in Maine (it depends on the location, e.g. 36% of Portland's population has at least a Bachelor's degree, but only 19% of Paris, Maine has a college degree), I found this recent article, which, basically, says, we have too many college grads and not enough jobs. At the same time, I found this article from 2006 that says what we all know, and as Syndrome, from the movie, The Incredibles observed, "When everyone is super ... no one will be. When everyone has a college degree, the degree becomes useless.

At the moment, college graduates are competing with their diplomaed peers, and with that college degree, they are more likely to get the low-wage, service industry job, and those people who really only had the choice of a low-wage, service industry job are left with nothing. The working poor become the unemployed poor ... cramming themselves and all their stuff in one small bedroom in their parents' houses, because they can't afford rent ... or worse, not even having that bedroom, because not everyone has a parent who is willing or able to take on the burden of supporting a displaced family.

We're in trouble, as a nation, and so far, we're not doing anything to make the necessary paradigm shift that will employ a greater number of our citizens. We talk about investing in our children's futures, but it's just bullshit talk. We're borrowing from our children's futures with continuing this wreckless consumerist lifestyle.

And by not funding programs that will give our high school grads a REAL chance of getting a REAL job, and continuing to support an educational model that assumes everyone will go to college (I mean, I think college is great, and I am a college grad, and I would have liked for my adult children to have chosen a college-related career path, but how many computer programmers, school teachers, doctors, lawyers, and engineers can a nation of retail and fastfood workers support?), we are perpetuating the Debt Nation model that resulted in the Great Depression of the 1930s (according to what I've been able to understand, the Great Depression was caused by widely available credit and investment speculation as the West was being settled) and what has caused our current economic woes.

We need to give our children REAL skills that will help them truly support themselves and their families, and the subjects which ALL of our students are being required to study will do nothing to prepare them for a contracting job market. As we continue to transition from a consumerist lifestyle, many of the jobs in which they were previously employed will no longer even be jobs.

So, what could our schools be doing? What kinds of jobs should we be training our fourteen to eighteen year olds to do right now?

Mechanic comes to mind. As we're buying fewer new cars, we will need people who can help us keep our old cars running. Or if they really wanted to specialize, they could follow in the footsteps of this man and build custom motorcyles ... or they could train to replace gasoline engines with electric engines in cars (and, please, don't get me wrong. I don't think that we'll be able to continue our "happy motoring" lifestyle, and I don't think that replacing gasoline engines with electric engines will solve our problems, but while we transition, it is a viable career option).

HVAC specialists. We will either be changing our systems or struggling to make the ones we have more efficient. There will be work for people who can make those systems function properly.

Insulation installers. Currently, most homes in the US are underinsulated and energy inefficient, and people who can both evaluate energy loss and fix the problem will be in high demand as we transition away from fossil fuel-heated homes.

... plumbers/septic system specialists
... bicycle repairers
... chimney sweeps
... woodstove installers
... small engine repairers
... appliance repair persons
... home electronics repairers
... watch/clock makers
... furniture makers/repairers/restorers
... flooring installers
... forestry specialists/arborists
... permaculture experts/landscapers
... small-space gardening experts
... backyard market gardeners
... clothing repairers
... cobblers
... tool repairers/blacksmiths
... suburban chicken coop designers/builders
... home-birth midwives/health clinic workers
... home food preservation specialists
... butchers (especially ones who provide services to small-time subsistence farmers, like me) ... bakers ... beeswax candlestick makers

I could probably go on. None of the above listed jobs require a college degree, but they are all specialty areas and do require either on-the-job training, like an apprenticeship, or some sort of vocational training.

Unfortunately, for the students of Maine's Regional School Unit #23, if those are the kinds of jobs they'd be interested in doing in the future, they'll have to find a teacher and then pay for the lessons themselves.

But the bonus is that they'll have read Shakespeare and Mark Twain ... and they might even remember.


  1. I don't think that the people in this state understand that "bond" means loan. Instead, I think that people actually believe we have the money and it is just going to go towards these issues. It would be nice if there was more talk about how these are actually loans that the govt is taking out instead of just talking up what the loans are for.

  2. I'm interested in history, though I'm very far from any expertise in it. I have read a few biographies of a few of our founding fathers, and mothers. What I find interesting about the education that people like John Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington received is that it included some fair heavy stuff that would be seen as entirely academic if you were to pursue a degree in it today. Latin, Greek, history, philosophy, etc. I guess what's so interesting to me is that Adams was a farmer, and Franklin of tradesman stock; Jefferson and Washington were a bit more privileged, but all of them grew up working at acquiring very practical skills of use in the real world as a matter of course. What they studied formally was far more esoteric and abstract. And it meant a lot to them.

    Of course, these were giants living in pivotal times. They were actually able to put their knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome and the history of Europe to real use in founding the US and framing our founding documents. Few people ever have such opportunity. Yet I can't help but feel there is great value in studying such "academic" and of-limited-practical-application subjects. There's value, I believe, in cultivating such discipline of the mind, and such knowledge of history. I also believe that sometimes having an honest-to-god expert push one hard in a formal setting is going to teach one more than one would ever learn on one's own.

    That said, of course I think practical, useful skills are even more important. And yeah, our education system has run amok. Okay, I'm done musing now.

  3. Kate: I do not disagree with anything you said. I have a degree in English, and I've studied history and humanities and philosophy and German and French, and all sorts of "academic" subjects that have little value beyond encouraging me to think a little further than my nose about the world at large.

    The problem is that absent any practical skills all of that knowledge does little good, and as you pointed out, our founding fathers had a great deal of practical skill, in addition to their knowledge.

    The kids who are graduating from high school today have NO practical skills, and they aren't being taught those skills, either. Hell, half of them don't even know how to grow a potato (were you taught that in school? Because I wasn't). Or even a more universally applicable practical skills, like how to fix a toilet or change a tire, neither of which was part of my college preparatory high school curriculum (which included a mandatory driver's ed course that taught us nothing about how to maintain the car or even pump gasoline or change a flat tire. Why would they teach us to drive a car, but not how it runs?).

    My point is not that we don't need some Shakespeare and Twain, but that we need something more than just Shakespeare and Twain.

    Our proposed school budget is almost $42,000,000. There are just over 4000 students in the school system. We're paying $10,000 PER KID, and of that, the school can not even spare a penny to put toward teaching our kids those practical skills that supported our founding fathers, while they pursued more lofty studies in their spare time.

    And, by the way, I believe these, too, are pivotal times. Where are our Washingtons and Jeffersons and Adamses? We have a population of scholarly individuals with few to no practical skills, and that's pretty damned scary.

  4. Heather, I think you're probably right, but I don't understand how they can't know. This morning's headline called the bond issues "loans."

    I guess I wonder where our state government is getting the money. From whom are we borrowing?

  5. Yeah, I guess what I didn't quite enunciate in my first comment is that our founding fathers sort of got the opposite of what today's students get. That is, in colonial times *everyone* had to have practical skills and were lucky if they were able to study the academic stuff. Our students are force fed the abstract stuff (most of which is going to end up being useful to only a tiny fraction of them) and are lucky if they reach adulthood with any practical skills whatsoever. I think the situation was far better way back when.

    I feel sorry for most of today's kids. They're being deprived of a sense of mastery/skill at anything real. The closest most kids ever come to that is athletic or musical accomplishment. And that's nice an' all, but it's not going to be a living, or even marginally useful ten years hence, for very many of them.

    And to answer your earlier question, no, I wasn't taught how to grow potatoes in school. I just managed to teach my folks how to grow them this year though. I did learn how to throw a pot in HS. Don't do any pottery today, but I think I could pick up the trick again if I had the chance/need to do so.

  6. I'm with you. I feel bad for today's kids, who learn very little that will do them any good.

    My parents both know how to grow potatoes (or at least they were taught when they were kids), but neither of them tried to teach me. There's that quote by Washington, who said he was a soldier so that his son could be a farmer and his son could be a poet. I think, in this country, we're still, all of us, trying to raise poets, and it seems like our educational system is built on that idea.

    Problem is that we all can't be poets, but we don't know how to do much else.

    By the way, in colonial times, the literacy rate was something like 90%, especially here in New England, where it was closer to 100%. Parents were required to teach their children, at least that much, and very young children were always taught at home, usually by their mothers, because school did not exist for children until they were much older.

    Maybe if we went back to that sort of model ....

  7. Pretty sure that was Adams. Washington had no biological children, and I think his wife only had daughters (Lack of potential heirs being part of his mass appeal to a monarchy-leery population - no one really knew how a presidency was going to work, after all). It was a bit of hyperbole on Adams' part, since he really wasn't much of a soldier, and only marginally qualified as having served in the military. But I think the spirit holds in general, and even in Adams' case. (He did truly make great personal sacrifices for his country.) It's a lovely thought, but yes, it seems not to be working out too well for the generation of poets.

  8. I actually bungled the quote anyway. It's "I'm a revolutionary ..." which isn't quite the same as being a soldier, and I would argue that Adams was quite a good revolutionary ;).

  9. Maybe it's time for a suburban migration/diaspora. Most of the urban schools around here have multiple PUBLIC (and private) schools that would train you for damn near all of those things listed. Apprenticeships are part of the curriculum.

  10. Don't forget us electricians. You make a fine point about people misconstruing Bonds, or even loans for that matter, as "found" money. Hence the boondoggle we're in today. Governments do not have money, they just redistribute ours.