Schools and Culture: Voices from Unaccustomed Quarters

Summary: Voices from the business community and the Catholic Church give hope that the promise of “compassionate conservatism” will come to fruition, and eventually bipartisan funding will crystalize to supplement the educational growth of low income children.

The populace is increasingly restless as the income gap widens. Those other than the very well-off are floundering. Pope Francis isn’t the only one paying attention.

A small but growing segment of the business community is taking notice and vocalizing concern:  might it be true that the well-being of the one citizen depends on the well-being of the many? What might this dawning consciousness augur for those students in our schools whose deficits beg solution?

Chrystia Freeland in the current Atlantic profiles a group of CEO’s who call themselves the B Corps, presumably the “Business Corps.” This “corps” sees the widening income disparity in American society and recognizes the development as “unsustainable,” and not because their markets are diminished by the poverty of buying power in a reduced middle class. (But probably that, too.)

We may have here some closet bleeding heart liberals, but B Corps folk, along with those Freeland asserts make up a larger international movement, make the case that sustainability in a business context goes beyond environmentalism, or treating employees well and fairly (though the latter is a pivotal tactic). Rather, they seem to suspect any current business practice which widens the income disparity undermines the long term viability of a business. They have eyes on the horizon as the critical measure of a sustainable strategy, rather than on the short term gain.

Even though their argument is couched in the prosperity of the long run bottom line, in the practical effect of their stance they are the spiritual successors of business folk of the mid twentieth century, who saw their role not only as capitalists, but as responsible to the welfare of society as a whole, an ethic that seems to have dwindled in corporate boardrooms of this day.

The B Corps folk may be playing the role of the canary to future Roosevelts. Both Teddy and FDR, scions of capitalist wealth, contended with the excesses of capitalism, and threats to it by the rising clamor in their time of the disenfranchised. In Teddy’s case, the rise of unionism expressed the outrage at the contempt with which the barons of the Industrial Revolution treated those upon whom their wealth was founded, the workers of the union movement. FDR, faced with the essential collapse of capitalism in the mud of its own rampant excesses, paradoxically saved capitalism by sowing the social salvation of the New Deal.

On a more contemporary note, Ms.Freeland in her article refers to Dominic Barton, the global managing director at McKinsey, and David Blood, a former head of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, who take the concerns of the B Corps folk one step further. According to Freeland, “both men worry that if capitalism doesn’t deliver for the middle class, then the middle class will eventually opt for something else.”  Men seditious in their own way who echo the historical worries of the aristocratic Roosevelts.

On the topic of sedition, Jerry Large in the Seattle Times speculates that “America May Be Reaching Its Limit on Economic Inequality.” He cites Pope Francis’ assertion in widely quoted recent remarks that the unfettered market of “trickle down” economics, still in vogue in quarters on the right, “has never been supported by the facts (in paraphrase).” Remember that this pope, though a thoroughly savvy and modern communicator, is leader of a still profoundly conservative church. So, in the secular version of his religious context, where the “trickle down” conceit is the hand maiden to unfettered markets, Pope Francis by extension is consummately a dissident.

Large gets even better. He gives ink to Ron Unz, publisher of the “The American Conservative,” and a proponent of raising the California minimum wage to $12 an hour.

Unz argues that the minimum wage should be raised, because doing so would tend to move the many low wage folks off various social welfare programs and more ready to fend for themselves. He thereby remains true to his conservative principles, but is only a tick away from acknowledging that the brand of conservatism that celebrates unregulated free markets is exposing deeply of its flaws, which need redress. Kudos to him for the courage of his breaking ranks, and for his coincident linkage with the B Corps executives, with whom he gives credence to plaints from the deep working class, and so moves the national conversation a tad more toward reality, which in this case means left.

Parenthetically, Seattle’s Councilwoman elect, socialist Kshama Sawant, as well as other Seattle politicians, propose the same $15 an hour minimum wage recently passed in the Seattle suburb of SeaTac – yeah, I know, and the state has now legalized marijuana and has been out front on gay marriage. We will wave to you from the future.

Linked to the minimum wage, economists note weakness to the economy when the middle and lower classes cannot purchase the goods of a consumer society.

In addition, national conversation with some legs has focused on the critical periods of learning in the very young, and the correlative need to prepare less advantaged low income kids better for school via enhanced early childhood education, thereby to better prepare them to be players as adults in a competitive employment environment. This is the same employment environment in which employers lament shortages in the skilled labor force.

Poorly prepared students remain dependent on the broader economy as adults. It is a simple equation.

These dynamics taken together may reflect a dawning awareness in the culture that economic and social patterns are akimbo and, yes, unsustainable in a society that promises all citizens opportunity and which has a self-image of economic vigor.

In the longer run these voices may signal an evolution to a society more ready to properly fund education for lagging children, and job training for the adults, and in general a safety net that adjusts for misfortune and a race stacked against those less fortunate.

These are crumbs of good news for our low income and middle income families and their children, who must however struggle with the hand currently they play.

Hopefully these nascent ripples are more than the feints of history. Even the possibility gives hope to beleaguered partisans of the low income young that someday the cavalry will arrive.


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