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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Our Competing Aristocracies

         In August of 2017 I devoted a long post to journalist Jane Mayer's superb book Dark Money, which had appeared a  year earlier.  While I hope readers may go to it and read the whole thing, I am gonig to quote the first few paragraphs here.

"Last weekend I finished Dark Money by Jane Mayer, which appeared last year.  It was marketed, largely, as a history of the involvement of the fossil fuel magnates Charles and David Koch in American politics over the last few decades, but it is much more than that.  I intend in what follows to summarize what I found in the book, but from a slightly different perspective than Mayer’s, and without much of any attention to the voluminous, and fascinating, personal data that she provides about the Kochs and other financiers of our new “conservative” political movement.  Instead I am going to treat the book as the first draft, as it were, of a genuine political history of the last 40 or 50 years—because it explains more about where we are and how we got here than anything else that I have ever read.   Mayer leads her readers through the story in rough chronological order, and I recommend the book to everyone.  I on the other hand am going to try to identify its major features in an effort to explain how we got to the miserable point at which we find ourselves.

"Charles and David Koch are the most striking example of extraordinarily wealthy Americans who have had an outsized impact on the politics of the last forty years—and whose impact is reaching a new peak right now.  They followed in the footsteps of their father Fred, who in the 1950s was one of the founding members, along with candy manufacturer Robert Welch, of the John Birch Society.  Nothing illustrates what has happened to American politics in my lifetime in more striking fashion than this.  The ideas of the John Birch Society, a group of fanatically anti-government lunatics who in the 1950s identified Dwight D. Eisenhower as a member of the international Communist conspiracy, are now the single most influential set of ideas in American political life. Their main tenets are an unlimited faith in free enterprise and a conviction that government attempts to moderate the negative impacts of capitalism are simply a power grab designed to establish dictatorship.  And because of the success of their political movement, their fortunes have grown by orders of magnitude over the last few decades.

"In addition to the Kochs, the superrich political elite has included John Olin, a chemical manufacturer; Richard Mellon Scaife, a scion of a Pittsburgh family prominent in banking and industry; and Harry Bradley, another Birch Society acolyte who ran the Allen-Bradley Electronics Company in New York.  In the middle of the twentieth century, when marginal income tax rates topped out at 91%, these men had all taken advantage of a provision in the tax code—first used by the Rockefeller family—to create a “philanthropic” foundation to shield substantial portions of their enormous income from taxes.  Unfortunately, the definition of philanthropy has been broad enough to include the subsidy of a particular ideology—and ultimately, direct intervention in politics.  That one tragic flaw in our tax code has reshaped opinion and redistributed power at every level of American government.

"Now I have rarely been impressed by any of the ideas coming out of the new Right during the last few decades, but like many liberal Democrats, I suspect, I have assumed that conservative intellectuals had honestly come by their ideas.  I am not suggesting now that they have lied about them, but Mayer leaves no doubt that the entire new right wing intellectual establishment was created from the ground up by the handful of major benefactors listed above.  Both the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation—the two centers of conservative “thought” in Washington—were originally funded largely by Richard Mellon Scaife. The Bradley and Olin Foundations were also powers behind the Heritage Foundation, and the Kochs have been involved as well.  I have always thought of the Cato Institute as a nest of principled libertarians—partly because it tends to oppose foreign interventions—but it turns out to have been started by Charles Koch.  Charles Murray was an unknown writer before the Olin foundation adopted him and subsidized his first book, Losing Ground, arguing that social programs were hurting the poor.  (Spoiled, perhaps, by success, Murray went a bridge too far when he and Richard Herrnstein argued in The Bell Curve that black people were intellectually inferior to whites.)  And I was amazed to learn from Mayer that the Bradley foundation gives four annual awards of $250,000 each to leading conservative journalists, activists, and intellectuals. Winners have included George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Thomas Sowell, Ward Connerly, Heather MacDonald, Shelby Steele, Victor Davis Hanson, John Bolton, William Kristol, Paul Gigot, Michael Barone, Jeb Bush, Harvey Mansfield, Edwin Meese, Roger Ailes of Fox News, General John Keane, and Charles Murray."

I certainly think that I was on to something then, but I have suddenly realized that this was only half of the story of what has happened to our political life.  I discovered the other half in 2022 book by a much younger conservative journalist, Luke Rosiak, entitled, Race to the Bottom: Uncovering the Secret Forces Destroying American Public Education. Now, while I haven't met either Mayer or Rosiak face to face, I suspect I would enjoy dinner with Mayer much more.  Rosiak is a rather angry early middle-aged man whose prose drips with contempt; Mayer is more of an old school journalist.  But Rosiak's book, like Mayer's is so exhaustively documented and carefully footnoted that there is no question but that he has also identified a very important presence in our political life.   The right wing foundations that Mayer documented turn out to be only half of the story.  

The power of foundations, as Mayer and Rosiak both point out, stems from a particular provision of the tax code that allowed some of America's richest families to escape the very high income and inheritance taxes of the middle of the twentieth century.   The Rockefellers and the Fords were among the first to escape inheritance taxes by turning much of their fortunes over to charitable foundations named after themselves.  And although Rosiak's book focuses on various serious problems within the US public educational system, the biggest lesson I drew from it is that the Ford, Rockefeller, John T. and Catherine MacArthur, Gates, Kellogg,  Annie E. Casey foundations and the Open Society Foundation founded by George Soros are playing at least as large a role in American life as the Koch, Scaife, Bradley and Olin foundations that Mayer focused on.  They, however, are run by left wing, largely woke bureaucracies, and their grants have created whole infrastructures of educational and public policy activists who are providing K-12 curriculums for schools based on woke ideas and pushing for radical changes in schools, especially in our largest districts, in the name of "equity."  Our new gilded age has become a struggle between two groups of billionaires, one left wing and one right, in which the views of average citizens play a very limited role.

The Ford Foundation, Rosiak reports, provided about $60 million in funding for racial equity issues a year between 2011 and 2020, and announced a further $180 million increase in 2020.  The MacArthur Foundatin indirectly subsidized the career of Nikole Hannah-Jones when she worked at Pro Publica, and has funded the Pulitzer Foundation, which has distributed curricula based on her historically inaccurate 1619 Project to school districts around the country.  The foundations, Rosiak shows, have many links to teachers unions, whom serious educational reformers--the ones who run effective charter school networks--now regard as the biggest obstacle to necessary changes.  (I know this because one of my sons worked for one of those networks for more than a decade.)  The Ford, MacArthur and Soros foundations have joined with the National Education Association to fund FairTest, which lobbies to limit the use of standardized tests in schools on the grounds that they are discriminatory.

Rosiak, himself a parent of school age kids, spends a long chapter on the disastrous decision to shut down schools during the pandemic, one that has inflicted damage upon a whole generation that seems likely to last for a long time.  He also shows how the educational establishment used that crisis to implement many other changes that activist groups--funded by the foundations--have been pushing.  These included easier grading systems that make it almost impossible for students to fail, a de-emphasis on standardized tests (a policy also adopted by many colleges, although some are now reversing it), and an end admissions standards to elite high schools based solely on standardized tests--the practice that turned schools like Boston Latin, Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science, and Lowell High School in San Francisco into the highest-achieving schools in the country, public or private.  Such policies, new racial advocates argue, are "inequitable"  by definition because the produce student bodies composed mostly of Asian and white students.  I read Rosiak quite carefully, and I don't think he ever mentioned another activist demand:  that the teaching and administrative staffs of inner city schools reflect the demographic makeup of their students as closely as possible.  I have heard this demand frequently voiced by Boston area activists on my local NPR stations, on the grounds that "children of color" can only get the education they need from "educators of color."  Not coincidentally, NPR is very heavily supported by the foundations that Rosiak lists.  

On another front, Rosiak discusses the widely held view, particularly among liberals, that public education in the United States promotes inequality because it is financed largely by local property taxes, and thus, poorer communities spend much more per children than rich ones.  He presents some data showing that this simply is not true, and I can now corroborate that based on data from my own state of Massachusetts.  Boston, the city with by far the largest number of poor students in the state, spends $28,882 per pupil per year, one of the highest figures in the state. Cambridge, which ranks 134 out of 341 cities and towns in per capita income,. spends the second most, in the state, $36,712 per pupil.  Brookline and Wellesley, two of the wealthiest suburbs, spend nearly as much as Boston, more than $25,000 per pupil each, but Newton and Lexington, whose schools seem to have the best reputations of all, spend just  $16, 804  and $22,736  per student, respectively.  I suspect that the cost of education in Boston is so high for the same as it is at Harvard University--administrative bloat. These are, obviously, fragmentary data, but it does seem that the correlation between per-pupil spending on the one hand, and wealth and educational achievement on the other, is not nearly as strong as many people tend to think.

And although Rosiak doesn't mention this, the MacArthur Foundation also uses its renowned "Genius Grants" to reward its favorite intellectuals in the same way that the Bradley Foundation, as I mentioned above, rewards prominent conservative thinkers--but on a much larger scale.  The Bradley Foundation awards are one-shot gifts of $250,000, while the MacArthur grants are worth $800,000 over five years.  The foundation began awarding these grants in 1981, and their rosters are a kind of history of the last 43 years of US intellectual life.  In the first five years, winners included political scientist Seweryn Bialer, literary critic Harold Bloom,  historian Henry Louis Gates, Political Scientist Alexander George, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable, novelist William Kennedy, novelist Cormac McCarthy, historian James A. McPherson, novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, filmmaker John Sales, and poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren.  Since 2015 they have included Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Homeric translator Emily Wilson, historian Ibram X. Kendi, and interdisciplinary scholar Imani Perry.  They now include far fewer scientists than they originally did.  Of the 20 2023 winners, 2 are white males and three are white females.

I am proud to have read both Mayer's and Rosniak's books.  One was written primarily for liberals, the other for conservatives, but both paint very convincing pictures of the intellectual and political power of great wealth, protected by the tax laws and dispensed by foundations without any public accountability at all.  They are a very important part of the new aristocracy which controls so many aspects of American life, and none of them seems to care very much about what is good for average Americans.  



Hanley Tucks said...

Regarding school spending, we can offer some data from over here in Australia, with different racial makeups to the US. And here school financing comes not at all from local government. States provide most of primary school funding, federal government most of secondary. And we have a lot of private schools where parents provide most of the funding.

Anyone can look at myschool.edu.au, and search for various schools, though unfortunately for foreign users it requires you look for the individual names - it's designed for parents of school-aged children to contrast and compare. So I'll offer some examples.

Broadmeadows is a lower-income suburb of Melbourne. A primary school there,
they have 62% of their students from households in the bottom income quartile of the country, and 4% in the top.
They have 21.9 full-time equivalent teaching staff, and 8.3 non-teaching.
They have 263 students, and so have 1 teacher for each 12 students, and 1 non-teacher for each 31.7 students.
They have total recurring income of AUD17,683 per student.
As for results, the standardised tests are called NAPLAN, and in year 5 they are below the national average in 3/5 areas, and average in 2.

Kew East is a high-income suburb of Melbourne.
They have 1% of their students in the bottom quartile of income, and 73% in the top.
They have 23.4 FTE teachers, and 3.2 non-teachers.
They have 359 students, and so have 1 teacher for each 15.3 students, and 1 non-teacher for each 112.2.
They have a total recurring income of AUD12,953 per student
For NAPLAN, by year 5 they achieve well above average in all 5 areas.

If you look at various schools there you see the same thing again and again. The NAPLAN results strongly correlate with the income of the parents of the children. Well-off parents tend to be well-educated, and well-educated parents tend to have well-educated children. Poor parents, as you can imagine.

When the school has a lot of poor children and gets poor NAPLAN results, the state and federal governments respond by giving them more funding. They typically use this to hire more teachers. Partly that's so they can have smaller class sizes, but it's also so they can have small group tutoring for the worst-performing students. Does it work? Well, they still do badly, but the argument is that they'd do even worse without the help.

Remember that the non-teachers will include people like janitors, groundsmen, lab assistants for the high schools and so on - they're not contributing directly to the children's education, but they are contributing, and they're not administrative bloat - in Australia, you have to look to the state and federal education departments to find the administrative bloat.

Anyway, that's the stats which anyone can look at for themselves here in Australia. In general the studies here have looked at class sizes and all the rest, and basically 60% of the variation in academic performance can be explained by asking the kid, "Where do you live?" This rises to 80% if you add, "Are you indigenous [aboriginal]?" The other 20% is the stuff everyone argues about, like class sizes, whether music or a second language helps, phonics vs whole word and all that. And because it's fun to argue about people like to pretend it's more than 20%, but unfortunately it isn't. 80% of educational results is stuff we can't control, at least not at a school level.

Energyflow said...

Isn't this how Plato said democracy's always end? The rich take over. Notice how in our authoritarian enemies the super wealthy have been stifled when they get too powerful and political. If any Western state is to continue a long term existence perhaps the same must happen. The profit motive has made much of American life too expensive and of low quality like food, healthcare, military procurement. This gives all enemies an easy target. They can easily outspend effectively in all areas as we are effectively being vampire bled by these super wealthy. Militarily and economically America will be destroyed. The focus of such rich people on political influence mechanisms to spread pseudo-ideologies is just the icing on the cake. A strong, rational, benevolent central state focused on the national well being would have Washington's maxim of non- interference at heart. Sound money might be another one. Libertarianism says the state should disappear and woke activists think only of neo communistic racism clothed in revenge justice. Neither allows for a centralized, rationally led state with blind justice. So the state dissolves due to increasing levels of irrational madness infesting the brains of billionaire activists, likely in some way to be disturbed to some great extent, seeking utopia's like Lenin and many others, regardless of the cost in lives.

David Kaiser said...

First of all, Hanley Tucks, thanks very much for posting that very interesting data.

The data seems to confirm what I said, in one sense. The poor school district is spending more money per pupil. (Incidentallly, in the US poor urban schools, at any rate, do get direct help from the federal government, and some states provide a lot of local school funding, as I understand it.) So what your data shows is, achievement is very highly correlated with the income and educational level of the parents--but not with how much money is spent. I have a son who has spent twenty years in the education business himself and he is convinced that schools contribute very little to American education--how much kids learn seems to be almost entirely a function of what their parents are like. He did, however, work for a very successful charter school outfit that has had remarkable K-12 results with long hours, uniforms, and strict discipline, teaching poor kids whose parents simply entered the lottery to get them in.

Hanley Tucks said...

As I said, it's a strong, not perfect correlation. In Australia:
- 60%, "where do you live?"
- 20%, "are you indigenous?"
- 20%... unknown or arguable.

With school spending as with everything, I think it's simply that there's a point of diminishing returns. There's a reason we don't give the entire population monthly whole-body MRIs - it's simply too much expense for the tiny benefit we'd get. So there's a certain minimum amount we want to spend on education or health, and past that there'll be benefits, but not as much as we expect.

I talk a bit about that here - https://warburtonexpat.substack.com/p/there-should-not-be-free-childcare

For example we know that globally, once girl's educations rise to eight years or more, their lifetime total fertility rate drops below 2.1. So rising education reduces demand on the building of other infrastructure. 13+ years (ie tertiary) education drops the rate down towards 1 - now the demand for infrastructure starts increasing, because the mother of 5 children is too busy looking after them to demand anything, but the mother of 1 child wants shiny new hospitals and so on, and has enough time to agitate for it. A population of 5+ child families will have a high demand on infrastructure from sheer numbers, one of 3+ less, 2+ less still - but the demand increases again at 1+ children. Low-education but high-population has a high quantitative demand, high-education but low-population has a high qualitative demand. Thus, education has initially positive but over time diminishing returns on infrastructure demand.

And of course, sheer amount of dollars spent isn't the only factor. Money can be well-spent in terms of desired outcomes, or badly-spent. If for example you have a school with a leaky roof and no insulation in a cold climate, and 20 teachers, you could spend $100k on giving each teacher $5k more in wages, or $100k on fixing leaks and putting in insulation. The former might help you retain 1-2 quality teachers, but the latter would help encourage absent children to show up, and the present children could concentrate better when not soaked and shivering.

Students actually showing up is a big factor. You can see that in the myschool.edu.au statistics, too. I didn't mention them because they essentially track with the income quartiles: poor kids miss a lot of school, rich kids less.

In my professional work as a trainer, I've worked with a number of primary school teachers over the years. Schools here do about 180 days a year. The teachers nowadays don't think in terms of As and Bs etc, or percent marks, but whether the child is at, ahead of or behind the standard expected for their year level. The expectations are here, if you're interested.


so for example for year 3 - https://victoriancurriculum.vcaa.vic.edu.au/level3 - they want to see the child in English "Understand how to use letter–sound relationships and less common letter combinations to spell words", ie things like the several pronunciations of the -ough formation, the word "beautiful", and so on. In mathematics it's things like, "Tell time to the minute and investigate the relationship between units of time". So they should know how to read 3:15 on the clock vs reading 4:17, and know which is the later of the two times.


Hanley Tucks said...


So the teacher of grade 3s will assess whether each child is at level 3, or 2 or 6 or whatever in each area. If they're more than a year ahead or behind in a particular area, they're supposed to get an individualised learning plan so they can push on. In practice, this is where the extra money goes: the schools of poor kids will have a lot of kids behind, so they hire tutors for small group classes etc. The schools of rich kids do the same, so the kid is basically ready to do year 12 when they're in year 10 - or they branch out into extracurricular stuff like violin or lacrosse. The rich kids schools spend more on buildings and gardens, because this impresses parents on open days when the parents are coming in wondering whether to give the school $30k a year or not.

Anyway, all that aside, back to attendance:
- 95% attendance (9 days a year, one day missed each month) gives you on-standard attendance
- 90% attendance (18 days a year, one day missed each fortnight), gives you a child one year behind.
- 80% attendance (36 days a year, one day missed each week), gives you a child three years behind.

The child's background acts as a +/-1 to this. The parents of the top quartile child - the child is a year ahead. The bottom quartile, a year behind. That's if they have 95+% attendance. But here's the thing: the poor parents tend to not make their child show up. The rich parents make sure the child shows up.

There are exceptions of course. So the charter schools you mention are poor parents who make sure their child shows up = child is -1 year from poverty, but +0 years from attendance, and +1 year from parents who make sure they do their homework etc.

Then there's the rich parents who split up and try to be the Disney Dad or Disney Mum, and don't want the sulky teenager to hate them so don't make them go to school. Rich parents +1 year, 90% attendance -1 year. Child remains on standard. Whoops, starts doing drugs, misses every Monday because they're hungover from the weekend, now 80% attendance. Child now 2 years behind. Never mind, mum and dad will bribe the university administrators to let them in anyway.


Hanley Tucks said...


Also, the child can be naturally bright or dumb. However, this is difficult to tease out as an effect from their parents' backgrounds and their attendance. Adults, children, same: if when we try something we rock at it, we want to do more of it, so we get practice and get better. If we suck at it, we avoid doing it, we don't practice, we get worse. So the child doesn't show up, struggles, turns away more from school - were they naturally dumb so they didn't show up, or did they not show up so it made them dumb? Hard to say.

But to begin with, the main thing is getting them to show up. It doesn't matter how great your teachers are or how shiny your new buildings are if the kids don't show up. And Third World educations systems have shown us that if you have some chairs and tables, some writing paper and pencils, and a teacher with a blackboard and chalk - well, that gets you to at least 8 years of education - if they show up.

It's also worth considering that some things might count as negative spending on health and education. If for example I smoke, I'm spending money to make myself sicker. If my country has a lot of smokers, it shouldn't be surprising that my country has to spend more on healthcare than one who doesn't. So for example the US spends twice as much per person on healthcare as does Australia. But that's gross spending. Do we count the negatives in there? How much does the US spend on junk food, booze, smoking and illicit drugs? Count them as negative healthcare spending and take them away from the positive. Now compare to Australia on the same basis. Would the US net spending be greater than Australia's? I don't know.

Similarly with education. Just as there are things we consume or do which make us sick, so too there are things we consume or do which make us stupid. A child's hours on social media, I would suggest, make them dumber, for example. How do we quantify that?