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Gregory K. Tanaka

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On Poverty and Systemic Collapse: Challenges to Education Research in an Era of Infrastructure Rebuilding

In this essay I argue the economic inequities of today carve out a very large social condition that is orders of magnitude greater than can be conveyed by the term “poverty.” This condition derives from a massive theft of public wealth and abandonment of the principles of representative democracy.

There is a silver lining: on encountering “systemic collapse” (a breakdown of society’s largest social institutions), we as education researchers are presented with a challenge for which we are uniquely well suited. We do applied work and as such, are predisposed to building something new. But will we be ready to make contributions that match the human need in an “Era of Democratic Renewal?”

Most Americans have become poorer and not as a result of a four-year cyclical downturn. This is systemic. From 1972 to 2012, U.S. hourly earnings adjusted for inflation dropped from $20.00/hour to just $8.00/hour. While social welfare benefits made up 10% of all salaries and wages in 1960, today it is 35%. Where in the 1970s the top 1% earned just 8% of all income, this year they earned 21%. In 1950, household debt as a percentage of disposable income was 30% but by 2011 rose to 120% of personal income. By 2011, 100 million out of 242 million working age Americans were not working. Today, one-fourth of all children in the US are enrolled in the food stamp program. And since being established in 1913, the Federal Reserve (representing the largest U.S. banks) has destroyed 96% of the dollar value of U.S. family savings by printing money.

Meanwhile, the 1% has truly become “the elites” by boldly stealing from middle- and working-class Americans. During the 2007–2010 financial crisis, $27 trillion in bailout money was given to U.S. banks that was “off-budget,” meaning it was not derived from taxes but rather taken from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid accounts paid into by taxpayers over a 40-year period. In 2009–2010, 93% of all new U.S. income went to the top 1%. A simple solution is available but Congress won’t act: a return to the tax rates of the 1950s–1970s would result in a 50% tax on the top 96–99% and 75% tax on the top 1%. This alone would cover 3/4 of the current U.S budget shortfall.

The net result is that the US is stuck with $150 trillion in debt and unfunded liabilities, leaving U.S. taxpayers with more debt per capita than citizens of Greece, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, or Spain. Worse, the global overhang from debt, derivatives, and contingent and unfunded liabilities and pension accounts is now a whopping $1.5 quadrillion. With global GDP at $50 trillion, the financial “overhang” is systemic and unredeemable.

Is this the end of democracy as we knew it? All three branches have certainly failed the American people. It was Congress that reduced the elites’ income tax from 75% to just 15% (for long-term capital gains). The White House authored NAFTA (exporting millions of manufacturing jobs offshore), launched two oil wars, and gave trillions to bankers. Most appalling, it was the U.S. Supreme Court that sanctioned in Citizens United the ability of the super rich to “buy” U.S. elections, thus bringing to an end the “representative” characteristic of representative democracy.

To restore democracy, a massive project of social change is now needed that can model the contours of a democracy that is participatory and might include the following kinds of ideas. (I invite others to offer ideas of their own.)

  • exempting full-time pre-K–12 public school teachers from having to pay federal  income taxes;
  • paying off the U.S. bonds with low yield (and later, cheaper) dollars, followed  by a re-linking of the dollar to gold at $300/ounce, absolving U.S. citizens of all debt (Iceland model), letting banks restart as utilities, seizing illegal accounts held for Americans in the Cayman Islands, etc, and closing down the Federal Reserve;
  • paying for this renewal by deploying already available technology that can produce far cheaper, clean energy—for example, artificial photosynthesis, splitting water molecules to create ethanol, and passing cars over electromagnetic rods in roads (like charging an electric toothbrush);
  • a second Constitutional Convention that is, this time, “by, for, and of the people,” redefines a “person” as a human being, includes term limits, and enacts a participatory democracy; and
  • the creation of independent think tanks that are in the public interest and can conceptualize, operationalize, and evaluate initiatives like those above.

To renew this country, and its democracy, education researchers will need to do several things differently. We will need to broaden our work from a tendency to perform narrowly at the “mid-range level” of change in organizations, schools or programs—to a concerted effort to combine three registers in one analysis (“macro” systemic change in the largest social institutions, “micro” reformulations of the self, and “mid-range” change in organizations).

We will also need to shift from “assessment overdeterminism” to an emphasis on infrastructure rebuilding. This will mean more large scale, longitudinal, participatory projects; theorizing the connection, if any, between performing social change and development of the self; replacing NCLB/RTTT with policies that teach critical thinking, creativity, science, history, the arts, and coming into being by helping others also to come into being; new epistemologies that unite a diverse country; and change in reward systems to prize the above.

The question, then, is whether we as researchers in the public interest will be caught in a propitious moment worshipping old research epistemologies and methodological registers—or be willing instead to alter the reach and aim of our work to match the magnitude of the task before us.

About the author

Gregory K. Tanaka, M.B.A., J.D., Ph.D., is Visiting Professor of Education at Mills College and author (forthcoming) of Systemic Collapse and Renewal: A Narrative Account of How Race and Capital Came to Destroy Meaning and Civility in America and Foreshadow the Coming Economic Depression (Peter Lang Publishing).

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