Friday, November 19, 2010

A lesson in Plutocracy

Plutocrats know how to get their way through persuasion, misdirection, co-optation, and the strategic application of money. A good example of this is the coming attack on public school teachers led by the Minneapolis Foundation and its president Sandra Vargas.

The first rule of Plutocratic rule is to make it seem that the desired change, in this case the destruction of teacher's unions and the privatization of public education, is not your idea, and that it has broad public support. It helps to disguise the desired change as something more palatable, i.e. decreasing educational achievement gaps in public education. This is the route that the Minneapolis Foundation is taking with their forthcoming MinnCan project. You won't hear this from the foundation itself, nor from the media that will eventually report the effort, but the leader of the project is the Plutocrat Vargas herself, who earns over $320,000 a year.

Next you try to find an organization that has already told the kind of lies you're prepared to tell, and gotten the desired results.  In the case of the Minneapolis Foundation they found such as organization in Connecticut, called "ConnCan," which had conveniently created a new non-profit to help them out, called 50Can, that seeks to spread their formula across the U.S.  Once Plutocrats have found their template and organizational structure, they next soften up the public to accept the lies they will be telling in order to smooth the path to policy change.

If you run a philanthropy that dispenses $39 million a year it is much easier to create the perception that your plans are both efficacious, even if they're not, and to create the impression that they are supported by leaders across the community, even if they aren't. You do this by first creating the demand, then introducing the product. Make people first believe in ConnCan, after which creating a MinnCan analog will seem like a natural progression - what works!

You build your case by convening a conspicuously public meeting - in this case literally called the "Minnesota Meeting" - to showcase your product. You can catapult the propaganda, as our former president would say, by ensuring that the meeting is distributed through mass channels - i.e. public television - that your foundation just happens to help underwrite.

The meeting itself is crucial to your propaganda campaign, so it must be carefully choreographed.  First you lie about the meeting in its promotion. In this case the Minneapolis Foundation told the public that ConnCan had already been successful in reducing achievement gaps, which even the organization itself denies in its annual report. Next you make it look like you are not the sole sponsor of the meeting. What you do is say that other organizations are also sponsoring the propaganda meeting, such as health providers, i.e. Healthpartners, and business leaders, i.e. the Itasca Project. What you don't do is tell people who attend the meeting that your foundation has already paid those organizations, semi-secretly, to participate in your plot.

Next you "invite" all your grant recipients to attend the meeting, and form a "discussion panel" to follow the talk, that is composed only of your grant recipients. To confuse the listeners you don't tell them that all the panelists have received money from your foundation. To emphasize the importance you put on this initiative you have the head of the foundation, Sandra Vargas herself, lead off the meeting. This has the double effect of driving home the importance of the initiative and heading off your recipients from expressing any opposition to the ideas presented. Recipients don't need to be told not to object to the initiative - the presence of the head of the foundation takes care of that. Every recipient knows it would mean funding death to express or organize any dissent from the Plutocrat's plans. Remember that when no liberals stand up to fight this plan when it shows up in the legislature next year.

Finally, it helps when Plutocrats get lucky, as they did when Republicans took over both houses of the Minnesota Legislature earlier this month. In their haste to cut spending the Republicans will be looking for ways to pay off their base without spending more money. What better way to do this than get on board with the Minneapolis Foundation's attack on school teacher's unions? Protected by the softening up attack led by Sandra Vargas, the Republicans will undoubtedly pass legislation stressing teacher "accountability," and will loosen teacher training standards to allow youngsters from Teach for America to replace union teaching jobs.

At this point it looks like the Plutocrats have won this fight before the actual legislative session even begins. The only question is whether a Democratic governor has the desire or ability to stand up against them. Don't hold your breath.

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One final note: Before writing this post I tried to get in touch with Vargas, who didn't respond to voice messages left for her. I did get in touch with Marc Porter Magee, who runs 50Can, but he refused to discuss the subject.


Alec Timmerman said...

Bottom line, if you want to support students, support good teaching. Our biggest waste in education is losing trained teachers, not the inability to get rid of them. To support good teaching there are really three main pillars that have to be there. Support good training for teachers. Support time for teachers to work together on collaborative teams. This is extra important because it makes struggling teachers good, good teachers great, and offers the support teachers need to stay in the profession. Last, an unflinching program of looking at formative student data to guide daily instruction. The response to the data is guided by the collabortive teams.

There are many, many good teachers working their butts off, but to turn schools around they need the structure of those three pillars.Really good teachers, working really hard in isolation will probably still have failing kids. You need the structure and support.

Anyway, my soundbite message would be, If you want good students, support things that make good teaching.

None of the free market solutions support good teaching. They work to punish ineffective teaching. We're not going to move forward until we support good teaching instead of just punishing ineffective teaching.

Tom said...

But isn't Governor Dayton a plutocrat too, government by the wealthy or part of the wealthy ruling class and all that?

Rob Levine said...

Yes - that's true Tom. But I would make a distinction when the Plutocrats serve the wealthy and when they plan to serve those of lesser means.

Rob Levine said...

Maybe the best we can hope for is benevolent Plutocracy.