Tuesday, October 13, 2009

All the Good and Bad Ideas That Are Fit To Print

A post by Richie Jay

Though I try to read most of the New York Times each day, I am a mere mortal, and there are simply more words in each issue than I have the capacity to process. So, after scanning the front page and maybe a few science articles (it is Tuesday, after all), I often flip to the op-ed page. The New York Times has a reputation for being liberal--and this is an arguably true description of their editorials--but what makes their op-ed columns and letters different from most other papers is actually how diverse they are ideologically. In addition to having a slate of both liberal (i.e. Krugman, Rich) and conservative (i.e. Brooks, Douthat) staff columnists (and they used to have Kristol, who swung the median ideology of all their columnists about 10 steps to the right), the Times prints submitted op-eds from across the political spectrum. (An aside: Much like the length and depth of its news articles, this is a testament to the intellectual rigor and openness to criticism and debate of the Times, characteristics not shared by most other American publications and media outlets).

Today being no exception, the op-ed page is filled with a variety of ideas from across the political spectrum, some more specifically ideological than others.

In good ideas, David Brooks (yes, I can see eye-to-eye with conservatives) praises recent trends in academia, where the line between 'soft' social sciences and 'hard' natural sciences is blurring, each side helping to inform and improve the other, as well as to improve public policy (though his last sentence about 'policy wonks' seems tinged with conservative cynicism). He explicitly refers to the growth of "social cognitive neuroscience," a field I was fortunate enough to dabble in as an undergrad and as a grad student studying, what else, public policy. At Dartmouth, I worked in a social cognition lab, where we studied how cognitive processes affect and are affected by attitudes about race, gender, and class (i.e. How do people think, feel, behave, and process information, and does this differ depending upon the race, class, or gender of the people they are working with/talking to/reading about?). My advisor there, Dr. Jennifer Richeson, has since gone on to receive a MacArthur Genius Award for her work, and continues to be an innovator in the field. At Berkeley, I worked with Dr. Jack Glaser, whose social cognition work on racial profiling has helped inform real-world criminal justice policy.

In bad ideas, the Times printed an op-ed co-written by Virginia Republican George "Macaca" Allen (Why do we continue to take him seriously?) and Virginia Democrat Paul Goldman (ah, the bipartisanship of bad ideas!). In it, the two argue that the best solution for our dilapidated and outdated schools is not to adequately finance their maintenance, renovation, and construction, but instead to support huge tax breaks for private developers, who can buy the schools, rehabilitate them, and then profit by renting the schools back to the districts indefinitely. In addition to adding a profit motive to public education, a dangerous precedent, the two fail to consider the long-term costs of such a process, and they fail to consider the possibility of funding school districts to engage in these projects themselves (with no added cost for profit), dismissing that as costlier than subsidizing private for-profit developers to do the same thing (without showing the math). They also argue that there should be a "level playing field" between the public and private sectors, but fail to see the irony of arguing for massive tax breaks for private entities in the same breath. It's worth pointing out that this staunchly anti-government, pro-privatization ideology is in large part responsible for the economic mess we find our country (and, by extension, our school districts) in today, and Allen and Goldman show woefully little awareness of this fact.

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