A Modest Proposal: The Scary Part

To me the most disturbing part of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is not eating babies. Sadly, the most frightening part is that 237 years after Swift penned his pamphlet we still haven’t found a way to deal with the issue of poverty. More so than that, we are fighting the exact same ideas that have proven time and again they don’t work. Swift’s work is not only powerful within the context of 18th Century Ireland but to 21st Century United States as well. In fact, Swift’s pamphlet is so relevant to modern American politics that it is frightening.

A report came out recently that US citizens living abroad are giving up their citizenship in anticipation of a tax hike. One of Swift’s actual proposals included taxing absentees. Currently, the US does tax its absentee citizens but as with the rest of the tax code it is full of loopholes. Many will argue against a citizen paying US taxes when they are not living and working in the US. Here’s the thing. If you maintain a US citizenship, even if you have spent the past 20 years living in Switzerland, you have the right to vote in US elections. So, a person doesn’t live in the US, doesn’t work in the US, doesn’t contribute to the community and economy of the US, and doesn’t want to pay US taxes, but they want to vote in our elections. I get it. You are, technically, a citizen. But how can you have a voice in what happens in a country you do not reside in? Just to be clear, these absentee taxes do not apply to those in the US military nor do they apply to our ambassadors and embassy staff around the world. They still pay taxes, but they only pay US taxes because they work for the US and are paid by the US.

Naturally, there are those who object to the taxation of absentee citizens. The objection is ‘forcing’ an absentee citizen to pay US taxes on money earned in a foreign country when they already pay taxes to that foreign country. However, corporations and private citizens have taken advantage of the tax rates of other nations to avoid paying US taxes. Millions are shuffled overseas and out of our economy each year. A US corporation, located in China, believes that since they pay Chinese taxes they shouldn’t have to pay US taxes. The American CEO of that corporation believes that since he pays Chinese taxes he shouldn’t pay US taxes. And the US allowed that to happen.

The problem is these corporations and individuals want the benefits of being a US citizen without actually having to be included in the system. They want to avoid our taxes and regulations, including human rights issues, yet still be able to vote in our elections. It shouldn’t work that way. If you want the benefit of being a US corporation you should have to pay US taxes. If you don’t want to pay taxes in two countries, perhaps you should consider bringing your ‘American’ business to America. Problem solved.

Sadly, a good portion of Americans don’t feel this way. They have been led to believe that it is an unfair policy and that liberals are just trying to punish those who make money and create jobs. The problem is, those jobs are not jobs for Americans and they do nothing to help our economy or unemployment. They aid another country. Perhaps it is a punishment of sorts. But if it is a punishment then it is because of the greed that causes CEO’s to move factories overseas. Taking jobs away from Americans because China’s government allows them to pay employees $0.35 an hour. It is a punishment for moving factories overseas to avoid EPA regulations that protect our environment. Essentially, it is this; if you don’t want to follow our laws, don’t want to employ Americans because we demand a livable wage, if you want to have what is essentially slave labor for your workforce, we are going to make you pay for it. This is not the government going after ‘job creators,’ but the government going after those trying to avoid our laws.

And this, though on a smaller scale, is what Swift was referring to when he talked about “taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound.” Though in 1729 it was more about absent land owners charging outrageous rents on their properties and then living in England to avoid paying Irish taxes. See, these corporations (and even a few citizens) want to make American money but not pay American taxes. This is not a boon to our economy but a drain. By avoiding these taxes corporations are essentially taking revenue away from our government. Revenue that could be used to pay down our national debt and repair our roads and bridges. Revenue that could be used to pay our armed services what they are worth.

Speaking of manufacturing, another point of Swift’s was that “of using neither cloaths, nor houshold furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury.” Swift’s argument was an economic one and it is an argument that we have been having in the US for the last 40 years. No longer does America produce goods such as furniture, clothing, computer components, automobiles, tools…the list could go on. Instead those jobs have been shipped overseas and we are now importing the goods we used to make. Once upon a time, items were proudly stamped ‘Made in the USA.’ Good luck finding that now. Odds are, the majority of what you own was produced in a third world country halfway across the globe.

Clothing is imported from Pakistan, China, Taiwan, India, Bangladesh, Israel, and about a dozen other countries in-between. That shirt you are wearing probably came from Asia. Right now, the United States is responsible for 21% of the world’s imports on clothing. Let’s break that down. Of all the clothing exports, from all over the world, the United States buys 21%. Stop and think about how many jobs it would create to cut our imports in half and make clothes right here. Imagine the boost to our economy. Why are we not making our own clothes?

The reason is the myth of ‘free trade.’ ‘Free trade’ is a trade policy that doesn’t apply tariffs to imports, subsidies to exports, or require quotas. Essentially, a regulation free trade policy. See, a few believe that unrestricted trade creates jobs and makes money, which it does. For a select few. ‘Free trade’ is the reason behind all the policies that allow our manufacturing jobs overseas. In fact, ‘free trade’ encourages this move. Manufacturing jobs created the middle class and ‘free trade’ destroyed it. Many of these other nations have trade restrictions. That means other nations limit what they buy from us but we buy from them as much as we want. This is supposedly ‘free trade.’ We import more than we export and also import more than we make. This is why our debt is so high. And the only people that benefit are those that control those trade routes. Say you run an import/export business. The last thing you want is a tariff (tax) on the thing you bring into the country. You also don’t want quotas, restrictions limiting how much you can import. These things cost you money. In the ‘free trade’ economy you are rolling in the dough. But the guy that used to make mother boards for Apple gets screwed because now Apple doesn’t have to pay an import tariff on goods it manufactures in other countries. So, not only does Apple get to reap the benefits of an unregulated employment market but they also get to avoid a number of taxes doing so.

Restrictions are not socialist nor are they communist. They are simply good business. If you create a business that buys more than it sells you won’t be in business very long. Yet that is exactly what we have done to our country in the interest of ‘free trade.’ We have increased our imports to the point that they are not only costing jobs but becoming a burden to our economy as well. Sadly, this is exactly the economic point Swift was making in 1729; “of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.” Basically, he is stating that corporations will look to cheat you in any way they can. In 1729, Swift argued to regulate business and trade in order to boost the economy and 237 years later many are still fooled that ‘trickle-down,’ ‘free trade’ economics works. That, my dears, is what we call a tragedy.

Along with Swift’s economical solutions he also presented a few social ones as well. “Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken.” This is probably the most important and most relevant of Swift’s proposals to today’s environment. We need to stop fighting among ourselves. Like today, in Ireland 1729 there were two factions of politics. Like today, those two factions did more fighting then problem solving. Swift cautioned that continuous infighting would weaken the nation, leaving it open not only to attack but also occupation. Swift was giving a historical lesson, pointing to the 70 CE sacking (and desecration) of Jerusalem and saying, “Look, this has happened before.” Given the tensions of Catholics and Protestants in Ireland to this day I am going to assume the advice was not heeded. But Swift was right. Fighting amongst ourselves: democrat/republican, liberal/conservative, Christian/agnostic weakens us as a nation. It leaves us open to attack from our enemies who want, more than anything, for us to be divided amongst ourselves. The reason why is simple. An America united is nearly impossible to beat. When we worked together (like we did during WWII) we not only helped defeat an oppressive regime, but we also created new goods and technologies that expanded the quality of life and prosperity throughout the world. That isn’t happening anymore and it should be.

The fact that I can even look at a 237 year old document and make valid comparisons to our society and political climate proves we have some work to do. We have tried the ‘trickle down’ way, let’s see what happens if we tried it Swift’s way. Just once. Our faults as human beings, as a collective society, are the reasons that classic works should be taught. They show us a picture of the past that we can compare to our own and say, “Something isn’t right.” It may have been written two centuries ago, but A Modest Proposal proves that humans really don’t change all that much. Sure we have better technology and figured out slavery is a bad thing (something that only took us about 8000 years to figure out), but there are places where we are still lacking. Holding an economic perspective from the 18th Century is one of them. Works like Swift’s need to be taught in the hopes that a generation will come along that will understand the flaws of the past and seek to keep them from becoming flaws of the future. If politicians of today want to solve America’s economic and employment woes they need look no further than to a document that predates even our own constitution. Sad, but true.

Swift teaches a lesson that can stand the test of time because it is universal. Treat people with kindness and respect, have sympathy for their plight, and do what you can to care for them lest someone comes along and thinks it is okay to eat their babies. After all, it’s not like they are real people. Extreme, yes, but sometimes people need to be slapped upside the head with a notion so utterly appalling that they begin to rethink their viewpoint.

Just think, if Swift’s ideas had been applied to US racial tensions, how many people would not have been murdered simply for the color of their skin because someone, somewhere thought it was ok. After all, it’s not like they were human. Or more recently, would victims like Matthew Shepard still be with us had someone, somewhere not thought it was ok to kill a gay man…because it’s not like he was human.

Swift’s essay is brilliantly satiric and at times hilarious in its irony. Yet it is also a morose tale about human behavior. How cruel it is and how little it changes. A Modest Proposal is relevant today not because politics sucks, but because humans still have a tendency to hate and dehumanize what they don’t understand. What is different. In America, a country of immigrants, a country full of, ‘other’ Swift’s lesson is one that is vital to our survival as a society.

I do not think this means, what you think it means.

I am a pretty smart cookie. I always did well in school. Graduated with a 3.5 GPA and from K-12 got primarily A’s and B’s. I have always been an advanced reader, finishing my 1st Grade year reading at a 6th Grade level. Now, I am not saying that to brag but to make a point. Despite all of that, and an IQ hovering around 120, I was so woefully unprepared for college it is not even funny. Though I always loved lit and writing classes, and almost always received A’s, I was nowhere near prepared to do college level analysis and writing after graduating high school. I was lucky. I managed to pick up all the skills I was lacking and adapt to college life. Many do not.

I was an assistant to a professor in college. I saw the work of incoming students. Sad to say, incoming freshman weren’t getting better. They were getting worse. I have known graduates who could not write a complete sentence, did not know that Pearl Harbor was more than just a Ben Affleck movie, and could not add or subtract without using their fingers. I will admit, I am guilty of the last one.

Once upon a time the United States was number one in education; now that honor belongs to South Korea. Sadly, we don’t even fall into the top ten. In an effort to boost our nation’s education, which will help make us a stronger global competitor, a thing called Common Core has been enacted in the majority of the states. Naturally, it has its opponents. As per usual these opponents lead the charge with half-truths or outright lies to bolster fear and gain more supporters. Fact is, there is no logical reason to oppose Common Core education.

First of all, unlike many opponents claim, Common Core (CC) is not a curriculum. It is simply a set of standards to be met. Well, what does that mean exactly? It means that while CC sets the standard, teachers and districts still set the curriculum. For example, my son is going to be in the second grade. According to CC’s literary guidelines, by the end of the year my son should be able to: read and comprehend literature, including stories and poetry, in the grades 2–3 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range. All CC does is tell schools that by the end of 2nd grade my son should not only be able to read but also understand texts meant for 2nd or 3rd graders. His teacher, school, and district will decide how to make sure that goal is met. Nowhere in the CC does it ever tell a teacher how they have to teach. Unfortunately, many are misled to believe otherwise.

Secondly, opponents take the fact that CC focuses more on critical thinking and less rote learning as dictating teaching methods. I find this objection to be hysterical. Partly because one of the objections is that CC is an indoctrination from the Federal level. Yes, teaching kids to think critically—giving them the skills to make up their own minds and form their own opinions—is indoctrination. Telling kids exactly what they have to remember—how they have to think—is not. Right. I also have this ocean front property in NW Iowa that I would like to sell you.

The CC website does nothing but give educators an idea as to where kids should be at the completion of a grade. Now, Iowa’s Literacy Standard does give examples of texts but does not, in any way, insist that these texts must be used. But, there are probably those who consider it offensive that one of the example texts is “The Black Stallion.” It’s not like I ever read that in grade school. How dare we require our graduating youth to: Delineate and evaluate the reasoning in seminal U.S. texts, including the application of constitutional principles and use of legal reasoning (e.g., in U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions and dissents) and the premises, purposes, and arguments in works of public advocacy (e.g., The Federalist, presidential addresses)? My goodness, requiring teens to understand how their government works and how the law is applied is just un-American. And even suggesting that one of the texts applicable to seniors is Common Sense by Thomas Paine is just plain indoctrination and socialism. I mean, it’s not like the pamphlet was vital to our Revolution or anything. (Paine made the argument for self-government in January of 1776. Many historians believe that this helped gain support for the Revolution. It also laid the groundwork for the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.)

I get it. Federal government is bad. It shouldn’t tell us what to do. The states should decide what to teach. Except, CC was created, in part, by the National Governors Association. From the very beginning states were involved. States get to decide to follow the standards or not. They get to decide how to teach the standards, should they decide to follow them. They get to tweak the standards as they see fit. For example, while not included in the CC, Iowa’s literary standard involves being able to successfully debate a topic. Minnesota was free to make the decision to implement the literary standards while not implementing the math standards. No state is penalized for not following the CC 100%.

A few opponents claim that CC is a broad federal overreach. That the Federal government is using grant money as a bribe to implement these changes and cutting funding to states who don’t choose to implement CC. Not true. Yes, the competitive Race to the Top grants requires states to adopt standards. But what the detractors fail to mention is that states could choose to adopt CC or a different career and college readiness curriculum. So, basically, the only requirement is that you make sure all of your student’s graduate High School ready for the real world. What does amount to the Federal government using grant money as a bribe is No Child Left Behind. You know, the federal law that restricts funding for schools who perform poorly on yearly aptitude tests. I am certain that is the law you are thinking of. .

Many point to CC as being a failure already since the states of New York and Georgia have already begun testing on CC and both states experienced a significant drop in test scores as a result. Of course, few seem to realize that this was expected. See, when you test high school students who began their education under NCLB and switch to something like CC, which requires more from the students, these students are not going to score as well on the tests. There are a number of reasons for that. First, CC is based on the principal that a good foundation in knowing and understanding concepts is essential for education. Kids taking the tests now, who are in high school, have not had this foundational background. Instead, they had an education system based around arbitrary scores on a test. A test states were allowed to write. Many of these states, lowered the standards of these tests to make it appear as if the students knew more than they did. Students are scoring lower because the tests are harder. They needed to be harder. In a few years, when elementary and middle school students grow to take these high school tests the scores will be more reflective of how CC works.

The problem now is that many of these kids began with a dumbed down overly simplistic form of education and are now required to undergo a more intense education. You know, one that actually teaches them stuff. Just stop and think for a moment. If our education system was fine, if our students were learning what they should be learning, the harder tests shouldn’t have been a problem. This is stuff they should already know. Stuff kids all around the world already know. We have fallen behind and it is time to catch up. After NCLB, Missouri’s test scores improved but they admitted that they lowered standards. What does this teach our children? That the test is so important we will make it easier so you can pass instead of actually teaching you what you need to know.

Some have accused the CC to be a form of data mining. Here’s the thing, the data is already being collected and has been collected for a while. See, this is another thing NCLB did. Schools needed to report test scores, progress reports, and teacher qualifications. These things impacted school funding. The school, itself, was made responsible for how an individual child performed on a test. Many have accused CC of being a one size fits all approach, yet Iowa guidelines clearly give plenty of flexibility regarding differently abled students. Students who are disabled in some way are not held to the exact same requirements as an average child. Teachers are allowed to read test questions and communicate with disabled students during testing as is most beneficial to the child’s individual needs. CC does not eliminate or effect the Individualized Education Plan. Once again, you must be thinking of NCLB.

No Child Left Behind, an actual law whereas Common Core is just a suggestion, mandated that all students be proficient at grade level. That was a one size fits all approach if there ever was one. The reason I say that is because by all students they really meant all students. I was a TA in a room for level 3 special education. For those not familiar with the codification, that means my students were severely to profoundly mentally disabled. The average mental age of my students was around 2 years of age though the average physical age was around 15. Despite this, my students were required, by law, to be taught grade level math, science and reading. That means we were required to essentially teach a 2yo, eighth grade level science. More importantly, if such students failed to perform funding to the schools was cut. So if you want to talk about a stupid, one size fits all, education program it should be this one. NCLB left no room for Special Education to be Special Education. Students in Special Ed have to take the same tests, the same way, in the same amount of time as average children. Teachers were not allowed to read questions out loud to blind students nor give differently abled students the help they needed to complete the tests. Common Core corrects this grossly discriminatory mistake. NCLB assumed that 100% proficiency could be attained because all students had the capability of being proficient. What NCLB failed to realize was that if this is true then there would be no need for Special Education. I cannot speak for all the states because I have only read the requirements for mine, but Iowa’s Common Core Standards address and fix this problem that NCLB left behind.

Those who care about their child’s education and the fate of this nation should support Common Core. The reason? Because a child going to school in rural Iowa should have the same education as a child in Manhattan. Now, I am not saying all the same opportunities (Iowa students would have a hard time taking AP courses through Columbia), nor the same technology (no way is a school in NW Iowa going to have cable internet) but what each child should have is a basic understanding of core principles. Right now, this is not happening. Though we compare states to education every year we are not giving an accurate picture because none of the standards are the same. If standards are different across state lines, county lines or district lines how do we know which schools are really performing and which ones are not? I actually, figured this out once. If I had gone to school in a nearby district I would have graduated High School with a 3.8 GPA. But it wouldn’t have been because I learned more. It would have been because the grading scale was more lenient. All those 90%s that I had received that were B’s in my High School were A’s in the other one. I still got the same percentage, learned the same amount…yet in one district I got a better grade.

We have become a global society. In order for the US to compete globally for future generations our education system must change. Right now, among 34 industrialized nations, we are 14th in literacy, 17th in science and 25th in math. Where we once had the number one spot in the world with the percentage of young people with degrees we are now number 10. Common Core standards are based on the standards of other nations. Thus, they are harder. As it sits Poland outperforms the US in education. Thus, turning all those ‘dumb Pollack’ jokes into ‘dumb American’ jokes. Doesn’t feel so hot, does it? Common Core challenges our students. It makes them work harder and gives them the potential to learn what they need to compete in a global market. There is nothing evil about making our children work harder in school. In fact, it benefits them in the long run as they will be able to find better jobs. This, in turn, helps our economy. Plus, we really should want to be number 1 again.

The loudest argument being indoctrination I feel the need to cover it again. In no way is CC indoctrination. Let me say that again, CC IS NOT INDOCTRIATION. How do I know that? Because CC teaches kids to think critically. You can’t indoctrinate the youth and teach them to think for themselves. Doesn’t work. Soviet Russia had an indoctrination form of education. There, students were not only told what they should know (much of it being outright lies) but also what they should think about what they should know. CC does not tell you what to think it teaches you how. Big difference. Indoctrination would be more like requiring Science classes around the nation to teach that evolution is merely a theory made up by atheist scientists and that God really created the earth in just 7, 24 hour, days. Yeah, see what I did there. If CC dictated what was to be taught and how it was to be taught the opponents would have a point. As it stands, they do not. CC is nothing more than a set of standards saying a child should be able to do this by the end of 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. Grade. How that goal is met is left entirely up to the states, districts and individual teachers. It sets a national standard that evens the playing field of education across the 50 states. It helps to guarantee that Iowa can be just as competitive as New York when it comes to education. It gives all children the opportunity for the same education as everyone else. What the hell is wrong with that?