Thursday, August 20, 2009

Our Omnipotent's Dream

I just can’t shake off a feeling of disgust and dread after learning earlier this week about Bill Gates' $4 million donation to Learn NY. Gates personally paid for a great deal of the propaganda which pushed for preserving mayoral control in NYC. For anyone listening, this incident is telling us volumes. It’s screaming at us to pay attention and to do something, so I did.

I just sent off letters to Diane Ravitch, Gerald Bracey, Jay Matthews, Richard Rothstein, Phil Kovacs and David Berliner, and I’m planning to send ones to a good number of elected politicians as well. I suppose I just don’t care if any of them think I’m a little nuts.

This is an example of what I wrote in my email message to the people above. The email subject line was: “Gates influence over NYC schools and beyond.”

Dear _____,

I hope your summer has gone well. Today I'm writing to you about a specific concern. Of course you'll probably be aware of it, but since you have a national voice, I’m just trying to do my part by asking if you might somehow eventually help bring it to the attention of more Americans.

I am deeply concerned after learning about Bill Gates' $4 million donation that specifically paid for the propaganda which pushed for preserving mayoral control in NYC. This one incident is telling us volumes.

This country needs to call for limits to be put on this man; his near-infinite wealth gives him a frightening amount of power. NO single American, no matter how rich or smart they are, or well-intentioned they tell everyone they are – or think they might be – should have that much power. Gates is only one person, with one set of ideas, but he is so vastly wealthy that he can purchase whatever educational policy he wants, either local or national. What if the way to go that Gates imagines is right, is completely wrong?

Putting it in perspective, consider that for Gates (with a net worth now listed by Forbes as $40 billion) a $4 million donation is the equivalent of a $5 donation given by a person who is making $50,000. In the sphere where PUBLIC policy is determined, Gates has become omnipotent. But this country is still supposed to be a democracy, right?

We’re in highly dangerous territory when single individuals are unrestrained with buying public policy because they have unimaginable wealth. Where is the transparency? Where are the restrictions? Even political campaigns have those rules!

Remember the NY Times article that talked about how the modern-day philanthropists now expect to see specific returns from their gifts? That manipulative approach makes Carnegie seem so nice. What was ever wrong with giving beautiful libraries to needy communities?

This whole thing is extremely scary and I hope you’ll consider helping with spreading the word. Thanks for listening.

Take care,

PS: I think the problem is connected to the fact that we, as average people, can’t fathom the wealth of the billionaires. Even lesser billionaires would have an incredible amount of power over anything at which they directed their wealth, be it good or evil. There are no checks or balances.

For instance, if Michael Bloomberg ($16 billion) paid $4 million to buy propaganda that pushed a public policy he preferred, it would be the equivalent of an average person (net worth of $50,000) donating $12.50 to a cause he/she preferred. And if Eli Broad ($5.2 billion) paid $4 million to buy propaganda that pushed a public policy he preferred, it would be the equivalent of an average person (net worth of $50,000) donating $38.46 to a cause he/she preferred.

I do realize that some people temper their criticism of Gates because they appreciate some of the work that the Gates Foundation has supported. I suppose I can accept this, but my concern still stands about Gates having achieved some level of near-omnipotence in regard to education policy on both local and national levels.

When it's so easy for one person to make such a large private donation to be used directly for propaganda, how can others compete?

As the Post article said:

The donation helped pay for Learn-NY's extensive public-relations, media and lobbying efforts in Albany and the city. The effort include [sic] advertisements, parent organizing and canvassing -- including a five-borough bus tour and trips to the state capital.

In other words, much of the grassroot support for mayoral control wasn’t genuine; it was either heavily orchestrated or manufactured. This makes me sick.

Imagine if $4 million wasn't going to be enough to push through what Gates wanted. It would have meant nothing to him to toss in another $4, $6 or $20 million their way. In other words, he could easily supply whatever it would take to make his dream come true.

Consider the insignificance of the relative values of those amounts to him. For instance, if your personal net worth is around $50,000, it wouldn’t be that hard for you to unload another $5 or $10 if you believed in a cause and knew that the extra $5 or $10 would make things go your way. It's about the cost of a sandwich.

This issue is about relativity and scale; it's way too easy for Gates to utterly overwhelm everyone else. One person who can afford to donate $4 million to a cause buys the same amount of influence as 800,000 people of average income who would donate $5. That many people is just under the size of the population of the 12th or 13th largest American cities (San Francisco, CA at 808,976 and Jacksonville, FL at 807,815).

The problem with what Gates is doing is its unfathomable scale, of a size that's relatively new on the American scene. It's just not okay.

Or should we all just give up now?


The Perimeter Primate said...

Response from Jay Matthews:

thanks very much. it is an interesting thought, and you are the first person that has expressed it to me. I think the constitution gives every American the right to free speech, and rich people can speak more loudly than others. We now do restrict political contributions, but i sense the Supreme Court may soon turn that around. So, even if we wanted to do something about how he spends his money, the constitution would not let us.
I dont agree he can get whatever he wants with cash. He wanted his small high schools to succeed, but they didnt, and eventually he admitted that. I admit his influence is something to worry about, but i would put it about 1,000th on my list of priority. Finding ways to raise the achievement of low income kids is still number one, and on that one he has on balance been more of a positive than a negative influence. --jay

The Perimeter Primate said...

Hi Jay,

Thanks for responding to me. I know how busy you must be.

Since it didn't work, I guess Gates' grand small schools idea was half-baked, then. Now he's on to the next thing and that will end up being a half-baked idea, too.

Nothing is acceptable to me about the way Gates paid for the orchestration and manufacture of grassroots support for mayoral control. The Post wrote, "The effort include [sic] advertisements, parent organizing and canvassing -- including a five-borough bus tour and trips to the state capital."

To me it looks like a bunch of clever people were paid by Gates to con a bunch of unsuspecting, not-as-sophisticated parents who would probably have been quite wary if they had understood they were submitting to billionaire-paid-for propaganda created with the intent to control their thoughts and actions.

Without being willing to consult deeply and directly with more of the people who are actually in the inner-city school trenches -- probably because he thinks they're all lazy losers -- Gates will continue to throw his money this way and that to little effect, but with considerable disruption. What he doesn't realize is that many of these people (even teachers who belong to unions!) have bodies of knowledge that are being totally neglected. These people, who are often seen as the enemy (they're just full of excuses, you know) have useful things to add to the conversation, if they were ever invited to do so.

The problem is that their insights are eternally dismissed by the popular ed reformers. It's an "us" or "them" mentality, and we all know who is getting the Gates/Broad/Walton, and favoritism at this point.

To me there is little reason to trust Gates' judgment about what will help urban schools and the communities in which they exist. Despite the fact that he says he wants to help, he has absolutely no experience in that nether world and does not understand it to any degree.

People can begin to get a clue if they read Elijah Anderson's "Code of the Street." He describes the true role of schools to kids who are a part of the inner-city street culture on pg. 93 to 98. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Laura said...


I thought you might be interested in this critique of the Gates Foundation from a book I was peripherally involved with, Global Health Watch 2. You can download it here:

Although this book is about health, rather than education, I am sure you would agree the two things are not unrelated, and the criticism is valid from any perspective.

The Perimeter Primate said...

Good morning Broad person,

August 21, 2009 9:03 AM
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