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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Drinking From the Public Trough

Along with whatever surprises the latest election may have brought, it did reaffirm the age-old verity that Money Talks. Various corporations spent over $36 million to defeat any measure that would have provided any new revenue to the state, and they hit a home run each time. Not the least among these corporations were the cornerstones of Washington’s economy, Boeing and Microsoft. Whatever their public rhetoric may have been, their money made a clear statement that public investment is not something they support.
This stance may make short-term bottom-line business sense, but it may also betray an alarming historical ignorance. And it may be mortgaging the corporate future of our state.
It’s not a stretch to say that Boeing and Microsoft (and all their billionaires and millionaires) wouldn’t exist as they are today without the massive investment of public funds.
The Grand Coulee Dam, built with federal money from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Public Works Administration, provided the electricity that powered the aluminum smelters in Vancouver and Longview that fed the Boeing factories in Seattle and Vancouver that churned out B-17 and B-29 bombers during World War II and B-47s and B-52s in the 1950s.
The internet, without which Microsoft’s tremendous success and phenomenal profits would never have been possible, grew in part from research done by Leonard Kleinrock, a professor at the publicly funded University of California at Los Angeles who was educated at the publicly funded Bronx High School of Science and the publicly funded City College of New York. The early infrastructure for the internet was created by the publicly funded National Science Foundation and the publicly funded United States Military.
It would be difficult to find any US private company that does not benefit every day from the investment of tax dollars in education, utilities, health care, police departments, fire departments, and social safety nets.
This is especially true for education. A broad and well-funded public education system has been the key to the competitive advantage that the United States has enjoyed in the modern world. In order to continue to grow, capitalism must do one of two things: innovate or exploit. It must either continue to come up with goods and services for which people will pay the premium that supports a decently paid work force or it must produce crap as cheaply as possible by squeezing the maximum blood, sweat, and tears from a captive and exploited work force. A strong public education system (and the political maturity and social mobility that comes with it) is the key to pushing the capitalist needle more toward innovation than exploitation.
This is why the corporate approach to education, with its emphasis on top-down, administratively driven “reform” and its neglect of funding, is so disappointing and short-sighted. When Microsoft wants to develop a new product or improve an existing one, they hire the most talented people they can find, pay them well, and try to eliminate the impediments that stand between them and innovation. They don’t try to save money with inexperienced and underpaid researchers from “Research for America” or adjunct scientists. They don’t burden their R & D people with endless evaluation and accountability exercises and they don’t fail to invest.
Washington is in the bottom five in the nation in per student investment in both K-12 and 4 year higher ed. The infrastructure that we need to produce the next Leonard Kleinrock is crumbling and desperately needs investment. And yet the companies that stand to benefit the most from that investment continue to vote against it with loads of their cash. The long-term consequence of that for Washington state is going to be less innovation and more exploitation.

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