Pedantry - Moved to

Thursday, May 01, 2003
Smokin' In The Boys' Room

Well, school still seems to be an issue that strikes close to home even though it's not getting much political play. My last post seems to have sharply raised my hit count and been linked to by Calpundit and Tom Runnacles.

Let me respond to some of the points raised here in the comments and elsewhere. David Jobson is right to point out the importance of the major shift over the last 20 years or so in how we view learning disabilities and the biological conditions for learning. I have some problems with the direction that line of thinking is leading, but on the whole, it is an improvement over the days when teachers simply categorised some students as dumb and created self-fulfilling prophecies. My problems with this line of thinking derive from my disinclination to view most kinds of learning disabilities as disabilities. Different children require different learning strategies and I am uneasy categorising fuzzily defined differences as deviations from some norm.

One of the more important reasons for advocating a voluntary school system is that I hope it would lead to a more individualistic conception of students and their aptitudes and goals. Children are people, and they are different from each other. Each has their own life history, their own interests and their own circumstances. We have no difficultly acknowledging this for adults, but for some reason we still think of children as empty vessels to be moulded instead of individuals to be cultivated. That is why I am hesitant to advocate uniform educational standards and goals beyond what I really see as a strict social minimum: reading and arithmetic.

This is near where I my beliefs differ from Vaguely Right's, although for the most part we are on the same page. I too can't stand the kind of psychological engineering Joanne Jacobs seems to think schools ought to perform. I agree that teachers' diminished access to physical discipline is one of the reasons classrooms have become harder to control. My mother taught fifth grade in an inner city school in New Jersey like the one her fiancé (I assume she's a she - but I'm guessing from the use of only one "e" in "fiancé" so it's thin ground for my guess) is in and had a lot of similar complaints.

My problem with advocating more aggressive discipline is that I fear it makes the teacher's life easier at a high cost to the students. I want children to be more liberated and less imprisoned. We would never consider stricter discipline as a solution to adult social problems (well, those of us on the left probably wouldn't anyway), so why should we consider imposed discipline the solution for children? I want kids to need less externally imposed discipline. I want to treat kids more like adults, and I think the risks of doing so are outweighed by the benefits. But, I agree that the current arrangement where teachers can't be more assertive and students have to attend school is untenable. It is the worst of both worlds - a teacher's work is more difficult and students still don't learn very well.

I agree that parents are part of the problem in many cases. Either children need the tools to take control of their own educations, or parents need to take personal responsibility for their children's outcomes, or else teachers need to be empowered and given the resources to fully control education, as I suggest in the "European option" in my original post. If we deny teachers the necessary resources and deny students the freedom to decide for themselves, then we can't have parents abrogating their responsibilities to schools. Much of my advocacy of this position is a sort of council of despair. I don't think we can force parents to be responsible for their children's education, so we either need to empower teachers or allow children to develop their own goals. I am hesitant to empower teachers too much, because teachers are people just like everyone else, with lives and problems and prejudices. My teachers have been a pretty mixed lot. Some were very good, some were awful, and I don't like the idea of giving more power to the awful ones.

I believe in the importance of universal education, and the only way that position is compatible with letting children make their own educational decisions is if they are allowed to make mistakes and then change their minds. DJ makes the point in the comments that children can, in fact, judge their educations. A bored child should be allowed to find something less boring to do and children are quite capable of making those sorts of decisions. Certainly by high school we can trust them to take far more personal responsibility for class attendance and course selection. I do think American 13 year olds can handle an environment structured more like a college than like a contemporary high school.

No, I do not think a six year old child can make good career plans, but I'm not asking them to. I do think a six year old can decide if they want to learn how to read, and millions of them make that decision - either for or against - every day in the schools we have. You can't force a child to learn at any age. But, the corollary of letting them decide not to learn to read at six is that we have to let them, when they're eight or twelve (or for that matter at 20 or 30 or 50), change their minds. That is why my proposal is not simply replacing our present mandatory school system with the same schools only without the mandatory part. School has to be a lifetime institution open to every part of society in order for this to work.

Jeremy Osner asks if it isn't harder to learn to read at 16 than at six. I'm honestly not sure. At present, the people who haven't learned to read by 16 are the ones who had difficulty learning it at six. Experience promoting literacy in the developing world suggests that age isn't really a very big barrier, but access and motivation are.

My claim is actually a little different: I claim that it's easier for a 16 year old to learn to read voluntarily than for a six year old to be forced to learn to read. Most children in literate societies want to learn to read, many of them quite desperately. The importance of reading is not lost on most six year olds and the rest are already likely not to learn how to read in our current schools.

As for people who think - for example - that girls shouldn't go to school, I'll bet their children are not getting much out of school right now.

I want to enshrine a principle that a lot of people are sure to resist: children get to make as many of the decisions about their education as possible, including whether or not they want to go. Parents have a lot of influence over their children, so it isn't a truly independent decision. But at the very least, I want a girl whose parents don't want her to go to school to have the legal right to even if her parents don't like it. Once again, this is a policy of despair. I can't support the idea to taking a child away from her parents just because they think awful things about the place of women in society and I think we will only make the child's life worse forcing her into a school neither she nor her parents want. There is a chance that mandatory public schools might propagandise the child against her parents beliefs (which would be a good thinig) but the more effective way of doing so is through social contact with other children who do go to school. Peer pressure is a big force in people's lives and easily leads children to defy their parents.

Let me suggest an alternative approach to anti-education problem groups. The state should think of itself as having a compelling interest in promoting literacy and numeracy. It should compel all parents to let school advocates contact and try to convince their illiterate children to go to school unless the parents offer concrete plans to educate their children themselves. This is not unlike the homeschooling laws in many places: parents who homeschool have to show that they really are teaching their children. The state gets a crack at getting kids into school, but the final decision is the child's.

It's an imperfect solution, but school can't serve those who are opposed to schools on principle. The only alternative is to actively subvert anti-school communities, and that is a very illiberal solution. I think the vast majority of parents would put pressure on their children to go to school even if it wasn't mandatory, and I think peer pressure would keep most kids in school at least long enough to learn to read. I believe the overall impact on the least educated children would not be worse than the current system and the impact on other children would be much better.

Mark Wright (msw) and Stephanie Murray advocate mandatory schools because they keep kids off the street. Actually, they already do a very bad job of that, but I think that the two of them have a point. The law in most places forbids leaving children under a certain age unsupervised, and most homes either have two working parents, or are single parent homes where the sole parent has to work. I advocate state sponsored child-care centres that are either free or sliding scale but that are in any case accessible to all parents, and I think that children can not be allowed to decide whether or not to go to daycare. Only parents can make that decision.

I think it's very important to dispel the idea that schools should be state-subsidised daycares. There may be a need for state-subsidised daycares, but if so, then let's build state-subsidised daycares and stop calling them schools. There may be children who don't want to be in daycare and are forced to go by their parents. That's unfortunate but not something anyone can do much about. Young children need supervision whether they want it or not. But a daycare isn't a school. You can supervise an unwilling child, but you can't teach one. In daycare, you can play, you can take a nap and you can go to the bathroom if you need to. It's a lot less like a prison than a school is.

If school is to be voluntary, then there have to be daycares for older children. They can watch videos or get involved in a neighbourhood sports or whatever. Organising and monitoring activities for children is not the same as being a teacher. It requires far fewer skills and demands far less from both the monitor and the child.

As for the older children who are the biggest problem for police, they can already quit school when they're 16, and they are already the students most likely not to bother going to school even if they are enrolled. I agree that many kids pose a serious social problem, but keeping them in school doesn't make the problem go away, it just postpones it until after 3pm. School is not the place to be addressing this problem.

I want schools to be for learning. If there are things children need that are not related to self-development, I want them to happen somewhere else. This is one of my fundamental problems with existing schools: schools have too many priorities other than education.

Children need to be propagandised to use birth control - no disagreement - but then we should round up all the children in the neighbourhood and force them to sit through a sex ed lecture in hopes that some of it will sink in, or we should put condom ads on TV to make them think Sheik is chic. But we need to be clear that that is propaganda and not education. If children need to learn to buckle under to authority - as Zizka and Kevin Drum point out and which certainly has some truth to it - I don't want it to interfere with their educations. I would rather see them dealing with their authority issues at a job, or in an apprenticeship, or on an athletic team. I want school to be a place where they develop themselves as individuals, not where we beat them into being the kind of people who can be good workers. Education is about developing oneself, and especially about developing freely, and that is why it is so important. If you want to turn people into production units, get them jobs or put them in the army. Real life is oppressive enough, we don't need school to oppress them further. School should free them.

Mark thinks I can't possibly be advocating factory work for children. I would if there were any factories left. Yes, I think some kids would be better off with jobs and no, I am not advocating sending six year olds off to work in Dickensian mills. Six year olds probably shouldn't have jobs. I have, however, seen twelve year olds assist in commercial kitchens and daycare centres. By fourteen, most service industry jobs are within a kid's reach, and after sixteen I suppose my only real restriction would be that their jobs not be unduly dangerous. Once again, the choice of work or school should ultimately be a child's, and the parents should not be able to profit from their children's labour.

Stephanie points out that private schools often pay worse than public schools. That may be true - I have no data to offer - but my experience has been that private schools usually pay slightly better, but usually no more than slightly. It wouldn't surprise me if she was right and I was wrong.

However, she also makes the claim that we need more education than we used to, not less. I hear lots of people say this, but never once have I been given a coherent argument in support of it. My grandfather had mastered a dozen trades on the farm - mechanical engineering, metalwork, practical botany, three languages, microeconomics, animal husbandry, all the construction trades, etc. - because in the low tech world of rural life in the 40's he had to master all those skills to live. I've never had to repair a tractor. If some machine in my life breaks, I either replace it or I pay someone to fix it. I don't run a business. I know what I make every month and about how much stuff costs and that's about all I need. My cats are neutered and my meat comes from the supermarket, so I have little use for animal husbandry. I've never built any structure larger than a dog house. I do know quite a few things, but the skill that earns my daily bread is vastly simpler than farming and I learned it well after grade 12.

We talk about how important education is, but we never seem to ask ourselves what it is for. Tom Runnacles makes a related point in attacking credentialism. A high school diploma is quite unrelated to actual abilities and a college diploma is often little more than a certificate of literacy.

The real problem with schools is not that there are ignorant people. There have always been ignorant people, and I don't think there is any more ignorance than there used to be. The problem is that people spend so much time in school and have so little to show for it, but they have to do it anyway.

I agree with Tom that learning is an end in itself. The purpose of education is the development of oneself, not the creation of good worker bees for business. Education needs no higher goal than the production of educated people, and I would rather everyone have the chance to be educated and the power to refuse than force everyone to go to school and have so little education going on.

This also touches on TC's comment about Herrnstein and Murray. H&M are not completely wrong, but to the degree that they are right on this point, it is for all the wrong reasons. School matters because credentialism, and not ability, is what is important in this society. I want to make ability important, and I want schools that actually improve ability. Education has a huge impact on ability - H&M are completely wrong in saying that it doesn't - but regrettably schools have too little impact on ability, and spending more money on schools as they are now will probably not have a proportionate return in education. That's the whole reason for advocating radical reform.

Tuesday, April 29, 2003
We don't need no education

There have been a number of posts lately about education as an issue in American politics. Calpundit goes into it here, here and here. Matthew Yglesias takes a stab at it here. Ampersand talks about how American writing skills haven't really been declining here.

So often trotted out at election time, education seems to have disappeared from the political scene. This is one of those issues where I get into a lot of trouble. Both my parents were school teachers in Canada and later the US, and my father was shop steward for his teacher's union for a while.

So, let me tell you what I am sure of: Vouchers are unlikely to produce any significant improvement in education for the bulk of students, although they are not quite as inherently evil as their most voiceful opponents would like you to believe. Merit pay for teachers is a poor substitute for hiring and supporting good teachers in the first place by offering pay and working conditions able to attract the most talented, best trained and dedicated career educators. And, schools have always been awful and every generation has complained that their kids were doing worse in school than they used to.

But, there are real problems with American schools. People still can't find Afghanistan on a map, even after cheering when the US bombed it. Americans are still remarkably incapable of mastering a second language. A school education has never in history taken up so much time for so many people, and done so little to advance their knowledge of the world. And besides, school sucks.

That's not very controversial. Let me get to the contention that will cause a certain amount of trouble: The women's rights movement is the most important cause of the decay of American schools.

How, you may ask, have women's rights undermined education? It's not too complicated actually. Before 1970, there were very few secure, professional trades open to women in North America. Secretaries and other office jobs traditionally given to women were poorly paid and notoriously insecure, and women were often expected to quit as soon as they were married. Consequently, there was very little opportunity for advancement and very little investment in women's job skills in most workplaces. Otherwise, there was nursing and teaching. My mother chose teaching in the late 1960's because she wanted something more than being a housewife and nursing wasn't her thing.

With a large pool of competent and ambitious women to choose from - larger in most cases than the number of jobs for them to fill - teaching could attract the very highest quality candidates and could keep them in their jobs with very little pay. As a result, there were relatively high quality schools at a very low cost. After 1970, things were different. Nowadays, teaching is far from the most attractive career open to women and it should not come as a surprise that so many women choose to do something else or that many of the best teachers have quit the trade, just as my mother eventually did.

That is the single largest reason why American schools have decayed in quality in the last 30 years. It isn't the only reason, but all the other reasons - poor funding, lack of respect, bad working conditions, job insecurity - could easily be overcome if teaching was still the only option available to many capable people. Remarkable educational accomplishments have come from teachers - usually but not always women - working with little or no funding under abysmal conditions.

I am not advocating returning to the world as it was before 1970. I think schools are important, but I don't think they're so important that we should shackle half of the population with diminished opportunities to get them. The failure to understand this historical fact about education is the reason why I oppose out of hand any education reform movement with a reactionary tone. "Back to Basics" is not something I support. Past educational successes rested on the state of women's rights, and most other aspects of pre-1970 American education were not clearly related to outcomes.

So, if we can't move backwards, we have to move forwards.

Let me dismiss a few "quick fixes" out of hand while I'm at it. The conservatives are right to say that, by itself, increased funding for schools will not produce any certainty of improved results. Vouchers and introducing markets into education will certainly not make matters better either. Private schools do not pay very much better than public ones. Furthermore (and I say this from experience) the better educational outcomes that private schools get have more to do with being selective about their students and the peer effects a select student body creates than anything the schools or teachers do differently. Public subsidies for private education are not evil - most of the world practices some form of subsidy for private schools - but it's not an answer either.

Teacher's unions are not the cause of American schools' ills, and anyone who thinks otherwise is invited to live on a public school teacher's salary while putting up with a public school class. There is already too little to make teaching lucrative and making jobs less secure and working conditions worse will not help. The people who blame teachers' unions are really just interested in preventing teachers from having any say at all in education. They want the freedom to impose whatever terms they like on the profession and expect teachers not to complain or make any fuss. These people want others to put up with what they would never tolerate themselves.

Local control over schools is also not a panacea. Most developed nations have highly centralised school systems and get better results than the US despite - on the average - less spending. Nation-wide testing is not a solution by itself, although it is not an especially bad idea if you are clear on what you intend to test for. Merit pay is a waste of time and money which will neither improve schools nor improve teaching. Children have minds of their own, and making someone else responsible for the contents of their minds is the most illibertarian thing I can think to do. Smaller classroom sizes aren't a bad idea either, but they can cost quite a lot to implement and have no guarantee of success, as California's recent experiment in classroom size reduction is starting to show. Curriculum reform is another fake issue. I have spoken about this elsewhere on this blog. There is a real literature on the impact of curricula on outcomes and the results are ambiguous. There is no curricular substitute for experienced and capable teachers. "Whole language" versus "phonics" and the "new new math" versus the "old new math" are smokescreens for political lobbies.

And, my opinion of the educational impact of reintroducing prayer in schools can probably go unsaid. When I was a kid in Manitoba, I actually had to say the Lord's Prayer in my public school every morning. It was when most of the students made their daily supply of spitballs, and many of us said "alternative texts" which would be viewed as blasphemous to say the least.

There are, I think, only two real choices for school reform that might improve schools, and both are pretty radical.

One is the libertarian solution, and I mean libertarian in the pre- and non-Ayn Rand sense of the word. We could abolish mandatory education while preserving freedom of access.

This has some clear advantages. The hardest thing in education is classroom management. Children don't always want to be in school, and keeping them there, beating into their heads how important it is that they learn, is little more than torture. It is much easier to work with children who want to be there.

This is - probably - heresy for which some would burn me at the stake, but very few useful skills are acquired in elementary and secondary education. Basic literacy and numeracy are just about the only things most kids learn in school that serve them later in life, even if they continue through grade 12, and - this is the truely heretical part - many of them would acquire literacy and numeracy whether they went to school or not.

What I propose is that we guarantee, effectively as a civil right, that any illiterate or innumerate person, regardless of age, race, gender, address or any other status, should have access to a free public school where they can be taught to read, write and do basic arithmetic and that a standardised exam be used to test for that minimum knowledge. Beyond that level, schooling is still free, but conditional on some demonstration of good will and capacity to profit from it. We could, for example, say that the school doors remain unconditionally open for everyone who has passed the basic literacy and numeracy exam until they are 18 years old. After that, they must demonstrate that they can profit from continuing education by means of entrance exams or a college admissions type triage.

Another advantage is that it is possible for voluntary schools to succeed without highly qualified staff. It's actually not hard to teach a child to read and do arithmetic. A significant number will actually teach themselves or nag their parents to teach it to them. It's not really hard to teach children most things if they want to learn. What is hard is keeping discipline and control of a classroom, especially one that amounts to little more than a prison. With voluntary education, we could shift to a system where teachers need few qualifications and classrooms are fairly small without reducing the success of the system.

The essence of the libertarian solution is that no one would ever have to go to school if they don't want to, and no one will be denied education that they can profitably use if society can afford to offer it to anyone. No one has to study anything that they don't want. They can seek practical vocational knowledge or a larger knowledge of the world around them as they see fit, and at any time in life they can change their minds about what they want if they can make a good case for why they ought to be allowed to pursue some new line of learning. Such a system makes sense for a world where people understand that learning doesn't stop with getting a diploma.

The second option is the European option. Retain the current notion of free and mandatory public education, but make clear what the goals of that education are, develop means for testing for them and guarantee that every person who passes standardised tests can advance in school. Then, pay teachers wages better than those of people with comparable university educations and make public school teaching a trade that evokes the kind of respect doctors and university professors get. Use lengthy paid internships to test teachers' real classroom abilities and give them real world experience before certifying them. Use peer review to evaluate teachers' performance and give them collective control and responsibility for schools and curricula, disestablishing school boards and overbearing educational bureaucracies. Encourage teachers to take personal responsibility for their students' outcomes by impressing on them, just like policemen and firemen, the crucial importance of their role in society.

Standardised tests are not evil. They aren't even inherently racist or sexist, so long as you understand what they are. Binet type tests - like the SAT or most IQ tests - measure children's progress in school by comparison to other children as a group. A standardised test may show that black children are doing worse in school than white children, but that is an indictment either of schools or of what the test is supposed to test for. It is not an indictment of testing itself. If you can clearly state what you want children to get out of school and you can devise clear methods of testing for it, there is no reason why testing has to be inherently unfair.

Testing has a very bad rap because many people believe that, by some act of magic, you can test for intellectual or academic potential using Binet-type exams. You can't. You can test only for what can be clearly stated and clearly examined. You can test for progress in school by comparing children's answers to questions to the answers given by other children. You can't test for what that child might be able to do in a different kind of school.

This means wanting something much more specific than "better schools." English literacy is easy enough to test for using standardised, time-tested methods. But it means that fuzzy notions like "personal development" and "citizenship" have no place in school. It means that every educational goal has to be socially justified as necessary for everyone.

This means reexamining science and math education, most of which is a complete waste of time for nearly everyone subjected to it. Science is something that has to be nearly completely relearned in college if you intend to work in the sciences, and algebra is - as high school students everywhere suspect - of almost no use outside of the technical trades and academia. Frankly, most people never use any math more complicated than working out interest payments. History is important, but I spent much of my time unlearning the often false history I was taught in school. Learning to write better, to speak more clearly, to use a foreign language, and to interpret the events in their daily newspaper is, for almost everyone, a more useful and interesting way to spend their time.

But in the end, the European plan means someone has to set the standards for everyone, even for those for whom it is inappropriate. Such a school will meet any minimum standard you set, if you provide the resources to meet it, but it also means that some kids will fail who could have succeeded.

I suspect either plan would improve the overall quality of public education.

The first is more or less destined to do so because the children who want to make progress in school will be free to advance without constraint, while the others could hardly do worse. There is so much pressure for literacy in this society that I doubt illiteracy would grow. And, for better or for worse, American parents have had impressed on them for many years the (regrettably mostly spurious) importance of schooling for their children's success in life. Parents do, on the whole, press their children to do well in school, and I don't think school enrolment will change if school ceases to be mandatory.

The second plan is likely to be successful for very different reasons. Given a sense of responsibility and trust, held to high standards in practical knowledge and faced with the evaluation of their peers, people do amazing things. Internships and practical experience are essential to all professional skills and using them to find and retain the most capable teachers is sure to improve the quality of classroom teaching. Children respond well to professional and motivated educators and standardised testing is an effective replacement for teacher's grades when a student's advance is to be determined in relation to externally fixed goals.

Personally, I prefer the first plan to the second, but then my education is not representative. One thing I am clear on is that different children learn best in very different kinds of environments. There are children who thrive on the discipline of military schools, and there are children who suffocate in them. There are children who will make progress just fine if you let them drive their own educations and there are children who need to be measured against standards. There is no way of knowing in advance how a child will respond to a certain kind of education, but over time children ought to be allowed more and more to decide for themselves where they want to be. That they can't is a major failing of the current school system.

School was, for me, a prison much of the time. Choice in schooling is important, and it is vitally important that school choice belong to children and not to parents any more than necessary. Unfortunately, most of the so-called libertarians who support vouchers do not believe in choice for the consumers of education, they believe either in state subsidies for their own children's' private educations or in the denial of state subsidies for someone else's children's public education.

There may be some middle ground where a number of options are available to parents and children and where the mandatory aspect of school is loosened without completely abandoning it, but these are the only plausible directions of progress as far as I can see. The current schools are failing because the assumptions they were based on - easy access to labour - and the goals they were built to meet - 19th century industrial skills as far as I can tell - have disappeared. Either professionalise the trade and give it respect and pay or recognise that there is less need for schooling today instead of more. Either way, the kinds of schools we have have gone about as far as we can take them. If you really believe in educational reform, you have to start thinking about more radical change.

The new order begins to take shape

Another little news item - fresh off the Reuters feed - that may be lost in the American press: Four EU States Propose Joint Military Planning HQ. It seems France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg have agreed to a new joint military headquarters to rival NATO's SHAPE command in Mons. The accord will also cover, according to Le Monde and Le Figaro a new joint military college, a mutual defense agreement outside of the North Atlantic Treaty and a joint office for defense procurement. All of this is to be located in Belgium, conveniently enough for Primeminister Guy Verhofstadt, who faces reelection in three weeks.

Verhofstadt got what he wanted. He can go home and claim he's bringing home the bacon with new European institutions on Belgian soil and the new jobs that will surely create. France and Germany, however, have just raised the stakes slightly in their continuing conflict with Washington. Europe is now too big and too awkward to advance so long as every country in the union expects to have a veto and recent disagreements have made that too plain to ignore and too accute to postpone dealing with it. A four nation Franco-German alliance, with Belgium and Luxembourg as junior partners, is a stable formation. Belgium is deeply attached to France, even here in Flanders, and is practically a German province as far as its economy goes. If Germany and France agree to something, Belgium and Luxembourg have little power to resist regardless and both nations have mostly come to terms with that. Better to be on the inside and have some say in your affairs than to be on the outside and have decision imposed on you.

A number of other European countries resent not having been invited, but the whole point here is to create a set of core states prepared to advance alone. It is a show of solidarity more than anything else. The Franco-German core is too important to be completely ignored and they do not agree to simply tie themselves unconditionally to the US.

Le Figaro and Le Monde put a lot of emphasis on the minimal scope of this summit agreement and the need to not make more waves than really necessary. This is not a ready-made superpower. However, we should recall that the EU itself started out as a six nation pact limited in scope to the coal and steel trade. Starting small and moving in short steps is the EU way. Americans may not quite get that, but the minimalist nature of this accord isn't lost on anyone in Europe.

The hope, I expect, is that future more Europhilic governments in Spain and Italy will seek to join up. The current Spanish government is not loved and is not expected to be reelected. Silvio Berlusconi is also someone with many enemies, few friends and a difficult to predict political future. Both nations took pro-war positions that were deeply unpopular with their electorates and the war is not more popular in either country now that it is over. Given time, they might even pick up the Netherlands which is nowadays no more economically independent than New Jersey is.

And sooner or later, there will be a new conflict within the European sphere - another Côte d'Ivoire perhaps, or a Kosovo, or some new violence in Cyprus - and the call will go out for Europe to deal with it using their new rapid reaction force. It only takes a few such conflicts to make the force a popular institution.

The problem is the UK. Paris has carefully left the door open for London. In Le Figaro, a senior French official is quoted saying: "Personne n'a jamais imaginé qu'on puisse construire l'Europe de la défense sans la Grande-Bretagne." The UK, however, is not about to reconcile itself to this clearly different vision of European defense.

But, it's not quite so simple for the British. France is the UK's largest partner in defense spending and contracting. Many of the two countries' weapons programmes are joint programmes including in the new British aircraft carrier. Although without the UK it is hard to be sure how serious this new military union will be, the UK would have to face this new alliance as both a major market for the British arms industry and a major supplier of arms. Money talks, and the European arms market is too tempting to completely sabotage. As recently as February, the UK and French governments were signing agreements on greater military cooperation, both with regard to the new European force and especially with regard to arms sales.

Still, this looks like the beginning of the long awaited Europe à deux vitesses,with France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg on the fast track and everyone else deciding just how marginal they want to be and what they are willing to pay to be on the inside.

Monday, April 28, 2003
A good day to be a commie

For those of us in the "developed" world, it's been such a long time since we had any honest-to-god proletarian revolutionary consciousness that it's easy to forget about the workers altogether. But, thanks to Naomi Klein in today's Guardian, I am informed that the workers are alive and well and occupying factories in Argentina.

Here in Buenos Aires, every week brings news of a new occupation: a four-star hotel now run by its cleaning staff, a supermarket taken by its clerks, a regional airline about to be turned into a cooperative by the pilots and attendants. In small Trotskyist journals around the world, Argentina's occupied factories, where the workers have seized the means of production, are giddily hailed as the dawn of a socialist utopia. In large business magazines like the Economist, they are ominously described as a threat to the sacred principle of private property. The truth lies somewhere in between.

Go proles, go!

I am disturbed that all this was going on and I had no clue. I have to start learning Spanish one of these days. How has a story like this managed to so easily avoid the global media? Worker's Power Global has a summary page on workplace occupations in Argentina. I can't work out the whole timeline, but it looks like this has been going on for at least 10 months.

The Argentine economy has been devastated, but the real sign that capitalism can sometimes be the most completely insane system of economic governance imaginable is that Argentina has ample available labour, amply fertile land and plenty of productive factories, but the masses are unemployed, the farmers can't afford to bring food to market and the factories are closed. Argentina's real capital - its factories, its infrastructure and its labour - have not been harmed. No war has devasted their land. Everything that supported them before is still there now. Only then they were rich and now they're poor.

That such a situation could arise in the first place is lunatic, yet there it is. Well, it seems the ridiculousness of it has not been lost on the people of Argentina, where the workers are taking control of the factories and operating them themselves, meeting community needs and paying wages.

Naturally, the authorities are taking a dim view of this development. Wherever workers manage to demonstrate that they don't need the bosses, sooner or later somebody calls in the police. The owners would, as usual, prefer the people starve rather than question the nature of the system.

If all that sounds rather like orthodox Marxism, so be it. It's certainly more orthodox class revolution than my usual fare but this is about as traditional a class struggle as you can get. When there are actual proletarians - none of this ambiguity about labour classes and the service industries - struggling to take control of the means of production from repressive owners, that's a good day for Marxism. It's enough to make me want to sing L'Internationale. Debout les damnés de la terre, debout les forçats de la faim...

Isn't May Day coming up? Where can I find a solidarity march?

To euroise or not to euroise, that is the question

I've been following the discussion on British entry into the ECB on Lies, damn lies and statistics. Honestly, I have no idea what position I ought to have on it. All else being equal I'm pro-Brussels, so I guess by default I'm in favour, but I've seen enough arguments made about how national currencies are supposed to work to not be sure whether the arguments in favour are sound or not. The larger political arguments about the UK's place in European institutions is something harder for me to judge.

I'm not an anglophile. My father was a Canadian nationalist who did not see Canada's London based monarchy or British-style institutions as virtues, and I think I probably absorbed some of his anti-London bias growing up, along with a fair amount of anglophobic sentiment in Montreal. I do however understand the reticence to turn power over to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, although as far as I can tell UK institutions aren't any more meaningfully democratic just because they happen to be in London, and the British state does not have a history of electing its civil servants either.

This issue touches on something more commonly found on this blog: a certain scepticism towards expert opinion. I remember how the anglophone press kept predicting that the Euro would never see the light of day, how speculators would destroy the ECB with speculative attacks before the distribution of physical Euros and inevitably force a few members to quit the pact. I remember how introducing the Euro was going to be a disaster. Well, the Euro has existed as a currency of exchange for four years now, and the physical bills and notes are more than a year old. The disaster never came. People here don't trust government health authorities since the "Mad Cow" fiasco. They don't much trust government economists either. The Euro is here and it seems to be working. German and Italian complaints about the "Teuro" are difficult to substantiate with solid statistics. The failure of the "Stability Pact" is that it was a bad policy quite apart from the existence of the Euro.

So, I don't trust either the pro or anti-Euro press in the UK.

Here in my corner of the continent, the press is pretty dissatisfied with the UK's rather ambiguious position on European institutions. There is some pressure for a tighter union in the core EU states, and a growing realisation that this is only going to be possible if a core group of EU states integrate themselves apart from the more sceptical members. This is, as far as I can tell, Tony Blair's nightmare: a Europe with a single integrated power at its core that does not include the UK. The pro-Euro arguments seem now to focus on whether buying into the Euro now can forestall this apocalypse for British European policy.

On the other hand, a few liberal American bloggers are starting to take up the British Conservative Party's half-serious position that the UK should join NAFTA instead, deepening this largely fictious special relationship they think they have with America. I suspect such a union would be hell on earth for the British government, which is likely to find Washington even less amenable to consultation and democratic governance than Brussels.

But, in the event that such a position were to become well established in British and American politics, let me be the first to offer up a specific position on it. The EU and NAFTA should make a trade: Canada for the UK.

Think about it. Canadians are hesitant to embrace closer union with the US and have been since the Trudeau era at least. The UK is hesitant to embrace a closer EU. Canadians have very little fear of international institutions per se and are unlikely to perceive themselves as being ruled by a foreign bureaucrats. We're already too small a country to imagine ourselves to be truely autonomous. The UK seems quite happy to let Washington run the world. Canadians distrust their own central bank just as many Europeans did back when they had independent central banks. The UK seems enamoured with its "monetary independence."

Furthermore, this would dramatically enhance the position of French in Canada and diminish the status of English in Brussels. It would enable Quebec to attract francophone European immigrants to keep the population up. It would make the arguments over Quebec sovereignty comparable to arguments over Catalonian or Flemish independence. If the EU countries are already bound by a common currency and a common citizenship and Quebec already has an independent language and education policy, how much difference does it make if Quebec is a country or not?

It would even have the perverse effect of actually binding the US and the EU more closely together. 60% of British trade is with the EU, compared to 15% with the US. 85% of Canadian trade is with the US and 4% with the EU. Canada could diversify its economy and become less dependent on the US. US trade with an EU that includes Canada but excludes the UK would be roughly 30% of all its international trade and make the EU much more deeply tied to the US-UK as a unified trading partner.

Think about it a bit. You know it makes sense. Canada belongs in Europe and the UK doesn't. Any effect it has on my personal mobility and immigration status is, well, pure bonus.

Sunday, April 27, 2003
A couple Sunday quickies

Go read Vaara's excellent post on socialised medicine and SARS. I thought the National Post was supposed to get better now that Conrad Black was gone. And this from today's Observer is a travesty that ought to be held against the White House at every opportunity. I said - months ago - that the US does not have experience running peacekeeping operations. This just takes the cake for poor thinking.