Free Education – At home and abroad

meat grinderI’m a firm believer in free education. It was already eroded by the time I got to University age with loans creeping in and placing students in debt and the rise of ‘vocational training’. Both the simple joy of learning  and accomplishment have been seriously eroded and educational attainment has been commodified. The only possible reason someone might want to be educated is – apparently – to earn more money and that’s the basis of the loans.

There are plenty of other reasons to learn and there are many benefits to society as a whole in having an educated  populace. Education lifts people up, makes them more socially mobile, creates an informed and aware populace who can make informed decisions. Yes educated people tend to earn more, but they also understand more, tend to be more law abiding and socially conscious and more invested in their surroundings.

Education isn’t a commodity, it is a social investment.

Europe and Scandinavia understand this and Britain used to. There’s still some respect for academia here but it’s being eroded by the American commodification model. The US, for all its scholarship culture, has almost entirely commodified its higher education now and there are few exceptions, few places where talent, rather than money, talks.

Cooper Union is – or was – one of these.

Through outstanding academic programs in architecture, art and engineering, and a Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art prepares talented students to make enlightened contributions to society.

The College admits undergraduates solely on merit and awards full scholarships to all enrolled students. The institution provides close contact with a distinguished, creative faculty and fosters rigorous, humanistic learning that is enhanced by the process of design and augmented by the urban setting. Founded in 1859 by Peter Cooper, industrialist and philanthropist, The Cooper Union offers public programming for the civic, cultural and practicable enrichment of New York City.

This place is now under threat. One of the very few remaining institutions where someone can get in on merit is threatening to become a fees-based institution. The situation is more dire in the US and so Cooper Union’s students need our support. Everywhere across the world though we need to be aware that education is under stress from monetary interests and we need to recognise that education has its own value, beyond the monetary, in terms of art, culture and social investment in our future.

European countries understand this. Scandinavian countries understand this. Because of this these nations are ahead of the US and the UK in social and educational markers. The sky has not fallen in, if anything it has been shored up.

Please consider supporting Cooper Union, as I will.

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A Better Way?: A Rational-Pragmatist Manifesto

citizensmitht-shirt-chestyle_2_110465_red-white-&-black-print_lIntroduction

Mention politics and most people are going to roll their eyes these days. It seems to many, at least in the west, that there is no real way to enact any sort of political change. Here in the UK all three main political parties have demonstrated that they don’t have the will to serve the people over wealthy special interests. In the UK and the US corruption is institutionalised. Money talks and rather than seeking to educate the populace and change the political debate they quarrel over an ideological ‘middle ground’ that is actually distorted to the right.

There has to be a better way of doing things.

Economics

Any economic system must be equitable and fair. It must provide the maximum opportunity for advancement to all and must be supported at every level of society. Furthermore any economic system must be diverse in order to be robust and must distribute wealth in such a way as to prevent corruption and power from concentrating in the hands of the few and returning us to the state we are in now.

Money cannot and should not be the sole metric for success or societal worth. To do so minimises the importance of other things like duty, care and service. Excessive privatisation is also wasteful through the loss of the economy of scale and through replicated effort. Investment must be made to restore manufacturing and to invest in new, green, technological solutions. A longer term view – beyond the next election must be taken.

The tax system is a convoluted mess, full of exceptions and loopholes where the wealthy are more capable of escaping their social duty than the poor and where myriad smaller taxes penalise the poor proportionately more than the rich.

I propose replacing almost the entirety of the tax system with a flat rate income tax in the region of 40-45%. Based on the UK population and average income this should account for the current budget (2012 figures) with a surplus. While this means that the average wage-earner would only bring home £15,000 after this taxation, there would be no VAT meaning that the average person would be saving 20% or 5% on everything that they purchased. This in turn should stimulate spending.

Customs and Excise would further be empowered to pursue moneys attempted to be taken out of the system and hidden from taxation, with punitive penalties such as to make it in the corporate interest to be honest with full disclosure.

This system would only be complicated further in terms of taxes designed for social change. Governmental surcharges on drink, driving, fuel etc would – therefore remain.

Vital infrastructure would be renationalised. Power, Water, Gas, Electricity and mass transit (trains and buses) should not be run on a for profit basis, but according to metrics of service, effectiveness, timeliness and societal worth. Telecommunications would have to remain private but the creation of a nationalised fibreoptic service could be used to wire the country into modernity.

Education

Education has been an ideological football for too long. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution and there is little motivation for the wealthy and powerful to improve the system so long as they can opt out of it.

Private schools would be phased out.

Religious schools would be phased out.

Schools of different types to support children of different abilities and interests would be introduced. After basic skills are imparted and once children began to show the areas in which they were most capable (secondary school) they would be streamed towards academic, artistic, vocational and other training.

Education should be run by those who are experts in education and an educational council would be set up to determine how to ‘locally’ spend the education budget and to set curriculum etc according to their expertise. Other than setting budgets, government would have no direct input.

Welfare

The entire welfare system should be scrapped and replaced with a ‘citizen stipend’. That is to say that everybody, employed or not, would be guaranteed a basic income of enough to live on and anything they earned over that would be theirs to keep (minus their income tax). Work would, then, always be appealing as nothing would be lost, only gained. As wih the change in taxation this would also provide savings through the removal of bureaucracy. The mentally and physically disabled or ill would have a higher stipend in order to compensate for the greater expenses and problems they face.

Health

All health services would be nationalised for similar reasons as those found in the education reforms. Similarly a medical council would decide ‘locally’ how to spend the health budget with minimal government interference, ‘devolving’ the decision making to the experts who would be bound by Hippocratic oath and principles of triage to provide the best treatment they could with that budget.

Money could also be saved by adopting the South American and Caribbean model. Preventative care is cheaper and more effective in the long run and free, open clinics are vital.

Crime

Prisons are woefully overcrowded and so, for most minor offences, community service and financial penalty should be used instead whenever possible. The welfare and taxation reforms, along with the educational reforms, should cause a nosedive in the crime figures in any case. As with the educational and health reforms, decision making in this arena would be devolved to a Law & Order Council with decisions given over to the experts.

Drugs would be legalised, as per expert advice for decades. They would be taxed on a lifestyle basis, as with cigarettes and alcohol, but if legal they would be subject to quality control and educational information which should lead to less addiction. Addiction is now considered a health issue.

Custodial sentences would remain but the focus must shift to reform and rehabilitation. While unpopular with the public such an approach does mean lower rates of re-offending and ultimately saves money.

Green Issues

Climate change is beyond question. Britain has a fantastic amount of natural power available in terms of hydroelectric, tidal and wind energy. Germany, which took the risk earlier on, is reaping the benefits of its green energy investment and it is not too late for Britain to do the same.

British innovation and manufacturing could make it a contender in wind and tidal energy and lower our reliance on gas supplies. We also have advances in biotechnology that we could put to good use in finding better ways to produce biofuels that don’t impact on crop production.

Additionally we should invest heavily in fusion research and other technological solutions in order to try and make Britain as energy independent as possible.

Defence

Britain’s nuclear deterrent serves no purpose in the modern era and costs billions of pounds. It should be eliminated.

Britain’s defence decisions on a more conventional basis should, again, be devolved to a military council though their duties should be limited to the defence of Britain. Expensive foreign adventures with no clear end in sight, pursued for political reasons, have no place.

There was talk in the 90s of having an ‘ethical foreign policy’. While this turned out to be a sham it is a concept that should be revisited.

Political Reform

Larger groupings are more robust while smaller groupings are more responsive. Devolution is valuable but breaking up political unions is counter-productive. With a shift in emphasis away from The City and financial games, hopefully a lack of equity across the country would be addressed, softening the appeal of – for example – Scottish independence.

The House of Commons is an adversarial circus and must be reformed. The old building should be replaced with a circular chamber and members of all parties should be intermingled.

Further, the current electoral system is woefully bad at producing representative parliaments. First Past the Post must be abolished and replaced with a true, PR alternative. Whips would also be abolished and every vote made a free vote, a vote of conscience, made anonymously via electronic voting.

The House of Lords would be abolished entirely and replaced with a 500 seat house filled via a process similar to jury service, staggered so that half the house is replaced every year. This house could not make amendments to bills but could refuse them, preventing them form entering law. They could also make comments and recommendations when returning bills to Parliament. If rejected twice the bill would be removed.

Church and state would be formally separated.

The government would be formally, rather than effectively, separated from the monarchy. The civil list would be abolished and the Royal Family considered private citizens.

Conclusion

Obviously this is a radical ‘manifesto’ for change and not one I consider to have any hope of ever becoming a reality but we have to do more than to simply complain about the state of affairs as they are. We need positive visions for change and improvement to the world, however unrealistic, as something to work towards.

This isn’t really that radical, though it looks like it. It consists of three core principles applied in every instance:

  • Find the rational and effective choice
  • Allow experts to do their job
  • Do what’s fair

Does Atheism have a Problem with Racial Minorities?

Oh you bastard, I fuckin’ hate pikeys.
– Gorgeous George, Snatch

Atheists agonise, a lot, over who and what we have as part of our movement. I’ve already talked about the perceived women/feminism problems in the previous blog but another issue that people wring their hands over is he lack of racial minorities in the atheist movement, particularly prominent within it.

Frankly, Neil DeGrasse Tyson is awesome enough to count for a hundred of anybody, but it is noticeable that here are less people of a non-white disposition and, being a broadly socially liberal bunch atheists worry about that.

Does it mean we’re racist?

No, it does not.

The society that we’re a part of though IS still racist, however much that’s decreasing over time. The long term effects of racism are still being felt even today in certain demographics and the subcultures of many racial demographics are sufficiently different, in a broad demographic sense, that what we’re seeing is a reflection of broader issues. Not an issue with atheism or atheists.

Racial minorities TEND to have less access to education, particularly at the higher levels. We know education and relative wealth are strongly correlated with atheism, even if it’s not causal we’d expect to see less atheists amongst a less educated and more impoverished demographic. Unfortunately this is generally true of many racial minorities.

Religion has often wormed its way into these communities. Religion may not be necessary for comfort in hard times, but it has been used that way. Religion prays upon the weak and desperate and racial minorities often place a much higher cultural value on religion either related to their home culture or to its place in drawing and keeping the community together.

It is a shame that we do not have more minority faces to speak out, but it’s not something we should agonise about. It’s no our fault, it’s a reflection of wider society and it’s NOT the problem or question that we – as atheists – are concerned about.

Give it time, it will change.