Unsustainable: American K-12 Public Education

The quality of an American public education has been steadily eroding for years. Today, many school districts are graduating children without basic proficiency in reading, writing, math, and science. These kids enter the job market and real world unprepared and unarmed. Meanwhile, spending on K-12 public education has skyrocketed.

Taxpayers pour money into an education system that produces increasingly disappointing results. Amazingly, the embarrassing failures in public education are used as justification to throw more taxpayer dollars at special interests creating the problems.

In a world where everyone marches to the drumbeat of sustainability, our public education system has sunk into a quagmire of unsustainability.

What are this crisis’ problems, root causes, and solutions? Although the situation is complex, the major drivers are quite simple. Covid and the self-induced shutdown of our schools exacerbated and exposed these drivers for all to see, making them more obvious. Ignoring them surrenders our kids’ futures.

Stakeholders and Their Interests

To properly understand the problems and root causes, and to identify solutions, understanding the stakeholders is key. They are:

  • Students, parents, and taxpayers. These are, in theory, the public education system’s customers. Kids need to be taught basic skills, parents desire good outcomes for their children’s education, and taxpayers pay for all of it. If our public education system fails, all three lose.
  • Good educators. Motivated teachers are one of the most powerful assets in a free market economy, providing a multiplier effect on value creation as they develop productive doers. Great instructors deserve and want recognized through merit pay and professional advancement.
  • Bad educators. Like any professional occupation, there are both good- and poor-performing teachers. A poor performer not interested in improving seeks to continue collecting a paycheck and wants to avoid accountability.
  • Teachers’ unions. Public unions, unlike private sector unions, should be viewed with skepticism since collective bargaining and strikes harm the citizenry that the government worker pledged to protect. The public union is most interested in preserving and growing its power, in the form of increasing dues and membership. Rewarding great educators, classroom meritocracy, and academic proficiency are secondary considerations. That’s why studies struggle to find a correlation between teacher unionization and improved student outcomes.
  • School administrators. Administrators, conceptually, sit in between the teachers’ union, teachers, and customers (students, parents, and taxpayers) to create balance and a quality education. Instead, administrators often focus on using bureaucracy to justify more influence, grow staffing, and increase budgets.
  • Politicians. Public officials are elected by the customers of the public education system: parents and taxpayers. But politicians often fail to serve those who they supposedly answer to. Instead, politicians are increasingly influenced by what their true bosses, public unions, demand from them: a system that shrouds transparency, shirks accountability, is fed more money, and limits customer choice.

The Problems

You can’t identify root causes until you recognize the problems. Unfortunately, the problems are obvious and serious.

  • Increasing and alarming numbers of kids are matriculating through public schools despite lack of basic proficiency in reading, writing, math, and science. Schools are failing in their most fundamental duty: to teach students.
  • Urban and rural school districts are especially susceptible to not fulfilling their duty to students. That means the poorest and most economically disadvantaged communities suffer the most severe consequences.
  • Teachers’ unions secure work rules where teachers are all treated the same, as if they were a commodity instead of a profession.
  • The best educators are not recognized nor compensated fairly.
  • It is far too easy for poor performing teachers to skirt accountability, with the system allowing them to remain entrenched for decades.
  • School choice options for parents and students are too limited, particularly in poor performing school districts.
  • Teachers’ unions willingly use threat of strike to disrupt learning and students’ educational paths, if it helps secure more money for pensions, adding of non-teaching staff, and more favorable work rules.
  • Too small of a fraction of each dollar poured into public school districts ends up in the pockets of active teachers or to hire more teachers.

The Root Causes

What are the root causes of these major problems?

  • Community-wide problems, such as lack of economic inclusion, often adversely influence public education outcomes and student proficiency. Solving such problems is beyond the scope of this discussion, and we touched upon some of them in a prior commentary [Teens and Avoiding Poverty: Three Simple Yet Challenging Rules]. Yet addressing the other root causes below will place families and school districts in our more challenged urban and rural communities in better position to succeed.
  • Public unions, including teachers’ unions, pose a massive, cyclical conflict of interest. Teachers’ unions collect dues from member teachers, the unions use dues to fund the political campaigns of politicians (legislators and elected judges) in their districts, the elected politicians then appoint administrators to manage school districts, and collective bargaining agreements are negotiated by the trio of teachers’ union-administrators-politicians that favor the teachers’ union priorities over those of students, parents, and taxpayers. Repeat for the next contract and election cycles.
  • Teachers’ unions exist without any current teacher ever having voted to form the union in the first place. Only one percent of teachers in Florida’s ten largest school districts were on the job when those districts voted to unionize. The New York City public school system teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, was created in 1960, meaning no one out of the over 100,000 current teachers in the union ever voted to create it. Most public school teachers had a union forced on them from day one of their careers. This is institutionalized conscription of public schoolteachers, districts, and the students they serve in the form of a perpetual public union.
  • Most collective bargaining agreements impose a system whereby marginal teachers can continue teaching without improvement for decades and excellent teachers enjoy little upside in the form of professional advancement and pay. Frustrated parents and exceptional teachers may feel as if the system was designed to protect the poor teacher.
  • The teachers’ union top priority is securing more dues and higher membership. Student proficiency, school choice, and teacher accountability are distant, secondary concerns. When there is conflict between the top priority and lesser priorities, the teachers’ union will choose the former at the expense of the latter. That’s a big reason why students who matriculate the full twelve years through a school district with mandatory collective bargaining end up on average earning less, having jobs requiring lower skills, and being more likely to be unemployed than fellow students in school districts who did not have statutorily mandated collective bargaining.
  • A growing share of “investment” in education is allocated under collective bargaining agreements to fund underwater and out-of-market pensions for retirees and to grow staffing of non-teaching personnel. The rate of increase is alarming: over 14% of education spending in 2018 was to cover pension costs, compared to only 7.5% in 2001. The Los Angeles Unified School District has seen pension costs more than double since 2014. In West Virginia, student enrollment fell 12% from 1992 to 2014 as non-teaching staff increased 10%, and in Kentucky over the same period non-teaching staff grew over six times as fast as student enrollment.

Solutions to Make the Unsustainable Sustainable

The K-12 public education system is unsustainable and in terminal decline. Yet a few simple reforms would drastically improve the situation for students, parents, taxpayers, and great educators.

  • States should enact statutes that require teachers’ unions to stand periodically for recertification, allowing active teachers to make their own decisions as to whether they desire union representation.
  • Politicians and administrators should prioritize within school district budgets active teacher salaries and student-teacher ratios (meaning new teacher hires) over pensions, retiree healthcare, and hiring of non-teaching staff.
  • Collective bargaining agreements and administrators must clearly define measurable performance criteria for student proficiency levels in reading, writing, math, and science. If those proficiency levels are not met, it should trigger preestablished corrective actions to ensure accountability and to protect students.
  • A true meritocracy should be instituted when setting teacher merit increases, promotions, and advancement opportunities. The best teacher in a school should earn substantially more than the poorest performer. The best should advance to more responsibility and opportunity while the worst should be considered for removal in lieu of improvement.
  • School choice should be encouraged via policy and be an option for students and parents, particularly in school districts that post poor student proficiency levels. If public education is not serving the customers with the quality product that the customer paid for, the customers should be free to take their business elsewhere.

Although these simple reforms would drastically improve the lives of countless children, accomplishing the reforms will require long, brutal campaigns on a state-by-state and school district-by-school district basis.

Yet we would be hard-pressed to find a more worthy fight.

Medical Malpractice Claims the Hippocratic Oath: Part Two

While the medical journal community lectures on climate change, a complex subject it has no expertise in, it ignores crises affecting the health and welfare of society’s most vulnerable.

Big Tech’s Business Model of Teen Addiction    

Big Tech is making society dumber by the day and the numbers prove it:  Spotify reported the most popular rendition of Beethoven’s fifth symphony has been streamed 1.5 million times; compare that to Olivia Rodrigo’s hit Driver’s License being streamed 800 million times—in less than six months!

Worse yet, the business of social media hinges on making it addictive, particularly to young adults and kids. Most realize that, and savvy docs especially should.  The average American adult now spends over two hours a day on social media, and they don’t come away enriched or feeling better about themselves.  Avid social media users become more addicted and suffer compounding physical and mental health maladies.

The Facebook whistleblower told us what we already know:  the tech giant does not have our best interests in mind and looks to hook and draw us in to grow revenue and stock price.  Its business comes before the customers’ health and wellbeing.

What should doctors be more worried about today when it comes to teens and kids?  What Instagram is doing—by design—to their mental health and self-esteem?  Or what a colorless, odorless benign gas will increase to on a parts-per-million trace level in the atmosphere over the next century?

Broken Big City Public Education Systems

The public education system in America’s largest urban areas is broken, incapable of arming students with competency in reading and math, and condemns millions of poor and minority students to a life of unfilled potential.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress ranks the nation’s public schools in proficiencies for subjects such as math and English, as well as for different grades and demographics.  You can find scorecards for the big city school districts under the Trial Urban District Assessment.

The results for 2019 across 27 of our largest big-city school districts are an outrage.  Not a single city of the group could say that a majority of its black 8th-grade students were proficient in math or reading.  Not math and reading; math or reading.  By way of example, New York City’s public schools posted an embarrassing 10 percent math proficiency and 14 percent English proficiency for black 8th graders.

More shocking are the abysmal results of the best cities of the twenty-seven.  Charlotte: 24 percent black 8th grader proficiency in math—tops across the cities. Boston: 20 percent black 8th grader proficiency in reading—first place in the group.

This should be a national outrage, particularly considering the importance of the need to address racial inequality.  Unwillingness to demand good proficiency in math, science, reading, and English for minority students in big-city schools is a grave failure of heart and destroys their potential for acquiring decent quality of life.

The medical profession is guilty of such a failure.

These writers deflect from the real health and welfare issues on the underserved, such as our broken urban public education system, and instead distract with abstract procrastinations on future climate.

American Mobility Grinds to a Halt

In Atlanta, home prices are up 23 percent year-on-year while incomes are up only 3 percent.

The U.S. housing market has become so prohibitively expensive that it is suffocating upward mobility and economic inclusion.

Skyrocketing home prices and plummeting affordability are fueled by flawed government policies, including regulations in the name of ‘tackling climate change’ and ‘sustainability.’

The math is simple.  In Atlanta, home prices are up 23 percent year-on-year while incomes are up only 3 percent.  Potential homeowners lose, big time.  Nationally, the median American household assigns over 32 percent of its income to cover the mortgage, the highest level since late 2008 (and we know what happened in 2008).

And less affordable housing brought on by harmful environmental policies is killing economic mobility, the crucial attribute that allowed Americans since there was an America to get ahead: New England colonists moved to the western frontiers of Appalachia; poor European immigrants came to the cities and their kids to the suburbs; freed slaves after the Civil War headed north; Oklahomans escaped the Dust Bowl and chased the California dream.

Today a similar path for the working poor does not exist.  Mobility is down a third since 2007.  Why?  Because the rich and well-to-do in desired regions or cities made their property more valuable by creating scarcity through onerous regulations, many under cover of saving the planet.  That denies others the chance to move up a rung or two on the economic ladder by utilizing mobility.  The rich’s assets get inflated while the rest stay stuck on their prescribed rung.

Plummeting home affordability and the subsequent frozen economic mobility takes a cumulative toll on the health and wellbeing of working families. The damage will be measured in lower life expectancies, increased stress-related illnesses, and other medical and quality of life problems.

Where’s the medical profession’s editorial on this current and tangible threat induced by flawed policy falsely touted as being environmentally-just?  You won’t find it.  Instead, the medical profession calls to give the same governments that killed homeownership and economic mobility even greater control, this time to save the planet.

Great Harm and Widespread Injustice

Through the Hippocratic Oath, the Greeks paved the path from the mystical to the scientific for the medical profession.  The foundational rule of ‘do no harm or injustice’ has been disrespected by the editors of today’s medical journals and their misguided musings.  What they call for will do great harm and impose widespread injustice.

Instead of the leaders of the medical community distracting the profession by chasing issues they know little about, society should demand they refocus their energy and attention on finding the cures for Covid, cancer, dementia, and autism.

Leave embracing of the Left, extreme environmentalism, and climate change zealotry to the fringes of nonproductive society, where they belong.

Understanding Today’s Left Through Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty

Today, the Left runs rampant through the corridors of government, academia, and treasured institutions.  It tramples over the individual and our Constitutional norms.  How did we get here?  The cautionary roadmap of the dubious journey was laid out decades ago by the great British philosopher Isaiah Berlin.  The path is best understood by Berlin’s two dueling concepts of liberty: negative liberty and positive liberty.

Berlin’s essay on the two competing types of liberty was delivered in a lecture at Oxford in 1958.1  Ironically, Berlin lamented during his prime how social and political thought in western democracies had fallen upon evil days.  He noted the alarming ease of how a professor’s abstract philosophical concepts would be weaponized by those looking to force rigid and life-stifling doctrines upon the masses.  Berlin had no idea how much worse things would get and would be shocked at today’s strict ideological environment that shackles the individual.

The Virtue of Negative Liberty

Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers, or constraints external to the individual. The person is free to choose their own way for their own good without obstruction from others.  They might make it big or fail miserably; but the doors in life are open to their choosing.  The individual is not dictated to and is left alone.

In Berlin’s words, we use the negative concept of liberty in attempting to answer the question: ‘What activities or areas should a person or group be left alone to do, without interference by others?’  Think of negative liberty as the absence of something: the something being external factors that will impede the person.  Negative liberty correlates to strong individual rights.

Negative liberty equates to the belief that it is better for a person to fail through their own volition than to succeed due to another’s benevolent control.  A person’s wishes are not to be frustrated by government.  Instead, they are to be respected.

The Opiate of Positive Liberty

Positive liberty is someone or something acting to take control of the individual’s life and to help realize the individual’s purpose.  We use the positive concept of liberty in attempting to answer the question of: ‘What or who may control or interference with someone to get them to do (or be) this rather than that?’

Think of positive liberty as requiring the presence of something: the ability to make the right decisions for oneself. Something or someone must act external to the individual to put the individual in a better position to make good choices.  Positive liberty often justifies external agents, such as government, to impose conditions to assist the individual in making good choices.  Coercion is almost a certainty with application of positive liberty.  The elimination of free will is the collateral consequence associated with the tactics used to apply positive liberty theory.

While negative liberty is attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is often attributed to collectivism or big government.  Someone or something must decide what is best for the individual and to place them on the right preordained path, whether it be a benevolent authority or an oppressive one.  People don’t know what is good for them; it is up to the state, bureaucrat, or despot to decide what is best for them.

But forcing or coercing an individual to conform their life to the view of another is a moral failing.  Thus, so too is positive liberty theory.  Immanuel Kant established the concept of ‘nobody can compel me to be happy in his own way’ and observed that paternalism is “the greatest despotism imaginable.”2

The Ebb and Flow of Negative and Positive Liberty

As Berlin showed, negative and positive liberty are not merely two distinct kinds of liberty; they can be seen as rival, incompatible interpretations of a single political ideal.  The more society embraces of one, the less it has of the other and vice versa.  To a large extent, negative and positive liberties are mutually exclusive to one another.

Ideally, society looks to strike the right balance between negative and positive liberty.  A critical mass of individual liberty must remain free from societal control and failure to do so equates to despotism.  Individuals strive to maximize freedom, yet most realize one must surrender some liberty to society to save the rest.  But if too much liberty is surrendered, we reach a point where there is nothing remaining to preserve.

The ideal society will look to maximize the amount of negative liberty and apply only the minimum amount of positive liberty to address the most pressing issues or emergencies.  That was the foundational premise of the United States.  Our Constitution was designed to permanently safeguard individual rights via negative liberty principles from the changing whims of the majority or the inevitable temptations of those in government.

Wars and revolutions are fought to establish and preserve negative liberty.  The human condition yearns for independence.  Yet people tend to let their guards down and can become complacent during good times, providing windows of opportunity for the entrenched bureaucracy and ambitious politicians to commandeer positive liberty theory to increase control over the citizenry.

Negative and positive liberty wage a battle of balance over time, particularly in chaotic democracies and other popular forms of government.  A negative liberty-laden society is created through political/societal disruption.  Followed by a slow yet steady evolution to more state control under cover of positive liberty theory.  To the point where authoritarianism reaches critical mass. And then the cycle repeats itself with a new disruption in response to an unbearable environment for the individual.

The Left’s Power Grab Via Positive Liberty Doctrine

Positive liberty doctrine has been utilized through the years by dictators, socialists, and communists to justify coercion of the individual and suppression of society.  The pitch was tempting, particularly during trying times: ‘The government, leader, or state is here to help you become a better you:  there are things beyond your control that hold you back and government will fix that. Give up your negative liberty and everything will work out to your liking.’

Over the past century, Germany and Spain (fascism) along with Russia and China (communism) jumped headfirst into embracing positive liberty and the shunning of negative liberty.  The results have been, and continue to be, devastating to individual rights, minorities, and quality of life.

The United States, which valued negative liberty and the rights of individuals to act on their own accord, served as the shining light inspiration and primary bulwark against Hitler’s Germany, the Soviet Union, and now communist China. Yet ironically, while America was leading the way, it was also slowly and incrementally slipping toward accepting positive liberty policies and diminishing negative liberty.

The slipping toward positive liberty thinking and away from negative liberty values began with Woodrow Wilson and his trust of the professional bureaucrat to know what is best for Americans.  Further sliding ensued with FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society.  President Obama’s eight years took things even further down the scale to where government pervaded all aspects of society and economy.

Each government failure to address a targeted societal ill justified more government.  State failure bred clamoring for more positive liberty via even bigger government.  Meritocracy of the individual was supplanted by mediocrity of the collective.

In 2022 it feels as if the Left has achieved a high-water mark in American exposure to positive liberty tactics.  Individual rights and freedoms are at 200+ year lows.

Three Current Symptoms of the Left’s Application of Positive Liberty

Americans today experience a host of symptoms that betray the prevalence of the Left, big government, and the hollow promises of positive liberty.  Three particularly troubling ones stand out.

First, the Left’s doctrine of equal outcomes supplanting equal opportunity in public education cripples student proficiency and caps an entire generation’s potential.   

Government negates individual achievement at every stage of the educational journey, from preschool through university.  Entrance proficiency exams to determine admission into magnet preschools are scrapped for lotteries.  Homework and grades are dropped in high schools in exchange for the camouflage of sky-high matriculation and graduation rates.  SAT scores are no longer accepted or considered for college admissions. GPA inflation rages at universities while class rankings are no longer tabulated.  The ivory towers went from marketplaces of ideas and nurturers of free thought to the minarets of the intolerant religion of the Left.

The government and the Left tell us such educational approaches are fairer to all and erase institutional systemic biases that hold back individuals from their potential.  Yet the result is the cheating of individual achievement, meritocracy, and standards.  Every student is brought down to the same substandard experience and outcome.  Ultimately, society’s capacity is diminished when it can no longer effectively educate its incoming workforce.

Second, government used the false promise of knowing what course was best to keep the individual healthy and society safe from the Covid pandemic to justify the imposition of drastic policies that severely reduced individual rights and the free economy. 

The past three years of big government’s management of pandemic via coercion has led to economy-wide shutdowns, skyrocketing inflation, supply chain asphyxiation, record national debt, stunted educational development of kids, and reduced wellness of wide demographics.  The individual lost nearly complete control of what they did each day, week, month, and year; from their economic livelihood to their freedom of movement to what goes into their bodies.

The return received in exchange for this surrendering of free will has been grossly disappointing:  over 800,000 American Covid deaths and climbing, endless reactionary flip-flopping on policies, and the clear sense that government leaders are not following science to protect citizens but instead are imposing political science to control citizens.  Pandemic has provided an epic opportunity for the Left to institute positive liberty policy across every facet of American life.  And the Left did not hesitate to do so.

Third, positive liberty doctrine has been applied lavishly to justify the gamut of climate change policies. 

Climate change ideology is the ideal long-term opportunity for the Left to permanently impose positive liberty doctrine across society and to squelch individual/negative liberty.  That’s because energy is used by everyone and impacts everything; control energy and you control the individual, the economy, and society.  Just listen to the common rhetorical climate musings from the Left and their implied messages:

‘Climate change is the existential threat facing the world today.’ Translation: we must place society on the right track. ‘Climate change is a code red for humanity.’ Translation: we must adjust quickly to reduce the risk.  ‘The time to act is now.’ Translation: we must impose drastic policies immediately.

The evil genius of the Left is evident with climate change zealotry: convincing a large portion of the population that what atmospheric trace concentrations of carbon dioxide will do in fifty years warrants an immediate surrendering of negative liberty and individual rights.

Using Berlin’s Warning from the Cold War to Win the Current Ideology War

If you like being in control of your own destiny, if you own a business, if you want a promising future for your kids, if you believe in science and reason, and if you love your country, then heed Berlin’s teachings on the endearing promise of negative liberty and the false hope of positive liberty.  Steadfastly protect the former and be on constant guard against those promoting the latter.  More than you think may be riding on your willingness to do so.

 

References:

1. Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, An Inaugural Lecture Delivered Before the University of Oxford on 31 October 1958.

2. Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace and Other Essays.

How $9.80 Created a Literary Balm for Troubled Times: Revisiting Fahrenheit 451

Today, looking around our great yet troubled country, one can’t help but feel the suppressing force of cancel culture. Watch what you say, keep your thoughts to yourself, and be careful who you talk openly to. And for goodness’ sake, don’t convey appreciation for the great works of the past, whether they be historical (Jefferson or Hamilton), philosophical (Aurelius or Rand), literary (Twain or Orwell), economic (Friedman or von Mises) or scientific (Darwin or Columbus). Such carelessness may land you out of a job, expelled from university, rejected from the neighborhood book club, and vilified on social media.

For the few of us that subscribe to this prudent path yet suffer from a genetic flaw that creates an innate resistance to today’s cancel culture and woke police, we can take solace in a handful of literary masterpieces from the 20th century. At the top stands George Orwell’s 1984 (1949). And there is the prescient Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (1940), who introduced his observations on intellectual and political tyranny.

As great as those two works are, there is a third that serves as the supreme combination of adventurous storytelling, political commentary, and contemporary relevance. It was written in the early 1950s by its author in the basement of the UCLA library on a public typewriter. A dime bought 30 minutes of typewriter time, and the author ended up investing 98 dimes to produce the original manuscript.

The $9.80 book is Ray Bradbury’s 1953 classic, Fahrenheit 451. If you’ve never read it, do yourself a favor and invest the time to do so. If it’s been a while since you read it, revisiting the story in 2021 will provide a stunning and new perspective for these tumultuous times. The story should bother you, as it pertains to crucially important subjects worth being bothered about.

The story revolves around Gus Montag, a fireman in a future society where the job of firemen is not to save homes from burning, but instead to burn books and the structures (and at times, the people) hiding them. The tools of the trade are vehicles and hoses loaded with kerosine and igniters (451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper burns). The fireman’s credo was best summarized by Montag: “It’s fine work. Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ‘em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That’s our official slogan.”

The fireman’s rules were simple and sequential: answer the alarm quickly, start the fire swiftly, burn everything, report back to the firehouse, and then be alert for other alarms. Books are viewed as loaded guns that must be destroyed to protect people from thinking.

The government and its minions, including the firemen, get to play the censors, judges, and executioners. Instead of being born free and equal under the Constitution, the aim of the police state is now to make everyone equal.

On its surface, Fahrenheit 451 is a dramatic story about how the individual and his free will overcomes oppression in society and government. That alone would make the book must-read. But there are other, just as impactful, themes in Bradbury’s tale. Consider a few ‘hows’:

  • How media and government feed viewers/citizens shallow content to sedate the mind of the individual. In the book, parlor rooms in homes consist of giant floor-to-ceiling walls covered by video screens that play constant, hollow programming. Sports are offered up as a sedative to keep the masses happy and quiet. Everyone is conditioned to watch and listen, to the point where they stop talking to one another and thinking for themselves. Bradbury was foreshadowing today’s reality shows and giant LED 4k TVs that lower the viewer’s and society’s collective consciousness.
  • How superficial materialism and ‘keeping up with Joneses’ are unfulfilling and demoralizing to the human spirit. Montag’s wife, Mildred, pines for a fourth wall of TVs in their parlor room, even though it would require a third of Montag’s annual pay. Her addiction to the drivel and her desire for yet another screen does not buy her happiness; she tries (unsuccessfully) to commit suicide by consuming a bottle of sleeping pills.
  • How government and technology conspire to create an oppressive surveillance state. Family members are encouraged to rat one another out if books are present, akin to bias reporting tools on today’s university campuses for non-sanctioned views and thoughts. The hound is a technological innovation in the book that tracks and kills its prey, mainly individuals marked for elimination by the state. The hound of today can be found in drones, artificial intelligence, and tracking technology. As Montag’s boss and nemesis said, “Any man’s insane who thinks he can fool the government and us.”
  • How the education system is utilized to eradicate thought and debate and replace it with conscripted indoctrination. In the book, school curriculum is shortened, academic discipline is relaxed, and subjects such as philosophy and history are dropped. Children are removed from their home environment as early as possible in life, so that they can develop in the controlled state-sanctioned environment of the public school. Content focuses exclusively on teaching how to press buttons and pulling switches, never on how to think. Looking around at our public education system and colleges today, you get the feeling academia stole the playbook from Bradbury’s world.
  • How the ‘tyranny of the majority’ will drive an open society without protections for the minority into an oppressive one. Fahrenheit 451 reminds us that calcification to the majority (or, for that matter, the ability of the minority to stamp out thought) is an enemy of truth, the individual, and reason. Today, it is what we call ‘cancel culture,’ except it is now a majority of the minority of elites who decide for the masses what is truth and reason.
  • How society is broken down into two categories: those who build and those who burn. Montag lived in a society where the makers (builder/thinker/doer) were dulled and overcome by the takers (bureaucrat/thought police/administrator). Today’s administrative state in government, the academic complex, and key special interests are steadily subsuming those who create, enable, and serve free enterprise and value creation. Might we be much closer to Montag’s time than we realize?

Although Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 for America in the 1950s, he succeeded in providing us a piercing reminder of the need to safeguard freedoms in 2021. A wise character in the book, Faber, listed three essential reasons why books are important. First, quality books present imperfections and blemishes that mimic life, at times making books feared. Second, good books extract leisure time to induce the reader to think. And third, great books inspire and catalyze action.

Fahrenheit 451 scores on all three of Faber’s essential reasons. We should be grateful that Ray Bradbury invested 98 dimes in the UCLA library basement and his time to express his passion for literature and individual freedom. The rate of return on that investment is incalculable.

Hilton Head Island Reflections and Observations

Our family recently wrapped-up that American summertime ritual of the week-long gathering at a coastal sandbar by the ocean. For my clan, the location of choice for some time has been Hilton Head Island, specifically on the southern end in the Sea Pines community.

In the interests of fair disclosure: I am not a golfer, I spend my days in places like these trying to avoid direct sun, and I will tire of a pool or beach within half an hour. So, in many respects, the week of summer seaside fun is not the place for me. But if the kids are happy, everyone is together, and the food is good, I am all in.

Plus, as a bonus, a week at Hilton Head offers enjoyable and entertaining pursuits for me; they are just unconventional to most beach vacationers. I enjoy observing, contemplating what I see, and then expressing my thoughts through writing. The summer of 2021 and Hilton Head combined to offer up a bevy of observations.

Observation #1: Humans Taming Nature Brings Good Tidings

The first thing that always strikes me about the island is how unforgiving and unusable the place would be without human ingenuity unleashing technology to tame the environment. The place in its natural state is a humid, hot, swampy, stormy, insect-infested ecosystem that makes quick work of the weak, structures, and order. But you walk Hilton Head’s streets and ride its trails, and all you see is beauty: in the manicured lawns, impressive homes, sculpted trees, and carefully designed water features.

The irony that strikes the observer is that those who are drawn to Hilton Head Island view the natural beauty of the place as the primary attraction. Yet a simple and superficial examination betrays a carefully created and cultivated environment that retained the best that nature had to offer (local horticulture), removed the problematic aspects of nature (standing, putrid water), and insulated from the uncontrollable aspects (weather).

Looking around the island, you see the human condition rising above what nature dealt and creating something superior. That makes people happy, and me smile.

Observation #2: Without Carbon, No One Would Be Here
Hilton Head Island’s existence, and that of all tropical locales, depends on carbon. It’s a simple truth: no carbon, no Hilton Head Island.

Why? Well, first off, one could not travel from whatever northern or midwestern city serves as home. And consider the fact that just about everything consumed on the island must be grown, processed, and manufactured somewhere else. All of that requires carbon-based energy, including what it takes to transport the goods to the island.

The electricity that powers the air conditioners 24 hours a day in the summer is largely carbon-based and natural gas-fired. You would not want a wind- or solar-based power grid running climate control in the Carolina Low Country. It would mean stifling indoor temperatures, to the point where you’d be better off staying home up north.

If there is a zero-carbon world awaiting us, the last place you’d want to own real estate or spend a summer week is at a place like Hilton Head. I suspect many northeasterners who vacation down south are oblivious to such realities. Let’s hope they don’t awaken to the reality the hard way, via nonsensical policies.

Observation #3: How to Differentiate Between the 10%, the 1%, and the 0.1%

A place like Sea Pines on Hilton Head provides a quick and easy way to instantly differentiate between the 10% well to do, the 1% rich, and 0.1% ultra-wealthy. Just look at the real estate and who is there. Here is a quick breakdown:

  • If someone is renting a house in Sea Pines during peak summer season, chances are they are doing well and fall within the upper 10% of the economic crust. Weekly rates on the southern end of the island can run as high as $14,000 per week, depending on the size of the home and its proximity to the ocean. Demand is high; if you want to secure your house for your week, you better commit early (in many instances you need to commit the prior year).
  • Now, if someone owns the home in Sea Pines and rents it out during peak season, you are likely dealing with someone in the upper 1% of the wealth spectrum. Basically, the top 1% is the landlord for the top 10% weekly tenants in places like Hilton Head. Surprisingly, many homeowners in this group don’t seem to care much about the physical condition of the home; for some the home is nothing more than a revenue generator that can be enjoyed for free in offseason.
  • Then there is the 0.1% at the tippy-top of the money ladder who own the impressive estate down that is unoccupied most of summer. These are the super wealthy that don’t rent their residences out because, well, they don’t need to. Undoubtedly, the estate here is one of a number they own. So instead of heading down here in summer when its peak season, hot, and busy, they come down in the offseason to escape New York, Boston, or some other large northern city winter.

Observation #4: The Weekly Collision of Doers and Slackers

Hilton Head is typical of many seaside resort communities by offering a stark contrast when it comes to the those on the island any weekday in the summer. There are two distinct groups: those who are on vacation and do nothing but engage in various forms of relaxation and those who are intensely working to maintain, serve, or build the economic ecosystem that is the resort.

It’s always been weird for me when vacationing at these types of locales. Families on bikes, eating out, laying on the beach, and sleeping late. Versus dedicated workers building houses, maintaining lawns, running restaurants, and working 50+ hours per week. One group riding bikes and driving SUVs. The other driving pickups and vans. Both groups going about their day as if the other group is invisible.

I like the vibe of economic activity; doers showing up every day and getting it done. Earning income, providing for their families, and building a life. The local economy in the Low Country is the free market working to create value across the economic spectrum. The free exchanging of value between those who desire leisure and those who provide it. At least for the week, until the vacationers return to their jobs; creating, enabling, and serving to create value.

Observation #5: How the Drive Down and Back Covers the Spectrum of Government

The drive from Pennsylvania to South Carolina offers the opportunity to see how different states approach the role of government and the taxpayer. Toll roads serve as a great illustration.

In Pennsylvania, once a toll road is created, it lives on in eternity. And the cost of the toll continues to go up. It doesn’t matter if the initial justification was to pay for a discrete infrastructure project and now the project is paid off. It doesn’t matter if the tolls are egregious. It doesn’t matter if the road is poorly maintained. The tolls in Pennsylvania live on year after year, dollar after dollar, and mile after mile.

This is not cheap. A round trip on the Pennsylvania Turnpike between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg (spanning about 2/3 of the state’s length) will run you just under $100. Drivers were hit with yet another rate increase in 2021. And the PA Turnpike had the dubious distinction of being rated the most expensive toll road in the world. One may wonder where all that toll money ends up.

The bureaucrat’s justification for the driver extortion is to fund statewide road maintenance, yet the Keystone State’s road system remains in overall poor condition year after year. Instead, the answer, of course, is to primarily feed the bureaucracy of government and its affiliates like the public unions. In Pennsylvania, government only grows, which means tolls only rise while the condition of the roads degrade. And the number of roads that will require toll payment within the Keystone State is increasing.

North Carolina’s abuse of taxpayers and drivers is not as bad as Pennsylvania, but it is getting there. The major highways into and out of Charlotte are now split between toll express lanes and normal lanes. That means traffic congestion is self-inflicted by government on those drivers not willing to be extorted; the toll lanes are wide open and the normal lanes are clogged in traffic jams most hours of the day. Government creates the congestion to grow its revenue base, drivers pay the price directly (through the toll or longer commute times) and the economy pays the price indirectly through lost productivity.

South Carolina is a different story. The Palmetto State has a law that states once a toll road pays off its project financing, the toll booths must come down and the road becomes free and open access. That’s exactly what happened recently on Hilton Head with the Cross Island Parkway: once its final bond payment was paid, access became free and the toll booths will come down.

The drive to and from this year’s vacation illustrates the difference between government serving the people and the people serving government. The former makes you feel relevant while the latter makes you feel used.

Observation #6: Doesn’t Look Like Climate Change is a Top Concern

Up and down the island, you see a building boom. The few remaining vacant lots being staked out for massive, new homes. Older homes are being bought, torn down, and replaced with new houses having three times as much square footage as the predecessors. The closer to the water, the better.

Island real estate values seem to go only in one direction: up. The Fed’s free money policy inflates and pumps real estate values to bubble levels. Buy it, build it, remodel it, rent it, flip it. Repeat over and over (at least until the music stops).

The building boom and dizzying real estate property price increases tell you that no one believes the island is about to be submerged under rising ocean levels. Yes, hurricanes will inevitably hit the island periodically. But building codes and a few rational design features on the homes will make them quite resilient to withstand all but the most severe of storms.

The community of Hilton Head, along with so many other coastal destinations, figured out that increasing atmospheric CO2 levels made its tourism economy possible. Whatever challenges climate may serve up should be manageable over time. Permanent evacuation of the island and resettling to higher ground is not going to be necessary anytime soon. Perhaps the UN’s IPCC bureaucrats should take note.

Conclusion

Human ingenuity, technological innovation, and the free market economy make places like Hilton Head Island possible. These wonderous drivers make the useless and inhospitable valuable and inviting. The more we do to protect these quality of life catalysts, the better chance our kids and grandchildren will enjoy their fruits for decades to come.