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‘Bain-focals’ put profit-driven presidency into sharp focus


Among the millions who will be affected by the 2012 presidential election are dozens of high school students who won’t have to write the essays I would have assigned if I were still teaching.

For this former English teacher, the 2012 presidential election would have been a dream-come-true. Not since 1932, when the Depression gripped the country, has an election been so laden with symbolism, so fraught with meaning.

“I know,” my students used to sigh, “you want to know what it MEANS!”  I did and do.  Right now I want to know how the challenger views the country and its future, but given as he is to saying anything that will please the audience of the moment, one has to get below the surface to find the bedrock of his intent.  I may have found a way.  It’s a literary thing:  my students would have recognized it as point of view.

Think of the U.S. Postal Service and its current travails.  It’s a cautionary tale we should take to heart.   The requirement to fund 75 years of potential pensions in only 10 years, which the 2006 lame-duck Congress foisted on our USPS, is strangling it.  No other enterprise in the country, public or private, bears such an impossible, $6 billion a year burden.  Without legislative relief the USPS will die.  Tens, if not hundreds of thousands will lose their jobs and the fine service we’ve been accustomed to for centuries will disappear.  Who could possibly want that to happen?

The only way I can make sense out of what we’ve done to the Postal Service is to put on my Bain-focals, lenses that resolve all complex situations into simple dollar signs.  Wearing Bain-focals clears things up because through them consideration of the common good no longer exists, public service disappears from view, workers and their concerns become invisible and all that remains is the heady vision of private profit for the few.  To anyone looking through Bain-glasses, the Post Office’s problems are no problem at all.  They’re glorious opportunity.

What my Bain-focals see in a Post Office demise is billions of beautiful dollars:  profitable routes auctioned off to the highest private bidder, a vast infrastructure — vehicles, sorting centers and technology, office buildings sold piece by piece.  It’s the Bain way and it works.  The stacks of money it has made for Bain’s partners are irrefutable proof of its effectiveness.

Bain Capital has made hundreds of millions scavenging businesses down on their luck.  Usually with borrowed money, the Bain partners take control of an ailing business, shed its obligations to its workers through bankruptcy, stick the taxpayers for promised pensions and sell what remains of the carcass for parts.  At the prospect of what a Bain presidency could do for a whole country, corporations and private equity managers must be drooling, for in a Romney presidency it’s not just the post office that will get the Bain treatment.

Our public schools have already had a taste of what that Bain treatment would mean.  The effort to corporatize public education has been around since Reagan’s presidency and has accelerated in the last decade.  In the twin names of improved student performance and financial efficiency, charter schools, both public and private, first galloped to the rescue in the late 1980’s.  Though their numbers have grown, studies have shown time and again that charter schools offer no magic bullet.  If they can’t select their students, their test scores are seldom better than those of similar public schools and are often worse.

More recently, for thousands of students across the country private on-line charter schools have replaced classrooms and public school teachers.  These remote, pre-packaged programs, overseen by a teacher equally remote, have an even worse record.   Except in one area.  Their test scores are low and their dropout rate is high, but their profit is stupendous.  They are immensely successful at siphoning public money into private hands.  Seen through Bain-focals, private on-line schools work just fine.

And because workers’ organizations get in the way of profit, unions aren’t in this picture either.  The right to bargain, already contested in multiple states, even here in Washington, becomes moot if the workers themselves are eliminated and the enterprise they supported starved to nothing and sold for scrap.  For postal workers and teachers, that’s what a Bain future would bring.

First the post office.  Then the schools.  In a whole country there’s so much low-hanging fruit to harvest.  Our public lands?  Our roads and parks?  It’s hard to say for sure.  Perhaps peering through Bain-focals for so long has strained my eyes and my spirit and it’s time to give them both a rest.

So I’ll close my eyes for a while and think with some regret of all those essays I cannot assign and that will not be written.  It’s too bad, for this year’s election presents a perfect prompt for thinking and writing about what things really mean, truly a teacher’s dream-come-true.

What I could regret even more, though, is our future should the wrong candidate win.  Seen through anything but Bain-focals, that dream would be a nightmare.

Ken Winkes is a retired teacher and high school principal.

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