The political right could not buy the Presidential election, but maybe they can still try to buy the next generation.
On November 12, 2012, Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winning economist from Princeton and op-ed columnist for The New York Times, sharply criticized “deficit scolds” who have been trying to shape the debate in the United States over federal economic policy by threatening that the country will fall over a “fiscal cliff” unless Congress and the President agree to severely cut social service programs.
According to Krugman, “At a time of mass unemployment and record-low borrowing costs, a time when economic theory said we needed more, not less, deficit spending, the scolds convinced most of our political class that deficits rather than jobs should be our top economic priority. And now that the election is over, they’re trying to pick up where they left off.”
Krugman accused the “deficit scolds” of economically being “wrong about everything.” He believes they are not really interested in fiscal responsibility and warns that they are actually promoting a right-wing political agenda that wants to decimate the social safety net in the United States, especially Medicare and Medicaid.
Krugman identified the lead player in this pseudo-economic political campaign as David Walker, former C.E.O. of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Krugman called Walker the “most visible deficit scold in America” and labeled the Peterson Foundation the major funding source for the right-wing campaign.
I was not surprised to discover that David Walker and the Peterson Foundation were behind a new, widely distributed, high school economics curriculum, that purports to be non-partisan, but in its vocabulary and the material in presents to students tries legitimize the views of Krugman’s “deficit scolds.”
A cover letter introducing the curriculum is signed by Susan Fuhrman, President of Teachers College, Columbia University. Fuhrman describes the economics curriculum as “research-based” and “inquiry driven,” designed to connect students “to the complex policy choices that confront the United States and its citizens” and “mold” them into future citizens who can make “informed choices and decisions based on a more sophisticated understanding of long-term costs and consequences for society.”
Curiously, this “research-based” curriculum” did not list Krugman or Columbia’s Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz on its “Understanding Fiscal Responsibility Team” or its Advisory Board. In fact, the only professional economist I could identify on either the “team” or “advisory board,” Henry Levin, is actually a Professor of Education whose area of interest is the privatization of education, not the federal budget. I was also uncomfortable with Fuhrman’s idea of molding students, something I find incompatible with the idea of engaging them in inquiry.
Evidently, Walker and the Peterson Foundation decided that in order to shape the political debate in the future they have to win over high school students who will soon begin voting. They gave a three-year, $2.45 million grant to Teachers College at Columbia University to develop a high school economics curriculum that they call “Understanding Fiscal Responsibility.” It is supposed to be a non-partisan curriculum that “teaches students to think past the political rhetoric they hear about the economic challenges we face as a nation and learn to think for themselves.”
To promote the plan, free copies of selections from the curriculum package have been distributed to 18,000 high school principals, 6,000 school superintendents, and 10,000 social studies teachers to promote the plan. The goal of the project is to eventually involve 40,000 high schools across the country. Meanwhile, the full curriculum with supporting material is available online.
According to a release from Teachers College the "Understanding Fiscal Responsibility" curriculum consists of twenty-four lesson plans covering information about taxation, debt, and deficit. The vocabulary of the sample lessons suggests that students will be introduced to the technical language needed to understand the present debate. The reality is that the political right is using the lessons to shape the terms of the debate itself.
Over and over again the lessons focus on costs and trade-offs, but do not involve students in a discussion of the responsibility of government to meet the needs of people or the purpose of government and society. The forward to the curriculum says it will “help students cut through the partisan obfuscation of both sides” and understand the “accounting identity” that there is “no free lunch.” But by suggesting that the poor, Occupy Wall Street, and liberals want free lunch, the curriculum is identifying, not with accounting principals, but with right-wing rhetoric.
Sample lessons show how social security, Medicare, and foreign aid contribute to the national debt, but not how tax policy and Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy or military expenditures are responsible. Lesson 1 claims to explore “What costs and trade-offs are we willing to accept to ensure the benefits of income security to Social Security recipients?”, but among the options students are asked to consider is whether social security is a “Ponzi scheme.” Setting up the debate this way is akin to requiring students consider creationism in a discussion of biological evolution.
In none of the sample lessons did I see a “guns versus butter” discussion or a reference to the quote by former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. that “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society."
And "socialist alternatives" such universal free health care and higher education as offered in many European countries, of course, are not options even worth considering.