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Reforming to preserve: An interview with Peter Brimelow
By Bernard Chapin
Peter Brimelow is a name well-known in conservative circles but the sheer variety of his positions would surprise many. Currently, he is an editor at VDARE.com, he is also President of the Center for American Unity, a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, and, lastly, a columnist for CBS Market Watch (no small achievement for a conservative).
The books he has produced document the range of his interests. In 1986, he published The Wall Street Gurus: How You Can Profit From Investment Newsletters, and in 1987 he released The Patriot Game: Canada and the Canadian Question Revisited. His 1995 work, Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster, is often sited in reference to this painfully topical subject. Last year's The Worm In The Apple: How The Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education has undoubtedly made him the right kind of enemies.
Brimelow came to our shores from England and perhaps this is the reason why he so acutely appreciates the uniqueness of America and why its cultural integrity must be preserved. As far as his own personal education, he received a B.A. from the University of Sussex and a M.B.A. from Stanford University Graduate School of Business. He is also a Fulbright Award winner.
BC: Mr. Brimelow, your book from last year, The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education, is a powerful indictment of the current state of our schools. For those who may be unfamiliar with your work, how many of our problems are due to the socialist, non-competitive structure of the status quo? How quickly would we see our schools improve if Congress was to enact, and the courts were to approve, a nationwide system of vouchers for all American parents?
PB: Generally, the problem with K-12 education is socialism and the solution is capitalism. I used to say the real victims of the government school system are not the kids, who are relatively impervious, but the teachers, who are like serfs in the Russian Empire, tied to the land with no individual incentives or hope. But one of the things I show in WORM is that the system results in endlessly escalating costs, quite apart from the question of what good its educational output is. So I'd have to say the most important victim is the taxpayer.
If you're going to have a public subsidy to education, vouchers are clearly a better way of delivering it. They should result in some loosening up and privatization of the government school system. Of course, if you leave the teacher union in its legally privileged position, it will attempt to capture any resulting private sector schools. And there are other problems, especially with a federal voucher program. Tax credits might be better. But, unlike many libertarians, I still think vouchers, while only a start, are distinctly better than nothing.
BC: Does the amount of money we spend inversely correlate with the quality of education provided? I ask this because of the huge increase in real dollars we have poured into the schools since the sixties and our widespread dissatisfaction with its results.
PB: Sure, there's no particular relationship between spending and educational results. Most "education" spending is actually on salaries, and that's allocated according to political muscle. Why should it have anything to do with results?
BC: I personally am a member of the National Education Association. Last year I spent $542.20 on union dues. I have been told that only $10.00 of this amount is earmarked for political purposes. Do you, from your research, believe that this is an accurate estimate? Do we have any way of knowing how much of my wages are spent supporting political candidates and resisting change wherever it should arise?
PB: They're slippery, you know? Probably they're referring to their actual donations to campaigns through their Political Action Committees. It's hard to track because of their hydra-like structure, but I estimate donations amounted to about $50 million in the 1992 cycle -- about one in every ten dollars spent by all PACs, but of course only a fraction the NEA complex's total revenues, which are well over $1 billion.
But the real point is that a large part of that $1 billion-plus budget is also political expenditure. For example, the NEA itself reports to the regulators that 33 per cent-40 per cent of its expenditures are unrelated to collective bargaining. It maintains commissars in every congressional district -- the so-called UniServe representatives. Much of their time is spent directly on political organization, limbering up the local liberals, smearing taxpayer groups and so on. So you're looking at hundreds of millions. The Landmark Institute in Virginia is engaged in litigation against the NEA on this issue, which will tell us a lot more.
If you think about it, the entire raison d'etre of the National Education Association is political. It's engaged in what economists call "rent-seeking" -- using political and institutional power to extract "rents," money, from society at large. They don't sit around talking about education. Text book publishers don't even bother to advertise at their conventions. The whole operation is political. That's why I argue it should be renamed the "National Extortion Association."
BC: Do you believe that the teacher unions knowingly sabotage measures that will benefit students because such reforms could undermine teacher job security? Also, is there a shortage of teachers in this country? Is it true they are underpaid?
PB: 1] I don't know how you'd define "knowingly," but the teacher unions are an interest group that acts in defense of their own interests -- which means the union bosses' interests, not the members. It's just systemically inevitable when you allow unionization in a monopoly industry with forced consumption in the shape of compulsory attendance laws. You've destroyed all checks and balances.
2] There are chronic shortages and gluts among teachers, it's one of the symptoms of socialism I identify in WORM. You saw the same thing in the Soviet economy. Of course, the system won't allow special salaries for math and science teachers, who are sometimes said to be in short supply, you have to increase salaries across the board. It's hopeless.
3] I think good teachers are underpaid. They should be able to leverage up, using technology, and earn multiples of what they do now. And why can't teachers end up owning schools, the way waiters can open their own restaurants?
Conversely, in a free market, many teachers would earn much less, but they might very well be part-timers. Overall, I think we spend too much on K-12 education a.k.a. teachers salaries. It's the only industry where you never see any productivity increases.
BC: In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, it was suggested that the Democratic Party are the representatives of the education providers (teachers and school districts) whereas the Republican Party are the representatives of the education consumers (parents and students). Would you agree with this statement?
It's true about the Democrats. I think the Republicans are subverted by the fact that so many of their leaders send their kids to private schools, they don't really have the stomach for the fight. Curiously, the unrepresented constituency is the taxpayer. I guess this reflects the fact that both parties are really wings of the Permanent Government Party.
BC: You have another book out, Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster. I guess the inevitable question, in light of recent events, is whether there is any common sense coming out of Washington today regarding this matter? Do you think that unmitigated immigration will result, in the words of Pat Buchanan, in "the death of the West?"
PB: Well, the Bush proposals are mad, totally nuts, they will simply flood America with Third Worlders and result in its becoming like Brazil. I suppose the White House thinks it's doing what Big Business wants, but it will lead to vastly increased taxes -- because all these guest workers are to be allowed to bring their children -- and my observation of businessmen (I've been a financial journalist for 30 years) is that they do get worried if they think society is going up in flames, which it will.
Of course Buchanan is right. A nation is an organic thing. This type of mass influx is simply too much to handle. What we've had already, since the disaster of the 1965 Immigration Act, will take a hundred years or more to absorb.
BC: What are some possible solutions to the immigration disaster? Are there more than thirty senators and congressman who even have the heart to label the flow over our borders "a crisis"?
PB: My guess is that it will break the party system and a new party will emerge, as it did in the 1850s – the American Party, which morphed into the GOP.
But it's also true that there's great discontent about immigration, even among legislators. It took a lot of lying and manipulation for the immigration enthusiasts to defeat Smith-Simpson bill, quite a reasonable reduction proposal, in 1996. I think politicians would probably move to defang the issue, if it wasn't for the White House and the ethnic lobbies. That's why immigration enthusiasts are so hysterical, they know they can't afford to give an inch.
BC: What's your assessment of President Bush? Would you say that there is now a tremendous amount of ideological space between whom we refer to as conservatives and whom we refer to as Republicans?
PB: I think Bush's immigration proposal is treason and he should be impeached. I think the Iraq War is not particularly tailored to American interests. I think Bush has capitulated on affirmative action and government spending. Apart from that, he's OK, I guess. About the same as Howard Dean.
The American Conservative Movement is over, partly because it's become an auxiliary of the Republican Party. The whole story could be told in terms of the rise, fall and putrescence of National Review. But, hey, nothing grows to the sky. There will be a successor movement. Right now it's nascent.
BC: You are part of an editorial collective known as VDARE.com and you've won yourself many readers due to your willingness to examine politically incorrect issues from which others run. Unfortunately, this has made you some enemies not only on the left but on the right as well. Tell me, where do you stand in the debate between neo-conservatives and paleo-conservatives? Here's something I just though of, could there be something of a class element behind this intra-conservative feud?
PB: Well, the real boneheads are the libertarians, distressing to me because I've written so much about markets as a financial journalist. I except the paleolibertarians, such as the Mises Institutive, they do think about the metamarket, the cultural and other pre-requisites for successful markets.
I regard many of the neoconservatives as personal friends, but that's not stopped them and their satellites from behaving with extraordinary viciousness towards those of us who raised the immigration issue. They've made no attempt to debate the issue in good faith or in a collegial manner. Plus, of course, you have to draw some conclusion from the remarkable number of political firings of immigration critics -- Sam Francis, John O'Sullivan and myself at National Review, Scott McConnell. I don't know if that makes me a paleoconservative but it's certainly got my attention.
I'd have to think about your point about a class element. There's certainly a regional element -- paleoconservatives are not as metropolitan -- and of course an ethnic element.
Thank you for your time and wisdom, Mr. Brimelow.
Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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