Venezuelan army helicopters fly over the Sierra de Perija national park, where poppy and marijuana plants are often discovered.
Scheer: I want to ask about an economic point. I don’t know if you want to talk about it, but the bailout of, say, the airlines, or things like that, where the government ends up having to support the private sector. I mean, couldn’t that money better serve by not doing that and going somewhere and building subways, or is it important that the government help out the private?
Duster: I don’t think that it’s an either/or; I mean there’s so much money that’s available and we can see that from the Iraq war. We’re talking about 120 billion here, 80 billion there, 60 billion there. That kind of resources, that kind of money, could be used for both. I’m happy to bail out some corporations that are flying airplanes because we all fly, we want to have them support it. Look around the world; many airlines do have public support. I think we should applaud that. Alright, the French and the Dutch and other nations help their airlines. Even the auto industries in some countries are supported by the government. I’m not opposed to government support for the private sector; I just think that we have come to the point where we don’t think that the public sector could be the solution to these massive public problems that we’re having.
Scheer: The war on drugs obviously became a popular war. There were other things like going in and saying movies are terrible or any of that kind of thing. What is going to make these people change their mind, what’s going to make politicians, or are they ever going to change their mind, or are they always going to follow that market flow?
Duster: I think that being opposed to crime in favor of truth and beauty and justice is always going to sell, until it doesn’t. And that’s what I meant by the crisis. I think politicians are going to use the drug war ad infinitum; they’re going to use it over and over again. They’re going to become tough on crime. I mean, imagine someone coming out saying, well, the big issues that confront us in Oakland today have to do with what’s behind the crime rate as opposed to simply saying we’re going out on the streets to get these kids to stop killing each other.
Harris: I look at the shift of public to private school—privatization in a very different sense. My kid can’t get a quality education in a public school; I can afford it, I send him to private school. Problem solved. Meanwhile, the public sector is dying, it’s overcrowded, it’s overflowed. The public sector has no resources, no funding to rebuild this, meanwhile the private school, the private resources, are flourishing. Is it, on some level, our failure as a public to address public problems together that will end all of this? What do you think about that?
Duster: Well, you put your finger on the problem. It’s a massive failure of public imagination. People with resources can literally buy services they can privatize. And you’re quite right that education is the key example here. Whether it’s a college education, where if you have enough money you can send your kid off to one of these fancy private schools, and you can say why should I be supporting public education, but it happens at the public school level all over the country. In the last 30 to 40 years, once again this goes back to my opening remarks about Sidney Willhelm. Back in the 1960s, it’s only about 45 years, but in that period, most American cities were mainly white. And, if you’ve seen the graphics in the last 30 years, it’s stunning what’s happened in most American cities. That is, how much people of color have come to dominate the demographics. Well, in that same period, public support out of Washington for cities has declined. There’s some figures that I saw, something about 25 percent of the budget of our major cities was coming from federal support back in the ‘60s. It’s down to about 2 and 3 percent. And that’s directly a function, I’m not going to say it’s caused by, but let’s say it’s related to the shifting demography of the cities. So as you see the increasing colorization of Los Angeles, you see the decreasing support from the public sector. Washington does not support Los Angeles as it did in 1960. I think 24 percent was Washington-based in the ‘60s, and now it’s down to an infinitesimal amount, so yeah, I think this is all about the ways in which [Americans] robbed the public sector because people who are able to afford to send their kids to private school in Los Angeles do so. L.A. Unified School District, last time I looked, was something like 92 percent minority. What’s wrong with that frame? What’s wrong with that notion, minority?
Harris: When did public stop being cool, when did it stop being cool and OK to care about your public library, your public school, your public partnerships with friends?
Scheer: I think it also has to do with the public school. ... There are public schools that do thrive. But a lot of it comes from the support of the neighborhood. If there is a rich neighborhood, they can put more money in the public school. You see that in Orange County [Calif.], you see that where money is flowing. That they will, a lot of the funds for the public schools are coming from private citizens who want the public schools to thrive, and when you don’t have any money in the community those public schools are going to fall apart because there is no one watching the store.
Duster: You know I like to keep the big picture, you guys are on to something big here. You take a look at what [Bill] Moyers has been saying. He has done some great stuff talking about what is happening in this country. Maybe what happened in FDR in the 1930s was the little blip on the screen, and if you look at the big picture from 1870 to 1930, it was really all about corporate society and how big money controlled things. And then we had a Great Depression, and great shock, and a war, and the combination provided the public sector with the capacity to move in and do something. Now, what Moyers is saying, and he has a lot of evidence to support it, that in the last 20 years is what you’ve got is people back in positions of authority and power in Washington who are saying “let’s roll back the New Deal; let’s roll back what happened with the 1930s, let’s cut back taxes.” And the assault upon the public sector is not simply a blip on the screen. It’s a huge issue. It’s programmatic assault which has been orchestrated in the last 30 years. So what we’re hearing over and over again, from the Milton Friedmans of the world, is that the issue is only about markets, and anything that is public is the problem. But that’s such a mindless formulation, but that’s the Nobel Prize of economics.
Scheer: I want to get back to the public schools a little bit. I’ve gone to both public and private and I think sometimes you see the teachers in the public schools—they need a little imagination too. I think that the whole system being reading, writing, arithmetic, the teachers need something to have imagination. There has to be an overall shift, do you think, where you’re teaching other things besides a standardized kind of way about it?
Duster: No doubt. Here’s the situation at least from one perspective on the schools. When you pay people a very minimal salary, and you keep them in those jobs for a long time, guess what happens? Now, despite that we have dedication on the part of many schoolteachers, but in terms of the whole system, what you’re going to see is people shifting away from that into other areas of the economy. And so, some of the best people are still in the schools but they aren’t challenged by this whole issue around how much money they can make. I’ve seen my students at Berkeley, and later at NYU, who start off idealistic about education. And they take a look around theme at what’s happening, and they wind up going to law school.