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Quality-Managing the Country

Publication Date: 2008-03-31

from Chronicle of Higher Education, March 31, 2008.

Think about what Quality Management has meant in the classroom: DIBELS in kindergarten and absence of novels in middle school.

News flash today: the number of folks on food stamps in Ohio alone has doubled since 2001, now at over 1.1 million. There’s more: Another half-million are eligible but aren’t enrolled. One reason they aren’t enrolled? What they get is about $1 per meal, or a little more than a thousand bucks a year.

How’d that happen?

Quality management.

Ever since the first Clinton came to office, we’ve had bipartisan agreement that the quality management of everything â€" the military, municipalities, colleges, philanthropies â€" was going to magically reduce expenditures and raise revenue by encouraging market orientation and market behaviors. All we needed was better, leaner leadership in ever stronger control of institutional mission.

With quality, we’ve achieved wonderful “efficiencies” by driving down wages and benefits, with the result that many folks who are employed are homeless and/or eligible for food stamps. And because the food-stamp giving bureaucracy is also quality-managed, there isn’t a whole lot of actual feeding of the poor going on. Any more than the quality management of FEMA was about disaster relief, or the quality management of the war in Iraq has been about providing armor to soldiers.

The country’s achieved greater executive control of mission than ever before â€" and that’s been just dandy, hasn’t it?

Makes you wonder whether our institutions might not function better with less “quality management” and more democratic impedimenta like senates and unions.

Greater executive control has meant more responsiveness to the needs of the shareholder class â€" military contracts; lowered wages and benefits; record profits, endowments, and accumulation of fixed capital in buildings and grounds. Greater executive control hasn’t meant greater control to contradict the shareholder class, just greater freedom to meet their needs. When the shareholders’ needs are met, the executive class has been "free" to reward itself handsomely and to lock itself behind the guns of $10-an-hour security guards in their gated communities.

But quality management hasn’t been so great for the rest of us. We've quality-managed ourselves into world-historical, staggering economic and educational inequality. We've quality-managed the judiciary into the largest prison population on the planet. And don't get me started on the quality management of health care, which, if you don't read the papers outside of the United States, is an international joke: we are the dolts who cannot deal with social problems without imprisoning our underclass, which is actually good for them because prison is where our underclass receives its education and health care. But we believe our own propaganda and are amusingly convinced that we’re the global city on the hill.

Amazing how unwilling the rest of the globe has been to follow our quality leadership.

What the Bush mob has taught us is that "quality leadership" only works in undemocratic circumstances â€" when you've rigged the laws against labor, the poor, the intellectuals, the young, and the old; when you have underlings to do difficult things for you, like remember the name of the dictator of Pakistan; when you have all of the “assessment instruments” churning out self-adulatory metrics.

Perhaps it's time we tried a dose of democracy. Not the "sense of participation" kind, either. The participation kind.

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