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Floorboards creak overhead and I roll over, pulling the blankets over my shoulder. What time is it? Where am I? It comes to me, slowly: my parents’ basement, my sister getting ready for work, too early for me to be awake. The front door closes – a jingle of bells, a soft and satisfying reverberation carries down into the basement.

It’s surprisingly cold here in Brantford. Yesterday was -20°C in morning; it’s much colder than my brief stopover in Reykjavik, and a more bitter and brighter world than the 10°C gloominess of Brussels’ winter. The biting wind doesn’t stop kids from playing hockey on the rink behind my house. Their sticks slap the ice and echo across the frozen park. 

 

I’m not shocked by the morning news in The Guardian: “A report by Credit Suisse [2017 – BD] found that the world’s richest 1% people have seen their share of the globe’s total wealth increase from 42.5% at the height of the 2008 financial crisis to 50.1% in 2017, or $140tn.”

World’s richest person? Jeff Bezos. “His fortune has increased by $34.2bn so far this year to take his ‘net worth’ to $99.6bn. On just one day in October Bezos’s fortune increased by $10.3bn, when Amazon posted profits much higher than analysts had expected and the company’s shares spiked.”

What I’m reading in The Guardian contrasts so perfectly with the morning news shows on TV (I don’t have cable TV in Brussels). Prince Harry interviews Obama and asks whether it’s boxers or briefs. Stay tuned. Another channel has one of those compulsively watchable house renovation shows. A husband and wife team scours Nashville for properties to renovate and flip. One house is so in tatters that the wife says, “Nobody but an investor would take this on.”

The show runs on extracting profit. Can we sell this for more than the cost of purchasing it and renovations? Our eye becomes attuned to spotting potential investments, surgically taking away and adding aesthetic fixes to attract customers. Everything is completed with the right staging furniture (sold separately).

This logic of extraction dominates education, though it takes place in more covert terms. Here’s one typical passage: 

“As a result of adopting national standards, schools will produce a homogenous group of individuals with the same abilities, skills, and knowledge. Such a result will be disastrous to America and Americans because as globalization and technology continue to change the world, America needs a citizenry of creative individuals with a wide range of talents to sustain its tradition of innovation. Americans need talents and abilities that are not available at a lower price elsewhere on earth.” 

Sometimes speakers forget to erase the blatant American nationalism when they bring their presentations to audiences in Canada or Europe. But even if you manage to scrub those references out, there’s still that division between the high-wage and low-wage, the here and elsewhere, creative innovation and devastating precarity.  

That’s an important and true story about the division of wealth between the global north and the global south, but there are also increasingly strong internal divisions of wealth within countries, the United States in particular. The UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, has this to say about the United States on DemocracyNow:

“Whether it’s child mortality rates, whether it’s the longevity of adults, whether it’s the degree of adequacy of healthcare, the United States is very close to the bottom on all of these. What’s really surprising is that when I go to other countries, the big debate is that ‘We don’t have the money. We can’t afford to provide basic services to these people.’ And yet, in the United States, they’ve got a trillion or a trillion and a half to give to the very rich [in tax cuts], but they also don’t have any of the money to provide a basic lifestyle that is humane for 40 million Americans.”

The story about innovation and creativity in a globalised world excludes those who live in increasing precarity even as global wealth rises. In Canada, 51% of First Nations children live in poverty. The children of immigrants (32%) and racialised minorities (22%) also experience poverty levels higher than those children who are non-racialised (13%). The report continues:

“The shameful reality in Canada is that devastatingly high child poverty on reserves is getting worse, not better,” says David Macdonald Senior Economist with the CCPA. “Despite recent attempts at reconciliation concerning abuse in residential schools, we are risking a new lost generation of Indigenous youth who are growing up in unconscionable poverty.”

I sometimes wonder how things would change if we took all the energy we put into worrying about educational rankings and improvement and put it into talking about poverty – the deeply racialised poverty and precarity – that inevitably accompanies the wealth that comes from flipping investments, from extracting profits, from creating more millionaires and billionaires. 

Imagine that we banned the words ‘innovation’, ’creativity’, and ‘entrepreneurs’ from educational discourse and instead mandated we talk about ‘racism’, ‘precarity’, and ‘the working poor’? I’m not sure that it would sell many books or support the services of many consultants. I don’t mean to dismiss the very real and troubling inequalities between different schools, but I do think they take on a different significance if they are seen within the context of neglected social infrastructure and racialised poverty instead of from the vantage point of looking for the next Jeff Bezos, shiningly unique – and thus valuable – compared to the “homogenous group of individuals with the same abilities, skills, and knowledge.” 

Cosmetic fixes and consumer choices (boxers or briefs? asks Harry. Obama refuses to answer) are compulsively watchable and fit nicely into fixer-upper narratives where (seemingly) everyone wins or at least could win if they made the right investment backed by creative and innovative spirit. There’s a reason why people don’t make shows about transforming neighbourhoods instead of individual houses. Today it’s this creative student, this transformed house, this skyrocketing entrepreneur. Who knows. Tomorrow, it could be you.

 

 

 

I footnotes