Newt Gingrich's Earning by Learning | Bleader

Newt Gingrich's Earning by Learning

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Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has gotten a lot of flak for his proposal to put children to work cleaning their own schools, which he suggested recently as a way to both get the kids some cash and to instill in them a sense of “pride in the schools.” But it wasn’t till I read Connie Bruck’s fantastic 1995 New Yorker profile of the former House speaker that I realized that this isn’t the first time Gingrich has floated the idea of paying children for their efforts to alleviate the nation’s social woes. Gingrich has been concerned about the child-unemployment rate for years. In the early 90s he founded a nonprofit organization, Earning by Learning, that aimed to get kids to read by paying them—the going rate then was $2 per book. Gingrich explained the program thusly: “The ice cream truck comes by. The kid who's in the program walks up and buys their own ice cream. Their friend says to them, 'How come you have money?' He goes, 'Well, I read.' So kids are showing up to the program saying, 'I demand that you let me read!'”

Reading was not, Bruck reported, the only monetizable childhood experience:

Just as one pays children to read, so one should pay students to graduate early from high school, pay teen-agers on welfare not to get pregnant, pay adults when they get good results on a cardiovascular workup, pay Medicare recipients when they find fraud—and, conversely, make high schools pay for graduating a student who turns out to have needed remedial help, and make Medicaid patients pay something, even if it is just one dollar, when they go to the doctor.

Earning by Learning wasn’t just a stupid idea, though—it was a stupid, eminently corruptible idea. As Mother Jones’s Tim Murphy blogged earlier this week, a number of mid-90s investigations found that a large amount of the money that went into the program wasn’t disbursed in little $2 payments, but went into overhead—nearly half the budget for one of the program’s branches, the magazine reported in 1995, paid the salary of one staff member. And Gingrich used it as a clout machine, to which conservative politicians donated in hopes of getting into the speaker’s good graces.

Scandal may have slowed Gingrich in the 90s, but it has not stopped him. I wrote a few weeks ago about Joan Didion's scathing review of Gingrich's intellectual output—Bruck's takedown is equally satisfying to read, perhaps because it attempts to answer the question of how the guy has proven so successful:

What is remarkable about Gingrich in the end is not the degree to which he dissembles but the theatricality of his outrage when he is charged with dissembling, and the self-righteous force of his counterattack. He is, of course, not original in this—history offers plentiful examples of leaders who intimidated their critics (especially the press) by charging them with bias, and these precedents are not pretty—but Gingrich is surely one of the most accomplished practitioners of this particular skill. His opponents are chameleons and demagogues, his critics are cynics and liars: it is a feat of projection amazing in its transparency, and yet, probably because it is so daring, it works.

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