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"Hey Dad, Why Does This Country Protect Billionaires, and Not Teachers?"

Something is really screwed up when we award billions to Wall Street elites for doing things we don’t comprehend, even as we lay off teachers by the thousands.

Last week, t housands of New Jersey public school students walked out of class to protest draconian school budget cuts. “Save my teacher,” their signs read. In a state that is home to a bevy of high finance billionaires, with the highest per capita income in the nation, teachers are being sacked left and right. In our town half the student body protested outside the high school. Perhaps the protesters should turn their eyes towards the twenty-five top hedge fund honchos who took in $25 billion in 2009. Their “earnings” alone could fund 658,000 entry level teachers.

It’s ironic that the battlefield in this war over resources is public education. Because the public remains entirely uneducated about the connection between those billionaires and school budget cuts. We are clueless about what the Wall Street billionaires do to earn their riches and whether it’s of any value. We might be able to understand “weapons of mass destruction,” but financial weapons of mass destruction are way beyond us.

The new earning reports are good, we read. The giant financial institutions are back to making billions through “trading.” So are these bankers grown-up versions of kids trading baseball cards–or are they robber barons? Are they enriching our society or siphoning off its wealth? Maybe the marching students of New Jersey could ask Governor Christie to explain.

Here’s what we do know for sure. Our modern financial honchos are very different from the robber barons of old. Everybody knew that Rockefeller meant oil, Ford meant cars and Carnegie meant steel.

Yes, today, we know that Gates and Jobs mean computers. But who the hell is David Tepper, and what does he produce with his Appaloosa hedge fund? He must have done something pretty impressive to earn $4 billion (not million) in 2009, the worst financial year since the Great Depression, with 29 million Americans unemployed or forced into part-time work. Then again, how much would he have “earned” had we not provided more than $8 trillion in bailout funds, loans and guarantees to the collapsed financial sector?

Mr. Tepper lives in New Jersey where the governor has gone to war with the teachers, hoping to break the union and balance the budget on the backs of our students. But Governor Christie’s enthusiasm for a balanced budget only goes so far: He’s resolutely opposed to reinstituting the “millionaires’ tax” -even though the state’s fiscal crisis is a direct consequence of what millionaires and billionaires did on Wall Street.

Mr. Tepper’s personal income for 2009 would have covered the salaries of 62 percent of public school teachers–who reach 855,600 students. ( Mean salary $57,645 )

But let’s not lay it all on Tepper’s shoulders. Andrew J. Hall once worked for the financial basket case called Citigroup. When it became clear that his $100 million bonus was embarrassment for the bailed out bank, his own financial group was sold to Occidental Petroleum. He’s an oil trader.

Can some well-educated New Jersey public school student please explain: What’s an oil trader? We say it’s all about gambling – me included. But does that mean that when he wins someone else loses? Can he make bets where no one loses? Or does the house lose? Are we the house and lose by paying more for gas? Or, is Mr. Hall really a shining green knight who is helping to reduce global warming by driving up the price of oil? We don’t know enough to even ask.

And unfortunately we also don’t know enough to ask the most important question of all: Do these financial barons create economic value or are they just siphoning off wealth from other parts of the economy? Is their work productive or are they just blowing air into the next financial bubble that will explode in our faces?

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