Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fatcat Republicans . . . or not

I haven't been posting as much because of a busy semester and now three in one day. I couldn't help myself. So John Corzine is running a campaign against literal heavyweight Republican Chris Christie, and his weight appears to be a mitigating, if not deciding factor, for many in New Jersey. So not only does the taller candidate tend to win, but also the thinner one. This seems ironic in a society that is increasingly overweight, or downright obese. But along with gays and "illegal immigrants," the group we seem to love to hate is those seat stuffing, three Big Mac snackers that are both heroes in sitcoms and film and otherwise not to be trusted: http://www.slate.com/default.aspx?id=2232911. Maybe slimfast is the route to a lasting Democratic majority?

Business Seeks to Bottleneck Reform

The very group that helped get us into our current financial collapse wants to make sure the status quo is maintained: http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=6E7B6EA8-18FE-70B2-A87C3F1CB4228163. Toward that end, they are essentially using the profits they continued to accumulate in the run-up to the mess, and during it among some banks. So let's get this straight . . . banks and others act irresponsibly (or criminally by most ethical standards) to help cause the financial crisis. They then get bailed out by the government for their risky and predatory behavior. Then they return to profitability (in some cases) and use those funds to ensure that they can continue this risky and predatory behavior in the future. Makes sense, right?

The media plays along, more or less supporting conventional wisdom on the right, and thus the cycle continues. Who suffers? Everyone else -- including some of the low level workers in the very companies that are spending some of their profits to maintain practices that hurt the average Americans. It is disconcerting to recognize how difficult it is to change the irrational rationality that continues to dominate political discourse in America (tax cuts, inflation and deficits as more important than unemployment and quality of life, shrink size of government, privatize, deregulate, cut social services and increase the gap between rich and poor) -- even as the majority of citizens voted less than a year ago for change. Can Obama break the cycle or will he also fall prey to the power of money, conventional wisdom, a media increasingly bedazzled by money and power and a corrupt system in Washington that continually choses the interests of the elites over everyone else?

Cut-service Tax Cuts

In recent years, any economic expansion is met by calls for tax cuts. Bush used that long lost surplus of 2000 to, what else, cut taxes. States cut taxes as the economy boomed in the 90s and again in the first years of this century. Many of these cuts were based on the assumption that economic growth would continue in perpetuity . . . or maybe not. Is it possible that tax cut advocates saw an opportunity and used the general public's abiding desire for decreases in tax burden to reduce tax revenue in the long run? What is the result?

Service cuts are now occurring across the board in almost every state, right at the moment when social services are most needed. Why? Well, there just isn’t enough money to fund these programs. What services are being cut? Education is, of course, at the top of the list. Schools will have fewer teachers, fewer resources, larger class sizes and a general decline in quality. Universities (both public and private) are losing funding and thus raising tuition, cutting academic programming and, in some cases, the aid available to incoming students. And early education, afterschool programs and other important services provided primarily to poor children and families are all being pushed out. The end result is a decline in quality of life, as unemployment rates rise along with healthcare costs for all citizens. One can also add declining value of retirement accounts and public pensions and a growing crop of homeless (increasingly populated by those who defaulted on mortgages – emobodied as a dire reversal of the American dream).

The ultimate effect of the “tax cuts in good times and cut services in bad times” cycle is a transfer of social services from the public sector to private organizations. It appears to be a return to the retrograde idea of volunteerism that Hoover once advocated, worsening the early years of the great depression. And, as I previously said, a general decline in the quality of life across the nation for all except those lucky enough to work for Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan or in the remaining hedge funds (and lest us forget the overpaid, underperforming CEOs). The point is tax cuts are legitimated by overly optimistic economic forecasts and then are fortified by a “no tax increase under any circumstance” mentality that, among other things, installed the now least popular governor in the history of California (Schwarzenegger won partially on a $300 tax that had existed for many years but had been rescinded if the budget remained balanced). If they can’t reduce social services and the size of government along normal lines, they back into this approach by holding out their pockets and claiming penury in tough times. This is a troubling trend that works based on a general distaste for taxes in the U.S. that persisted throughout our history, but accelerated dramatically under Reagan and his followers (including Clinton)!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

University Inc. - The Corporatization of American Higher Education

A new book has just come out, Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University (University of Chicago Press): www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/10/06/wannabe. In the book, the author critiques the changing nature of the university, and the push toward accountability, corporate and management logic, the hiring of adjunct faculty and the undermining of the core mission of higher education from its inception. Like all social institutions, the instrumental rationality of business now reign supreme, undermining the job of teaching the next generation, opening minds, doing independent research and challenging entrenched knowledge. Instead schools have become about efficiency, cost saving, efficiency and reputation alone. What is lost in this push? The last bastion for independent research in the world.

A retired administrator at Miami University of Ohio, James C. Garland has written blog responses to critique the article, and in the process further solidified the point:

"Wannabe U made me squirm at times, because many of the examples paralleled my own experiences. And therein lies the book’s value. I hope my administrative colleagues will read this book, not because they will agree with it, or even because it is, as the dust cover asserts, 'an eye-opening expose of the modern university.' They should read it because people in power seldom understand how their actions are viewed by others, and why their good deeds and intentions often provoke suspicion and mistrust.”

In a second he further solidifies the point:

"I fear Professor Tuchman and her faculty colleagues may have it backwards. Increasing productivity and efficiency are ways to reduce class sizes, teaching loads, and busywork, not increase them. When productivity goes up, it means the quality of the institution can be maintained by fewer people, none working harder or longer than before," he writes. "Efficiency and productivity improvements can’t solve all problems, of course, and when money is running out, a university has few options but to make cuts in services that lower quality and put additional stresses on faculty and staff. But successful efforts to make an organization more efficient and productive can moderate undesirable changes."

And administrators, he writes, have valid, education-related reasons to focus on metrics. "Like it or not, the fundamental responsibility of all senior academic administrators is to improve their institution, by which is typically meant emulating more highly regarded institutions having a similar mission," Garland writes. "However, benchmarking one university against another naturally invites metrics of comparison. For example, if Berkeley chemistry professors publish more research articles, win more awards, garner more federal funds, give more invited papers at conferences, write more textbooks, and serve on more national commissions than do chemistry professors at Wan U, then tabulating changes in these measurable quantities is a way to see whether the chemistry department at Wan U is becoming more or less Berkeley-like.

In other words, efficiency and productivity are the methods to replicate research one universities, and intellectual rigor, good instruction, a vibrant intellectual community and the like are secondary to increasing the stature of the university. The logic is based on competition and markets, not seeing different universities as serving different constituencies and embracing their role. The attack is effective because it bases itself on instrumental rationality and a logic that seems depoliticized, while it is instead ripe with political ambitions and concerns. Research that doesn’t help the bottom line is deemphasized or outright rejected. The humanities don’t “add value” and are thus attacked and underfunded. Theoretical work of any kind is always labeled inferior to empirical work that is “objective” and brings in grant money and prestige. And money making enterprises in universities, like MBA and medical schools, to the neglect of other important work. The role of professors as public intellectuals is neither respected nor counted toward tenure and attacks are levied on those that openly critique the system – or the very logic that marginalizes them.

As its heart, the logic makes universities similar to K-12 in reproducing rather than improving society and deems particular types of knowledge as implicitly dangerous. This undermines the heart of the university from its inception – to challenge entrenched power and, ultimately, to serve the role of the common good.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Conservative Gone Wild . . . Over Losing the Olympics Bid

Conservatives seem to be tap dancing at the edge of sanity these days, apoplectic over the minutest details of any Obama plan but ecstatic over Chicago’s failed bid to host the Olympics in 2012 (http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1009/27902.html). This celebration of failure leads me to a series of questions: Is the patriotic party really putting America first? Have they really sunk to the point where only bad news is good news these days? One wonders how low they can go in their competitive limbo to American destruction crawl before sanity prevails?

Equally interesting was there response to the news that unemployment figures were worse than expected – obviously it’s Obama’s fault (in the revisionist conservative mythology, many have pretended that Obama somehow caused the financial crisis he in fact inherited). I just want to make sure I have this right: Obama shouldn’t spend anymore money because the deficit is too high. We don’t want to regulate the economy, because that will hurt business (even as deregulation played a huge role in the current financial crisis). We want to isolate ourselves from foreigners, even as they hold a huge piece of the key to our future economic growth. And even given all of these arguments, it is somehow Obama’s fault that employment has not rebounded. This seems very similar to the arguments about global warming. Sure the most respected scientists in the world think it’s happening, but some right wing nut jobs say it isn’t and are occasionally backed by “scientists” generally sponsored by the benevolent oil companies.

Since at least Reagan, conservatives have succeeded largely based on stirring passion and resentment among working class and middle class voters. Resentment against affirmative action and Blacks in general, resentment toward gays who are “destroying the moral fiber of America,” resentment toward “illegal immigrants” who are both living off our social services and, at the same time, stealing our jobs and resentment toward feminists and their destruction of the American “nuclear family.” Facts are unimportant, or really inconvenient to these discourses. They play on deep-seated resentment at the fading of the American dream, the falling status of the U.S. in the world and the racism at the very heart of America. They play on the nostalgia that the old have for an America that never really existed. And they feed on a popular culture industry that thrives on anti-intellectualism.

At this moment, education and media become key spaces where students can become more critical about the world that surrounds them and cultivate the ability to see through the shroud of ideology and rhetoric to the truths that lie beneath. But conservatives have also effectively attacked these two spaces. They have instrumentalized knowledge in the Weberian sense to extricate real critical thinking and depoliticize knowledge, thus further solidifying the status quo. They have made K-12 about little else but rote memorization and testing, losing the radical potential that knowledge and science once promised to improve the human condition. And they are increasingly bringing their attacks to the university, attempting to institute bureaucratic and professionalist tendencies that undermine the autonomy of professors and students to critically examine social forces and phenomena. In media, they have allowed radical conservative voices to dominate the airwaves and TV screens while shouting out most progressive voices – while pushing the mainstream media away from its position as the fourth estate, holding politicians and social institutions accountable and highlighting the distance between their words and actions (outside the bedroom of course).

With Obama’s victory, a glimmer of hope emerged from the conservative miasma that has enveloped America for almost 30 years, but it seems to be fading under the brute force of a movement that is untethered by truth, rationality or any real interest in the common good.