Friday, November 25, 2011

Debt-slavery and the destruction of democratic education

In response to the last post about the decline and possible destruction of the University of California here, Tracy Strong wrote a fine letter, underscoring how a democratic institution is being eroded below. He makes two very important points. As a democratic institution, University of California at San Diego contributes a great deal to the local economy. But the local news and politicians do not mention it. Thus, as with the national economy where Keynsian measures – putting money in the hands of poor people who will spend it here in exchange for work – are widely known among economists and policy-makers, but an authoritarian elite works to reintroduce the age of Scrooge, throwing “tax relief” at the top 1/10 of 1% who spend it in Monte Carlo or China, California is cutting off its nose despite its face. This is a profound political problem.

More importantly, Tracy invokes Hannah Arendt’s defining statement about the nonchalant police officer pepper spraying the students at UC Davis. “These are students, not criminals.” The same point could be made about Occupy. “These are citizens, not criminals.”

How many bankers have been arrested for bringing the economy down (leave aside, pepper sprayed)? See Robert Reich’s column on the first amendment upside down below. The war criminals Paul Wolfowitz and David Addington (the war crimes are torture and aggression) got to ask questions at the “Republican” (war complex authoritarian – with the exception of Paul and to some extent, Huntsman) foreign policy debate. No law enforcement against genuine thugs...

The UC system is vast and multiracial, as Tracy emphasized. It accommodated many. But now, it is to be streamlined, with more left behind. Tuition rises – double at UC Davis now over a year ago , what the students are protesting about, and four times as much in a few years if Chancellor Mark Yudof gets his way – will price this increasingly secondary UC campus out of the reach of most.

This issue – debt slavery – for those who go to good colleges, even great state universities, is a driving force in the Occupy movement, along with joblessness and foreclosures. Work your heart out to achieve the American dream, do just what the authorities and the mainstream papers say, and you can end up $100,000 or more in debt to bank/usurers with no job and no way to pay it back (even if you get a job, you can’t pay off this amount of debt until you are half way through your working life, at best). It would be much less expensive for government to give aid – scholarships mainly as in Europe – directly to students. It would eliminate the overhead of the private middle men (as with health care where the administrative costs are much higher than universal systems and the US pays 3 times as much for worse medical results…). It would also be decent...

Here, too, the so-called free market is a disaster from the point of view of delivering important social or human goods cheaply (the preservation of life, health care and education, among other matters, should be government responsibilities and not left to "profit-takers"). Rather, "privatization" produces the worst results: burdening students with unrepayable debt, just as the medical “insurance” industry hires some 6,500 people to work at denying the claims of the insured (in “Capitalism: A Love Story,” Michael Moore showed that companies now take out secret insurance policies on their employees, unbeknownst to their families; the incentive to off elderly and expensive employees is obvious and who could say, with the shifts in the past few years, out of reach…).

Tracy also mentions the corruption of the legislature and referenda which vote more money for prisons than for education. Once again, let us consider the prison—probation-industrial-political-media complex (the companion of the war complex). The US imprisons 2.3 million human beings, 25% of the world’s prisoners (more than China and the Middle East combined, and much higher as a percentage of the population). It has 5.1 more on probation, unable to get a job or rent public housing or, often, to vote. 7.4 million in the prison system, perhaps equivalent to 75% of the prisoners in the rest of the world. 60% have been imprisoned for drug crimes; 4 out of 5 of these for possession.(h/t Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow here and here).

So if you are black or brown or poor white, imprisoning you as a teenager for having grass is an important priority for this government; democratic education is not. That America is more a police state than a democracy, particularly for young people who also have the highest poverty rates, is increasingly apparent.

The stakes of the Occupy movement are very large…

The American Occupy movement of which Davis has been a leading part (and Berkeley and Oakland) is, of course, international – in its origins in Tunisia and Egypt and Greece and Spain, and in its impact (Occupy movements now occur in Berlin, in Amsterdam and in many other settings). The film segment here is on the impressive movement in Barcelona where students, too, are fighting tuition hikes. There, protestors in the recent elections have refused to support the two corrupt parties (one self-styled Socialist) which are both enforcing austerity on behalf of the banks. They cast more votes for neither candidate than the winner collected (too bad there wasn't a serious candidate...). There, occupiers have opened a building (owned by the bank Sa Nostra) to people foreclosed from their homes. The Spanish movement (see the letters from Martha Soler here and here) has formed more neighborhood organizations and is, increasingly, working on diverse, local issues (fighting evictions).

But now, so are Occupy Harlem and Occupy Bronx.

The battle against US-funded military tyranny in Egypt, now in its second phase, is the leading news in the world. And this struggle will be of profound impact on democracy in the Middle East, including in Palestine. But Tunisia and Egypt have stirred the worldwide indignado and Occupy movement. In Egypt, the military still murders more demonstrators, though as Tracy’s invocation of Arendt suggests, the distance between police brutality in the “center” (now declining) and the “periphery” is no longer great. As the response to UC Davis shows, however, they can be stopped.

As Arab spring illustrated, and Occupy, for example, in its changing of the national conversation to focus on unemployment or in Bank of America dropping its $5 fee or in bank transfer day or most importantly, in the realization of and hope for a resurgent democracy and the feeling that each of us may play a part in it, this is an important effort to join.

“Alan -- it is the case that UC is in the process of eroding itself or being eroded.

The general reaction to the budget cuts seems to me the parable of the talents -- those who are deemed good will get what there is to get and the others will to some degree wither. A possible coming response will be to essentially tier the system: UCSD, UCLA, UCB will be the flagships, the rest, except for a few programs (eg Cosmology at UCSC) will be pared down ("how may programs in German do we really need?").

Another factor is the creation and growth of UC Merced. Merced came into being for two reasons. When there is a downturn in the economy the application rate to UC goes up by about 25 %. (You have to be in the top 12% of your high school class to get into UC. The Cal State system takes up to, I think, 30%; below that the community colleges and so forth -- however if you do well at one of the lower tiers you can transfer to a UC and a lot of students including many very excellent ones do so. Given the sorry state of most high schools the system is about as democratic as it can be. It is also the most multi-ethnic of any large institution: less than half of UCSD, UCI, UCB, UCLA are white (counting Hispanics as non-white); and the state will be so shortly. It is the case that in a normal ("good" year) about 50% of those eligible apply to UC; in a bad (downturn) year about 75% do. Remember that you had the RIGHT to go to UC if you meet the entry criteria. While you may not get into your top choice you will get a spot). There had been a push in the number of applications and the projected need was for another campus. Merced though costs money.

The second reason for Merced is that it was discovered that first generation ethnic students tended to go to schools that were within 200 miles of their home (unless they got into Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT etc. -- this tended to be more the case with students of Asian descent than hispanic.) The combination of the demographic pressure (which does go up and down) and the lack of any schools between UCLA, UCSB and UCD -- the whole Central Valley -- where there is a very sizeable Hispanic population made the creation of Merced desirable. (Neither the legislature nor the administration is dumb...)

What has happened since I have been here is that we have about 25% more faculty (30 years!) than we had 30 year ago and have 50% more students. (Berkeley and UCLA can't grow; UCR is pretty much maxed out; UCI has grown as has UCSB). This produces enormous classes; an increased dependency on graduate students. Almost all new appointments in the next 5-7 years are expected to come from retirements or separations, so the faculty will remain the same while students increase.

The university has made two responses: one is to increase the number of out of state students who pay full tuition (now 22%+ percent at Berkeley); the second is to raise tuition. Even with that the teacher-student ratio continues to fall. Another move would be to increase the teaching load of the regular faculty. The expectation here is that if you do that (especially when coupled with salaries not keeping up to the national elite school level) that a good number of your desirable faculty will bail.

The picture of excellence that UC has of itself (and it is in those terms excellent) is to be "world-class." This is thought of in terms of the relative prestige and reputation of its faculty. (There are other ways of thinking about this: I taught for several years at Amherst College where my colleagues were as good or better than those here and where the education was excellent. But the faculty did not win Nobel and Field prizes...). What has happened here is that we are bleeding top faculty to the rich private schools. My department ranks, for what is worth, 6th or 7th in the country. At the end of last year we lost three nationally top professors (to Stanford, USC etc) cutting the guts out of what was one of the best (professionally speaking) programs in American politics. Our physics department lost 6 full professors.

(There is a whole other theme here: the consequences of the nationalization of the academy: what has the jet plane wrought! -- Top students now apply all over the place: look at the already self-selected application numbers to the "best" schools: they can get there in less time than it took to take the train from Omaha to Chicago. Faculty move about with regularity (Henry Louis Gates for example). But if I can be here today, in New York tomorrow and in Paris on the following day -- I am no longer attached to a place as one might have been 60 years ago).

I tend to think that UC has been desperately unimaginative about this: Basically the response has been that if you lack money, get more somehow and don't worry about the consequences. The question has to be how can one retain the democratic quality of the institution at a time when de-democratization is consequent to the way the financial crisis has been construed?

But there is also a complete collapse of the political commitment on the part of the Legislature. (To some degree the referendum ties their hands by committing monies by law to certain things: more money is spent on the prisons than on education. But it says something when a society is such that it spends most of its funds putting its citizens out of sight.) So keep up the pressure on Yudof and the regents. But the political powers that be need a severe jolting -- and it is not clear to me how that is to happen. There are arguments that I do not hear made to the public. E.g. the annual budget of UCSD is $2.5 billion. A very large portion of this is spent in San Diego county. Counting a multiplier effect of 5 that is around $10 billion going into the local economy (and we aren't counting things like the impact of Qualcomm, started by a UCSD physics prof.). UCSD gets at this point something like 4% of its annual budget from the state. The rest comes from tuition (11%: less than the state), grants, the Feds, teaching hospitals and so forth. Such a return on investment is enough to make democracy seems a good thing, one would think. But is this in the papers every month? Do candidates run on this fact? Not that I know.

As for the pepper-spray: perhaps the most disturbing aspect of that picture was that the cop had one hand behind his back. I quoted Arendt on this once before: "For heaven's sakes! They are students, not criminals."


Thursday, November 24, 2011 by Robert Reich

The First Amendment Upside Down. Why We Must Occupy Democracy
by Robert Reich

You’ve been seeing this across the country … Americans assaulted, clubbed, dragged, pepper-sprayed … Why? For exercising their right to free speech and assembly — protesting the increasing concentration of income, wealth, and political power at the top.

And what’s Washington’s response? Nothing. In fact, Congress’s so-called “supercommittee” just disbanded because Republicans refuse to raise a penny of taxes on the rich.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court says money is speech and corporations are people. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision last year ended all limits on political spending. Millions of dollars are being funneled to politicians without a trace.

And a revolving door has developed between official Washington and Wall Street – with bank executives becoming public officials who make rules that benefit the banks before heading back to the Street to make money off the rules they created.

Other top officials, including an increasing proportion of former members of congress, are cashing in by joining lobbying power houses and pressuring their former colleagues to do whatever their clients want.

Millionaires and billionaires on Wall Street and in executive suites aren’t contributing all this money out of sheer love of country. Their political spending is analogous to their other investments. Mostly they want low tax rates and friendly regulations.

Why else do you suppose tax rates on the super rich are now lower than they’ve been in three decades, and why – even though the long-term budget deficit is horrendous – those rates aren’t rising? Why else do the 400 richest Americans (whose wealth is larger than the combined wealth of the bottom 150 million Americans) now pay an average tax rate of only 17 percent?

Why do you think Wall Street got bailed without a single string attached – not even being required to help homeowners to whom they sold mortgages, who are now so far under water they’re drowning? And why does the financial reform legislation have loopholes big enough for bankers to drive their Ferrari’s through?

And why else are oil companies, big agribusinesses, military contractors, and the pharmaceutical industry reaping billions of dollars of government subsidies and special tax breaks?

Experts say the 2012 presidential race is likely to be the priciest ever, costing an estimated $6 billion. “It is far worse than it has ever been,” says Republican Senator John McCain.

If there’s a single core message to the Occupier movement it’s that the increasing concentration of income and wealth at the top endangers our democracy. With money comes political power.

Yet when real people without money assemble to express their dissatisfaction with all this, they’re told the First Amendment doesn’t apply. Instead, they’re treated as public nuisances – clubbed, pepper-sprayed, thrown out of public parks and evicted from public spaces.

Across America, public officials are saying Occupiers have to go. Even in universities – where free speech is supposed to be sacrosanct – peaceful assembly is being met with clubs and pepper spray.

The First Amendment is being stood on its head. Money speaks, and an unlimited amount of it can now be spent bribing and cajoling politicians. Yet peaceful assembly is viewed as a public nuisance and removed by force.

This is especially worrisome now that so many Americans are in economic trouble. The jobs recession grinds on, seemingly without end. Homes are being foreclosed upon. Qualified students cannot afford college. Or they’re forced to take on huge debt loads they can’t repay in a jobless economy. Schools are firing teachers. Vital social services are being axed.

How are Americans to be heard about what should be done about any of this if they are not allowed to mobilize and organize? When the freedom of speech goes to the highest bidder, moneyed interests have a disproportionate say.

Now more than ever, the First Amendment needs to be put right side up. Nothing less than the future of our democracy is at stake.

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