Why is Exxon opposed to increasing access to reading materials for the blind? Who opposes the blind? Who opposes reading?
Why is Exxon opposed to increasing access to reading materials for the blind? Who opposes the blind? Who opposes reading?
Why this higher ed torpor in Europe and North America, compared to the dynamism of Asia?
U.S. Higher Education critic Christopher Newfield asks Alan Kam Leung Chan the question above. Chan, the Dean of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at Nanyang Technology University, had just given a presentation on the rapid expansion of Asian educational infrastructure in the past decade or so. Summarizing these figures Newfield states:
China is the most famous case, having in ten years more than tripled the number of college graduates from 9 million to 30 million. Since 1991, Singapore has added four universities to its previous two, and by 2020 will have a higher bachelors degree proportion than the US. Indonesia has 30 public universities, and 2000 new private universities. The Philippines has 500 public universities and 1500 new privates. Vietnam has gone from 150 universities in 2000 to over 400 today, with 20 percent of those being private.
On the one hand, Newfield finds this amazing in relation to the sharp decline in educational investment in the United States. On the other, Newfield is sharp to focus on the seeming contradictions with these findings. Namely
The scale refutes the number one economic premise of American MOOC development, which is that even rich countries can’t afford great public universities anymore, so medium- and low-income countries shouldn’t try. In the North American mythology, less “developed” countries must teach their teeming masses on line, with low-cost American MOOC services endorsed by MIT, Stanford, Harvard, and Penn. And yet Asian countries are ignoring this Western wisdom. They have rejected its “build nothing” implications.
There is something to this if we see it in crass, nationalist terms, but what this really means is that the Asian members of the global elite would rather have some local colleges and universities to educate their kids. Or maybe that there could be a global market for elite universities, which foreign elites would rather have some role in supplying.
This sits well with the hypothesis I’ve been nurturing for a few months which is that we miss the point if we think in terms of national elites or interests driving current education policy. Basically, it says that it is hard to make sense of U.S. domestic policies around taxation and the social safety net if you see it purely in terms of national culture. Arguments about austerity are obviously finding renewed purchase here (among the astro-turf groups around the Tea Party.) But the policies of austerity have been more reliably implemented in the E.U., as Mark Blyth has recently. There as well, there is a significant cut back on the role of public education. Although the President pays lip service to increasing the number of college graduates, he already understands the degree as a commodity, the result of a tribute paid in time, money, and occasionally effort by the middle and lower classes in order to grant them access to the higher echelons of U.S. society.
Or, to put it more directly: the U.S. class system has long relied on the pretense that it operates as a meritocracy. And in the past two generations, education was tauted as a gateway to success. In many ways, this was true: highly developed systems of government supported education and industry (like those of California, where Marcuse finished his career and Steve Jobs began his) helped produce many of the innovations (and innovators) of the last thirty years. But companies like Apple or Google have little loyalty to a single country: their market is global. They may have benefited from U.S. institutions of the meritocracy, but now they see no reason to reinvest in those institutions at the national level. There will be enough pliable, educated and locally aware intellectuals produced by colleges and universities around the world to help them produce their products - if they could get the H1-B visa system worked out, they’d be golden. All they need are enough global customers: no need for a thriving working or middle class in the U.S. if you have more possibilities in emerging economies.
On the other hand, the finance-oriented mentality of all innovators in the U.S. celebrates replacing labor with technology (or just liquidating labor altogether) no matter what the industry. And the most successful businessmen in the country - Bill Gates and Warren Buffett - are keen to learn from each other. Buffet is famous for his “Buffet rule” that bosses should be taxed at roughly the same rate as their secretaries, but that is at least in part because he knows which side his bread is buttered. As David Cay Johnston points out in his book The Small Print, Buffet benefits from all kinds of tax benefits and government transfer payments - many of which we pay out of pocket. For instance, Buffet’s investment firms get a piece of the taxes you pay on your phone bill.
And here is the ultimate irony: in lean times like these, when demand is so low for consumer goods because wages are stagnant, the only reliable customers are states. Whatever the value of the college degree, it is something we still believe is the individual route to the ruling meritocracy and the social route to economic and political dynamism. A great deal of money is spent by parents, students, states, localities, and especially the federal government. The federal power extends beyond paying for education: it also helps certify institutions that are allowed to receive its funds, which carries with it all sorts of financial guarantees in the private market. In short, there is a lot of money at stake in what the U.S. Department of Education believes qualifies as a K-16 education. And, at the moment, the U.S. government seems willing to bend a little on quality if we can just get our numbers up.
So, to round out this hypothesis: the national elite is really part of a global elite; they see plenty of possibilities for building productive capacity in higher ed abroad; the government sees only a basic need pacify the population (and international rankings) with expanded access to commodity degrees; therefore what is at stake is not “education,” in the broad sense of certifying deep, productive forms of learning. Instead it is only the education market as a final space where venture capital and technology firms can exploit the remaining state infrastructure and cultural belief in the remnants of the U.S. national higher education meritocracy. While there are possibly serious connectivist advantages to MOOCs, they are really are a low-infrastructure, NGO, for-profit answer to what Siva Vaidhyanathan might call a broad “public failure.”
I put that phrase in scare quotes because I am not all that sure it is a failure in some people’s mind. Many people are happy to have education turned over to private markets rather than the state. Richard Vedder - whose ideological fingerprints are also all over the MOOC phenomenon - has long believed that for-profits would better supply the minimally educated workforce we need, leaving the high-level thinking to parasites like himself.
From a historical perspective, the dominance of the U.S. system of higher education was really a blip to begin with: largely the result of an enormous, and expanding economy, held in a tenuous balance between corporate capitalism, incorporated labor unions, the funding apparatuses of the U.S. Department of State and Defense, the postwar rebuilding of Europe, and the balancing powers of the Cold War. These institutions were then nursed by the helpful infusion of intellectuals from the decimated European continent.
A pivotal figure here might be Herbert Marcuse, who was one of the New Left’s most public intellectuals - leading many students in the 1960s from his perches at various colleges and universities around the U.S. Like his Frankfurt School comrades (and many German Jewish intellectuals), he had come to the U.S. after being trained in Germany and fleeing from the Third Riech. With the start of World War II, he began nearly a decade in U.S. foreign service, first working with, then heading, the European division of what would become the CIA. After this, he was reabsorbed into the U.S. Higher Education system, which became one of the institutions he would critique in his works and activism. This system helped produce - and reproduce - the One-Dimensional Man.
The idea that we needed a large domestic set of educated workers was based on the notion that the U.S. would continue to expand and be the primary source of all the world’s commerce, power, and culture. On the one hand, we are an empire in decline. On the other, this corresponds with a moment when higher cognitive functions (or some approximation of them) are more easily automated than ever. In this context, one could easily argue that the ruling elites of the global plutocracy have decided they don’t really need all that many intellectuals, but they recognize there are still a lot of people who believe education will give them a leg up, hence they are willing to pay or have the government pay for them to get one.
All of the argument about costs and efficiencies being the downfall of U.S. higher education (“Students don’t learn! Tuition is too high! Too much debt! Too little completion!”) are placing way too much emphasis on the supply side. Yes, on one level students are the customers. But higher education has always also been linked with the ladder of success. While education arguably leads to all sorts of personal and social improvements, its guaranteed economic success depended upon that interlinked set of circumstances - transnational capitalism secured by the anchor of the American Empire, with a lot of demand for intellectuals at home and abroad.
The middle and lower classes were given access to higher education, but it was posed as a gauntlet through which people should run in order to make their way into the upper classes. So, while they may demand it, it is with a particularly utilitarian logic that this demand was conceded: precisely because the technocrats in charge believed they could use a few more educated people - after all, they had a new empire to run! It was this demand - not the demand of students for education, necessarily, but the workforce demand for educated people - that really led to the expansion of U.S. higher ed. As Hobsbawm also observed, it was a move they regretted greatly: giving a lot of lower and middle class students time to do nothing but think and learn turned out to be a dangerous proposition. And when minorities and postcolonial subjects entered the academy: we know what conservatives thought of that.
When you put this alongside the huge supply of cash global corporations are simply sitting on, refusing to invest in new jobs or infrastructure here or elsewhere, it is clear they don’t really have a long term plan other than to make a great deal of money off the total collapse of the system. A slightly more charitable reading would say that they are only willing to participate in rebuilding an American economy if they are able to make a great deal of money - all of it really- in supplying the education to the U.S. workforce. They might eventually put up a few billion dollars to create a U.S. network of MOOCs, and alter the way credentials and accreditation work. And of course there will always be vanity projects - such as giving schools funding for the buildings they later chastise college presidents for erecting.
I don’t think I’ve really put my finger on all that is going on, but it does seem a rather compelling hypothesis. As Newfield puts it, “In the U.S. we are having the opposite conversation, which is how to get public university services back to their inadequate level of the mid-2000s, while spending less money than we did then.” From the perspective of the hypothesis, this conversation is either a cynical ploy to privatize the public system of higher education; a tacit admission that we no longer see a value to education because there is really no future for American workers; or both.
The question then becomes what we should do about it as educators, both from the perspective of short terms tactics and long term strategy. In the end, there are no global institutions that will help us combat this, therefore we are once again left with the inadequate capsules and instruments of the state - an especially unfortunate circumstance given that the most visible leftish protesters are anarchists.
I’ve been collecting research about the Framers view about the potential for American aristocracy. My RA, Dennis Courtney, found this fabulous quote from Patrick Henry at the Virginia Ratifying Convention (emphasis added):
It has been said, by several gentlemen, that the freeness of…
A quote worth reading, though I’m a bit skeptical of Henry here. While it would be nice to have every elector represent the interests of his or her district so directly, it seems one of our problems today is that the emotions of the rural and suburban districts - both of whom have been shamefully violated in the last thirty years - are given inordinate cultural clout and, indirectly at least, disproportionate political power.
What would be good, however, is if elections weren’t merely corporate-funded festivals of interpellation, with lackies parading their particular celebrations of the neoliberal, neoconservative idiocy that we are all supposed to have passionately embraced.
white privilege radically changes the appearance of Tsarnaev bros
This is how brofiling actually works in real life. The Week Magazine ran with this image as their cover sketch.
Just so it is said, clearly and unambiguously: the Tsarnaev brothers are white guys. They are white. The FBI’s own wanted poster for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lists his race as “white”, but you would never know it from the cover image on The Week.
Hold up the cover to someone else, and ask them how many white people they can see on the cover. Chances are they will identify Gabby Giffords on the top left and the image of the Boston policemen (all white men) on the top right, but how about those two guys in the center? Nope, not a chance that anyone would say these caricatures look white.
Why? Because in addition to being white they are also “Muslim”, which is the current dehumanizing “Other” label that whiteness has constructed as a sanctioned target for violence in US popular culture.
This is how white privilege works in media representations and everyday life: when the criminal suspects are demonstrably white men, seize upon any aspect of difference and magnify it such that they become Othered, non-white, and menacing. If it is too hard to do so, simply dismiss them as aberrations and isolated cases of insanity. This is also how white culture, specifically the process of whiteness in conjunction with white privilege, portrays several non-white identities, including those that are now considered white but at one time were decidedly not so. For example, see here for how the Irish were depicted as violent apes or lazy drunks in the late 1800s to early 1900s.
Addendum, posted 4.29.13:
As Tim Wise said on April 18, there are consequences for these kinds of things. Here are a few reasons why this is important:
- Making white criminals who are Muslim appear to be more ‘brown’ than ‘white’ has serious consequences for brown people. Indeed, as we saw right after the Boston bombings, people that simply “looked” brown and Muslim were profiled and assaulted. Two men were escorted off a plane in Boston simply for speaking Arabic and thereby somehow making passengers “uncomfortable”. A Bangladeshi man in NYC was beaten up because he looked ‘Arab’. And this affects women too: a Muslim woman doctor in Boston who wears a headscarf was attacked by a man while she was out walking with her baby. And the white Muslim wife of the older brother has been demonized for simply being a Muslim American woman, especially after Ann Coulter called for women who wear hijabs to be arrested.
- People have pointed out to me that The Week Magazine’s cover images are regularly caricatures/sketches of the main events of that week’s news. I know this—I read their print edition every week, and all their previous cover images are available online. But there are two main problems with this argument: (a) why caricature them in a way that makes them so explicitly ‘darker’ and ‘Arabized’ in their appearance? Contrast the way they look on that page with the other white faces on that same page—would anyone say that these men look ‘white’? So why is the caricature done in such a ‘racializing’ way? How is this any different from the more overt media racism that was used by Time Magazine (h/t @sarahkendzior), for example, to make OJ Simpson appear way more menacing? And (b) if The Week is simply trying to put a caricature of criminals who committed mass violence on their cover, then here are the covers for the weeks when Newtown happened, when Aurora happened, and when Tucson happened — where were their ‘racialized’ caricatures of Adam Lanza, James Holmes, and Jared Loughner? How come the ideologies and ethnicities and religions of those particular mass criminals were not profiled?
- And so here is the more subtle consequence: when white criminals are treated as if they are just aberrations, and when white criminals who are Muslim are portrayed as more brown than white not just by The Week but by mainstream propaganda outlets like Fox News, then the problems of white supremacist violence and extremism become hidden, unaddressed. When analyzed carefully, research has shown that right-wing extremism causes more deaths in America than “jihadist” groups. Also, of the terror attacks/plots since 1995 in America, 56% of them were by right-wing extremists and only 12% by Islamist/jihadist groups — and yet the DHS was told to back off reporting on that or on analyzing right-wing violence for fears of backlash from conservative political groups.
So, my main point is that such a willful blindness hurts ALL people.
Reposted from Fantastic Metropolis, author China Mieville lays out a list of 50 science fiction and fantasy works he feels every socialist ought to read.
When I became a socialist I was also studying Sociology and Philosophy academically. I experienced something that seems to be a trend…
I haven’t read many of these, but if Mieville says I should…
Everytime I hear the term MOOC, I snicker a little. Particularly when I hear that MOOCs are bound to disrupt higher education. The term reminds me of Douglas Rushkoff’s PBS Frontline documentary Merchants of Cool, where he describes “the portrait of the teenage American male” developed by marketers to appeal to that demographic:
The Mook is what critics call the crude, loud, obnoxious, in-your-face character that can be found almost any hour of day or night somewhere on MTV. He’s a teen frozen in permanent adolescence. There’s MTV’s Tom Green of the “Tom Green Show” And the daredevils on “Jackass” who indulge in dignity-defying feats like poo diving. The Mook is also found in the frat boys on MTV’s ubiquitous “Spring Break” specials. And, the Mook has migrated to MTV’s sister network, Comedy Central, where he’s the cartoon cutouts of “South Park,” or the lads on the “Man Show.”
If (like me) you accidentally hear this homonym, it’s hard not to agree that “Mooks” are bound to disrupt higher education: as a character frozen in permanent adolescence, that is their primary purpose. They are the latest iteration of a quintessential American hero: the anti-intellectual blowhard who is nevertheless enormously successful. Thumbing their nose at “elite” cultural standards, they appear to break informal barriers to social mobility - barriers that studies show have become all the more prominent in the last thirty years.
One of these barriers is certainly the undergraduate BA. Department of Labor statistics show that getting a BA remains a clear path to a better job - though that “better” is relative when the jobs one can get without a BA are increasingly terrible. It is no surprise, then, that getting the BA has become more of a hurdle to jump in order to secure a better economic life (cf. survey of freshman) rather than some deeply transformative educational experience.
On some level, the hyperbolic claims made about Massively Open Online Courses appear to be the latest PR promotion, this time aided by financial outfits like Moody’s, Charles River Ventures, and a host of venture capital firms vying for a piece of the state, federal, and local education budget. Their goal is to alter the expectations of the audience - in this case, the public - and pump up the market for this educational product in need of a business model. I am sure these are intelligent people - some of them highly educated themselves. But in general it seems like their approach to education is more like the Mooks of Rushkoff’s documentary: Mooks in the highest ranks of government and industry who, seeing few other avenues for investment, are ready to shift our social attention (and education dollars) to the latest communication technology under the banner of progress. When you add to this the lure of getting rid of the tenured faculty and shared governance that supposedly put a brake on the “innovations” of University administrators (cf. UVA), it is like manna from finance heaven. As Karen Ho points out in her ethnography of Wall Street traders, the finance industry loves to hear that workers will be laid off or Liquidated.
I have devoted a good portion of my life training to be an educator, as did my mother, my wife, and many of my friends and relatives. If they weren’t so powerful, it would simply be laughable to hear people whose previous experience involved only computer programming and finance discuss the “easy” or “only” way to solve the tough problems we’ve all spent decades trying to unravel. Not only the attention to critical pedagogy, interdisciplinary learning, and thoughtful reflection that every PhD on the job market this year will have to demonstrate (often in an extensive, separate portfolio), but the institutions we’ve built to assist students beyond the classroom. For instance, try Googling MOOC and “ADA-” or “FERPA compliance:” not much there. Meeting the needs of diverse learners at various levels of personal and intellectual growth, while maintaining their personal privacy have been the key dilemmas facing not only faculty, but system administrators, counseling staff, and diversity officials. In this context, MOOCs look like an end run around both sound classroom pedagogy and federal regulations.
This points to one of the questions I always have when I hear that MOOCs are disrupting Higher Education: disrupting what part of Higher Education? Teaching? Research? Scholarships? Intercollegiate sports? Or am I just hearing it wrong and most of the disruption is still just the Mooks in the frat house?
I will resist fully unpacking the problems with the source of this nugget of conventional wisdom - Clayton Christensen’s inordinately popular concept of disruptive innovation is basically a rehashing of Schumpeter’s “Creative Destruction” as advice for businesses operating in a free market system. Higher Education - and education more generally - is not currently governed by these rules alone (as I said, state, federal, and local regulations and funding, and national accreditation bodies have much to say about what can be sold in this market), but neither is any other sector Christensen analyzes: the existence of a purely competitive market is a convenient fiction that unfortunately dominates too much of our social discourse. In any case, in so far as the BA is a commodity, it is unclear what dimension of its production is disrupted by MOOCs.
Attention right now is focused on faculty, but that is a bit of a red herring. As any adjunct will tell you, universities have already found a way to shrink the tenured faculty on their rolls. In many colleges and universities, over 70% of the courses are taught by low-paid, no-benefit, deeply exploited, but highly qualified teachers. It is unlikely that even the most efficient computer can do better than paying a PhD (or graduate students) $2500 to teach 100 full-tuition-paying students in a lecture section. Keep in mind, though, that those tuition dollars are paying for a range of other services as well: some of these may be superfluous at the margins, but they will likely be necessary at some point.
Faculty are an important part of what makes higher education work, but they are joined by a range of support services that a century of experience has shown students often need in order to be successful. Librarians, academic advisors, counselors, learning centers (which help all faculty and students with ADA compliance), financial aid consultants, as well as people working in admissions, IT, campus computing, study abroad, international student services, health services, writing centers, university legal counsel, food services, housing, and the physical plant. Many of these people contribute some to that “administrative bloat” faculty like to rail about, and they do so because students (and in some cases accreditation bodies, industry employers, local, state, and federal government) require colleges and universities to have these agents in order to remain compliant and competitive. When you add to this the licensing fees for software students use, the electronic resources they need for their courses, and the fees for equipment they would never be able to afford on their own, it is hard to see MOOCs as a serious replacement for the college or university as an efficient bundle of these services.
There are certainly efficiencies we could gain by using electronic resources - for instance, in the provision of library and information resources. But this would require slaying sacred cows like copyright.
Christensen and his acolytes would point to the concept of disruption itself, which says that the biggest competition comes from downmarket demand. But despite the hype about free and open education, venture capitalists don’t get involved in projects for the fun of it. Ultimately MOOCs are disruptive in so far as the help technology companies find a way to tap into the billions of (public and private) dollars Americans spend on education, thereby driving the other “producers” out of the market. Disruption, in other words, depends on finding a way to make people pay for the service - or to trust it enough that they wouldn’t pay for the incumbent providers.
There is scant evidence that students who are already in colleges and universities are clamoring to be pitched out of the physical classroom, but maybe those who can’t currently afford it will be served by this innovation - assuming they aren’t one of the 119 million Americans that either can’t get or can’t afford broadband internet access, or one of the 25% of Americans who have no internet access at all. (Lucky for the MOOC providers the FCC will be investing in this infrastructure!) In that case, the argument goes, the innovations created for the downmarket users of MOOCs will overwhelm the current “producers” of higher education. It is a fairly complex scenario, but if you choose the right data points it appears plausible.
In particular, it requires isolating the credentialing function of the university from all these others, assuming that students will have to independently contract their own counseling, advising, library materials, etc. It also means isolating the credentialing function from the social context in which that function inevitably takes place. For instance, maybe the American Council of Education will approve some of these for credit, but even then there will have to be clear mechanisms in place to confirm the identities of students and administrators, legal affairs people, and other compliance officers to deal with challenges to the academic integrity of the system. Not to mention the recruiting, marketing, and financial aid personnel that will be needed to compete against not only the traditional non-profit education providers (many of which are also developing and maintaining online programs at great expense), but the other online for-profits that are already way ahead of that game.
In other words, true MOOC disruption will likely be an expensive gambit. Recent developments have given us a sense of what this might mean and the results are far more mundane. In most cases, it illustrates that MOOCs are only a marginal threat to the overall education sector.
These are not a replacement for College, they are a replacement for the SAT, which most of us will agree was an outdated way of measuring student readiness anyway. Or they are a replacement for AP tests, or textbooks - or as in the recent case at UC Irvine, they are an elaborate sales pitch for a textbook.
Still, it is cavalier and intransigent to dismiss MOOCs as a passing fad. Providing free education is an incalculable social good - and finding technology that will aid in that mission is a noble goal. EdX and Coursera seem to be developing learning analytics, social protocols (such as peer review), and even keystroke identification that might help all educators. Students need to be college ready and our K-12 system is failing them dramatically - not because teachers aren’t capable but because, like higher ed, K-12 is under assault by the same industry lobbyists and well-meaning finance professionals who have little interest in learning how learning works, except in so far as it can make them as incredibly wealthy as the dot com and housing bubbles.
MOOCs are currently operating in a no-mans land where these things aren’t as important, imagining they will be able to maintain this frontier approach forever. This is the folly of all libertarian, free market proposals for social betterment: once this model becomes solidified and socially acceptable, it will only take a few greedy charlatans fleecing unsuspecting students to have the public crying for better regulation, the expense of which will have to be paid for by said public, likely through something like tuition. Note what has happened in the for-profit higher education sector (though since it receives a quarter of all federal funding for higher ed, it would be a misnomer to call it “free market.”) Mooks may revolt at this infringement on their freedom to poo-dive, but the rest of us will be more likely to approve of their role in the broad social mission of educating the public.
Again, a MOOC that is truly open and free—and high quality—is a wonderful addition to the public sphere, a boon to students who are poorly served by the present system. And polemics like Shirky’s get traction because his complaints about the status quo are grounded in real problems (albeit problems created by the same financiers and politicians who now propose to solve them). But if we blow up the status quo, the fact that the future could potentially be better doesn’t mean it couldn’t also be much worse. That the glass is half-empty is not an argument for dumping it out. Do we know where the new water is going to come from? Making grand predictions about what MOOC’s could be—while merrily destroying the actually-existing thing it might potentially replace—is a recipe for disaster.
I’ve been reading back through some of my writing over the past year (in part to make sure I’m not repeating myself in a piece I’m writing now.) I am often amazed at how repetitive writers like Slavoj Zizek are - telling the same joke in four or five books at once - but I can see how easy it if for that to happen, particularly when you appear to be shouting into a vacuum in terms of actually moving people to social action.
But I am also finding that there is little more anger and polemic than I would normally associate with academic writing. Since I’m sending these to people as a way of introduction, it worries me (in retrospect) that I don’t have something more prim and proper - and especially something more pragmatic and seemingly objective. Beginnings like this one, therefore, don’t seem to portend a journey down that route:
I am a US citizen. I live in a sick, nay dying society. I’m not sure if the society itself knows it is dying, or if it has simply resigned itself to its passing, watching as the zombie economy of the past thirty years greedily slurps the last of its vitality. Arguing capitalism, and its so-called creative destruction, is a force of nature, its elites sit back and recite Robert Frost: “Nothing gold can stay” – except, of course, for the piles of gold they’ve extracted from that society in the process of destroying it. That gold must stay – right in the coffers of their foreign bank accounts where it belongs. This is no paradox when the goal of the last thirty years or so has been the restoration of their power, their control over the levers of economic discipline such that they could force the rest of us to do their bidding with the apolitical hand of the market.  Those who look at the crisis and claim capitalism is broken or unbalanced foolishly assume that this isn’t exactly what capitalism was designed to do. They’re wrong; it isn’t; this is capitalism unleashed, as Andrew Glyn put it before his untimely passing. 
I sound so angry, so unhinged compared to the average academic. Journal articles can sometimes attempt a little flair, but overall, they need to be more buttoned down.
On the other hand, the statements I make are actually not all that inaccurate. I’ve recently been reading Chrystia Freedland’s book The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else and the world she describes is very different than even leftists are discussing it. The critique of the 1% is a useful nationalist discourse for organizing the majority of the population around a movement. But it operates on the faulty assumption that the people in that population see themselves as actual members of our community.
As Freedland shows, it is better to see these folks as part of a global super-elite that makes money in various ways around the world - some of them oil sheiks, others financial titans, and still others - like Warren Buffett - experts in fleecing governments and taxpayers at every turn they get (making his call for higher taxes a sound piece of self-interested advice.) This class has always existed in some respect, but the proportion today is unique. Freedland speaks of people making $30-$40 million a year, in the past decade, effectively sucking the home values, stagnant wages, retirement funds, and privatized public services of the bulk of the U.S. (and global) population into a vast accumulation of financial wealth which they may or may not have any intention of doing anything. Considering the amount of money corporations are simply sitting on, it appears no one is willing to pay back into the system that has created the possibility of this wealth.
Say what you will about our 19th century Robber Barons, at least they built some infrastructure and put a lot of money into education and culture. We were left with railroads and electric companies - mostly public private partnerships - and eventually a university system that could quickly grow to accomodate a much larger proportion of our population. Sinking this capital into the ground of the U.S. was a sound investment, though it was ultimately only by having the state force corporations and the wealthy to pay nearly all of their income back to society. It was a nice trade off since the U.S. Government began to take its job as primary defender of the global order very seriously, paying its citizens (and universities) to develop even more serious military technology - such as the series of tubes on which someone might someday find my writing.
To synthesize David Harvey and Giovanni Arrighi, we had a long period of investment in the territory of the U.S. and then in the 1970s or so this gave way to a slow bleed of financial wealth from the use of this infrastructure - in both physical space and its educated population. We’ve hummed along for a good thirty years - in part by arbitraging trading partners with our informal dollar sovereignty and our voracious population consumers.
Housing, health care, and education were three of the post-war boons to the consumer economy and all of them were aided directly by that government support, sometimes in overlapping ways. As I mentioned in my last post, this continued even into the 1990s, when the NSF was helping the founders of Google get off the ground. Since then, it has felt like the entire ruling class has either decided that society would better be run by nimble start ups hungry for profit - or that it is all they are willing to offer as a future scenario they’re willing to be involved in.
The past decade has seen a complete halt to the construction of a future United States of America on sound economic or social standing. In many parts of the world, this is a good thing: they would welcome the withering of their former neo-imperialist master, at least until everyone was actually responsible for their own internal security. This is not to say that the Leviathan is necessary, but the more controlled we can make that transition in each case, the better. As Fanon and many anti-imperialists knew, it did little good to supplant one dictator for another.
Maybe it is wrong to call it the United States - maybe it is just a dream of democracy that I still too readily associate with my home country. It is hard to purge that completely, and I would argue that in many cases it is a version of this nationalism that drives even the most focused of its citizen critics. In other words, it is because the U.S. has had a trajectory, an arc of history bending towards justice (as MLK called it) it is worth attempting to keep it bending in that direction.
Certainly education has always been a part of that equation and at the height of the post war boom, higher ed was at its apex of both funding and radicalism. Since then, states and the federal government have slowly shrank their support for these institutions, mostly shifting the burden to students and families. (Using debt as a lever to bring potential radicals back into the fold is a key element of the post-war boom.) This is done even as these institutions have become more centrally responsible for imparting basic skills and values on the professional workforce - and one of the only places students can be exposed to rigorous forms and methods of critique that might aid them in improving those institutions and society as a whole.
There are a few who give lip service, but most seem to believe that Bill Gates, college dropout, has a serious handle on what should be done in the realm of education. Since his basic hypothesis seems to have been that unions alone were responsible for the problem, I suppose he is getting quite a lesson himself in our current atmosphere. But it is also curious that this is just another iteration of the basic financial logic of current ruling class - also profiled in Karen Ho’s Liquidated, which partially gets its title from the action of eliminating workers from their jobs. The Wall Street bankers she profiles have a basic assumption that this alone is the road to profitability - and therefore the more the better, regardless of the business at hand. Ho is not the first to see this as a reversal of the post-war promise. I think that was Michael Keaton in Mr. Mom.
Freedland says part of this is because the current crop of U.S. billionaires feel themselves to be self-made - few of them came from old money, which gives them a peculiar perspective on the nation-based development most of the rest of us are saddled with:
What is more relevant to our times, though, is that the rich of today are also different from the rich of yesterday. Our light-speed, globally connected economy has led to the rise of a new super-elite that consists, to a notable degree, of first- and second-generation wealth. Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who haven’t succeeded quite so spectacularly. They tend to believe in the institutions that permit social mobility, but are less enthusiastic about the economic redistribution—i.e., taxes—it takes to pay for those institutions. Perhaps most strikingly, they are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home. Whether they maintain primary residences in New York or Hong Kong, Moscow or Mumbai, today’s super-rich are increasingly a nation unto themselves.
In short, as it turns out, I am not being overly negative. I may be saying it in an unusually desperate and shrill voice, but I am basically expressing the objective conditions in which we are now operating. I wish I could say it is comforting to be right. On some level, I am probably still harboring too deep a faith in the ability of our system to correct itself. Perhaps this is just what it feels like to be in a declining civilization. It’s hard to accept that: my wife and I have a baby due a month from now.
Unlike Freedland, I don’t think that capitalism per se is the only way we will achieve the kind of enlightenment progress we had hoped for, but it is curious to hear a staunch defender of that system make roughly the same critiques I have heard on the left. Freedland makes some of her most vivid defenses of capitalism as a system in her philosophical statements at the beginning of the book (“This book takes as its starting point the conviction that we need capitalists, because we need capitalism”) even quoting one of the Shock Doctors himself, Larry Summers saying that, “for the first time since the Great Depression, focusing on redistribution makes more sense than focusing on growth.” She goes on, describing the overall perspective she will take in this book.
Political decisions helped to create the super-elite in the first place, and as the economic might of the super-elite class grows, so does its political muscle. The feedback loop between money, politics, and ideas is both cause and consequence of the rise of the super-elite. But economic forces matter, too. Globalization and the technology revolution—and the worldwide economic growth they are creating—are fundamental drivers of the rise of the plutocrats. Even rent-seeking plutocrats—those who owe their fortunes chiefly to favorable government decisions—have also been enriched partly by this growing global economic pie
When the uber rich get upset that we are critiquing this system, they really should be more reflective. This is basically Adam Smith 101 - wealth is only good in so far as it is reinvested reasonably back into society (society in this case defined by the nation-state). In so far as it is not, it is neither moral, nor, in the end, politically feasible. If the population sees the only reason for the state is its protection of the global elite from the democratic population of any given country, it won’t take long for people to get exhausted with this system.
True political economists understand this. That is, after all, why we put these fields together. But there is obviously a deficit of effort (or even awareness) on the part of most citizens in the US - both of the direction of the country and their horizontal, transnational connection with other citizens in other countries going through roughly the same set of problems.
I hear a lot of right wing critics of Socialism (qua Obama) make statements about the U.S. becoming like Greece or Italy in terms of our debt problems. Though this is a rare understanding that we are in the same boat, it is where the nationalism I’m still harboring inevitably rears the head with the ugliest face. It would be better if we realized the forces that are wrenching Greece are roughly the same as those that are or will be wrenching us - and to take some collective action to remedy this situation.
A conversation with an Egyptian telecom billionaire who helped support rebels in Tahir square, Freedman finds an interesting perspective on the matter:
What was interesting to me was his choice of $1 billion as the appropriate cap on dictatorial looting. In his world, I wondered, was $1 billion the size of fortune to aim for?
“Yes, to cover the fringe benefits, the plane, the boat, it takes a billion,” Sawiris told me. “I mean, that’s my number for the minimum I want to go down—if I go down.”
This seems like a healthy suggestion for the billionaires of the world who refuse to make serious investments in our collective future, from halting climate change to creating a more generally equitable society. The ecological and political elements of this utopia remain in unique tension, but we shouldn’t have to sacrifice both to the economic imperatives of a perfectly random set of global elites. More organizing is needed to get more of these billionaires to cash out, take their billion dollar ransom, and sprinkle the rest of their capital throughout society.
While his methods were provocative, the goal that Aaron died fighting for — freeing the publicly-funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it — is one that we should all support.
Very distressed by Aaron’s suicide. Not much else articulate to say about this. But his manifesto still resides in Archive.org. I recommend reading it for more background on the goal he was fighting for.
(Some will say this is not the time. I disagree. This is the time when every mixed emotion needs to find voice.)
Since his arresting the early morning of January 11, 2011 — two years to the day before Aaron Swartz ended his life — I have known more about the events that began this…