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…
Higher ed Mooks
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.
- Coursera says it will allow people to pay for a credential that they can give to an employer
- Udacity may strike a deal with some California colleges to supplement its ailing community college system and provide what amounts to alternative credentialing for entering students by allowing them to take the first few courses, online, for free.
- etc. etc.
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.
reflective writing and expropriation
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…
Google “Tax Deadbeat”: The Ultimate Google bomb
Yesterday, The Washington Post reported that Google is a tax dodger to the tune of avoiding $2 billion in 2011 alone.
Google Inc. avoided about $2 billion in worldwide income taxes in 2011 by shifting $9.8 billion in revenues into a Bermuda shell company, almost double the total from three years before, filings show.
By legally funneling profits from overseas subsidiaries into Bermuda, which doesn’t have a corporate income tax, Google cut its overall tax rate almost in half. The amount moved to Bermuda is equivalent to about 80 percent of Google’s total pretax profit in 2011.
Aside from this being a well-known and predictable fact of our finance friendly nation state, it should still surprise us every time we hear something like this.
And, in the case of Google, it should remind us that the company was started with U.S. Taxpayer money:
In 1994-98 the National Science Foundation gave researchers behind Google close to $500,000 to get their project off the ground. Their project?
the Stanford Integrated Digital Library Project (SIDLP) - is to develop the enabling technologies for a single, integrated and “universal” library, proving uniform access to the large number of emerging networked information sources and collections. These include both on-line versions of pre-existing works and new works and media of all kinds that will be available on the globally interlinked computer networks of the future. The Integrated Digital Library is broadly defined to include everything from personal information collections, to the collections that one finds today in conventional libraries, to the large data collections shared by scientists. The technology developed in this project will provide the “glue” that will make this worldwide collection usable as a unified entity, in a scalable and economically viable fashion.
Sound familiar? Keep in mind that this was part of a specific initiative - the Digital Library Initiative - that the National Science Foundation wanted to help support. The possibility that digital technology might give us the universal library of our dreams was worthy of government support - even if the original impetus for search engines was to connect the disparate information on the emergent web.
I’m sure they got a great deal of other money from investors along the way, but this grant was for the very early research. This is sometimes the hardest to do and the least economically viable. It is the kind of basic science in biology, chemistry, and genetics that is done in our colleges and universities around the country. This work is supported through direct government funding of the institutions - as through the NSF grant - and indirectly of the students who attend them and pay tuition: Pell Grants, other scholarships, such as the NSF Graduate Student Fellowship that supported Google Co-Founder Sergey Brin as a grad student working on fellow grad student Larry Page’s already nascent project. As Michael Perelman points out in his critique of intellectual Property Rights, Steal This Idea, this is often the case - where basic biology research aids pharmaceutical corporations who later apply restrictive patents to the product public money helped create.
These projects were helped by the generous (if controversial) U.S. Government funding that supported research and development in military and communications technology throughout California, as well as the University of California System, which was involved in the Stanford Digital Library Technologies Project. They were all supported by the NSF funded San Diego Supercomputing Center at UCSD. Researchers eventually took some of the projects and computing power from the early research and helped to create the California Digital Library. The latter has evolved into a powerful bulk negotiator of access to scholarly content (creating their own value metrics to negotiate with publishers and vendors) and an interesting institutional model for how a national library could be sustainably run.
I am not an expert on all this history (so have likely made a misstep above). But it is clear from the broad outlines that all of these together, through a range of future work and investments - public, private, for-profit, open-source or all of the above - helped to produce Google as we know it today. Yes, annoying click ads make Google billions of dollars a year, but even their value is contingent on the broad public infrastructure underlying its massive search engine. In this sense, it is hard to find an aspect of Google that doesn’t benefit from our meagre public infrastructure in this country: if you add to it all the books in the mostly public libraries it scanned for its Google Books project, the range of government documents and public domain objects that populate its archives, and the our participation in its copyright free culture of openness - to the degree that even senior intelligence officers in the US government offer their information for its consumption.
If we define public support very narrowly, the original $500,000 is not much seed money. But it shows just how valuable that investment was - for the government which efficiently provides this money, the creative individuals who received it, and for all of us who use or otherwise benefit from the service Google provides. It should remind us of what our taxes go to fund, how important it is to give smart, visionary people the money to help bring their emergent utopias to life. People who will do the “exciting big stuff” Neal Stephenson poses as the opposite of our present “Innovation Starvation.” How many Googles could we be starting every year if we were making wise public investments rather than allowing corporations to sit on slightly more cash than they already are?
In the present example, it should remind us that, despite the massive amount of help, of government largess we have heaped upon corporations like Google, they still seem to think it is okay to shirk their responsibility to our collective future - to the tune of $2 billion last year garnered by hiding 80% of their pretax profits abroad.
Now perhaps we could say that Google knows better what to do with those funds than, say, the NSF. If we ignore for a moment the fact that the most wealthy private corporations are sitting on mountains of cash they refuse to invest in any new ventures for fear they will go south, we could argue that private corporations with a profit at stake will work harder to make those companies and ideas productive than a government funded agency.
But the fact of the matter is that, if we had always believed this we would have no Google to argue about. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether that is a good or bad, but I think most of us benefit from having this massive search engine. It may be, as Siva Vaidhyanathan puts it, a great public failure that we have left it to a private corporation to do all of these things; but that private corporation failing to pay back into the kitty that gave it life is indicative of the great unsung tragedy of the commons that is unfolding in American life as we speak. We ignore it at our peril.
In 1952, the corporate income tax accounted for about one third of of all federal tax revenue. But, over the years, U.S. multinationals have devised increasingly complex tax avoidance schemes, far beyond the ability of the IRS to credibly monitor or enforce. Although the corporate tax rate was also lowered significantly in 1986, tax avoidance is one of primary reasons why corporate taxes supply less than 9 percent of federal revenues today.
Looked at from this angle, the standard practice of urban planning and architecture suddenly seems very bizarre indeed.The architect and planners proceed by devising an overall vision of the building or ensemble of buildings they propose. This vision is physically represented in drawings and, typically, in an actual model of the buildings proposed. One sees in the newspapers photographs of beaming city officials and architects looking down on the successful model as if they were in helicopters, or gods. What is astounding, from a vernacular perspective, is that no one ever experiences the city from that height or angle. The presumptive ground-level experience of real pedestrians— window-shoppers, errand-runners, aimlessly strolling lovers— is left entirely out of the urban-planning equation. It is substantially as sculptural miniatures that the plans are seen, and it is hardly surprising that they should be appreciated for their visual appeal as attractive works of art: works of art that will henceforth never be seen again from that godlike vantage point, except by Superman.
Scott, James C. (2012-10-21). Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play (Kindle Locations 840-847). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
I’ve been enjoying James C. Scott’s new book on anarchism tremendously. The opening concept of anarchist calisthenics remains one of my favorite, but another theme running throughout the book so far is really useful. It highlights the differences between vernacular understandings of nature, spaces, and ideas and those of the planners and elites. It is worth noting that he is very pragmatic in his critique, often pointing out things that the amped up radical would be hard pressed to admit. Here is a taste, from his keen observation of local custom near Durham, Connecticut where he currently resides:
Consider, by way of illustration, the vernacular and official names for roads. A road runs between my town of Durham and the coastal town of Guilford, some sixteen miles to the south. Those of us who live in Durham call this road (among ourselves) the “Guilford Road” because it tells us exactly where we’ll get to if we take it. The same road at its Guilford terminus is naturally called the “Durham Road” because it tells the inhabitants of Guilford exactly where they’ll get to if they take it. One imagines that those who live midway along the road call it the “Durham Road” or the “Guilford Road” depending on which way they are heading. That the same road has two names depending on one’s location demonstrates the situational, contingent nature of vernacular naming practices; each name encodes valuable local knowledge— perhaps the most important single thing you would want to know about a road is where it leads. Vernacular practices not only produce one road with two names but many roads with the same name. Thus, the nearby towns of Killingworth, Haddam, Madison, and Meriden each have roads leading to Durham that the local inhabitants call the “Durham Road.”
Now imagine the insuperable problems that this locally effective folk system would pose to an outsider requiring a unique and definitive name for each road. A state road repair crew sent to fix potholes on the “Durham Road” would have to ask, “Which Durham Road?” Thus it comes as no surprise that the road between Durham and Guilford is reincarnated on all state maps and in all official designations as “Route 77.” The naming practices of the state require a synoptic view, a standardized scheme of identification generating mutually exclusive and exhaustive designations. As Route 77, the road no longer immediately conveys where it leads; the sense of Route 77 only springs into view once we spread out a road map on which all state roads are enumerated. And yet the official name can be of vital importance. If you are gravely injured in a car crash on the Durham-Guilford Road, you will want to tell the state-dispatched ambulance team unambiguously that the road on which you are in danger of bleeding to death is Route 77.
Observations like these make it clear that there are times when hierarchy and standardization is quite useful - even from the perspective of the anarchist who sees these as often irrational and inhumane. In other words, there is little doubt that every situation is complex and overdetermined so each of us would do well to remember that, just because we have a hammer, not every problem needs a nail.
On the other hand, as I was reading the passage in the quote at the top of the post, my colleague Bryan Alexander sent me this video of the use of drones by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Drone Journalism Lab. The project is allows slightly more ordinary citizens to use drones to get a better sense of the world from this “godlike vantage point.” In this case, they are using drones to get a better sense of the drought conditions the state is facing.
It is sort of funny that they are calling this a drone anyway. It is basically just an RC helicopter with a networked digital camera. Someday we should develop a taxonomy of drones so that we know what we’re talking about. For now, it is just worth noting that there are many democratic uses for these technologies which might help more people give input on how the world might be arranged from this god-like perspective - or at the very least give more people access to this perspective in order to encourage their input.
On this score, I don’t want to overstate causality any more than the “Twitter revolution folks” - and I certainly don’t want to give any more credence to the Imperial Messenger - yet there might actually be something to Thomas Friedman’s assertion that one of the catalysts for the Bahraini uprisings was Google Earth:
While Facebook has gotten all the face time in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain, don’t forget Google Earth, which began roiling Bahraini politics in 2006. A big issue in Bahrain, particularly among Shiite men who want to get married and build homes, is the unequal distribution of land. On Nov. 27, 2006, on the eve of parliamentary elections in Bahrain, The Washington Post ran this report from there: “Mahmood, who lives in a house with his parents, four siblings and their children, said he became even more frustrated when he looked up Bahrain on Google Earth and saw vast tracts of empty land, while tens of thousands of mainly poor Shiites were squashed together in small, dense areas. ‘We are 17 people crowded in one small house, like many people in the southern district,’ he said. ‘And you see on Google how many palaces there are and how the al-Khalifas [the Sunni ruling family] have the rest of the country to themselves.’ Bahraini activists have encouraged people to take a look at the country on Google Earth, and they have set up a special user group whose members have access to more than 40 images of royal palaces.”
Like its social media brethren, this explanation overlooks the decades long struggle (and organizing) that has taken place in Bahrain - something Vijay Prashad vividly describes in his book on the wave of protests. Yet the godlike perspective of Google Earth may have helped give a visual representation of the disparity of the country at a time when there was an organization on the ground to suture this signifier with a signified that would produce pressure in a progressive direction.
In short, properly used, these kinds of technologies could go some distance towards overcoming the kind of divide between the vernacular and official perspectives. Scott himself seems suspicious of organizing in general, preferring the inchoate rage of the mob. Yet it seems these things may often go hand in hand: the spark of indignation which Scott sees as a legitimate outburst of the dispossessed and oppressed comes from a variety of sources. Organization of some kind often gives a more productive channel to that rage.
On the other hand, it would be more productive politically if the visual instigation came from an objective source. For instance, the Hezbollah drone shot down in Lebanon last month may well have been a useful piece of infrastructure in deterring further Israeli violence in the area, as Belen Fernandez contends. But since it was launched by Hezbollah instead of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, it’s hard to see it as journalism rather than espionage. The latter, of course, are as slippery to define as “drones.” But it seems you know it when you see it.
Hayek: “A society that wishes to get a maximum economic return from a limited expenditure on education should concentrate on the higher education of a comparatively small elite, which today would mean increasing that part of the population getting the most advanced type of education rather than prolonging education for large numbers.
Following along my post last week, I’ve been able to visit Corey Robin’s new tumblr page - in some ways marking a new focus in his scholarship: Hayek and the Liberal philosophers like him and their relationship to the broader changes in our society. In short, the anti-democratic, anti-worker autocracy they must assume in order for their philosophies to be true. Or this is how I see them. It is an area I spent a great deal of time thinking about when I was writing my dissertation four years ago.
If you note, “four years ago” was also a key turning point in the national discussion around the economy. At the very least, it was a potential moment in which a well-developed truly radical platform with deep cultural roots could have taken hold here and forced a change of the dominant order. In other words, it was a moment when things could have shifted Left, had we a coherent narrative, a grassroots movement, and a connected public. Just for the sake of reference, you will know this has happened when someone like Doug Henwood or Greg Albo or Resnick or Wolff are shortlisted for a cabinet level economic advisory post. It did not happen with Obama, as much as the right would like to imagine it did. Hiring Lawrence Summers hardly represents a changing of the guard.
In any case, there was a great deal of anxiety from the serious libertarian right about the crisis and debt situation itself - and what political solutions would be engineered to fix them. I was reading Hayek and von Mises, trying to tie their views to the conservative Law and Economic movement. My ultimate goal was contextualizing the thought of Lawrence Lessig on copyright in relation to the legal tradition from which he hailed. While some of this had to do with his background, much of it has to do with his own interest in convincing the folks within that tradition that using the government for good is a socially important function.
He and his colleague Cass Sunstein (who, incidentally, was appointed by the president to an actual administrative, not advisor, position) make their arguments from within this tradition, taking as basically true conservative economic ideologies. So, in one article on the paradoxes of regulation, Sunstein takes as true a longtime contention of libertarian economists: that a high minimum wage ultimately creates a high level of unemployment or inflation. He cites a handful of studies or theoretical polemics as evidence this assertion is true.
The question is less whether the citations he provides us with as evidence are valid than that he feels that citation is enough to seal the deal. In effect, he is saying his primary and only valid audience begins from the baseline of a fundamentally (neo)liberal society. In any case, studying this connection and the range of contradictions in this moment of strife - to see the full portrait of the background from which the current POTUS sprouted - made writing the chapter on Hayek (and R.W. Coase, another demigod among Lessig and his cohort, including Yochai Benkler) a difficult task.
My primary source for peering into the contemporary debate was through a blog maintained by some of the cluster of more radical libertarian economists - now called Coordination Problem, it then went by the URL name The Austrian Economists. Here they railed about the bailout being generated in response to the crisis. They wanted to see the excess squeezed out of the economy (much as Thiel, in the linked earlier post, thought we should have. His post-hoc recommendation on that front can be found in this lament:
The last economic depression in the United States that did not result in massive government intervention was the collapse of 1920–21. It was sharp but short, and entailed the sort of Schumpeterian “creative destruction” that could lead to a real boom. The decade that followed — the roaring 1920s — was so strong that historians have forgotten the depression that started it. The 1920s were the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics. Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.
The best thing is to squeeze the slack out of society, to limit welfare receipts, and to reduce the use of the franchise by people who are “tough for rich white me…I mean libertarians.” This coincides with his belief, mentioned in the earlier post, that democracy is not an effective political system for a libertarian society. What he means here is that, as Chantel Mouffe outlines in her book, the Democratic Paradox, the kind of fundamentalist property protection he desires can only be achieved with some autocratic tendencies in the political system. In other words, you have to limit governance of society to the elites (somewhat like Lippman recommended in Public Opinion.)
And if the elites are the ones you need trained to make these decisions, then it makes sense that schooling need only educate those elites, as the Hayek quote above (poached from Robin’s blog).
This brings me to the real consequence of the most recent wave of neoliberal tendencies in relation to education: effectively, these elites have given up on mass education in the United States - yet they are not satisfied with simply ending it as we know it. They would like us to continue to believe in it, and pay for it out of pocket or via student deb, long after they have cratered it from within. After all, if there is money to be made from a mass delusion, Wall Street will find a way.
This also helps explain the major complaint of Occupy Wall Street - which is, unfortunately, almost completely absent as a cultural force going into this election. Namely, it wasn’t just student debt, but the lack of job prospects for educated college students now holding student debt. This is especially dire among the newest social sectors being served by higher ed - i.e. the more precarious socio-economic population, who most traditional colleges and universities have limited capacity to service well so are pushed into the for-profit sector.
Since their economic status coincidentally qualifies them for more loans they are actually able to pay the inflated for-profit tuition taking on an ever larger proportion of the federal and private student debt. This is more of a speculative bubble than an education system - and in so far as it is at all the latter, it is a system which explicitly trains people to be mid to low level service employees of one kind or another. It is a relative step up, but it is not a ticket to the middle class - much less the upper class.
I am ambivalent of how to place the blame on traditional institutions here. Many of them are committed to education as a form of social advancement. And clearly the issue is less about price (U. of Pheonix is almost as much as a four year private college) than it is about a certain perspective on recruiting, flexible capacity, and craven profiteering. If our society truly wanted to have an education system that served the entire population, the public money being funneled into for profits would be re-channeled into building out the public system.
Yet all indications are that the opposite will be on the offing, possibly undermining education as an institution for social advancement. Commentators like John Walsh might welcome this dissolution of what has become an illusion. But I am not so sure.