Friday, August 12, 2011

Education, Extraction, Austerity Rioting

I've now interrupted two series of posts, one on funding and the other on the California state audit.  I gave Pt 2 of the audit report on KCSB's No Alibi's on Wednesday. Barring more interruptions I'll post this material about the apparent racial pattern of differential campus funding this weekend.  The differential funding is a huge story in itself.

I normally read almost as much about finance as I do about higher ed, and the last two weeks have been unbelievably awful for the former. Enormous uncertainty is exhausting everyone and obviously blocks coherent medium-term decisions. Outright anger is just as common, as displayed in Dylan Raitgan's MSNBC meltdown on the theme, "the United States of America is being extracted."  The sense is that some irreversible taking of resources is going on, and the leadership is not stopping it.  There is also the feeling that the leadership is in fact actually helping it -- helping the looting on a gigantic scale.

That's the noir suspicion running through the anger at Obama from various directions.  It is also the feeling on both sides of the actual looting that took place in the UK this week, where anger at police violence turned into a kind of poverty riot conducted by teenage boys.  By the time the Prime Minister David Cameron returned from Tuscany to declare police water cannoning to be an Olympic sport in time for next year's London games, commentators were as sickened by the disavowals of the connection between austerity and criminality as they were by the criminality itself.  The conservative Daily Telegraph's lead commentator, Peter Oborne, denounced the "moral decay" at the top of British society, railed against elite hypocrisy and double standards, and concluded thus:

The culture of greed and impunity we are witnessing on our TV screens stretches right up into corporate boardrooms and the Cabinet. It embraces the police and large parts of our media. It is not just its damaged youth, but Britain itself that needs a moral reformation.
I would say that Britain and the US need an end to austerity and deprivation.  This is particularly true around education, where Cameron's government has in less than a year planned for an 80% cut in the university teaching grant, overseen an immediate tripling of fees, and in effect replaced most public investment in university education with the American mix of family money and student loans.  One can never make a one-step causal argument from a government report to rioting, but the Cameron extraction of the university system was clear and deliberate, and the entrenched poverty in world cities like London and Los Angeles is equally clear. Politicians often hope the consequences of bad decisions will appear too late to be traced back to their bit of political engineering, but Cameron was not so lucky.

The national political systems in the US, UK, and France-- the ones I watch pretty carefully -- are simply unwilling to accept any functional solution that would cost their most powerful constituencies.   Dozens of op-eds every day call on leaders to build up schools, roads, parks, labs, universities, pools, and job training centers rather than letting them fall apart, for the obvious reason that these would help restart everybody's economy.   I don't think Tea Partiers or Tories actually believe that austerity will get things going again.  Jerry Brown can't actually believe this. And yet Brown and the rest are passionately committed to an austerity strategy that is bound to fail in advance.

Theirs is partly a momentum play -- the Right is comfortable with anti-government austerity language--but more to the point, austerity mints money for the rich portion of the political Right, given the piles of money they make loaning society money rather than being taxed to help pay for it up front.  It is also now rational for the top 1% and 0.1% not to want to invest in anybody's new economy, since they don't make their money on domestic production anymore, whether it's automobiles or solar panels or anything else.  The truly rich put their money to work at higher returns on their capital in Brazil, China, Malaysia, Russia, etc etc., where foreign direct investment entails zero social overhead.  They can see perfectly well that restarting the US or the UK will require big upfront costs and then a whole bunch of ongoing investment and payroll commitments down the road, plus new political power for the green economy lovers and fans of community health clinics and all that other irritating and expensive middle-class stuff, and if public investment and everything that comes with it like public teachers and public sector unions is shown to work economically, which it would be, then you have the New Deal coalition back again, regular people voting left rather than right, and that  would be the end of the antiegalitarian phase of capitalism we've had for thirty years-- the Right is right about that.

Public education has been thrown into the doghouse so it can't play a leadership role in reviving public investment. K-12 is now subject to every kind of manipulation other than actually meaningful increases in public funding, particularly charter schools that give public funding to private parties with very mixed results. Educational results are only part of the point. The rest of it is to show that public investment in anything doesn't work, so regular people can't call for it confidently.

In the past, public universities have been immune to these attacks. One reason is that they are represented by some of the most intensely selective and prestigious institutions on the planet -- places like Harvard and Cambridge that produce society's deciders, as George W. Bush would say.  Another reason is that they are associated far more than K-12 with private interests -- with wealth-producing technology and wealth-preserving medical services -- that is, services that preserve the capacity to enjoy one's wealth.  The influence of the medical centers over UC policy is just one instance of the importance of this association of universities with wealth and technology.  Certainly public university officials are doing everything they can to maintain this association-- even if it forces them to soften their pitch for public funding.

It seems clear, however, that the pitch for the innovation economy isn't working for public universities like it used to. Plutocratic money is mostly abroad, and salary money mostly isn' t in innovation -- only 6% of US jobs are "STEM" jobs associated with technology.

I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post this week on this question of the fate of the innovation economy after the debt ceiling debacle.  Innovation has really been sputtering along under Obama - the Sputnik call didn't do much for most people, since there's no Soviet empire behind it to scare anyone into spending.  The climate emergency has been muffled even within the Obama administration by his support for oil -  extraction again -- and for nuclear.  The question for most people is not where is the innovation economy, but where are the innovation jobs.

Public universities could reposition themselves by having an answer to this last question.  They need to tie their own activities to job creation, but not exclusively through technology and medical services, but through social and cultural knowledge sadly lacking in so much public policy, and through the care and nurturing of working-class and middle-class people that are going increasingly to waste whether in Tottenham or Ivry-sur-Seine or Richmond California. Public universities will need to come out  only in favor of the public sector as the source of personal development -- employability but also creativity and imagination -- for the entire population and not just for the tech focused end of their current constituency. 

I was thinking about this as yet another Carnavale report on the cash value of a B.A. was overshadowed by the news that Rihanna's hair bill comes to more than $22,000 per week.  Rihanna's has her noted stylist, Ursula Stephens, on a $3200 per day retainer, meaning that Stephens earns in a day what most adjunct professors make for teaching a semester course.  It's one more thing to get furious about, and yet I end up with the thought that the energy and craziness captured by popular music would be a better guide for designing the next university than the official policy debates.

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