Friday, June 29, 2012

What Happened to Journalism Can Happen to Academia

The commotion over the last few weeks at the University of Virginia about firing and then re-hiring of the much-loved university president by the school’s Board of Visitors, which is apparently dominated by business-school buzzword types, brings to light a dynamic that could potentially decimate higher education, if left unchecked: the continuing corporatization of academia involves a drive to replace education through rich professor-student interaction with virtual learning over the internet.  What has happened to journalism over the last decade -- destruction of jobs and of quality -- could happen to academia over the next, if not stopped.
Briefly, the facts of the case are these: Teresa Sullivan was hired by the Board two years ago and quickly won the loyalty and affection of faculty and students by winning consensus support for her visions.  This included streamlining the university’s budget flows to save money, while also beginning the process of improving UVA’s research status, a goal of both the Board and faculty. Board member Helen Dragas, however, a real estate developer from Virginia Beach (which in my opinion has become the shittiest, most run-down vacation spot in the U.S., no doubt due to developers like Dragas), decided that Sullivan was not following the tenets of something called “strategic dynamism.”  This is apparently a business school fad that aims and constant changing of short-term goals, shifting of resources, and other turmoil to achieve organizational ends.  E-mail exchanges between her and another Board member showed that Dragas felt Sullivan wasn’t moving fast enough to adapt to what New York Times simpleton David Brooks, a Wall Street journal editorial, and a single article in the Chronicle of Higher Education said was a new academic environment:   
The board never formally evaluated Sullivan's performance. But the emails obtained by the the Cavalier Daily demonstrate that Dragas worked closely with her vice rector, Mark Kington, planning Sullivan’s ouster -- while shielding their machinations from students and professors.
The rationale for the leadership change is as strange as the secrecy. Dragas and Kington appear to have built their case against Sullivan from just a few media articles that offer vague praise for the use of Internet technology in higher education, according to the emails.
Dragas displayed particular esteem for a David Brooks column in an email to Kington, in which the New York Times columnist touts the sort of online education initiatives undertaken by the for-profit University of Phoenix. "What happened to the newspaper and magazine business is about to happen to higher education: a rescrambling around the Web," Brooks wrote.
"Don't dismiss the for-profit colleges and universities, either," proclaimed John Chubb and Terry Moe in a Wall Street Journal editorial. "Institutions such as the University of Phoenix -- and it is hardly alone -- have embraced technology aggressively."
Dragas, who sent this article to Kington, included a reminder in one of the emails obtained by the Cavalier that this was, apparently, "Why we can't afford to wait."
Dragas then secretly built up majority support for Sullivan’s ouster with the rest of the Board, most of whom appear to have gotten their positions through large campaign donations.  After a massive outcry by students and faculty, and ultimately under threat by the governor to fire the entire Board if the disruption was not resolved quickly, the Board Wednesday re-hired Sullivan. However, her’s is not the only case like this, and this is simply another step in what has been a long process of the commodification of education in America, in which it is possible now to simply buy the right to hire professors if you are as wealthy as, say, the Koch brothers. 
The UVA Board of Visitors' explanation throughout has been filled with business-school management buzzwords.  It’s clearly a business mindset  being applied to a non-business institution.  It doesn't even work for economics: what business schools mainly do is promote corporatization, corporate raiding, offshoring, commodification, and advertising propaganda, rather than the responsible management of society’s collective economic resources.  I don’t see why anyone would think it moral, appropriate, or desirable to export business values, practices, and systems into other spheres of life; but of course the opposite has happened and capitalism has penetrated and colonized almost every other sphere of life.  It imposes one outlook and one set of standards and values -- the outlook and standards and values of the merchant -- onto education, medicine, family life, religion, art, music, literature, community, morality, government -- everything, whether fitting to these other fields of human activity or not.  It would be a better world if we would understand that each of these spheres of life has its own set of standards appropriate to it, independent of instrumental rationality or the profit motive. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Turnout Elections and Alienated Bases

This year’s presidential election looks like it will be a close one, which means that turning out the base will be critical to both sides; whoever turns out more of their committed voters is likely to win. Recent polls have been conflicted, but on balance show the two candidates neck-and-neck among likely voters, with Romney slightly ahead by perhaps a percentage point.  A Bloomberg poll last week purported to measure a thirteen point lead for Obama, but on further analysis it is either a statistical outlier or had a skewed polling sample.*  To make a long story short: despite the electorate’s thoroughgoing 2008 rejection of the Republican record of failed wars and failed economies, the centrist Democrats in Washington have managed to make the re-election of their president an open question a mere four years later.  They have managed this feat both through foolish policy and short-sighted politics.    
The new monetary environment of our post-Citizens United oligarchy means that money is sadly more important than ever to winning elections. Obama officials know they are in money trouble, expecting an anti-Obama battle chest of one billion dollars from the Romney campaign and the PACs and other groups newly unleashed by the partisan and pro-oligarchy Roberts court.  In this electoral environment the Democrats will be outspent  in this election and every election from now on.  That means that, for the Democratic party, doing the best that they can at fundraising while also doing well at every other kind of political organization is crucial.  They will have to organize students and civil rights groups and labor and environmentalists, and they will have to maximize the turnout of every minority group, of women, of the LGBT communities, and of young people, all of whom lean towards Democrats: the activists of these groups are the core and base of the Democratic party, and henceforth will need to be mobilized like never before.
The problem is that the Obama and the centrist Democrats have insulted, neglected, pissed off, and alienated that very base. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Thought of the Day: The Web of Impassioned Minorities

One often hears that the internet has made it harder for society as a whole to share a common political discourse, because it enables everyone to go to their own favored news and informations sources where they have their pre-conceptions and prejudices confirmed by like-minded people.  And there’s something to that, but the problem is not only that the web divides us up into little sub-communities of confirmation bias.  It is also an environment where small, passionate, zealous groups can flourish even when they represent a minority view on an issue, or who may be biased, wrong, or have a vested interest.  Such groups also tend to be full of conviction and highly motivated, especially compared to a majority of thinkers on a subject whose opinions may be more correct but who aren’t as passionate or vested in their interest.  

Political scientists have long known how interest groups can distort a policy-making process based on lobbying: if the question is ranching subsidies that only cost the millions average taxpayer a few cents each, but provide an aggregate financial windfall to a handful of ranchers, who do you think is going to advocate hardest on the issue?  The ranching lobby, of course -- who will in fact probably take over public ranching policy while the disinterested majority ignores it.  The same applies to identity issues like abortion and gun control, even when money isn’t involved: the small minority who shouts the loudest wins.  Ultimately, this leads to the kind of factionalization in that has dropped Congress to its lowest approval ratings ever.

Just as lobbying in Congress is mainly done by small, concentrated, vested interests, so is lobbying on the Internet.  Who says the most on comment threads and chat boards?  The impassioned few.  Who makes the most vile and irrational comments?  The zealous minority.  Both Congress and the internet are environments where division and factionalization flourish, because they are battlefields that favor impassioned, vested interests rather than widespread deliberation.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Power of Speaking Up

Have you ever noticed the group dynamic in which a patently foolish idea or ideas gains momentum in a discussion, with everyone sort of going along -- until one person courageously speaks up and raises a solid objection?  That can change the whole direction of a conversation.  Groupthink is unfortunately how much evil is perpetuated in the world, when the ignorant or malicious exploit it.  Fortunately, one person standing up in speech can arrest groupthink’s momentum, inducing other objectors to speak up and forcing the group as a whole to deliberatively rethink their claims.  This often leads to the rejection, modification, or slowing of bad ideas and bad policy, and at a minimum gets people to examine assumptions they take for granted.  It’s partly what is meant by the maxim, “Let cooler heads prevail.”
Why does groupthink happen at all?  One explanation is a cognitive bias called the “bandwagon effect,” in which people do or believe things simply because others do; humans are social animals that tend to follow the lead of others, especially in unfamiliar situations where someone else seems to know what they are doing.  Another cognitive bias is “false consensus,” a tendency for people to believe that others agree with them more than they actually do.  And certainly there are groupthink pressures from society and culture, or subcultures: in some group situations non-consensus opinions are more welcomed (many or most graduate seminars in philosophy) while in others conformity is expected or even imposed (many corporate boardrooms, or in ideological think tanks). 
The problem is that once the momentum of a discussion gets going in a bad direction, people around the table may silently nod their heads in agreement, perhaps thinking that the initial discussant has some special authority or expertise, or going along because they believe that the group as a whole concurs with the original claim.  Thus people often don't say anything in the face of objectionable ideas or policy, which only allows those bad ideas or policies to flourish uncontested.  It is that contestation of ideas that gives deliberation its power, whether in a small meeting or in a large modern democracy.  And contestation doesn’t occur unless someone speaks up first.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Wisconsin: a Citizens United Test Case

Wisconsin is a canary in a coal mine.
The Republican party far out-stripped the Democratic party in national fundraising last month, and in the Age of Citizens United the disparity is probably worse than that, since we cannot know how much anonymous non-party money will be spent on behalf of each party -- although you can be sure that corporate money will mainly go to the pro-oligarch Republican party.  Money has long been a critical political resource for winning elections, especially in an era when expensive big media advertising is necessary to persuade voters.  The decades are long past when activists and unions members could keep concentrated wealth to heel by the hard work of licking envelopes and knocking on doors.  Advertising is proficient at persuading people to vote against their own interests, or to vote on jingoism, prejudice, fear, and hatred, in order to produce elections results different from what would occur if people voted deliberatively and rationally.
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, in effectively removing limits on political spending, has biased the political playing field towards concentrated wealth and thus towards Republican big-money donors. Now, whoever has the most money will almost always win.  Oh, there will be a few left-leaning or centrist candidates who succeed based on personal charisma, but the structural momentum of our politics will henceforth trend towards full-blown oligarchy: government of, by, and for the wealthy.  It will still be called a democracy on paper, of course, but without effective democratic institutions the quality of government will decline and authoritarianism will grow.  
My dear progressive friends:  left and center-left political parties cannot compete in these structural conditions. Changing the rules of political campaign funding should be on the top of your mind, constantly.
The failure of the campaign in Wisconsin to recall Governor Scott Walker is a case in point.  How is it possible that a governor whose brazen arrogance provoked mass mobilization and a historical recall drive a brief time ago could pull out a victory?  The traditional, diffident Democratic hand-wringing has occurred about the loss, but it's clear three major factors were to blame: 1) outside corporate money; 2) the false consciousness it produced in working voters (especially in the approximately one-third of union members who voted for Walker), and 3) lack of national-level support.  The Republicans were able to outspend the Democrats in this race by a whopping eight-to-one ratio.  How is that a fair competition, by any measure?  Political scientists know that people tend to believe the last political message that they hear advertised, so that there must be a vibrant back-and-forth debate in the public sphere for good choices to be made.   How can a people deliberate rationally, weighing and balancing the different candidates and their proposals, when they are hearing one message so much more often than the other?

Friday, June 8, 2012

Tipping Points

Scientists this week warned that the Earth is approaching tipping points past which the biosphere will shift its basic state as humans move towards transforming half its surface to their own uses, threatening mass extinctions and general environmental and social collapse.  Our politics is headed towards analogous tipping points: the dominance of money has become so bad that we are fast tipping from any semblance of democracy into full-bore oligarchy. Progressives need to figure out how to reverse that trend so that we start passing tipping points in the other direction to transform into a green, progressive society.
We have successfully passed tipping points on civil rights, feminism, GLBT rights, and other cultural issues, but on key economic and environmental issues we have not. It is critical, I think, to start treating economics as we have identity issues; indeed, economic class is an identity, but people just don't know it.  And it is also critical to build up our identities as responsible citizens and stewards of the planet.  Consciousness raising, à la 1950s feminism, is a necessary step. Perhaps Occupy Wall Street is an early part of that movement, but that particular round of public protest seems to have run its course, and as with previous movements many assemblies in the streets will be needed.
It will take an increasingly unified campaign not just of street demonstration but of political and legislative organizing; progressive values take hold only when there is complementary action from the civil society wing and from the political party wing. The failure to recall Wisconsin governor Scott Walker was at least in part a failure of the national Democratic party to provide resources and support to bring a successful political conclusion to the process begun last year by the hundreds of thousands who Occupied Madison.  In a key political battle like that, the only chance we have to beat the endless millions the oligarchs will pour into advertising in the Citizens United era is to combine our better ground game with as much national money as can be spared, as well as several appearances by the president and other national-level party notables. It takes a full-bore effort that includes grass-roots citizen effort and effective action by political elites to reverse trends and push them towards new tipping points.
The idea of the "tipping point" is a reminder of two things: how trends can build momentum for change, and how fast systems can permanently and irreversibly change state. Both our political and environmental systems currently have momentum towards catastrophe, in the one case oligarchy and in other a denuded biosphere. But the idea should also  remind us that we can potentially tip in the reverse direction: with a unified  effort to change trends, as was done with civil rights, we can build momentum the other way on the economy and the environment and ultimately pass positive tipping points. That's a good thing, and it can happen more rapidly than people think.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Privatized Space Flight: What's All the Fuss?

The Dragon cargo space capsule, owned by the SpaceX company and the first successful mission to the International Space Station (ISS) by a private business, splashed into the Pacific yesterday. I don’t understand all the hullabaloo about it; such launches were successfully done by the state 50 years ago -- in fact, the Communists beat the corporations to it by decades! Indeed, more than 40 years ago “big government” successfully put many men on the moon and safely returned them to the Earth, a much bigger and grander accomplishment. Space flight is decades-old technology just now being commercialized, and only those already inclined to fetishize the achievements of private corporations would think that this is a major, historic event. Only now, long after governments took the risk of first going into space, privatized space tourism (for wealthy multimillionaires) and this private cargo capsule venture depend on the public infrastructure of the ISS, built by a cooperative effort of many governments around the world, and funded by the taxpaying citizens of many nations. Whatever profits commercial space travel makes for private companies is dependent on public largess.  
Thus one would think today would be a reminder of the value of government to business and a reminder to free-market worshippers that the very creation of markets is done by governments. It is governments that almost open new sectors, whether it be exploration of a frontier for resource extraction companies to exploit, building a highway system for car companies to capitalize on, creating a World Wide Web with all its opportunities, or giving late-comer private space companies a place to deliver goods. Despite the self-congratulations of “risk-taking” entrepreneurs and financiers, markets are rarely the courageous pioneers -- indeed, when it comes to real, physical risks, government leads the way, as the history of the aerospace industry shows, with its heroic test pilots and astronauts. Alexander Hamilton, widely worshipped on Wall Street, more than 200 years ago argued for a very active “big government” industrial policy, including a public investment bank, on the grounds that risk and high fixed costs deterred merchants from adequately investing in new, growing sectors. The public had to lead the way. 
The US space program was once a symbol to all the world of the amazing things that government can do. For decades it was a testament to our once-stronger public sphere. It is a shame that America has allowed its manned space capacity degrade by letting the Space Shuttle program end without a replacement ready; as we rent rides from the Russians, they say the grounding of our astronauts is only temporary, but the degradation of such a public capacity can very easily become permanent in an era of economic stagnation and budget cuts. The end of the manned space program may be a sign of a more permanent American decline -- one brought about by long neglect of our common infrastructure and our shared public sphere.