Thursday, October 30, 2014

Furor over Nevada Margins Tax Shows Peril of Creeping Privatization in Higher Education

Nevada shares many characteristics with California.  Amongst them, its mangled initiative process and undemocratic supermajority rules that create unstable revenue streams that are incapable of addressing the needs of a state population growing in size and demographic complexity.  There are two measures on the November ballot designed to alleviate some of the state’s socioeconomic ills. One is an attempt to address the privileged position of the state’s mining industry that is currently protected by a cap from having to pay higher taxes should residents so desire.  Such a measure seems like a no-brainer.
The second is a “Margins Tax”, designed to raise by two percent taxes on marginal profits of businesses that bring in over $1 million and redirecting those funds to the public school system which is, from all that I’ve heard since arriving here, in a truly abysmal state.  The Californian in me cringes at ad hoc ballot-box budgeting, which often engenders unanticipated consequences, and seems a poor substitute for devising a democratic, integrated relationship between the initiative process and a legislature unshackled by supermajority caps and special protections for certain industries.  On the other hand, funding for an overburdened and underperforming public school system is critical to the functioning of the state’s economy and a moral imperative for its citizens.
The Center for Business and Economics Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas got in on the act, conducting and publishing a study designed to evaluate the effects of the Margins Tax for the state.  Their findings were striking, suggesting that the tax could be a boon to the state in terms of job creation.  This comes at a time when state leadership is interested in diversifying an economy overly-centred on select industries, and at a time when UNLV is making a push for “Tier 1” status in an effort to establish the institution as a more prominent public research university.
On 21 August, the University rushed out a press release distancing itself from the report’s findings.  The University’s President, Donald Snyder, wrote that “While CBER is a center within UNLV, it does not form part of the university’s day-to-day operations nor is it functionally aligned with our broader initiatives”, with the Executive Vice-President and Provost John White adding that “other UNLV faculty have expressed different opinions on the margins tax”.
Gary Loveman, of Caesars Entertainment Corporation, wrote to UNLV President Snyder, and suggested that “Before burning what little political capital the university has left on a football stadium, let’s search for an economics professor that understands that growth and taxes are inversely related”.
Keith Smith, of the Boyd Gaming Corporation, followed up with his own threat: “Given how this tax will impact our business, I guess I can put off trying to find ways to support the various “asks” from the University including support/funding for a new Hotel College building, a proposed Medical College, T&M renovations and that Stadium project”. 
The response of UNLV’s administration was also documented in the evidence Ralston acquired.  The Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor, Dan Klaich, wrote to Snyder, “I fully understand academic freedom but I also like a little common sense”, to which the President replied, “This clearly has me pissed!”
While I could be misreading the exchange, given subsequent events, Snyder does not seem to have been so much “pissed” at efforts by the gaming industry to shut down intellectual inquiry and stifle academic freedom, but instead at the temerity of CBER to issue a report that suggested that taxing some of the University’s benefactors at a higher rate could create positive outcomes for the community the University serves. 
I understand that economists and others will debate the conclusions of CBER’s study, although I would point out that the evidence on the theory of trickle-down economics that Loveman trumpets leans away from his self-interested conclusions.  But the real issue here is the manner in which this chain of events illustrates the fragility of academic integrity in particular sorts of social and political environments. 
One might have hoped that the leaders of the University and the statewide system of higher education—who are attempting to cement a name for their institutions as important contributors to Nevada’s economy as well as to the production and dissemination of knowledge nation- and worldwide—might have had a chat with their would-be blackmailers in the gaming industry, and explained that no institution of research and higher learning can or should function in the face of such open threats to academic integrity. 
Instead, to all appearances, they genuflected to the gaming industry and distanced themselves from the CBER study, sending a signal through their actions and communications that could be read as a warning to faculty across the institution who engage in research that could be controversial.
This is a good—or dreadful—example of what can happen when public institutions are subjected to privatization processes, open or otherwise.  In common with other public universities in the country—including neighbouring California—UNLV saw its funding from the state dramatically reduced during the recession, the precise moment when such institutions serve an important social purpose.  Funding levels have not increased commensurate with the University’s service to the state, and as elsewhere, private donors, alumni, and students are being asked to pick up the state’s slack, the latter through hefty and unconscionable tuition increases.
The immediate institutional consequences of this creeping privatization across the nation is a scramble for resources to keep departments and other units open, to maintain staffing levels and course offerings.  Students feel the pain as the burden for funding public education is transferred from the wider community to these “customers” and their families. 
But as this episode seems to illustrate, there are other potential consequences, less visible, but nearly as insidious.  The University grows to resemble a marketplace, and there are apparently people who believe that in such a marketplace they can dictate the “products” the University is allowed to sell or produce. 
There is the potential for academic integrity to be compromised as the University finds itself dependent on private parties for funding, parties that have their own interests and agendas.  If those parties can indeed influence the University’s priorities, research funding, and institutional support for certain research fields, agendas, or projects—instead of those things being evaluated by professional standards within their disciplines and by relatively more transparent research-funding bodies—then Universities are in dangerous territory. 
As Nevadans consider how to organize their society and support the students and researchers who are critical to economic diversification and social prosperity, they should think carefully about the consequences of failing to fund public institutions.  There is real danger in allowing those institutions to be dictated to or captured by private interests—private interests that might feel threatened by a more diverse economy that would dilute their political clout. 

Privatization of the UC system in California is much further along than in Nevada, and Californians are very quickly losing the ability to influence their institution and ensure that it pursues a public mission.  Nevadans should learn from that experience and work to maintain public control over the universities that do critical research and teaching for the state and its future.  And University administrators who are pushing for “Tier 1” status should understand that such status depends on excellence in research, and that excellence in research depends on the maintenance of a reputation for academic freedom that this episode has threatened to compromise. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

There are Alternatives to Current U.S. Policy in the Middle East

A few weeks ago, Gary Lee commented on a post that was critical of Hillary Clinton, and I neglected to respond.  By way of penance, and because I think it’s a conversation worth having, I thought I’d do a post in response to his question.
Gary’s question, in relation to my grumpy assessment of Hillary Clinton’s contribution to our foreign policy framework was, “Do you honestly believe that if we ignore the region and allow them to fight among themselves that the terrorists will find a new hobby and have no interest in attacking the US?”
I’ll spend some time unpacking the assumptions behind the question, but let me start with the policy juxtaposition that it assumes. 
It is often the case that isolationism—seriously or disingenuously depending on the commentator—is mooted as the only alternative to our existing policy of terror, war, colonialism, and backing for authoritarian regimes.
I hope that we are no so imaginatively-stunted as a nation that we can’t come up with something that falls slightly between the two. 
We could, for example, refrain from giving carte blanche to colonial regimes like that in Israel.  That would earn us opprobrium from the Israelis, and some goodwill from people elsewhere in the region.  It would be a just, sensible policy, and one that would ultimately benefit Israeli citizens by forcing their recalcitrant government to negotiate seriously with the people they are currently ruling over.
We could forbear from selling weapons from undemocratic regimes, whether those are monarchies or military dictatorships.  The sale of such weapons are used against citizens when they protest for their rights, and the existence of such regimes is one of the grievances that some terrorist organizations have articulated in their campaigns against a U.S. presence in the region.
Our government expressed outrage when the Iranian government put down democratic revolutionaries, but kept out mouths firmly shut when the Egyptian military mounted a coup and when kleptocratic monarchies in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia crushed protests.
We could dismantle some or all of our military bases in the region.  Put yourselves in the shoes of Middle Easterners—whether conservative or liberal—who are faced with the indignity of a foreign power maintaining a military presence in their country which clearly compromises their sovereignty.  That is a behavior we would associate with an occupying empire rather than a friend and neighbor.  Our bases help to prop up undemocratic regimes and are also a target for terrorists.
We could refrain from using methods of barbarism and terror in the region.  We broke international law by waging a war of aggression, we tortured, abducted, disappeared, and murdered people.  That is not behavior that earns us friends or that contributes to stability in the region.
Our easy recourse to force and our large military presence in the Middle East also offends many people because it smacks of self-interested unilateralism.  Our government—as well as those of Russia, China, Britain, and France—sabotage the United Nations, international law, and other international social, political, and legal fora by way of maintaining greater clout in the international sphere.
But that clout means that when things go wrong and it might be time for a humanitarian intervention, those international organizations lack the infrastructure and funding to mount such an intervention.  And the U.S. forces which often step into the breach are handicapped by a lack of expertise—our soldiers are not trained as peacekeepers—a lack of trust—because of past behavior they are seen as imperial aggressors—and a lack of support.
There is also a common misconception in the United States that the Middle East is somehow an inherently violent place, and that people just “fight among themselves” out of habit, or because such irrational behavior is ingrained in their character.
The reality, of course, is that the region has for the last hundred years been preyed upon by outsiders, hungry for territory, for oil, and for geopolitical power.  The Middle East, like other parts of Asia and Africa, as well as Latin America, was a hot front in the Cold War.  And it has been a location where rival powers from outside of the region projected their ideologies and influences, whether late-Victorian imperialists, or twenty-first century neo-conservatives.
The United States has staged coups in the region, sold arms in abundance, and absurdly, allows much of our foreign policy in the region to be governed by a retrograde colonial regime which pursues a punitive, self-destructive, and immoral policy towards the people over whom it rules.  That conflict—between Palestinians and Israelis—was also engineered by early-twentieth century colonial powers.
If we need to educate ourselves about the historical roots of conflict in the region—and our culpability in sparking and maintaining some of those—we also need to think about how we characterize “terrorism” and “terrorists”.  Their actions are not their “hobby”. 
Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other of their ilk are pursuing recognizable, defined political ends.  Those goals might be offensive to us, and difficult to understand.  And the methods by which they are pursued might shock and horrify us.  But we accomplish nothing if we simply dismiss them as “evildoers” and fail to understand the relationship between our actions and their rise.  Understanding something is not the same thing as condoning it, and anyone who fails to understand the appeal that these organizations offer to the citizens of Middle Eastern countries is doomed to fail in trying to contain or halt them.
Some of the leadership of these organizations clearly has an interest in attacking the United States, although for the most part their grievances are local in nature, and it is only our local actions which earn us their ire.  The capacity of such groups to attack in the United States is clearly highly-limited, but they have been able to exploit our predictable aggression and draw us into attacking them on their own ground and commit ourselves to a war that we cannot win, particularly when our own methods of terror and barbarism win recruits and scatter terror across the region.
So no, it’s not as easy as us going home and everything getting better.  But we can make far better choices.  We can support international institutions that have moral and legal legitimacy, and equip them with the political, military, and economic material they require to act to halt humanitarian crises.  We can draw down our provocative military presence.  We can withdraw our support from colonial and authoritarian regimes.  We can do our best to put a stop to the criminal arms trade that enables and fuels conflict.  We can forswear our own adoption of terrorism.  And we can try to understand that all conflicts have their roots in particular historical moments and events instead of treating the Middle East as a naturally-violent part of the world.

These actions are all consistent with the values we preach, and I think if aired in public would command a great deal of support from a public that is living the results of decades of failed policies.  Since our political leadership shows no interest in making these changes, here—as with so much else—the push will have to come from a public who can show that they care about our relations with other people in other parts of the world.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Rare and Important Victory for Public Higher Education in California?

It’s not often that good news comes out of the higher education world in California.  The University of California is underfunded, its students overburdened with tuition and debt.  Administrators get pay raises and the Regents hand out bonuses while they continue the decades-long process of privatizing California’s flagship public institution.  Learning is being instrumentalized, teaching casualized, and the institution monetized. 
Californians themselves took a back-seat in their University when it admitted record numbers of out-of-state and international students, whose higher fees pour into the coffers that the state disdains to fill per its duty.  Nearly a third of incoming students at Berkeley and UCLA came from outside of California. 
But that was a bridge too far, both for legislators and California’s public.  The Los Angeles Times reports that the outcry “recently prompted UC President Janet Napolitano and other system leaders to consider putting limits on out-of-state enrollment”.
How UC will make up the funding shortfall that such a move would create remains to be seen, but the fact that the University has been forced to respond to its critics is a positive development and indicates that at least some Californians are aware of the problems associated with privatization and the danger of losing control over their institutions. 
This tentative victory came about because of backlash from parents and legislators.  But California’s public and their representatives will have increasingly little clout over UC because of their refusal to restore funding to make the University truly public.  The more money is associated with student tuition, private sources, and federal funds, the less California’s students and citizens will matter to the University.
Parents, students, legislators, and the public at large should use this potential victory to demonstrate their understanding that just as they expect UC to do right by the state’s students, they need to live up to their responsibilities to the University system. 
The primary obstacles to increased funding are our conservative Governor and the Republican Party.  The Los Angeles Times quoted Jean Fuller, the Republican Senator from Bakersfield, as reminding UC that “the university’s job is to educate Californians first, the California taxpayers who pay for it”.
But the dim-witted Senator, correct as she might be in theory, is overlooking the fact that the reason that UC is seeking alternative funding sources is that her party has systematically refused to fund the University commensurate with its expanded mission over the past decades.  Her party introduced tuition and supports initiatives that restrict the state’s ability to rationalize its revenue streams.  Their actions, and their de facto rule over California from the minority—a situation created by Proposition 13—has the state on autopilot towards a crippling austerity program, one implemented reluctantly by Governor Schwarzenegger and zealously by Governor Brown.
For the time being, UC’s mission is to educate Californians.  But California taxpayers are no longer making a particularly significant contribution to the University, which relies on alumni contributions, federal funds, and student fees for the great majority of its funds.  Hypocrites like Fuller—and more importantly, her constituents—need to reflect on what they have done over the years to California’s University system, and their own role in creating a situation where the University is under pressure to sideline Californians. 
The window during which Californians have an ability to check and reverse the privatization of UC—a project about which many of the Regents seem to be quite enthusiastic—is shrinking, but this small victory might help to keep it propped open just a bit longer.  Californians should vote for representatives who support funding higher public education, against pledge-signing, oath-swearing right-wingers who have no interest in the public sphere, and against measures which would squirrel away money for “rainy days” when the state has yet to repair the damage done by the last storm.

Californians still have time to re-build their public sphere before it is transformed into a harsh marketplace.  But they must act with conviction and consistency—and quickly. 
Fiat Lux.  

Wanted--Political Alternatives to Conventional Wisdom

Bill Clinton famously waxed on about the meaning of “is”, encouraging the fascination of journalists with parsing each and every phrase that emerges from a politicians’ mouth for nuances real or imagined; significances intended or otherwise.

The current subject of this kind of scrutiny is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the more unabashedly progressive members of Congress.  Apparently, in one of her many denials that she has any intentions to run to be President in 2016, Warren used some slightly different language than before.  This set the pens of the commentariat all aflutter, and is leading to renewed speculation that Warren might interject her formidable presence into a race that many in the Democratic establishment believe should feature only a single candidate—the neoconservative, neoliberal Hillary Clinton.

The country desperately needs a sharp departure from the devastating conventional wisdom—about the economy and finance, the public sphere, international relations, American terrorism and the security state, climate change, and organized labour—that has dominated our nation for the past decades.

For that reason, Elizabeth Warren—a modest social democrat—would be a welcome and indeed essential presence in any contest for the leadership of an ostensibly progressive party.  Indeed, her oft-expressed commitment to defending U.S. citizens against the unconscionable power-grab by corporate interests means that she has an obligation of sorts.

My own hope would be that both Warren and Bernie Sanders, the socialist Senator from Vermont, contest the election.  The Democratic Party and the country as a whole deserve a more diverse spectrum of opinion. 

The Republican Party believes that corporations are people, that money is free speech, and that the public sphere should be eviscerated.  The Democratic Party is also a corporate-friendly party that is steadily backing away from supporting organized labour—ordinary citizens’ primary tool for defending themselves against assaults by the super-wealthy –towards an embrace of the financial sector.  Both parties have been fulsome in their support of American terrorism (international affairs is one area where both Sanders and Warren need to think hard about what it means to be a socialist or a progressive), and while one rejects outright the importance of the public sector and the social welfare, the other has been singularly ineffective in defending them.

Usually during Democratic primaries, a bevy of right-wing candidates take the stage, trumpeting the conventional wisdom about how our economy should work, giving short shrift to the rights of workers or the inequality that defines our nation.  The odd dissenting voice is kept at the fringe, and made to look like a lunatic.

Imagine instead if that stage was dominated by powerful progressive voices, capable of articulating an alternative vision for how we should organize ourselves, relate to each other, and fashion a humane, compassionate society in which people are not left behind because of circumstances beyond their control.  What if it was the likes of Hillary Clinton—the corporate candidate who decried critics of inequality, supported the Iraq war, and escalated the war of terror—who was the marginalized candidate, representative of decades of dangerous failed ideologies and leadership?

I hope that Warren decides to run for higher office, and I hope that Sanders joins her.  Our country needs exposure to a wider set of ideas than are normally on offer.  We’ve heard an awful lot about what the right has to offer, and we’ve been living under a reactionary economic regime for a long time now.  The results aren’t pretty.  In fact, they are unfair, unjust, and violent in the way that they destroy people’s lives.  It’s time to try something else, and there are candidates out there who could try to point the way.

But their campaigns must be supported by or driven by citizen activism and protest, a renewed push by unions for rights and benefits for the workplace writ large, efforts to address our democratic deficit and our social crisis.  We can’t wait for political candidates to save us, but we should demonstrate through our actions and our words that we are happy for them to lend us the institutional support that would help in fashioning an equal and just society.  

European History, Day 18

Suffragettes were force-fed in British prisons
On Thursday in European History Since 1648 at UNLV we discussed the experiences of women in European society during the long nineteenth century.  Building on our earlier discussions about the writings and advocacy of early feminists in 18th century Europe, we discussed how industrialization and the culture we associate with the Victorian era transformed gender relations.

Students had read two primary sources: a mid-19th century treatise on exemplary behavior for women in the household, and an early 20th century speech by British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.  We had a good discussion analyzing these two sources in the context of the broader shift in gender roles during our time period.

Pankhurst’s speech—worth a read—was also an argument in defense of the rights the disenfranchised to use violence (in this case against property), and so that afforded us an opportunity to think about politics—both the formal political realm made up of parties and state institutions, and movements that originated and worked outside of those established realms—during the 19th century. 

Next week will transition us into the twentieth century, and students are working their way through Jaroslav Hasek’s novel, The Good Soldier Svejk.  

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tomis Kapitan's "Reign of 'Terror'" Raises Critical Questions

I normally don’t do posts aimed purely at sharing other posts, but there was a really excellent piece in Sunday’s New York Times that warrants sharing.  Tomis Kapitan, in “The Reign of ‘Terror’”, examines how the term shapes our ability to ask serious questions about how to deal with incidents that we characterize as terrorism, but also shields our own government from criticism of its many atrocities. 

Here’s one passage that is an important takeaway, particularly in light of efforts of the Obama administration to cover up the crimes of George W. Bush and his administration, and also to obstruct our justice system as it attempts to document and perhaps check the machinations of our increasingly lawless military and security complex:

“The State Department cites a legal definition of “terrorism” as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents.” It adds: “The term ‘noncombatant’ is interpreted to include, in addition to civilians, military personnel who at the time of the incident are unarmed or not on duty.” Thus, by means of linguistic gerrymander, members of uniformed government military forces acting under government authorization are incapable of committing acts of terrorism no matter how many civilians are ground up in the process”.

It’s a great piece, and deserves to be widely read by people of all political persuasions.