My six year old Thomas is reading Star Wars books designed for six year olds. He's actually very good at it, but he does consistently misread the word "universe" as "university." Since it occurs quite a lot in these books, he's constantly telling me things like the following:
My name is Qui-Gon Jinn.
I am a Jedi.
The Jedi are a very special group of beings.
For many thousands of years, we have worked to promote peace and justice in the university.
In the end, the university’s rationale for the campaign relies heavily on a narrative of state defunding. For example, as a Detroit News article relates, “President Mary Sue Coleman called the campaign ‘audacious’ and said no gift is too small since universities need philanthropy with states no longer able to support them to the degree they must for schools to be globally competitive.” This narrative seems difficult to square with the actual role of the endowment in funding university operations. The endowment contributes only 4.5% (of its total holdings) to the general operation funds of university each year. The principal stays invested. Thus, if we look at the breakdown of revenue sources at the university in 2010 the endowment contributed only $253 million. Student tuition however generated over $1 billion, while state funding totaled $315 million.
The endowment clearly has very little to do with making up for lost state funding. Its purpose lies elsewhere. And that elsewhere is in the university’s move to behave more and more like a hedge fund, mobilizing donated capital to secure new revenue streams. It does this by taking advantage of its tax-exempt status to build up a hoard of money that it then invests around the world in shady funds and places it would rather the university community did not know about. In so doing, the university is slowly becoming an important player on Wall Street but to play with the “big boys” it needs more and more capital, which requires constant fundraising campaigns. This money is destined for investment not students. Little of it will ever reach students in the form of scholarships or be used to offset increases in tuition.
The SUM seems to be the sort of thing many universities should have:
Inspired by the Quebec student movement of 2012, the Student Union of Michigan (SUM) is an organizing platform based at the University of Michigan dedicated to fighting the privatization of higher education and instead building a truly democratic, open university run by students and workers. We stand in solidarity with student and worker struggles around the world.
Philosophers should read this online issue of MLA Profession, since so far MLA > APA on professional issues. (Don't believe me? Check the date on this APA page.) Which doesn't mean it should stay like that; but it does mean we have a good model. Think of the leading folks writing on US HE issues: Bérubé, Massé, Newfield, Bady, Bousquet: they're all English folks. Let's fix that by developing a robust set of philosophers working on HE in general and philosophy work conditions in particular. IMO, these issues require us to drop the near-exclusivity of focus on the TT sector of the employment system, and to see it as one sector only. The last slides of this presentation tries to do that; the earlier slides are a stab at a brief historical survey. A conversation starter rather than a definitive statement.
A "sardonic" tweet by a "Duke sociologist"* about this year's Nobels in economics generates an op-ed response in the New York Times by a MacArthur ('genius') fellow and Harvard economist, Raj Chetty. [HT Matt Zwolinski] It's been a few decades since an elite economist felt the need to notice a sociologist. Chetty reveals what is at stake:
the headline-grabbing differences between the findings of these Nobel laureates are less significant than the profound agreement in their scientific approach to economic questions, which is characterized by formulating and testing precise hypotheses. I’m troubled by the sense among skeptics that disagreements about the answers to certain questions suggest that economics is a confused discipline, a fake science whose findings cannot be a useful basis for making policy decisions.
If economics is not "a useful basis for making policy decisions," its seventy year, lucrative (jobs, funding, prestige, etc.) reign as the the privileged discipline in the policy sciences ends. (The only time I have discussed Chetty's views on the blog, I provided historical context for that claim.) Before I turn to Chetty's argument for why economics is "useful" in the relevant fashion, it is worth noting that he accepts the idea that consensus in methods ("formulating and testing precise hypotheses") and answers ("simple, unassailable finding") is an adequate proxy to a discipline not being a "fake science." Such consensus, need not prevent it being "ideology," too.
AMERICANS WHO WONDER what the heck is happening to their public colleges can find answers in the British case. While American educational and political leaders deny the negative outcomes of the actions they barely admit to be taking, the United Kingdom’s Tory government has offered explicit rationales for the most fundamental restructuring of a university system in modern history. The stakes are very high. Both countries have been downgrading their mass higher education systems by shrinking enrollments, reducing funding for educational quality, increasing inequality between premier and lower-tier universities, or all three at once.
Oddly, policymakers are doing this in the full knowledge that mass access to high-quality public universities remains the cornerstone of high-income economies and complex societies. The public has a right to know what politicians and business leaders are really doing to their higher education systems, why they are doing it, and how to respond.
Neil Levy writes with an aperçu that works, as do all the best ones, on both form and content levels: "What's supposed to be odd about that? Compare: 'Oddly, thieves take what does not belong to them in the full knowledge that the rightful owners might be upset.' "
In the end, that’s the real danger we are now facing. Not just the
shutdown, but the rise of the shutdown strategy. By unraveling the
threads of our joint commitment to shared governance, it raises the
chances those threads will be rewoven into something else: something
deeply, and tragically, undemocratic.--Michael Lynch, Opinionator, New York Times, 10/15/2013
Plato's most important observation in political philosophy is that no constitutional system lasts forever. As Michael Lynch discerns in the important piece that I quote above (it's the concluding paragraph), there are dynamics internal to the democratic process that may lead to its own unraveling. Lynch mentions three distinct ones: (i) if "legislative gridlock" becomes "a fixture of American
political life, it will be more tempting, more reasonable, to think that
someone should “step in” to make the decisions. The chorus
calling for action — for the president, for example, to go around the
Congress — will only increase." (ii) When politics stops being perceived to be about (Madisonian) give-and-take, then the sense of shared identity will unravel. (iii) A permanent albeit powerful minority systematically makes normal state functioning impossible--the so-called regular "shut-down strategy." [In (iii) I blend Lynch and Schliesser.]
In response to (i) the Cato's Institute's Roger Pilon, remarks: "Well, that’s already happening – witness the many lawless changes to the
Obamacare law that have been unilaterally imposed by the president,
without so much as a notice to Congress. But it’s not because of any
shutdown threat. It’s because (iv) respect for constitutional limits is today
so atrophied." [HT Jason Stanley on Facebook] From context, it is clear that Pilon is thinking of the growth of the welfare state ("special interest juggernaut poured through with one redistributive
program after another, leading to the unsustainable war of all against
all we see today.") Given his focus on limitations, it is surprising that Pilon does not express concern about the limitless growth of executive power that leads to permanent foreign wars and the surveillance state. Either way, we can recognize in (iv) Hayek's old road to serfdom thesis. But with this particular twist that, rather than edging our way toward totalitarianism, we have already returned to the state of nature ("war of all against
all.") Obviously, if we are in the state of nature then the need for a Hobbesian sovereign to get us out of it will be embraced by all minimally rational agents.
Yesterday I had one of those thank God for tenure moments.
At a meeting of the"Assessment Officers" of over 100 LSU programs as well as most of the relevant deans, I blurted out, "Well, that's perfectly silly," after a dean announced that she would send back for substantial rewriting annual report that did not interpret the assessment "data sets" to entail problems that would be rectified in the "action plan."**[Please read notes ** and **** below to get some idea of just how much make-work this is.]
Then, when the hundred plus group of otherwise intelligent people looked at me, I didn't do a very good job articulating why this kind of thing was stupid during the cultural revolution in China and just as stupid today. I just said that if a unit is doing well there's no reason to find problems and that you can't expect units to get better to infinity.
This precipitated another long speech by the poor man in charge of LSU's compliance with SAAC's accreditation mandates involving assessment.*** This speech reiterated how there's always room for improvement and how this process should be helpful.**** I wanted to explain to him that he had John Calvin's doctrine on the depravity of man dreadfully wrong, but didn't say anything. Besides, everyone present needed guidance on the constantly changing computer interface that makes us enter data in all sorts of new ways and also at six months intervals recursively assess how well we are assessing.
Neil has an interesting analysis of "why Congressional Republicans are taking extreme bargaining positions
that shut down the government and risk defaulting on debt." He points to Republican "primary problem, which "makes Republican officeholders do the crazy things that the Tea
Party likes, because they fear losing their primaries even more than
they fear losing the general election." This has it backward in two important respects. First, it fails to understand the rationality of the Tea Party caucus. Second, by demonizing the Tea Party as "crazy," it facilitates the far more dangerous tendency among educated people to grow impatient with democracy and pine for rule by experts.
First, since 1988, the Republicans have won the popular vote once: in 2004. Their House majority is now primarily a product of gerrymandering and superior mid-term turn-out. If you look at the congressional Tea Party heartland (see this good map at the New Yorker), it is primarily rural, elderly, white, and Evangelical. With the exception of 'Evangelical,' perhaps, this is not the future of America. And even born again America is remarkably fluid when it comes to so-called 'life-style' choices--the generational shift of opinion on Gay Marriage has been phenomenally fast. That is to say, these are folk that know they will loose national elections time and again. Obviously Republicans can still put together winning national coalitions, but as the Tea Party heartland learned under the three Bush presidencies, these will not reflect their values and interests. They are not acting as co-partners in government awaiting their turn at the helm, but as the legal opposition. They are playing a lousy hand superbly and -- best of all -- by democratic means.
That's not crazy.
(1) Denigrate public education, and public institutions in general, as drains on private wealth and “job makers” to the point that no one would dare ask for increased support. This will assure that public universities are relegated to second-rate status with inferior facilities and loads of part-time faculty members, and will forever have a negative stigma placed on them relative to private universities.
(2) Take advantage of economic downturns to instigate “taxpayer outrage” in order to remove support from public universities so that they must either raise tuition or cut back on their programs. Afterward, condemn those institutions for raising tuition in order to support lazy, socialist professors teaching irrelevant subjects like anthropology and philosophy.
(3) As state support recedes, encourage a student-loan system that will create a “market for higher education.” Saddling students with lots of debt will make them enterprising and rational consumers of educational products and will encourage them to safeguard their economic interests. Refer to these changes as “empowering students.”
It goes on. Some of the comments aren't bad either. Emphasis on "some," however.
[I am grateful to
Vasso Kindi for accepting our invitation to contribute her reflections after The Guardian
reported that austerity measures pushed the University of Athens to suspend
Universities suffer from nepotism, political patronage, inertia, and structures
that breed favoritism and unaccountability. They are in desperate need of
reform independently of the current financial crisis. Moreover, most Greek graduates
were, until recently, channeled to the public sector where they were hired
merely by only showing their Universities degrees. This meant that, for a great
number of students, learning mattered less than obtaining the degree itself.
University of Athens (UoA) is currently shut down because there is a strike of
the administrative staff. They are protesting against plans, required by the
memorandum signed by the Greek government and its creditors, to reduce 12,500
employees of the public sector by the end of 2013. The universities, which are
all state-owned, will lose 1349 members of their administrative personnel and
the UoA 498 out of 1375. Those who are on strike have prohibited access to all
university buildings. We cannot have classes, exams, register new students. We
cannot even go to our offices.
Herman Melville got it wrong. Bartleby the Scrivener did not in fact die in that prison cell. Instead, he was awarded tenure.
Of course today's Bartlebies cannot just say "I prefer not to" when asked to run the committee charged with collating all of his colleagues' TPS reports* (and entering into a fairly inscrutable database the raw data, the collated reports, and lies about how this data will improve the department to infinity, as well as attending brainwashing sessions about how the TPS reports and database is changing, and then doing all the work over again when the people at the TPS office find something wrong with the formatting, etc., etc. etc.)
Instead what today's Bartlebies do is just make sure that every time they are asked to do service, they do a horrible job. And they do a horrible job with so much unapologetic aplomb that the resulting cluster-**** becomes the fault of the person who actually asked them to contribute to departmental service. If you are really good at the jujitsu, you make it significantly more work for others whenever you are asked to help them with anything, and soon they stop asking.
Everyone reading this has at least one colleague or professor who has made an art form of this very kind of passive-aggressive jujitsu. And the learned helplessness is always a bit of a con. If your organizational skills are good enough to do all the things necessary to get tenure, they are good enough to do your bit of the soul crushing meaningless labor handed down by the administrative class.
Prior to the reign of "assessment," (I am *just* old enough to remember those halcyon days) I was significantly bitter towards the Bartlebies among us. I mean, someone has to do the administrative work and passive-aggressive helplessness is taking advantage of people who are willing to do it (plus, it shows that anarchism probably won't work, which is a sad commentary on humanity).
But in the era of TPS reports, I can't help but admire the Bartleby.
man has ever been so advanced by Fortune that she not threaten him as greatly
as she had previously indulged him. Do not trust her seeming calm; in a moment the
sea is moved to its depths.—Seneca,
In context, Seneca’s acceptance of epistemic uncertainty (or here) is as
much about natural events (the sea) as political events—in the previous line we’re
reminded of the fates of Pompey, Crassus, and Lepidus. Political mastery does
not guarantee immunity against a violent end. Seneca is not blind to the probable destination of his political
fall. More important, the violent underpinning of Roman political
institutions means that nobody is truly master [dominus] in their “own homes” [domesticis]: “just as many have been
killed by angry slaves as by angry kings.” Somebody that “scorns his own life” [vitam suam contemptsit] will not be
afraid to die, in order to kill. Seneca offers a veritable picture of a state of nature under the rule of law:
“every one possesses the power which you fear.”*
One might think that Seneca is anticipating Spinoza: the state of
nature is never fully absent in civil society. But Seneca’s position here is
compatible with a more optimistic possibility: if one can remove the sources of
anger and scorn of self, one might have a more secure and, perhaps, even less
uncertain environment. One may not be able to calms the sea, but the ship of
state might be made more even-keeled. It is an open question if Seneca’s
proposed emendation of minds [emendato
animo] is strictly limited to a kind of enjoyable [freuris] self-help (recall),
or (if we cheating-ly glace ahead toward Letter 7)
also by way of improved state institutions and social norms.
Monday, Inside Higher Ed published an article breathlessly reporting that a "major new study" [summary, pdf] conducted by three Northwestern professors for the National Bureau of Economic Research had shown that "new students at Northwestern University learn more when their instructors are adjuncts than when they are tenure-track professors." Unfortunately, the uptake by IHE and others ignores the one salient fact about Northwestern's 'adjunct' pool that the authors let creep into one of their footnotes: "[a]lmost all classes taught by non-tenure track faculty at Northwestern are taught by those with a longer-term relationship with the university" (p. 9n8 my emphasis).
The study itself is flawed in other ways: 1) the narrow basis upon which these claims are grounded; 2) the authors' failure to consider specific factors about the faculty being studied, their relationship to the courses being taught, or the contracts under they were hired; and 3) the generalizability of the results being presented. Indeed, the authors' provide very little reason to think that 'non-tenure track' faculty at Northwestern are comparable to a similarly named group of faculty at other institutions. As such, the study provides a poor rejoinder to the large body of research that suggests that adjunctification is as bad for students as it demonstrably has been for faculty.
It may well be irrational to believe that history is progress after the unprecedented moral and political calamities of the twentieth century. But it does not follow, as [John] Gray apparently assumes, that history has no meaning. There is another possibility. To my knowledge Gray never endorses it, and it extremely difficult for a post-Darwinian mind to grap, but it has been presumed true by most civilizations and philosophies of the past, and is still so regarded by many non-Westernized cultures today. The possibility is that history does indeed have a meaning, purpose and end, and that these can easily be discerned by human beings, but that the direction of history's development is backward not forwards. History is not progress but regress, not advance but decline, and it leads to destruction rather than to utopia.--David Hawkes reviewing John Gray "The Silence of Animals" in TLS (30 August, 2013).
Let's distinguish four main conceptions of history:
Eternal Return. Within philosophy this goes back to Book 3 of Plato's Laws. It was revived by Nietzsche (and is part of the sub-structure of much continental philosophy and via Ian Hacking it is seeping into philosophy of science). It accords well with a cyclical conception of history with a rise and fall narrative or with periodic destruction of civilization(s) (think of the Atlantis story in the Timaeus and Bacon's riff on it). I expect it to become increasingly attractive to people as we head for man-made environmental catastrophe.
What follows a little bit after the jump is shamelessly plagiarized from a couple of years ago post from my old blog.
I'd initially wanted to write something today new about how soul destroying I'm finding having to write a proposal for Sabbatical Leave for Fall 2014, but I realized I was probably just cranky. . .
The thing is, it's not that big a deal if I don't get the sabbatical. And it's not that big a deal the way the non-academic suits lording it over us have changed the social contract, where these things used to be pretty guaranteed as long as you've been getting good annual reviews. Maybe they are still pretty much guaranteed, and the proposal is just more hoops for us to jump through. I don't know.
And I don't think that my general extreme discomfort with having to sell myself in this way is suitable for a post. [i.e. Why can't I just honestly say that
I'm competent most of the time? Sometimes I'm inspired, but about a
third of those times it turns out that I was inspired to do something terrible. In my experience, this describes just about everybody. What does
this do to our souls to have to constantly pretend otherwise when we sell ourselves to employers and administrative overlords? I don't know.] I suspect that this problem is both too specific (concerning my own social neuroses) and too general (in a capitalist society everyone has to violate all sorts of Gricean norms the while selling themselves).
Instead, what I'd like to post about concerns the presuppositions the designers of these reports make us assent to. For example, in my report I am specifically ordered to show how what I write will make a non-trivial contribution to LSU's own "flagship agenda." This is a classic case of lawyer's presupposition. "Are you going to contribute to the flagship agenda? Yes or no." is just as bad as "Have you stopped beating your wife? Yes or no."
During deconstructionisms's heyday Is there a text in this class? served an important function, and in graduate school I quite enjoyed him as David Lodge's Morris Zapp character, though the joke is vastly less funny now that I'm in the biz for real.
Anyhow, TNR's Russell Jacoby (HERE) has Fish's monotonous schtick dead to rights:
The new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders missed this obsessive-compulsive disorder of literary professors: repeating sans cesse the pedestrian observation that everything is contextual and contingent. Fish has taken this historicist principle and run with it forever. He is still agog over it.
Jacoby also has a pretty nice discussion of just how unhelpful are Fish's attempted application of this observation to issues concerning the university. Though I disagree with Jacoby's dismissal of the academic study of pop culture, his conclusion does not rest on it.
Fish has been unable to uphold the liberal arts as anything more than a vehicle to provide jobs for liberal-arts professors, who do what they do. After all, the liberal tradition has served him and his friends quite nicely. “I believe fully in the core curriculum,” he wrote in one of his Times columns on the crisis of the humanities, “as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists.” Bully for him. But if this is the best defense of the liberal arts by one of its most celebrated practitioners, who needs it?
Feh. . . Kurt Cobain didn't die so that fatuous millionaires could thumb their noses at the rest of us ad infinitum in the pages of the New York Times. Thank God for the Stone.
President Obama has just released his
Plan to Make College More Affordable and the critiques have been coming fast and furious (for instance). A major feature of the plan is the requirement for collecting and presenting data on student outcomes; adding a requirement for faculty work conditions data would make this a much better plan. Here's how.
Much of the student data the President is asking for—graduation
rates, average debt loads and earnings of graduates, percentages of students
who pursue advanced degrees, and the income levels of students who attend an
institution—is already easily available and factors into many of the rankings
that are currently published.
But the narrow focus on student data elides the factor that may well count the most when it comes to
good student outcomes: faculty working conditions. As the slogan goes "the
working conditions of teachers are the learning conditions of students."
Rick Perlstein's latest at The Nation (HERE) makes for some pretty brutal reading. The first part is worth sharing if you have well meaning family members like mine, who for a decade or so hectored me to cold-call various department chairs so that I could get a job where my children (only potentially existing at the time) would have grandparents nearby.*
After recounting friend after friend debasing themselves in all sorts of ways in often futile attempts to get meaningful employment and/or tenure, Perlstein turns to the superstars he knows.
I think of one academic couple I know, of whom I am very fond, and whose contributions to teaching and scholarship and left-wing activism are exemplary. I don’t begrudge them their gorgeous home with the expansive deck overlooking mountains and ocean; I don’t begrudge one of them for letting slip—we all have moments of hubris—that they make $400,000 between them. I don’t begrudge another such couple the fancy catered dinner parties they’re able to throw in their fancy home, because, hell, I was the guest of honor at one of those dinner parties. In fact, I’ve been the guest of honor, as a visiting independent scholar, at fancy dinners at all sorts of fancy universities, and am invariably fond of my hosts, for the most part decent, dedicated people: 1960s veterans, mainly, who’ve done their best to keep their values intact.
But here’s their problem—a tragic flaw. They’re hardly aware that they’re aristocrats, and that they oversee an army of intellectual serfs.
Is the flaw really anything approximating a tragic one? Is the dereliction of those at the top (and those of us not at the top but with tenure protection) even really "structural" in the sense of Lance's post on complicity (HERE)? I don't know and would be interested in what people think. Maybe whatever personality traits make it the case that you are going to succeed in this kind of climate also tend to make you uniquely unsuited to do anything helpful once you are there. Perlstein himself describes how Kafkaesque the tenure process is and what this might do to one's soul. I'm sure that delivering the same paper dozens of times a year as an invited speaker does weird things too. Perhaps this is a structural facet along the lines of the manner in which anyone willing to do what politicians have to do to win elections in the United States now is a priori completely unsuited for public office. I don't know. . .
That's the closing line to this very important article from Matt Taibbi. Everyone in HE in the States (and in countries heading toward a US-like system) should read the piece. The take-away is something like this: "it's not the interest which crushes student loan debtors, it's the principal."
This is why the issue of student-loan interest rates pales in comparison with the larger problem of how anyone can repay such a huge debt – the average student now leaves school owing $27,000 – by entering an economy sluggishly jogging uphill at a fraction of the speed of climbing education costs.
Nature does nothing in vain, and in the use of means to her goals she is
not prodigal. Her giving to man reason and the freedom of the will
which depends upon it is clear indication of her purpose. Man
accordingly was not to be guided by instinct, not nurtured and
instructed with ready-made knowledge; rather, he should bring forth
everything out of his own resources. Securing his own food, shelter,
safety and defense...all amusement which can make life pleasant, insight and
intelligence, finally even goodness of heart-all this should be wholly
his own work. In this, Nature seems to have moved with the strictest
parsimony, and to have measured her animal gifts precisely to the most
stringent needs of a beginning existence, just as if she had willed
that, if man ever did advance from the lowest barbarity to the highest
skill and mental perfection and thereby worked himself up to happiness
(so far as it is possible on earth), he alone should have the credit and
should have only himself to thank-exactly as if she aimed more at his
rational self-esteem than at his well-being. For along this march of
human affairs, there was a host of troubles awaiting him. But it seems
not to have concerned Nature that he should live well, but only that he
should work himself upward so as to make himself, through his own
actions, worthy of life and of well-being.--I. Kant Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View (1784). Translation by Lewis White Beck.
Kant's nature is a brilliant economizing-social planner; one that designs circumstances that are conducive to the optimal social good, yet requiring a market failure in praise (I almost wrote 'credit', but decided that would cause the wrong kind of confusion).
What complicates the picture is the [Turkish] protests’ anti-capitalist thrust:
protesters intuitively sense that free-market fundamentalism and
fundamentalist Islam are not mutually exclusive. The privatisation of
public space by an Islamist government shows that the two forms of
fundamentalism can work hand in hand: it’s a clear sign that the
‘eternal’ marriage between democracy and capitalism is nearing divorce....Global capitalism is a complex process which affects different countries
in different ways. What unites the protests, for all their
multifariousness, is that they are all reactions against different
facets of capitalist globalisation. The general tendency of today’s
global capitalism is towards further expansion of the market, creeping
enclosure of public space, reduction of public services (healthcare,
education, culture), and increasingly authoritarian political power....Just because the underlying cause of the protests is global capitalism,
that doesn’t mean the only solution is directly to overthrow it. Nor is
it viable to pursue the pragmatic alternative, which is to deal with
individual problems and wait for a radical transformation. That ignores
the fact that global capitalism is necessarily inconsistent:--Slavoj Žižek in LRB [HT Jan Dumolyn]
[I] We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though
frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this
account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of
the subject. Masters are always and every where in a sort of tacit, but
constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above
their actual rate. To violate this combination is every where a most
unpopular action, and a sort of reproach to a master among his
neighbours and equals. We seldom, indeed, hear of this combination,
because it is the usual, and one may say, the natural state of things
which nobody ever hears of.--Adam Smith (1776) Wealth of Nations.
[II] Servants, labourers and workmen of different kinds, make up the far
greater part of every great political society. But what improves the
circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an
inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and
happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and
miserable. It is but equity,
besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the
people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as
to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.--Adam Smith (1776) Wealth of Nations.
This NYT article on the Detroit bankruptcy* is a perfect illustration of the pernicious effects of "localism" and "presentism" in political economy.** That is, here we see the unquestioning acceptance of a spatial scale focused on political boundaries (i.e., city limits) instead of the functional economic unit (i.e., the metro area), and a temporal scale focused on the short-term ("the crisis") rather than on the long-term (the processes allowing for the production of "the crisis"). Of course, the spatial and temporal scales are related; to understand the causes of the crisis you would have to understand post-war suburbanization and the concomitant ability of the surburbs to shift tax burdens while still benefitting from proximity to the city.
*This is an ongoing story of course: see here for a judge's ruling against the bankruptcy claim and here for targeting of the municipal art collection by the disaster capitalists.
**If you want to be fancy about it, you could say this is an example of the trouble you get into by focusing on the properties of a product while neglecting the production process. (See the "illusion" discussed at Difference and Repetition, 240E.)
The living-wage movement is a clever PR campaign (akin to "We're the 99%") that attempts to re-frame a political debate on behalf of the large number of folk that have seen incomes stagnate (or worse) since, say, the early 1970s (described by Tyler Cowen [no Leftie]). (Nobody doubts that the huge economic, political, and social forces that probably have caused this stagnation are beyond the immediate influence of the individuals principally affected.) Of course, political re-framing does not exhaust the non-economic potential of such campaigns--coining concepts can also make necessary, new self-conceptions and identities possible, including one's agency in an age of large anonymous forces, enormous concentrations of private wealth (in corporations and
corporate insiders), and public/ private poverty. Given the massive hardship the living wages campaign addresses in a peaceful way the proper stance for impartial spectators is a "wishful
participation that borders closely on enthusiasm” toward it even if one disagrees on a lot of details. (I prefer basic income schemes (a cause promoted by patriots as diverse as Tom Paine or Milton Friedman.))
I've never felt so much like an unreconstructed base-determines-superstructure Marxist as I have when reading about the events in Egypt these last few weeks.
A vanishingly small number of press stories report how badly food insecurity has gotten in Egypt these last few years (go through THIS SLIDE SHOW by the World Food Programme for statistics, including the fact that 31% of Egyptian children in 2011 are stunted due to insufficient caloric intake), and even less about how this is in part the result of the leading edge of global warming caused environmental catastrophe which, given the inaction of the world's polluters these last few decades, is certain to get much worse.
Superstructure debates about constitutions, islamism, majoritarian "democracy," etc. are essential (please take time to see the kid to right if you haven't). But unless people have enough food, they can lead to a misunderstanding about what must be done. The problem is that when someone's child is in danger of starving, they have absolutely nothing to lose, and when enough people have nothing to lose all bets are off.
When American reporters talk about "economic stagnation" in Europe, readers are likely to think of their 401k's losing value and their home values decreasing, not about inability to feed their kids (though that happens here too, just not to the average reader of the Wall Street Journal).
Historically, massive food insecurity produces a set of horrible options: (1) wars to attempt to steal other people's resources and that also function to kill off the hungry populations, (2) revolutions that usually lead to (1) (this happened in France from the food riots under Louis the XVIth leading inexorably to Napoleon), or (3) a state that uses so much violence that people with dying kids are convinced they in fact still have something to lose (Ireland, China, the Soviet Union).
These kinds of factors seem to me to have far more power historically than the kinds of debates being covered in the American press. This is particularly galling because if we discussed these things honestly there might be some realization that the United States would do much better to send food and agricultural help, and to do something about global warming. But instead we send weapons.