It’s natural to deduce that what we’re experiencing when it comes to tighter budgets, increased unemployment, lower public outlays, and so forth stems purely from economic factors. But the economy is only a part of it. Much of the extended problem is political.
And while it’s risky to write a political post, I also feel compelled to discuss these issues because they are, to a large extent, what’s hot and cooking in scholarly publishing today. They are affecting everything we’re doing, directly or indirectly. And they bear discussion, whether you agree with my political interpretations or not.
On the economic front, things aren’t grim, just paralyzed. Businesses are sitting on large piles of cash. Profits are at or near record levels, but hiring is sporadic at best. Confidence is down because of the stasis sensed in the economy. This stasis is caused primarily by actions that are not purely economic in origin or scope — they are manifest in politics.
Politics in America is now directly affecting education, research, and scholarship — three primary topics of this blog.
From legislative action outlawing collective bargaining rights for teachers in Wisconsin and Ohio, to attempts to defund Pell grants and other financial assistance, to proposed NIH funding cuts, to the continued move towards an overemphasis on standards-based science and technology education which is depriving students of complementary and mind-broadening education in music, art, and languages in primary and secondary schools, it’s clear that science and scholarship are in the crosshairs of the new push for fiscal austerity, lower taxes, and “accountability.” In an even more partisan move, public funding of journalism is under attack, with the Republican-dominated House voting to defund National Public Radio.
The items under pressure are precisely the things aimed at making the individuals in a democracy more informed, more capable, safer, and healthier. Corporate enrichment should be a follow-on effect, not the primary goal of a democratic nation, but you’d be hard-pressed to find that message in general media via the coaxial or airwaves these days — despite a broad economic downturn and budget deficits at the state and federal levels, corporate profits have skyrocketed recently even as budgets for education, research, public journalism, and healthcare have been threatened:
U.S. corporate profits hit an all-time high at the end of 2010, with financial firms showing some of the biggest gains, data from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis show. Corporations reported an annualized $1.68 trillion in profit in the fourth quarter. The previous record, without being adjusted for inflation, was $1.65 trillion in the third quarter of 2006. Many of the nation’s preeminent companies have posted massive increases in profits this year. General Electric posted worldwide profits of $14.2 billion, while profits at JPMorgan Chase were up 47 percent to $4.8 billion.
Corporate profits for companies like General Electric, Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, and others came under scrutiny because not only did these multi-billion-dollar annual profits escape federal taxes, but many of the same companies earned tax benefits at the same time. As the New York Times recently reported:
. . . the corporate share of the nation’s tax receipts [has fallen] from 30 percent of all federal revenue in the mid-1950s to 6.6 percent in 2009.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont summarized this during a speech on March 30th in the Senate:
During this same economic downturn, the Supreme Court of the United States elevated corporations to the status of citizens as far as political spending goes through the notorious Citizens United decision. Corporations — which can outspend, outlive, and outmaneuver real citizens — now have equivalent rights to political speech as effected through spending, and they can conceal this spending at the same time by laundering it through front groups.
Corporations are on the brink of achieving representation without taxation. Since they are not enriched directly by education, research, journalism, or public healthcare, it’s no wonder that the funding of our broader society’s initiatives would not be front and center to their proponents’ agendas.
The Tea Party, an ironic name for a group largely coalesced by forces trying to achieve representation without taxation, is a wedge in the political system, driving the middle-class against itself and amplifying misinformation under the auspices of a populist movement.
For the billionaires supporting the Tea Party, it’s all about tactics, and they have some that are working well — after all, getting the country to dispute the protections put in place to ensure a more equitable distribution of American resources (government, taxation, unions, and public services) is akin to getting the guards at the bank to squabble while you walk into the vaults and traipse out with everyone’s savings.
The rich are paying effective tax rates well below those imposed on people of lesser means, and corporations are able to move money off-shore and otherwise protect their revenues from our tax collectors. Capital gains taxes remain low, and with speculation rampant, a great deal of money is flowing through this channel. Yet, the rich are still swamping the political process with money and lobbyists. Yes, this has always been in effect to some degree, but the concentration of wealth and the depth of penetration into the system are both extreme today.
The problems of representation without taxation are at least two-fold:
- Representatives should represent the people paying for the initiatives the country undertakes. Representation without taxation separates the agenda of the country from the agenda of the people.
- Representatives elected because non-tax-paying corporate interests drove them into state houses or Congressional seats are not responsive to voters.
A recent article in Vanity Fair expresses a question that’s been forming in my mind: Has the concentration of wealth and power in America become so severe that the only way out is a revolution akin to those we’re seeing in the Middle East now?
The ruling families elsewhere in the region look on nervously from their air-conditioned penthouses—will they be next? They are right to worry. These are societies where a minuscule fraction of the population—less than 1 percent—controls the lion’s share of the wealth; where wealth is a main determinant of power; where entrenched corruption of one sort or another is a way of life; and where the wealthiest often stand actively in the way of policies that would improve life for people in general. As we gaze out at the popular fervor in the streets, one question to ask ourselves is this: When will it come to America? In important ways, our own country has become like one of these distant, troubled places.
Powerful forces in American politics seem to be in pursuit of representation without taxation — they wish to set policy for their own benefit without sharing in the costs; they wish to have the rights of people without being people or paying as people do; they wish to control people without accountability or even allowing those people the right to form a negotiating coalition. This is exploitation as clearly as taxation without representation.
While these forces are threatening to disassemble education, research, and information systems through misguided fiscal austerity, other countries are investing, and their share of research, their percentage of educated citizens, and their information systems are being developed to outstrip ours.
The pressures on acquisition, research, faculty, student, and information budgets can’t be ignored. And I believe these pressures result from a political process, not merely an economic downturn. The economic downturn is being handled now through economic austerity approaches (rather than stimulus) because of the political machinations mentioned above. These austerity measures align with business interests, and reflect business priorities, not social or civic priorities.
Downgrading teachers, researchers, journalists, and students is not an acceptable way forward for the richest country on Earth, and it does not bode well for our future. There is a latency effect at work along with opportunity costs — we won’t fade immediately, but it may take decades to recover what we’re losing.
As long as we continue to install “the economy” above our laws, our citizens, our vibrant cultures, our admirable achievements as a society, and our overall sense of fairness, businesses, investors, and the wealthy will continue to drive our national agenda — not the poor, the young, the old, or the needy. Businesses clearly want representation; they just want to pay as little as possible for it.