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Op Ed

Hi, I’m Robert Jensen, a provider of educational products to consumers at the University of Texas at Austin.

I used to introduce myself as a UT professor, but that was before I attended a Texas Public Policy Foundation session last week offering more exciting “breakthrough solutions” to the problems of higher education.

At that session in a downtown Austin hotel, I learned that these very real problems—escalating costs and questionable quality of undergraduate instruction—can be solved in the “free market.” You know, the free market, that magical mechanism that gave us the housing bubble/credit derivative scam/financial meltdown. The free market that has produced growing inequality in the United States and around the world. That good old free market.

The solutions offered by representatives of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in the morning’s first session focused on ending public subsidies for higher education and treating it like any other business. These insights come on the heels of the much-hyped “seven breakthrough solutions” that TPPF has been pushing. (Read about them here, and for a satirical treatment, watch this

Not surprisingly, both panelists spoke in the language of the market, turning education into a commodity. Panel moderator William Murchison, a conservative syndicated columnist, chimed in during the discussion, referring to “consumers of the educational product.”

I think that means students.

That pithy phrase led me to the microphone in the Q&A period, where I asked whether in this mad quest to turn higher education into a business the panelists might not be promoting efficiency so much as guaranteeing the final destruction of what’s left of real education. I said that I found it difficult to understand my teaching— which focuses on how citizens should understand concentrations of power in government and corporations, and on how journalists should respond—as “an economic exchange,” in the words of Cato’s Neal McCluskey.

Both McCluskey and Matthew Denhart from CCAP responded with more of the market mantra and didn’t seem to recognize, or care, that commodifying education might have implications not just for how we organize institutions and evaluate professors, but for learning itself. Denhart responded that the “product” doesn’t have to be solely job training, but would include instruction in “esoteric concepts.” Those apparently are the two alternatives in college classrooms: purely practical or interesting irrelevance.

That got me thinking about my favorite class, “Critical Issues in Journalism,” the large introductory course I teach in the School of Journalism. The course tries to examine—rigorously, but in plain language using clear concepts—the nature of democracy and the role of the news media. My goal is to model the critical thinking that is crucial for citizens and journalists in a world facing multiple crises (political and economic, cultural and ecological) with dwindling hopes for a smooth transition to a just and sustainable future. Rather than accept the shallow platitudes of American democracy or the self-serving claims of American mainstream journalism, I encourage students to challenge the conventional wisdom (and me).

My students can speak to how well I do that, but my interest here is in how I understand the nature of what I do. When I think of when the class seems to work best — the moments that students seems to be most engaged with these crucial questions—it’s difficult to think of myself as delivering an educational product or of my students as consumers.

Instead, I’m happy with being a professor. I profess.

“Profess” can be used in different ways—to make a disingenuous statement (“He professed to like his boss”) or to announce religious commitments (“She professed her faith in God”). But I use it in the sense of making a public claim to knowledge, with an openness to respond to critiques of that claim. When it really works, students not only listen to professors but learn to profess themselves. When it works, I’m just an older—and, one hopes, at least slightly wiser—version of my students.

That experience can happen in vocational training as well as in courses more philosophically focused. Good journalism writing teachers, for example, know the joy of professing the love of the craft and helping students discover that joy. The presumed division between training and intellectual work occurs only when teachers accept that false divide and abandon efforts to bring the two together.

I don’t want to appear naïve; I realize that much of what happens in American college classrooms (including mine, of course) falls short of these ideals on any given day. The question is not whether we sometimes fail, as we all do, but why failure sometimes becomes routine. On this count, ironically, I agree with some of the critiques coming from the TPPF.

After 19 years of full-time teaching at the University of Texas, I’ve heard a lot of legitimate student complaints about professors who don’t care about teaching. I’ve complained myself about the irrelevance and inanity of so much of the “research” produced in the disciplines I know in the social sciences and humanities. I played that research game for my first six years to pass inspection and get tenure, but after that I dropped out of the scholarly publishing arena to concentrate on writing for a general audience. Shortly after that I stopped teaching graduate courses out of frustration with the self-indulgence of so much of the research/theory crowd in the study of media and mass communication. These days, I enjoy the challenge of connecting with undergraduates, writing about political and social matters, and speaking in public.

Let me be clear: This is not an anti-intellectual screed or an attack on systematic thinking and inquiry. I have learned a lot from the work of other scholars, which is reflected in the courses I teach, and such thinking and inquiry is more needed than ever to face these deepening crises. My writing for general audiences is rooted in research, defined more broadly. But the critics of the university have a point. Increasingly, the academic game that most professors play is so self-indulgent that ordinary people—not just reactionary ideologues with libertarian fantasies—will not, and should not, support it indefinitely. Education is not a commodity, but economics are relevant in the sense that we don’t live in a world of endless resources.

But here’s where I part company with the critics: Instead of pretending to be able to measure faculty output and draining the life from teaching, we need to embrace the ideals of the university rather than capitulate to the false promises of failed market ideology. The obsessions with measurement and testing have nearly destroyed K-12 public education, and if applied to higher education it will have similar effects.

That model may be particularly attractive to those on the right precisely because it is so effective at undermining the kind of critical thinking some of us are trying to encourage in our classes. As U.S. society has moved steadily to the right over the past three decades, conservatives have been eager to eliminate the few remaining spaces in the culture where critiques of power—especially concentrated economic power in a society marked by obscene wealth and indecent inequality—can flourish. Some parts of the modern university—especially those teaching business, advertising, and economics—are devoted to propping up that power, and much of the rest of the campus is not far behind. The corporatization of the modern university—both in internal organization and reliance on funding from corporations and corporate-based foundations—has done much to eliminate critical thinking that is connected to struggles for political and economic justice. The victory of the market model would be the end of real education, if by education we mean independent inquiry into the power that structures our lives.

I’m encouraged that UT President Bill Powers—who appeared on the second panel of the day, and had to endure the self-aggrandizing ramblings of fellow panelist and TPPF Senior Fellow Ronald Trowbridge—supports faculty in this debate and recognizes the threats to academic freedom embedded in this market madness. I have disagreements with the university administration about many things, but we faculty would make it easier for administrators in that debate if we not only press the institution to support us but engage in critical self-reflection about ourselves.

In hallway conversations, faculty members will express frustration about bad teachers (though there is not always agreement on which colleagues are the bad teachers) who are allowed to continue to muddle along. Many worry that the demands for scholarly production have become so focused on quantity rather than quality that much of what is published in academic journals is of little value, even for specialists in a discipline.

Acknowledging these systemic failures doesn’t detract from all the good teaching done in universities, nor does it lessen the value of the important research of many faculty members. Instead, it should simply remind us that we owe it to the state, our students, and ourselves to confront these issues. If we don’t, the reactionary forces that increasingly dominate the culture will take care of it for us, and instead of breakthroughs in higher education we will witness an accelerating breakdown.

The Payday Scam

Tom Craddick and his bleeding heart are right. The former speaker and Big Bidness-friendly Texas House veteran from Midland wants to muzzle the wolves of predatory lending. Apparently, Craddick had a come-to-Jesus moment several years ago when the Midland paper ran a story about one of his constituents. Linda Lewis was a caretaker who took out an auto title loan backed by her Toyota Camry to pay for her stepson’s funeral. After paying $12,000 on the loan without making an appreciable dent in what she owed, she filed for bankruptcy.

“No longer do I think the Legislature can stand back and watch these businesses take advantage of people in need,” Craddick said last month in a hearing. Craddick and many other Republicans and Democratic lawmakers want to close a legal loophole that allows payday and auto title lenders to operate without regulation. Consumer groups and faith leaders, who’ve turned out in force to testify about what they see as usury, support Craddick’s approach. Hell, everyone but the payday sharks supports the bill.

However, Rep. Vicki Truitt, a Republican from the Fort Worth suburbs, chairs the House committee that controls banking legislation. She has made it clear that she won’t be letting Craddick’s bill, or any other bill that puts a cap on interest rates, pass out of her committee. Truitt favors a much softer approach—her own: consumer education, transparency of loan terms and some limits on how many times you can roll over a loan. That’s as far as she’ll go.

Truitt has ignored the Biblical injunction against usury in favor of a peculiar strain of market fundamentalism. “There is a market for short-term loans,” she said in March. “Consumers will not be well-served by eliminating these sources of short-term and unsecured loans. The alternative for them will be even worse.”

There is indeed a huge demand for credit. With nowhere else to turn, desperate folks—and Lord knows there’s no shortage of those—are taking out loans that are neither fair nor necessary.

Roughly one-third of the states have imposed strict caps on interest rates, typically around 36 percent APR. Another third have a reasonably strong regulatory structure. No state allows payday and auto title lenders to operate with impunity—except Texas. Here, unregulated lenders aren’t legitimate businesses. They prey on victims of an economic crisis caused by other greedy and reckless financial players.

But it’s not the payday business that needs to be shamed. It’s lawmakers like Truitt who defend an indefensible industry.

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It’s all too easy to despair over the right-wing assault on poor and middle-class Texans. We’re well past the halfway mark at the Texas Legislature, and the Republicans show little willingness to avoid cuts to the budget that will cripple the state. With outnumbered progressives, and even moderates, taking a backseat to the anti-government forces at the Capitol, the situation seems bleak.

But there is reason for hope. In mid-March, 11,000 teachers, parents and students from 300 different school districts rallied in Austin against the Legislature’s proposed $10 billion sucker-punch to public education. The cuts to public education would be devastating, possibly leading to school closures, increased class sizes and layoffs of as much as one-third of Texas’ teachers.

The rally, boisterous and refreshingly grassroots, showed that diffused anger and frustration (the non-Tea Party kind) can be collected and focused, even in Texas. If you expected docility from schoolteachers, you would have been disappointed. At times, the speakers mounted a sweeping critique of the state’s political leaders. “Millionaire senators cut my pay back to minimum wage and still I will march into that classroom full of children who need me,” shouted John Kuhn, the superintendent of Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District, to the cheering crowd.

Every social movement has its catalyzing moment. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker’s radical effort to eliminate collective bargaining spurred non-stop protests in Madison and seems to have breathed new life into the moribund labor movement. Of course, unlike Texas, Wisconsin actually has robust unions. Texas is a “right to work” state dominated by Big Business and wealthy ideologues. Still, the “cuts-only” budget is so severe that it has stirred Texas educators—already pushed to the brink by mindless testing regimes and a failed school finance system—to take to the streets.

One rally won’t alter the course we’re on, but it’s a start. Educators should join with other potential victims of the budget—students, senior citizens, public employees, veterans and working-class Texans—and call for the full use of the state’s $9 billion Rainy Day Fund, advocate for a fairer tax structure, and pressure lawmakers to invest in social institutions.

This is not about pleading; it’s about pushing. Progressives in this state all too often have a hangdog, woe-is-me attitude. Well, folks, here’s your chance to stand up and fight. You can start by attending the “Save Our State” march, rally and lobby day on April 6th. As the old slogan goes: “Don’t mourn, organize.”

Change is not the same as progress. Change can be the exact opposite. It can be regressive, as we’re now learning from—where else?—Congress.

A flock of Tea Party-infused Republicans has changed the political dynamic there, and exultant GOP leaders are claiming that they are now the voice of “the people.” Most people won’t find themselves represented by this change, much less see it as progress.

That’s because the newcomers in Congress, whether Republican or Democrat, tend to live high up the economic ladder, way out of touch with the people they’re representing. Forty percent of newly elected House members are millionaires, as are 60 percent of new senators. While the great majority of workaday Americans are struggling to make it on about $30,000 a year—having, at best, puny pensions and iffy health coverage—these incoming lawmakers tend to be sitting pretty on accumulated wealth. Their financial reports show them holding extensive personal investments in outfits like Wall Street banks, oil giants  and drug makers.

Their wealth and financial ties might help explain the rush by the new Republican House majority to coddle corporate powers. From gutting EPA’s anti-pollution restrictions on Big Oil to undoing the restraints on Wall Street greed, they’re pushing for a return to the same laissez-fairyland ideology of the past 20 years that got our country into massive messes. At the same time, they’re out to kill a green jobs program, bust unions, cut Social Security, defund Head Start and generally stomp on the fingers of working families.

The change is Congress in taking America backwards, not forwards, for the new majority literally is the voice of millionaires. That’s not progress.

 

Find more information on Jim Hightower’s work—and subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown—at www.jimhightower.com

They Pander, You Pay

Texas Republicans love to call themselves fiscal conservatives. But is it fiscally conservative to spend millions in taxpayer money addressing “emergencies” that don’t exist?

Republican legislators, prodded by Gov. Rick Perry, have pushed through “emergency” legislative items to ban so-called sanctuary cities, require women to undergo an invasive ultrasound procedure before abortions and make voters show photo ID at the polls. The three bills curry favor with social conservatives. As moderate and progressive legislators have protested—correctly—they represent government overreach at its worst. But one aspect of this culture-war pander-fest has been largely ignored: the cost.

It’s a given that, if passed, all three bills will be heavily litigated on constitutional grounds. It’s ironic that a political party that champions lawsuit reform could generate so much fodder for lawsuits. And litigation isn’t cheap.

Arizona is expected to spend upwards of $10 million defending its own harsh anti-immigrant law in court. Last summer, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer had to start a donation fund to keep paying the attorney expenses, which have already surpassed $500,000.

A sonogram bill similar to the one currently flying through the Texas Legislature has been litigated in state courts in Oklahoma since 2009. In the last two years, Oklahoma’s attorney general has spent hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars on the case. Then-governor Brad Henry had the good sense to veto an ultrasound bill last spring. (The veto was overriden.) Not only was it an “unconstitutional invasion of privacy,” he said, it would also needlessly squander state funds. “You have to be careful about blindly passing legislation that you know will be challenged and very likely will be determined unconstitutional, because that costs taxpayers a lot of money,” Henry warned.

Texas’ governor has taken the opposite tack. The single most pressing “emergency” for Rick Perry and the Republican leadership was nonexistent voter fraud. Voter ID’s cost to taxpayers won’t just arise from litigation on behalf of the elderly, rural and minority voters who will be kept from the polls—there will also be substantial costs to administer the bill. To pass Constitutional muster, states that require photo IDs must provide them free to any citizen who needs one to vote. In Missouri, the cost has been estimated at $6 million for the first year of Voter ID. In North Carolina, the costs have run to nearly $20 million.

In a legislative session with a $27 billion budget crater, this is political theater Texas can’t afford.

Billionaire Bullies

Not all bullies are in schoolyards these days—quite a few have graduated to the executive suites of Corporate America.

Take Charles and David Koch, multi-billionaire brothers whose lives of privilege and bloated sense of entitlement have turned them into such spoiled brats that they can’t take a joke.

Last December, the Kochs’ oil operations became the object of a spoof by tricksters called Youth for Climate Truth. Not only is Koch Industries Inc. a notorious polluter, but the brothers have recently been exposed as longtime, secret funders of various right-wing front groups trying to debunk climate change.

The young folks made fun of all this by issuing a fake news release on what appeared to be Koch Industries letterhead. The release said the Kochsters had seen the light on global warming and would be strong environmental advocates. A pretty harmless joke.

The grumpy billionaires not only failed to laugh, but also resorted to bullying. They’ve unleashed a pack of lawyers to demand that the identities of those who produced the parody be given to the Kochs so they can sue them for damages. What damages? The lawsuit says the brothers want reimbursement for “costs associated with spending time and money to respond to inquiries about the
fake release.”

Good grief—Charles and David are two of the 10 richest people in America, and they’re whining about a $10 phone bill! What the Kochs are trying to do,
of course, is to bully their critics. Make fun of us, they’re saying, and we’ll bury you in legal bills.

By the way, these billionaire bullies have also financed front groups that attack public interest lawyers. Why? Because, say the Kochs, these lawyers file
“frivolous” lawsuits.

 

Find more information on Jim Hightower’s work—and subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown—at www.jimhightower.com

The standards for political leadership in Texas have dwindled to depressing levels recently. Faced with an economic downturn and a historically large budget deficit, our statewide elected officials seem more concerned with their political careers than steering the state through a difficult period. Gov. Rick Perry has been so furiously pandering to right-wing voters, he’s making George W. Bush look statesman-like. Not that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who’s eyeing a run for U.S. Senate, has been any better.

So Susan Combs’ actions of late have been refreshing. Combs, a Republican elected Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts in 2006, has gotten into a very public fight with the online retailer Amazon. Combs contends the company owes the state $269 million in back sales taxes. Amazon claims it’s not obligated to pay because, though it has a distribution center in Irving, the company doesn’t have a storefront in Texas.

Combs has a fair reading of the law, which states that any company with a nexus of operations in Texas owes sales taxes. But rather than pay its share, Amazon threw a fit. It has threatened to close its Irving distribution center, depriving the state of much-needed jobs. And no sooner had Amazon announced its intention to leave than Perry threw Combs under his 2012 campaign bus. “The comptroller made that decision independently,” Perry told the Washington Examiner. “I would tell you from my perspective that’s not the decision I would have made.” He went on to dispute Combs’ interpretation of the law—though sales-tax collection isn’t in the governor’s purview—and pledged to keep Amazon in Texas.
It would have been easy for Combs to give in. She has ambitions for higher office. But to her credit, she has held strong. She’s pushed back on the governor, insisting that her take on tax law is correct.

Trying to force a major employer to pay taxes—even taking the company before an administrative law judge—was gutsy. But it was the right move. A state facing a $27 billion budget deficit cannot let huge companies get away with not paying taxes. And it’s unfair to small Texas retailers to allow their large Internet-based competitor to go tax-free.

Combs’ push-back against Perry was a rare moment of honest-to-God leadership, when an ambitious elected official refused to take the politically expedient path and did what was best for the state. If only it weren’t so unusual.

Infesting the Court System

When corporate executives needed a political favor, they always went running to Congress. Now they can also run to the courthouse.

Over the years, corporate chieftains and their political henchmen have ensconced reliable, laissez-faire ideologues in hundreds of federal judgeships, creating a corporate-friendly path for moving their litigation from the district level to the Supreme Court. For example, in its effort to scuttle Obama’s health care reform, the right wing has gone court-shopping. They’ve filed their cases in the courts of judges who are known to be ideologically hostile to government regulation of  health care.

Take U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson in Virginia. On Dec. 13, he ruled that a key provision of the new law is unconstitutional, a ruling at odds with 14 other federal judges who dismissed similar challenges. He had to resort to twisted reasoning to reach his decision. But, hey, you can’t let legal niceties get in the way of ideology.

Peek under Hudson’s judicial robe, and you’ll find a naked partisan with a long career in hard-right Republican politics. A protégé of Ronald Reagan and his detestable attorney general, Ed Meese, Hudson ran unsuccessfully for a Virginia congressional seat in 1991, then was given two GOP political appointments in the state before George W. lifted him onto the federal bench in 2002.

Even today, as he sits in judgment of politically motivated cases, Hudson continues to draw annual income as an owner of a Republican political consulting firm. One of the firm’s successful clients in 2009 was Ken Cuccinelli, elected as Virginia’s attorney general. Cuccinelli just happens to be the official who filed the right-wing’s case against Obama’s health care reform in Hudson’s court.

 

Find more information on Jim Hightower’s work—and subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown—at www.jimhightower.com

Who Are These Austin Anarchists?

DPS makes a group sound more organized than it was

There are some stories that keep getting stranger and stranger the more time passes. This is the case with the tangled piece I reported for This American Life a couple years ago about an Austin activist turned FBI informant named Brandon Darby, who turned in two young men, Brad Crowder and David McKay, for building Molotov cocktails at the 2008 Republican National Convention.

Now DPS is saying that whoever firebombed the Governor’s Mansion is “directly connected” to the “Austin-based anarchist group” that “planned” the attempted firebombing of the RNC. They say that one of the members of the group who was arrested at the RNC was in a car taking photos of the mansion four days before the fire, apparently doing surveillance for the arson.

As someone who spent the better part of six months investigating this case, the news is surprising, to say the least. I interviewed several of the activists who drove together to the RNC from Austin, and it would be a stretch to say they were a “group.” In fact, many of the people were meeting each other for the first time—essentially it was more an activist carpool than an “anarchist group.”

Now, DPS says this group “planned” to firebomb the RNC. In fact, there is no dispute that most of the people in the van strenuously disagreed with the plan to build Molotov cocktails. In fact, one member inadvertently turned in their fellow activists by calling Brandon Darby (who was undercover at the time) and telling him how furious they all were at Crowder and McKay for putting them at risk. So there wasn’t a “group” that planned to make firebombs. There were a couple of young guys who decided to do it on the spur of the moment, and the rest of these “anarchists,” (some described themselves that way, but not all) thought it was a stupid idea.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Crowder or McKay couldn’t have been involved in the plan to bomb the mansion. Perhaps that’s even where they got the idea. But that wasn’t my impression of McKay, who I interviewed for two hours in 2009. He was a young guy from Midland whose first taste of politics was being tased by the Midland police while protesting a KKK rally. He seemed anti-authoritarian, but hardly an “anarchist” or even someone with well-formed political positions. He seemed like a guy who got caught up in the idea of doing street battle with the cops and built Molotov cocktails, which were found in the basement of the home he was staying at in St. Paul. When law enforcement swooped in, McKay was asleep in bed, just a couple hours before his flight left for Austin. The timing made it seem very unlikely that he was on the verge of using the firebombs. (Or perhaps he was going to throw them on the way to the airport, but that never seemed too likely. By then, the days of rage had passed.)

I consider myself a decent judge of character, but perhaps McKay had me fooled. Perhaps he was a seasoned arsonist playing the role of regretful naif for a reporter. But I’ll remain skeptical until DPS provides more than the circumstantial evidence that someone took pictures from a car four days earlier that has been connected to an “Austin-based anarchist group.”