Schoolroom Philosophy

The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.

— Abraham Lincoln

In this week’s Sift:

  • Turning Marketshare into Mindshare. If no one trusts Lex Luthor but everyone trusts the University of Metropolis, there’s an obvious deal to be made — if U-Met is willing. Small wonder that in the real world, as the states stop funding their universities, special interests are stepping up to fill part of the gap — in return for the opportunity to cloak their message in academic prestige and propagandize American students.
  • The Republican Field Takes Shape. Paul and Gingrich in, Huckabee out. And Romney can’t escape the healthcare trap.
  • Short Notes. Florida outlaws sex. An FCC commissioner gets her legal payoff. Jon Stewart’s un-Common takedown of Fox. Shakespeare or Batman? And more.
  • This Week’s Challenge. Know any quotes that would look good at the top of a Sift?

Turning Marketshare into Mindshare

As states continue to slash their budgets, the headlines focus on cuts to K-12 education. And that makes sense, both because that’s where the big money is and because just about everyone cares about some child who might be immediately affected by K-12 cuts. But budgets are also being slashed at the state universities, and in the long run that might just as important.

The trend. The new budget from Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, for example, cuts Penn State’s money in half, reducing state funding to 8% of the university’s budget. And this represents a long-term trend, not just a reaction to the current economic situation. In 1970, Penn State got 37% of its budget from the state.

Other states have seen similar trends. The University of California was tuition-free until 1971. But under Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget, student fees in the U of C system will surpass state funding for the first time ever.

The student perspective. Federal aid to students trying to pay these fees is also being cut. President Obama’s budget proposal cuts Pell grants, and Rep. Ryan’s Republican alternative cuts them even more.

As a result, the days when a young person could “work his way through college” — making enough to live on while paying minimal fees at a state university — are over. To go to college today, you need either well-to-do parents or the willingness to take on massive debt.

And while taking on debt may be a reasonable financial move if you’re getting a high-market-value credential like an MBA or an MD, it’s hard to imagine degrees in special education or social work ever paying off, no matter how valuable such careers might be to society. A law degree may still be a profitable investment if you’re going to Wall Street or becoming a lobbyist. But if you’re planning to fight for social justice, it isn’t.

Now put yourself in the shoes of a talented young minority student from a bad neighborhood. College already seems like a huge risk; few people you know have attended and perhaps no one has graduated. Cynical voices tell you that the powers-that-be don’t want to hire people like you anyway. Are you willing to saddle yourself with, say, $100K of debt on the off-chance you’ll be the exception?

The social perspective. Raising the costs and risks of college hardens the boundaries between economic classes. Even as we maintain the appearance of a meritocracy, the well-to-do children get the training they need to “merit” professional-class careers, while less privileged children don’t.

Devil’s bargains. Universities see this problem too, and it motivates them to chase after money that doesn’t come from students or governments. So they press their alumni harder for gifts and manage their endowment portfolios more aggressively — sometimes taking risks they shouldn’t.

They also work harder to commercialize their research, which undermines their mission. The whole point of universities was to replace the guild system of the Middle Ages, where all technical knowledge was a trade secret, with a Republic of Letters, which distributes knowledge freely.

But in order to profit from something you have to put up toll gates, because people who can access your knowledge freely won’t pay you for it.

Trust for sale. The most insidiously tempting way to raise money is to quietly sell off the university’s greatest assets: trust and intellectual respect. Lots of willing buyers have lots of money. If no one trusts Lex Luthor but everyone trusts the University of Metropolis, then the solution is obvious: LexCorp needs to pay U-Met to distribute its message.

That’s happening. This week, two Florida State professors drew attention to a deal FSU made with the Koch Foundation — with the conservative Koch brothers, in other words — to fund two professorships in economics. In exchange for their money, the Kochs get veto power on hiring for the two positions. Naturally, Paul Krugman’s students need not apply.

Florida State has also made a deal with BB&T, an ultra-conservative bank holding company, to fund a course on ethics and economics. That sounds innocuous, but by “ethics in economics” BB&T means teaching that free-market capitalism is moral and socialism is immoral. So the deal specifies that Atlas Shrugged be covered, whether the course’s professor finds it worthy or not. BB&T has made similar deals with James Mason University and Guilford College. Meredith College rejected $420K of BB&T money to protect their academic freedom.

BB&T also funds professorships at Clemson’s Institute for the Study of Capitalism. Among its other activities, CISC runs an undergraduate summer conference on Atlas Shrugged. From its web site, I see no sign that CISC’s “studies of capitalism” include, say, Karl Marx. (My nephew graduated from Clemson Friday. He had to read Atlas Shrugged, and endured a class from a global-warming-denying professor. Fortunately, his liberal antibodies were up to the challenge.)

For $30 million donated to George Mason University, the Kochs got the Mercatus Center, which specializes in giving academic cover to politicians who want to gut government regulation.

What’s new? Billionaires have a long history of funding American higher education. That’s why universities bear names like Carnegie-Mellon, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt. The University of Chicago — where I got my Ph.D. — is a Rockefeller project that he didn’t bother to name after himself.

But something is different now. In the Gilded Age, the robber barons were buying their way into high society with their good works. Where a British financier might marry a cash-poor countess or otherwise induce the crown to give him a title, an American industrialist would build a library or save the local opera company from a financial crisis.

The best ticket into high society was a project with high name recognition, but none of the taints of filthy lucre. Hence the robber-baron universities have high academic standards and a great deal of independence.

Today those forces are reversed; money is prestige. So billionaires like the Kochs have no interest in high society, and they use their foundations to gain hidden influence rather than to build their names.

Propaganda U. Imagine being an impressionable young student at University of Alabama/Huntsville, and wandering into this talk at the College of Business. It’s a Koch-funded professor from CISC and the Mercatus Center speaking in a Koch-funded lecture series. Are you being educated or indoctrinated? It’s one thing to run into a politically motivated professor, but it is quite another to have professors who were hired by special interests to promote views beneficial to those interests.

As public funds for higher education dry up, that is going to become more and more typical. Right-wing political indoctrination will be the price students pay to get an affordable college education, in the same way that they sit through McDonalds ads to watch television.

Worse in the long run is that society is losing a platform for disinterested research, and a source of expertise that can challenge the “experts” manufactured by corporate PR departments. Decades ago, when doctors from the Tobacco Institute told us that the smoking-cancer connection was unproven, we knew what was going on. But how many people today realize they are getting energy-industry propaganda when a talking head from “the Mercatus Center at George Mason University” appears on their TV? And how many Mercatus Centers does it take to discredit all academic voices?

Democracy only works when the electorate has access to high-quality information, and has some way to verify the trustworthiness of the experts it listens to. Otherwise it’s garbage-in/garbage-out. David Mindich put it best: “Government supported by an uninformed citizenry is not a democracy; it is a sham.”

If you’re wondering what “ethics in economics” Atlas Shrugged promotes, it’s a lot like what Rand Paul was saying Wednesday:

With regard to the idea whether or not you have a right to health care you have to realize what that implies. I am a physician. You have a right to come to my house and conscript me. It means you believe in slavery.

Atlas Shrugged is filled with speeches like that. Yeah, doctors in socialized-medicine countries like Canada are just like field slaves in the antebellum South. It’s exactly the same thing, morally speaking.

I don’t need to take Paul’s statement apart, because Lawrence O’Donnell already did.

A California school board has ordered that high-school science classes be “politically balanced” when they tackle issues like global warming. In other words: the science has to be balanced with oil-company propaganda.

Wonder what those upbeat Exxon ads are about? Hydrofracking.

A global-warming-denying think tank recently announced that 900 peer-reviewed papers shared their skepticism. Are those 900 independent looks at the topic? Not exactly.

The Carbon Brief blog took a closer look: Ten authors account for 186 of those papers. Nine of the ten “have links to organisations funded by Exxon-Mobil, and the tenth has co-authored several papers with Exxon-funded contributors.”

For example, 67 of the papers were authored or co-authored by one person: Sherwood Idso, president the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, which receives support from Exxon-Mobil and has even closer ties to the Western Fuels Association.

The Republican Field Takes Shape

Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are in. Mike Huckabee is out. Mitt Romney still has no solution to the health-care problem that will kill him in the primaries. The Trump balloon is whizzing around erratically as it loses air.

By the time we reach the Iowa caucuses, we’ll see a fading Romney candidacy, one other governor or ex-governor (Daniels, Pawlenty, or Huntsman) trying to pick up Romney’s “reasonable conservative” mantle, Gingrich, a religious right candidate (I think Bachmann), and Paul.

President Obama should be sighing with relief.

Huckabee. Huckabee was the only Republican I could imagine both getting nominated and winning in November. His views are as nutty as Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann, but he looks and sounds much more reasonable when he talks about them.

Huckabee’s announcement was a little strange. He denied all the practical reasons for not running: He could raise money, get support outside the South, his family was OK with running, and so on. “All the factors say go,” he said, “but my heart says no.” Maybe I’m being too cynical, but I can’t help thinking there’s something we don’t know: a health problem, a family problem, a skeleton that might escape the closet — something.

The interesting question is where the religious right goes now. I still think Palin won’t run and they’ll wind up with Bachmann.

Paul. Ron Paul is 75, would legalize heroin, and still thinks it was a bad idea to force bars and restaurants to serve blacks back in the Sixties. About 10% of the country thinks he’s wonderful, but probably not that many more would vote for him in a general election after a campaign made his views clear. His support will seem formidable as long as the primary vote is split many ways, but (as in 2008) he will not pick up supporters from the candidates who drop out.

Romney. The health-care speech Mitt Romney gave in Michigan Thursday — in which he tried once again to explain how his Massachusetts health-care plan can be good while Obama’s nearly identical national plan is bad — exemplifies why I expect the wheels to come off his candidacy.

The only convincing case for Mitt becoming president builds on the “compassionate conservative” theme Bush ran on in 2000: Romney can work with reasonable Democrats to achieve compassionate goals through market-oriented mechanisms that don’t scuttle conservative principles.

The Massachusetts’ health-care plan is what makes that case. Romney could build on that success with other market-oriented solutions to real problems, like a cap-and-trade system to control global warming.

But now you see his dilemma: Because Obama has occupied the lane that Romney would naturally run in, Republicans now consider Romney’s natural message to be radical Marxism. Without that message and record, Mitt is just a well-financed guy who looks presidential and has high name recognition. That will get you good poll numbers when the election is far away, but it won’t win anything.

BTW, Romney’s health-care speech was pathetic. Unable to make his best case — that RomneyCare is such a great idea Obama had to steal it — he is stuck repeating boilerplate Republican health-care proposals: limit malpractice awards, allow interstate insurance competition, give individuals the same health-insurance tax incentives that businesses have, and so on.

That all does zilch to cover the 50 million uninsured Americans. The CBO ran the numbers when congressional Republicans proposed a similar plan in 2009. It concluded that after 10 years, the Republican plan would cover a whopping 3 million of the uninsured, but due to factors like population growth the total number of uninsured would not change.

Gingrich. Digby says Newt “puts disparate pieces of new age futurism in service of wingnut goals.” He should use that as a slogan.

And she puts the “liberal media” on notice:

I’ll be expecting the NY Times to treat his sex life with the same interest they treated Hillary Clinton’s when she ran in 2008. Do he and his wife sleep together in the same bed? Are there any rumors about him cheating? (After all, it wouldn’t be the first time.) The Times felt it was newsworthy for Clinton, it should certainly be newsworthy for Newt.

The Nation assembles The Eleven Craziest things New Gingrich Has Ever Said. #1 is Newt’s dystopian vision of a future in which a “secular atheist” America is “dominated by radical Islamists”. Whenever I meet a radical-Islamist-secular-atheist, I shiver in horror.

Short Notes

The Southern Fried Science blog points out the hazards of electing no-nothings to represent you. Because Florida legislators don’t realize that humans are part of the animal kingdom, their anti-bestiality law accidentally bans sex in general.

Here’s how our system works: In January, FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker was on the winning end of the 4-1 vote that OK’d the Comcast/NBC Universal merger. Wednesday, she took a job as “senior vice president for government affairs” — top lobbyist, in other words — for the NBC Universal division of Comcast.

Under the administration’s get-tough rules against such revolving-door deals, she will not be able to lobby the FCC itself for two years. I’m sure that diminishes her future value to Comcast, but future value is not what the public should be concerned about. Her diminished future value makes it all the more obvious that she’s being rewarded for her past value to Comcast, for the work she did as an FCC commissioner. But as long as there’s no smoking-gun evidence of such a deal — no signed contract, no taped conversation — it’s all completely legal.

It is not even a month since President Bush’s FCC chair, Michael Powell (Colin’s son), became the president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, an industry lobbying group. Multichannel News described Powell as “a deregulatory chairman who focused on marketplace mechanisms to spread broadband via cable, telephone and even power lines.” Translation: Even back then he was a friend of the people who pay him the big bucks now.

The Troubadour uses Gerald Stern’s poem “Behaving Like a Jew” to explaining why, as a Jew, he feels compelled to support the rights of Palestinians.

Presbyterians are the most recent Protestant denomination to approve ordaining gay and lesbian ministers. The United Church of Christ, the largest synod of Lutherans, and the Episcopalians already do. The Methodists are still fighting about it. (My church — the Unitarian Universalists — has been doing it so long it’s not even controversial any more. I’ve co-taught classes with both gay and lesbian ministers.)

The reason this fight is so bitter and intractable is that it depends on what you think the heart of Christianity is. If the heart of Christianity is tradition, gay ministers are anathema. If it’s scripture, the issue is murkier. (Christians typically ignore Old Testament rules that aren’t repeated in the New Testament, and the handful of supposedly anti-gay New Testament texts only make that point after a considerable amount of interpretation.) If it’s a set of values, the highest of which is compassion, then you look at a long-persecuted group of people and ask why. Finding no reason beyond “we’ve always done it this way”, you end the discrimination.

The staunchest anti-gay Christians are the ones who believe Christianity is a text interpreted by a tradition. They are almost never convinced to change their minds, but denominations change as the old guard dies off.

Did Shakespeare say that, or Batman? I’m proud of myself for getting 26 out of 30.

David Morris charts Ten Depressing Ways America is Exceptional.

Not sure how it took me 5 years to run across this: Al Franken’s “Gospel of Supply Side Jesus”.

John McCain may have reversed himself on a lot of other issues, but torture is where he gets stubborn. He’s not letting the Bushies get away with claiming that torture led to Bin Laden.

The only reason to pay attention to Fox News’ latest scary-black-guy story, the trumped-up controversy over the poet/rapper Common, is so that you can appreciate Jon Stewart’s take-down of their deception and hypocrisy. Jon is pioneering an attitude we should all try: “This isn’t even fun any more. I barely even get angry about this. I just feel sorry for you guys now.”

This Week’s Challenge

Do you think it’s easy to come up with a new Sift quote every week? Help me out. Send a quote that would work well at the top of a Sift.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page.

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  • mike s  On May 16, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    I got 22 out of 30.

    Seriously, thanks for all your time sorting through the confusion. I'm afraid we're well into “Government supported by an uninformed citizenry” which really scares me. Your effort to track down reality, with supporting links, is a rock that's really needed.

  • dp  On May 17, 2011 at 9:56 am

    Great commentary on education. The Koch brothers have figured out that if they fund professorships they have a good chance of influencing a larger percent of the population. Of course it sometimes backfires. I live in Wisconsin and the legislature continually complains about the liberal bias of the university but yet most of the right wing in our state are alumni, except of course for our gov. who didn't finish any school let alone one of the public system schools.

  • kimc  On May 22, 2011 at 2:47 am

    I have several comments:
    I have been threatening lately to start a movement for honesty in public discourse! A law against lying in the news and in political ads. I think people right, left, and center could get behind it. A correlate to that might be a labeling law that products have to list the ultimate owner of the company that makes the product.
    When I read Atlas Shrugged, in my twenties, I had the Libertarian who recommended it to me defending self-sacrifice! but even then I didn't believe the whole vision of her books was realistic: most of her characters were all evil or good, and the few who were just human, all committed suicide. I took the series as a recommendation to suicide.
    For an economics novel, I recommend Teahouse of the August Moon. But there is also this game: It's called Starpower, and it shows how economies REALLY work. Read about it here:
    Your phrase “money is prestige” made me think of Consumer Hedonism.
    You say Mercatus Centers will discredit all academics — can we make it discredit all economics/business academics instead of all academics?
    If those “politically balanced” classrooms would just call out the propaganda AS propaganda, it might help….
    Your mention of Jon Stewart's “new” attitude makes me recommend to you to read The Republican Nemesis by James Kroeger, written in 2004. Find it here:

    • Darold  On June 23, 2012 at 2:33 pm

      That’s an apt answer to an interseting question

  • kimc  On May 22, 2011 at 2:54 am

    Oh. I forgot the quote:
    I heard this on the radio many years ago, so I can't be sure it's authentic, but I love it:
    “Anyone who wants the job of President, doesn't deserve it.” George Washington (after he retired)

  • Doug Muder  On May 22, 2011 at 7:21 am

    I just read the article “The Republican Nemesis” that kimc recommended. It's really good.

    What worries me about a law against lying is that it could become a law against challenging the official version of the truth. I can imagine a situation where propaganda gets so established that denying it becomes a “lie” in court.

    What I'd rather see is for the media to reclaim fact-checking as an essential part of its identity. Imagine if every time a Meet the Press guest repeated some falsehood, David Gregory would say “You realize that Politifact investigated that statement and called it a pants-on-fire lie. Are you sure you want to stand by it?”

    Yeah, I know, it's a fantasy.

  • kimc  On May 22, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    I made my partner read this, and her comment was: it's pretty much the same as all the others in that it offers an analysis of the problem but no solution.
    We can no longer look to the government for solutions — they have sold out to the military-Industrial-corporate complex. We will have to do it ourselves. But who is offering solutions for HOW to do it????

  • kimc  On May 23, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Here's another good quote, via Thom Hartmann:
    Quote: “He that is of the opinion money will do everything may well be suspected of doing everything for money.” — Benjamin Franklin

  • kimc  On May 23, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    Doug — Thanks for pointing out the danger in a law against lying. I guess it will just have to be an overwhelming populist movement….

  • bohemiotx  On September 18, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    Great article, and I just read my first WeeklySift about the TeaParty’s confusion of corporations rather than govt screwing up the US. Well-written, and i’m glad my favorite higher ed ad buddy mentioned this site on Facebook–and he’s never political on FB until now.
    Maybe i’ll ask for blogging for money tips someday.

    • weeklysift  On June 30, 2012 at 10:24 am

      I doubt I’ll be able to help on the blogging-for-money question. The Sift is non-commercial (notice the lack of ads) and free to readers. It’s part of the gift economy rather than the money economy.


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