Saturday, March 23, 2013

ON THE ROAD TO DESTROYING PUBLIC INSTITUTIONS ONE BY ONE



Harry Targ

I've traveled round this country
From shore to shining shore
It really made me wonder
The things I heard and saw


I saw the weary farmer
Plowing sod and loam
l heard the auction hammer
A knocking down his home


l saw the seaman standing
Idly by the shore
l heard the bosses saying
Got no work for you no more


I saw the weary miner
Scrubbing coal dust from his back
I heard his children crying
Got no coal to heat the shack


But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the miner sweated for


I've seen my brothers working
Throughout this mighty land
l prayed we'd get together
And together make a stand
 (from “The Banks are Made of Marble,” written by Les Rice and sung by Pete Seeger and the Weavers)

Mike Pence, Indiana’s recently elected governor, published an editorial in the Lafayette Indiana Journal and Courier (March 22, 2013) proposing a 10 percent “across the board” cut in state income taxes. He claimed that this tax cut would put money back into households that can better spend it than government. State financial reserves remain flush, he said, because of the wise management of public funds of the prior governor, and now Purdue University president, Mitch Daniels and the state legislature.

Pence defends his tax cut proposal with the old tired mantra of making the Indiana economy more competitive even though he does admit that “Indiana’s economy is still struggling…with unemployment… stubbornly above 8 percent.” Apparently, the downsizing of government, building a budget surplus, privatizing schools and highways, and giving tax breaks to the wealthier sectors of the Hoosier population have not worked so far.

Even though the thirty year campaign (since Reaganomics) to cut taxes, reduce the size of government, and privatize public services has clearly reduced rates of economic growth, increased unemployment, cut real wages, and made access to health care and education less affordable for more Americans, the Daniels/Pence-type economic programs are being expanded in virtually all the “red” states and most of the “blue” ones. The pressure to impose economic austerity has profoundly affected conflicts over federal policies as well.

The gridlock over economic policy at the national level and states where control of the government is shared by the two parties is driven by debates between so-called Keynesians, who support “mixed” state/ market policies versus Hayek/Friedman supporters who believe, as former President Reagan declared, “government is not the solution, government is the problem.” 

However, beyond the debate about economic theory is a sustained, well-funded campaign by the Koch Brothers, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), conservative and even liberal think tanks, and most politicians to destroy public institutions that masses of working people have struggled to construct since the industrial revolution. These include libraries, public schools, parks, roads, mail service and other forms of communication, social safety nets for the needy, and the guarantee through public institutional scrutiny basic rights-to vote, to form trade unions, to have safe work places, to be secure in one’s home and on the streets. Governments even were assigned the tasks of research and development to promote the common good and improve the physical and social quality of life. 

All of these services were demanded by the vast majority of Americans because they knew that such tasks could not be done individually. All of these benefits provided by public institutions are in danger of being destroyed by the tax cutters, the privatizers, and the deregulators such as reflected over the last decade in policies instituted by governors and legislatures in states like Indiana.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) issued a report last week on the devastating consequences of these policy shifts on one public sector, higher education (“Recent Deep State Higher Education Cuts May Harm Students and the Economy for Years To Come”). One example has been the 28 percent cut per student in state expenditures on higher education over the last five years in all fifty states. Eleven states cut their support for higher education by more than one-third. In Governor Daniels’ Indiana higher education funding declined by 17.2 percent between fiscal year 2008 and 2013 ($1,240 per student). http://www.cbpp.org/files/3-19-13sfp.pdf

CBPP pointed out that these cuts in public support for higher education have  dramatic negative consequences. “States (and to a lesser extent localities) provide 53 percent of the revenue that can be used to support instruction at these schools. When this funding is cut, colleges and universities generally must either reduce spending, raise tuition to cover the gap, or both.”

In response to declining state support for higher education tuition increases since 2007-2008 have exceeded 27 percent nationally. (In Indiana tuition has risen by 15.1 percent or $1,142 per student). Many colleges and universities have cut teaching staff, increased class size, reduced course and program offerings, shut down computer and library facilities, and eliminated branch campuses.

Debates abound in state legislatures about the impacts of recession on public financing of higher education. Legitimate arguments are raised about the pattern of bloated and unnecessary administrative expansion in colleges and universities and administrative salaries that are extraordinarily out-of-line with the norms of public service. 

But there is a deeper meaning to the CBPP report, the Pence proposed tax cuts, and the downsizing of support for public-supported higher education. That is, powerful economic and political actors, representing what the Occupy Movement called the one percent and their allies among traditional conservatives and right-wing populists, are on a campaign to destroy public institutions which for the most part serve the interests of the vast majority of the population of the United States.

In the dystopian society the rich and powerful wish to create there will be education, health care, physical security, and a sustainable and fulfilling quality of life for those who can pay for it but for the rest of us, the 99 percent, life will become harsh and painful. More and more it is becoming clear that politics must be  about saving those public institutions that workers, women, people of color, marginalized peoples of all kinds struggled for a long time to secure and are now in danger of losing.