Tuesday, March 24, 2015


Harry Targ

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels testified March 17, 2015 before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee on Education and Workforce on what he calls higher education reform. He also spoke during that week to the American Council on Education and the Brookings Institute. A centerpiece of his recommendations was “income share agreements” whereby students partner with investors, particularly alumni, who would provide funds for their education in exchange “for a small share of the student’s future income.” 

Daniels was touting this idea in addition to new cost-saving policies at Purdue University, such as offering three-year degree programs, using different metrics rather than course hours to measure student preparation, and tuition freezes. He has also urged a reduction in costly federal regulations.

Although some of Daniels’ proposals and programs at his home university have merit, the conversation he and other administrators around the country are having about rising tuition and the accumulation of years of debt ignore the major reason why costs and tuition are rising. In addition to the cost of higher education attributable to increased faculty salaries; layers of new administrators; the creation of new luxury amenities to attract students (housing, food, and recreational facilities), tuition has risen because state government financing of higher education has not kept pace with expenditures.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities issued a report on May 1, 2014 (“States Are Still Funding Higher Education Below Pre-Recession Levels”) which provides data to show that higher education funding remains below 2007-2008 pre-recession levels in 48 of 50 states. This means, according to CBPP: “the large funding cuts have led to both steep tuition increases and spending cuts that may diminish the quality of education available to students at a time when a highly educated workforce is more crucial than ever to the nation’s economic future.”

CBPP reports that since 2007-2008 state spending on higher education is down 23 percent, or $2,026 per student. Tuition increases have been substantial in public colleges and universities from fiscal year 2008 to 2014 ranging from $253 in Montana to $4,493 in Arizona.  In Indiana tuition increased by $1,191 during this period. CBPP notes that in 1988 colleges and universities received 3.2 times more of their revenue from state and local governments than from students. That ratio declined to about 1.1 times more from government supports than tuition in 2013. Put another way the report states:

“Nearly every state has shifted costs to students over the last 25 years--with the most drastic shift occurring since the onset of the recession…Today, tuition revenue now outweighs government funding for higher education in 23 states…”

Not surprisingly Daniels’ idea that students find a rich supporter in exchange for future student earnings came from proposals made by free market advocate Milton Friedman in the 1980s. Friedman, the University of Chicago economist, was the most significant descendent of so-called “free market” economists who believe as did President Reagan that “government was not the solution; government was the problem.” From the vantage point of 2015, the privatization of all education, including higher education, is on the agenda of wealthy conservatives such as the Koch Brothers and the powerful state legislative lobbying organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC funds state politicians who support the elimination of public institutions, such as education.

Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, argued that during periods of economic or political crisis, changes have been introduced to weaken government and the maintenance of public services. The CBPP data suggests that the deep recession of 2008-2011 was an occasion for ALEC and the politicians and educators they support to reduce resources available for higher education. Despite the long history of government support for higher education, public schools from kindergarten through high school, libraries, roads, and police and fire-fighting services, the recession offered the occasion for influential and wealthy elites to pressure for policies that reduced state financial support for public services and a shift toward their privatization. In addition universities became even more dependent on big corporations, banks, and the military.  Finally, tuition increased and students had to pay a higher share of the cost of their education.

Throughout much of U.S. history public education, including higher education, has been seen as a public good. The land grant system of public higher education was instituted in 1862. From then until the recent recession, public colleges and universities educated large percentages of the young and generated much of the scientific and technical knowledge that stimulated the U.S. economy, based on substantial public support and low student tuition.  

After World War II, returning veterans became eligible for free higher education under the GI Bill. The program led to the training and credentialing of a whole generation of young people who went on to become educators and researchers, and also consumers of products manufactured after the war. The so-called economic “golden age,” from 1945 until the 1970s, was driven by research and development initiated by GI Bill recipients. These college graduates became members of the largest middle class in American history. 

As Bob Samuels author of Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free put it:

“I actually believe that we should and could make all public higher education completely free. We’re currently spending around $185 billion on higher education annually—which includes spending on for-profit schools, which have very low graduation rates and high debt rates, as well as on merit aid for wealthy students. Given current enrollment, I estimate that it would cost about $155 billion to fund public colleges and four-year institutions completely. My argument is instead of funding the individuals, we should just fund the institutions directly” (quoted in Rebecca Burns, “Why Can’t College Be Free?” In These Times, June 13, 2014, http://www.inthesetimes.com).

However, advocates of “higher education reform” at least those collaborating with economic and political elites who advocate policies depriving government of financial resources, sometimes called “starving the beast,” envision a day when all public institutions are privatized. There is much evidence that the privatization of education will increase gaps between rich and poor and may leave the latter with inferior educations. The Daniels plan will rely on wealthy benefactors to support students while tuition costs continue to rise and those who still seek a college education will continue to accumulate a lifetime of debt. 

Without a return to affordable publicly supported higher education, large proportions of young, intellectually curious, and talented students may be deterred from pursuing higher education which will have negative consequences for the entire society.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


(Reposted from Diary of a Heartland Radical, November 1, 2014, in memory of the 50 year anniversary of the launching of “Operation Rolling Thunder” on March 2, 1965, a program of massive bombing of targets in South and North Vietnam. As Pete Seeger sang:Oh, when will they ever learn? Oh, when will they ever learn?”)

Harry Targ

Well, I'm not going to point any moral;
I'll leave that for yourself
Maybe you're still walking, you're still talking
You'd like to keep your health.
But every time I read the papers
That old feeling comes on;
We're -- waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Journalist Sheryl Gay Stolberg recently reported on the Pentagon’s development of public educational materials concerning the history of the Vietnam War. In addition to preparations for a 50th year commemoration of President Johnson’s escalation of the war in 1965, DOD has been posting a war “timeline” on their website. The project was initiated by Congress in 2008 and will cost some $15 million (“Paying Respects, Pentagon Revives Vietnam, and War Over Truth,” New York Times, October 9, 2014).    
Perusing the timeline, a discerning reader would discover an oversimplified, distorted, and ahistorical narrative about the role of the United States in Vietnam. What is being presented as official history reduces the possibility that future generations of Americans will be able to learn from the mistakes of the past (www.vietnamwar50th.com/).
For starters, the narrative needs to develop eight elements of the United States/Vietnam story that are either missing from the timeline entirely or are grossly oversimplified.
First, it is critical to remember that the Indochinese peninsula, what became North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, was a colony of France from the 1850s until the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. After the war, the French sought to reestablish their Southeast Asian empire. They refused to negotiate with the Vietnamese, who demanded independence. What ensued was the bloody French/Indochinese War from 1946 until 1954. The French, defeated in 1954, were forced to withdraw. From 1950 until 1954, the United States funded 80 per cent of the French war effort while fighting in Korea, negotiating to construct a military alliance in Southeast Asia, and building an anti-communist network of states elsewhere in Asia.
Second, an agreement to end the French/Indochina War was achieved at the Geneva Conference of May, 1954. The Geneva Accords granted the three Indochinese states independence, required the withdrawal of all outside military forces from Vietnam, and temporarily divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel. Within two years there were to be all-Vietnamese elections to establish one government. Despite the fact that the United States did not sign the Geneva Accords, a statement was issued promising support for them if all parties acted as agreed. The United States, in violation of Geneva, created a new government in the South and picked an autocrat, Ngo Dinh Diem, to lead a new government there. Diem announced that the South would not participate in the expected elections. Thus, what was to be a temporary administrative division of Vietnam became permanent by fiat.
Third, it must be concluded that every president from World War II through Gerald Ford, engaged in policies to oppose the wishes of the Vietnam people. The United States played a central and negative role in Indochina; from supporting the French effort to reestablish its colony, to imposing the Diem family on South Vietnam, to covertly attacking targets in the North, to fighting in the South, and to massively bombing all across the peninsula in Laos and Cambodia as well as North and South Vietnam.
Fourth, United States military operations, which began with President Eisenhower sending 1,000 “advisors” to South Vietnam, expanded to 540,000 troops in combat operations by 1968. In addition, United States covert agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, engaged in policies of assassinations, moving populations, and in other ways undermining South Vietnamese society. Intervention was economic and cultural as well as military as major United States corporations established projects in Saigon with wealthy South Vietnamese investors.
Fifth, the Johnson and Nixon Administrations launched horrific bombing campaigns, hitting targets in the South and later the North. After an attack on a U.S. military base at Pleiku in South Vietnam during February, 1965, the Johnson Administration initiated Operation Rolling Thunder. This was a three-year non-stop bombing campaign with large areas of South Vietnam and parts of North Vietnam declared “free fire zones.” Between 1965 and 1971, 142 pounds of explosives per acre had been dropped on Vietnam equal to 584 pounds per person. One hundred eighteen pounds of explosives were detonated per second. The total magnitude of bombing equaled  450 Hiroshima-sized bombs. The rural landscape was destroyed, devastating key rural industries such as rubber and timber production, and disease and death spread. The bombing increased migration to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).  Corruption,  prostitution, and drug trafficking expanded in the over-populated city. By the end of 1967 more bombs had been unleashed on Vietnam than during the entire European phase of World War II.
Sixth, the Vietnamese and United States troops were victimized by massive amounts of Agent Orange released on people and the rural landscape; twenty-one million gallons of herbicides  between 1961 and 1971. One-quarter of South Vietnam had been sprayed to destroy crops. Thirty-six percent of rice-growing swamps were made unfit for cultivation by 1974 and 30,000 Vietnamese hamlets, five million villagers, were victims of direct spraying. Dioxin, a deadly element of Agent Orange produced by Monsanto and Dow Chemical, created a broad range of cancers, diabetes, heart disease, and Parkinson’s disease. Genetic abnormalities still exist today as children are born with gruesome physical deformities and twenty-eight “hotspots” still exist in South and Central Vietnam that endanger local populations.
Seventh, the Vietnam policy was built on twenty-five years of lies. The Vietnamese who fought the Japanese occupation during World War II and sought a free Vietnam after the war were authentic nationalists, committed to establishing an independent country free of colonial control. Each president lied about their escalation of the United States role by claiming that the Vietnamese fighting the United States and the Saigon government were mere puppets of Chinese or Soviet communism. Eisenhower lied when he claimed that if Vietnam “fell,” the rest of the region would as well, the simplistic domino theory. Kennedy lied when he claimed that the Diem family running the South Vietnamese government, the police, the military and those who controlled the land constituted democratic tendencies in South East Asia. Johnson lied when he claimed that the North Vietnamese engaged in an unprovoked attack on U.S. naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin. And Richard Nixon lied when his advisor declared that “peace is at hand” just before the 1972 election. After that election Nixon launched the most massive lethal bombing campaign against targets all across North and South Vietnam, the so-called “Christmas bombing.”
Finally, contrary to media distortions, most anti-war activists regretted that young men and women were drafted to fight in an unjust and immoral war. The peace movement knew that most of those who fought in Vietnam were drafted or enlisted because of their economic disadvantage and/or racism at home. American soldiers, like their Vietnamese comrades, were victims of a murderous war that cost millions killed and maimed.
There were no heroes and heroines during these troubled times but any accurate timeline must celebrate both the soldiers and the anti-war activists who sacrificed their privilege, their educational opportunities, even their citizenship to say “no” to war. The only way America can avoid becoming “waist deep in the big muddy” again and again is to clearly understand its history. That is what the official timeline is designed to resist. Without a clear understanding of the past “the big fool,” whoever he or she might be, will successfully convince the American people “to push on.”
(For more of the history of the United States war in Vietnam and how that country has developed since the end of the war see Duncan McFarland, Paul Krehbiel, and Harry Targ editors, Vietnam, From National Liberation to 21st Century Socialism, Committees of Correspondence Education Fund, Changemaker Publications,  lulu.com/spotlight/changemaker,  2013).

Saturday, March 7, 2015


Harry Targ

…the most important contradiction of all [is] that between reality and appearance in the world in which we live (David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, Oxford University Press, 2014, 6).

In David Harvey’s opening chapter “On Contradiction,” the author refers to Karl Marx’s discussion of narratives about life that are distortions of reality. He quotes Marx: “If everything were as it appeared on the surface there would be no need for science.” He interprets Marx’s admonitions as requiring us to “get behind the surface appearances if we are to act coherently in the world.” (Harvey, 6).

David Harvey’s book identifies seventeen contradictions, seven “foundational” ones, seven “moving contradictions,” and three “dangerous” ones. The foundational ones address the fundamental economic underpinnings of a capitalist system; the moving ones represent those features of capitalism that change over time; and the dangerous ones represent the deepest changes that might cause chaos, pain, and suffering if not addressed by what he calls “anti-capitalist” movements.

Of course, most “foundational” to a capitalist system is the dynamic in which workers produce goods and services for a capitalist who sells them in the market. Some of the value of the goods and services, above the costs of hiring the worker, is appropriated by those who own or control capital. This is the substance of what is called profit. At root the workers do the work and those who own or control the productive process gain a disproportionate share of the value of it. Over time the value of the work done is accumulated and capitalist enterprises expand. 

This process was richly described by Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Today economists tell us that profit comes from a variety of sources other than the amount of work time applied to produce goods and services: the skills of the entrepreneur, risk-taking, market forces, the supply of money in the economy, or technological advances. The problem with this analysis is not that these factors do not affect production, distribution, and profit but that the value of the amount of work that goes into the production of the product or service is not part of the narrative. In this view, workers, whether in the private or public sector, constitute a force that stifles the making of profit and the development of the society. Consequently today state governments are actively working to destroy the rights of workers--the producers of goods and services--to join together to secure a greater share of the value of what they produce.

Harvey elaborates on this fundamental feature of capitalism by describing the role of money, the glorification of commodities (or those goods and services produced by workers), the emphasis on the sale of products while deemphasizing the value of the work that produced them, the ways in which states support the accumulation of wealth, and how capitalism and the state expand the privatization of land, labor, and basic societal services.

In sum, Harvey argues that the definitions of the basic features of the economic system that dominate the globe are left out of public and academic discourse. Media and educational institutions reinforce a distorted view of how the basic conditions of life are produced and reproduced.

Harvey’s “moving contradictions” involve aspects of the evolution of capitalism: technology; transformations in the nature and meaning of work; monopolization; draconian shifts in the geographic distribution of economic development; environmental changes; and shifts in wealth and income.

The immediate and long-term “dangerous contradictions” involve the inexorable logic of capitalism requiring an unachievable continuation of compound growth; the privatization of nature; and the complete alienation of humans from themselves, society, and the environment.  

Therefore, Harvey’s analysis is based on the assertion that the reality of economic processes, institutions, sources of value, and prospects for economic justice are not addressed. Publics are presented with “appearances” that are radically different from the reality of capitalism and people’s lives.

Years ago political scientist Murray Edelman addressed the differences between appearance and reality in the political sphere. His book, The Symbolic Uses of Politics, postulated in politics what Harvey was suggesting in economics. Edelman argued that people engage in politics largely through the mental images they receive from two kinds of experiences. One kind of experience comes from direct participation in the political process. The mental images participants gain from direct and immediate involvement in the political process he called, “referential symbols.” 

Direct experiences of politics are limited for numerous reasons--power, money, and undemocratic institutions. However, people are engaged in the political process through emotionally-charged mental images, so-called “condensational symbols.” These may vary greatly from the reality of political life. For example, consider the emotion-laden relationship to the Iraq war. Most Americans received information over the years about the war framed by concepts such as democratization, modernization, the struggle against fundamentalism, or the danger of weapons of mass destruction. However, a veteran of the Iraq War might prioritize, or at least include, in his/her consciousness the physical devastation of that country, the killings of Iraqi citizens, and/or rising resistance to foreign intervention.

What analyses such as Edelman’s suggest is that the narratives which shape the consciousness of most people about politics, domestic and international, are emotionally-charged appearances rather than reality.

In the end, Karl Marx’s conception of science--uncovering realities that vary from appearances--is vital today if economic justice and democracy are to be achieved. With 21st century technologies bringing literally millions of new images to people all across the globe, the contradictions between appearance and reality have become more stark than ever.


Sunday, March 1, 2015


Harry Targ

Now, you know you’re underpaid, but the boss says you ain’t;
He speeds up the work till you’re ‘bout to faint,
You may be down and out, but you ain’t beaten,
Pass out a leaflet and call a meetin’
Talk it over - speak your mind -
Decide to do something about it.

“Talking Union”, Pete Seeger, You Tube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=C13JFv4JfH8)

Friday, February 27 was one of those days when you feel that maybe there is hope for workers to have a voice in their futures.  A week before, the Human Relations Department at Purdue University distributed electronically a summary statement about a new “paid time off” policy that is to go into effect July 1, 2015. As is common with newly proposed plans distributed electronically, changes in leave policy--sick leave, personal business days, vacation, and short term disability leave--were difficult for many to follow. Comparisons with the soon to be obsolete plan were unclear. When asked about the plan, HR spokespersons claimed it was generally beneficial to the faculty, management and administrative staff, and the 3,500 other workers who keep the university running.

Because there were many questions about the changes, little transparency about its development, and a narrow window of input from faculty and staff, University Senate Chairwoman Patricia Hart organized an informational meeting for interested Purdue employees. President Hart believed it was important to “call a meetin’” so that Purdue employees could more fully understand and give input concerning the new plan.

I arrived about ten minutes before the meeting was to start at 8 a.m. Most of the coffee provided was gone (and the bagels as well) as hundreds of staff and faculty came to hear about the plan and give feedback to its promoters. Seven hundred and fifty Purdue employees were assembled, including probably 200 who were too late to find a seat. Most of them stood for the over two hours of the meeting.

Human Resources personnel presented the central features of the new “Paid Time Off” plan. Claims were made about why the old one had to be scrapped, how the new one favorably compared with plans offered by local corporations, and how it was similar to “peer institutions,” that is comparable universities. I was not sure I understood what was being summarized but when the floor was opened for comments the unanimity of criticisms coupled with the sense of outrage from virtually all of the 750 attendees made the reality of the new policy clear.

The bottom line was that staff, the secretaries, plumbers, technicians, dormitory workers, student counsellors, electricians, janitors, the 3,500 workers who keep this huge institution functioning, were going to lose leave time, six days a year. Also they no longer would be able to accumulate various leave days to be paid out in dollars upon retirement.

At least one hundred employees, staff and faculty, spoke about how economically vulnerable workers at Purdue University had become: losing benefits over time, receiving wages that did not keep up with inflation, and incurring greater costs from revisions of the workers’ health plan. Workers stood up and spoke, usually identifying themselves and the units they worked in, articulating the suffering they had experienced trying to earn a living wage, providing for families, and caring for themselves and sick loved ones. Workers who had long years of service explained how the once attractive benefits that they used to receive had been taken away little by little.

As Chairwoman Hart pointed out as the session opened: “In recent years, staff at Purdue University has felt squeezed from all sides, and those on the bottom of the pile are feeling crushed. Austerity management has meant that, through attrition, one person may be doing the job of two or three. Many live with the constant stress of worrying that they might be downsized. Did you know that up to 14% of the clerical and service staff who work full time have second jobs?” She reported that many clerical and service staff live below the federal poverty guidelines (Patricia Hart, Chairperson University Senate, “Chair Remarks on Leaves Policy,” February 27, 2015, www.purdue.edu/senate/).

Purdue employees mirror the higher percentages of Indiana workers in general who are experiencing increased difficulties from the new wave of state and federal austerity policies imposed for more than a decade. On November 10, 2014, the Indiana Association of United Ways issued a 250 page report on the condition of financial hardship in five states, including Indiana. The study by a research team at Rutgers University is titled Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed or ALICE (www.unitedwayalice.org/). ALICE refers to households with incomes that are above the poverty line but below “the basic cost of living.” The startling data revealed that:

-a third of Hoosier households cannot afford adequate housing, food, health care, child care, and transportation.

-more precisely 14 percent of households are below the poverty line and 23 percent above poverty but below the threshold out of ALICE, or earning enough to provide for the basic cost of living. 570,000 households are within the ALICE status and 353,000 below the poverty line.

-over 21 percent of households in every Indiana county are above poverty but below the capacity to provide for basic sustenance.

Referring to those within the ALICE category of wage earners who struggle to survive but earn less than what it takes to meet basic needs, Kathy Ertel, Board Chairperson of Indiana Association of United Ways said: “ALICE is our child care worker, our retail clerk, the CAN who cares for our grandparents, and our delivery driver” (Roger L. Frick, “Groundbreaking Study Reveals 37% of Hoosier Households Struggle With the Basics,” Indiana Association of United Ways, November 10, 2014, Roger.Frick@iauw.org).

Assessing the current state of the Indiana economy depends upon where one is located in terms of economic, political, or professional position. Those Indiana men, women, and children who come from the 37 percent of households who earn less, at, or slightly above the poverty line probably have a negative view of their futures. For them, the tax breaks for the rich and the austerity policies for the poor are not positive. 

There was a palpable sense in the meeting room that the 750 attendees (from staff, to faculty, to those middle management attendees) knew they were part of a common struggle of all workers to protect and enhance a quality of life that was being threatened by their Purdue employer and the state and nation’s economic and political elites, the one percent. One speaker at the meeting asked the representative from Human Resources whether the four local companies that the HR committee compared with the new Purdue program were union or not. The spokesperson admitted they were not.

We will see what happens, but the Chairwoman of the University Senate (which is largely a faculty senate) took the first step Pete Seeger recommended in the song he sang often in the 1930s when industrial unions organized millions of workers in the 1930s: “Call a Meetin.’”