The Vernacular of Privilege

Cross-posted to FunctionalShift (my linguistics blog) and Daily Kos.

This post is adapted from a presentation I gave recently as part of the Race Matters Lyceum Lecture Series at the Lee Honors College, Western Michigan University. The presentation was titled Language Variation and Language Attitudes: Race, Class, and Standard-Language Ideology.

Rachel Jeantel testifies at the trial of George Zimmerman (July 2013)

Rachel Jeantel testifies at the trial of George Zimmerman (July 2013)

Let’s start off with some basics. First, language is by its nature variable and in a constant state of flux. That means the normal states of affairs for language is variation and change. That’s because human beings do things to language when we use it. Some of the things we do to it go unnoticed and unremarked upon. Other things attract our attention: She says pop; he says soda. You say to-may-to; I say to-mah-to. (I don’t, really, but you know.) He says the car needs washed; she says it needs to be washed.

Language variation is an interesting phenomenon to study because language has a way of tricking us into thinking that it has an existence that is independent of its users. It doesn’t. You can theorize about language – a lot of scholars of linguistics do – but if you are interested in analyzing actual language, you are going to need speakers. Speakers bring language into being. All speakers of all languages have this power. This means that every speaker has a strong claim to ownership rights when it comes to the language or languages they speak.

But it is the nature of certain ideological orientations to assert claims of ownership that exclude certain people, certain groups. My position is that these claims are illegitimate.

Before we get into why I think that, let’s get back to our overview of what we talk about when we talk about variation.

How you talk has to do with who you are. And the way you talk is shaped by the people around you and the ways they talk. For most people, their first and most immediate influences are members of their family, the people who take care of them when they are babies and children. Over time, as our spheres widen, so do our linguistic repertoires, the inventory of ways of speaking that each individual speaker has available.

Think about all the different ways of being you have, all the different facets of your personality, the different settings and contexts within which you interact as you move through your days, the various ways you communicate and shift your style depending on where you are, who you’re talking to, what the situation is. Think about how skilled you are at drawing on the right way of being and the corresponding way of speaking in most situations. You do it all the time, shifting easily between styles – and some of you shift between languages – and you do it mostly without even thinking about it.

Your linguistic repertoire is like language itself: variable and in a constant state of change. And it expands as it adapts to new situations in which you find yourself and have to figure out how to be, linguistically and otherwise. You build it over a lifetime, from earliest childhood. As you get older, your world widens. Maybe you start hanging out with some cool kids at school. You may begin to share some of their ways of speaking and develop new linguistic norms collaboratively, often without even realizing you’re doing it. And then later on maybe you get a job, let’s say waiting tables in a restaurant. You learn the language of restaurant work and the in-group styles and terminology of the people you work with. And you also develop a game face, your style for interacting with customers. All these experiences add to your linguistic repertoire, which you will continue to build over time.

Everyone has a linguistic repertoire, although not everyone has the same languages, varieties, or linguistic features in their inventories. Linguists call the external (that is, social) factors that affect the way people talk independent variables. Independent variables are characteristics of individual speakers that interact with language and cause variation.

Some independent variables that interact with language:

  • region/geography
  • race/ethnicity
  • socioeconomic status
  • age
  • educational background
  • communities of practice

Communities of practice are cultural/familial/social/professional communities to which speakers belong and contribute, like the cool kids at school or the restaurant workers we were talking about earlier but they also also include your family, your cohort at school, colleagues at work, the WMU marching band if you are a member of that community, your sorority, people in your neighborhood, place of worship, etc.

When independent variables interact with language, we get what a lot of people think of as dialect. I prefer the term language variation to dialect because I think dialect suggests a closed, discrete way of speaking. This person speaks this dialect (and only this dialect); that person speaks that dialect (and only that dialect). I don’t think that is a good way of thinking about variation because variation tends not to distribute itself into neat categories and groups of speakers that we can draw lines around. Unlike some of my colleagues in the profession, I don’t believe there are such things as dialect boundaries. I don’t even find it that helpful to use the idea of dialect boundaries metaphorically. And I think there are more interesting and useful ways of thinking about variation, its patterns, and its distribution.

But for the sake of argument, let’s consider the idea of dialect for a minute. A common understanding of what dialect is seems to be something that other people speak. In other words, a lot of mainstream speakers define dialect in relation to themselves, meaning that they don’t think of themselves as speaking a dialect. As it turns out, they’re wrong about that.

Of course, there are some people who know they speak a dialect. These are almost always speakers who are aware that the way they talk is stigmatized. They’ve been hearing all their lives how wrong they are.

But the reality is that every speaker of a language speaks a dialect. There is no dialect-free version of a language. As the linguists Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling have put it, “To speak a language is to speak a dialect of that language.”

Remember what we said before about how people do things to language simply by using it? Well, all those independent variables and all those life experiences that add to your linguistic repertoire factor into the processes of doing things to the language. All these things cause variation. They are not the only causes – there are internal, physiological, and other causes – but independent variables are the causes that are among the most interesting to linguists who study language in interaction.

Now, just because everyone speaks a dialect doesn’t mean that all ways of speaking are created equal. Far from it. As everyone in this room well knows, some language varieties and the linguistic features associated with them are valued more highly than others. That is to say some dialects are valued more highly than others.

When we say some varieties of language (or some linguistic features) are valued more highly than others, what we are saying is that there are some ways of speaking that are privileged compared to other ways of speaking. Linguists are likely to explain this by saying there is a prestige dialect that is held as the preferred way of speaking and that other ways of speaking are stigmatized in relation to that prestige variety. Other folks who aren’t linguists might say that there is “correct” speech and then there is everything else: “incorrect speech,” “bad grammar,” “broken English.” There is unfortunately often an explicit value judgment that goes along with these observations.

But languages, language varieties, and linguistic features themselves have no intrinsic status. They do not have greater or lesser linguistic value or validity in relation to other features or varieties. in reality, though, it is hard to separate a linguistic feature, set of features, or language variety from the social status of the speakers who use it. And that is really the issue here: The status of the speakers determines the status of the speech. When speakers are not valued by the wider mainstream culture, the way they speak is often stigmatized as a result. And so judgments about “correctness” are often more about the social value of the speakers than about the linguistic qualities of the speech, even though the judgments profess to be about language and even though those making the judgments often believe that to be so. In other words, the relative value of language varieties – and by extension, of their speakers – is socially imposed.

Conversely, linguists are interested in observing and documenting the ways languages and language varieties actually work. Languages, varieties, and linguistic features that don’t meet the communicative needs of their users don’t survive for very long. This is one way in which the language bends to the will of its users, which is exactly what it’s supposed to do. A feature either does what its users need it to do – say, mark past tense or possession, for example – or the feature will not stay in use. The survival of ways of speaking, whether we’re talking about individual features or language varieties, is itself, in the view of linguistic researchers, evidence of their effectiveness.

Linguists understand all human languages and varieties as rule-governed, which is to say that a given language functions according to a system. Not all systems are the same. What may look ungrammatical about one system to users of another system may be working smashingly for its own users. One system is not more or less “correct” than other systems. Linguistically, that kind of value judgment doesn’t make any sense. In other words, there is no correctness continuum; there is a value continuum that is created perceptually; that is, by way of people’s perceptions and attitudes about features, varieties, and speakers. And the attitudes about the features and varieties derive from attitudes toward the speakers. It really is that simple.

In other words, we humans have a bad habit of interpreting things and assigning value in relation to what we’re used to, and that includes what we’re used to hearing and saying. And mainstream cultures in many societies – including this one – have institutionalized these interpretations into widely acceptable and highly powerful ideologies. One of these is the ideology of standardness.

A good definition of standardization is institutionalization of prestige variety of a language (‘institutionalization’ meaning to establish as norm or convention).

Standardization is often supported by authorities like dictionaries, grammar and usage manuals, English teachers, curmudgeonly newspaper columnists, and other commentators who claim the language is deteriorating at the hands of (some of) its users. More recently, a genre of Facebook memes about language use, some of them incredibly hostile toward certain groups of speakers, have joined in on the unhealthy fun of self-proclaimed language authoritarianism.

For example, there is this:

Visual representation of mean language attitudes.

Note: This is unkind.

And this:

Visual expression of mean language attitudes.

Note: This is also unkind as well as ill-informed. (Linguistics: Knowing the difference between grammar and orthography.)

In the U.S., we have an interesting situation, which is that in American English, the prestige varieties have a negative definition. That is, Standard(ized) American English (SAE) is identifiable by what is missing from it rather than than by any specific identifying features it contains. In other words, for American English, the prestige variety is one in which there are no (or few) features that are socially branded as nonstandard: SAE is a variety with no stigmatized features. At least theoretically. I say “theoretically” because no one speaks SAE without ever producing any stigmatized features. No one.

Lots of Americans speak what mainstream speakers (that is, speakers of what is perceived as SAE) would consider nonstandard varieties. For example, think about how the speech of the Southern U.S. tends to be perceived and represented by the wider American culture. When the linguist Dennis Preston asked research participants to illustrate on maps where they imagined dialect areas to exist in the U.S., many singled out the southeastern U.S. as not only a salient dialect area but as one they perceived negatively.

This may suggest that the attitudes at issue have to do with regional variation, but there is more to it than geography. Similarly, New York City speech tends to score low in measures of language attitudes, but again, there is something more going on here. As we’ve noted, the attitudes aren’t really about language at all but about speakers. Attitudes about Southern speech may be more about judgments about rural speakers, perceived lack of education of these speakers, and perceived low social status. For New York City speech, perceptions about ethnicity and class are clearly implicated. For example, negative attitudes about New York City speech tend to focus on features produced by working-class speakers and by those perceived as “ethnic,” such as Italian-Americans, Jewish Americans, Irish-Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, etc.

Looking into language attitudes goes beyond simply observing and describing linguistic differences. It focuses attention on the social dimensions of variation, including what social and ethnic variation can reflect about differential access to resources, power, and status and about the role of language in maintaining social, racial, and ethnic hierarchies. These emphases are particularly important for variationists working in education, and it is important for teachers – and education majors, future teachers – to learn about them so that they will be well equipped to meet the needs of all the students who populate the diverse classrooms that await them. Teachers are on the front lines of this issue.

Our lyceum topic this semester is Race Matters, so let’s talk now specifically about the ways in which race does matter when it comes to attitudes about language in American culture. Let’s talk about language in the African American community.

First, some definitions of what I am going to refer to as African American English (AAE). [1]

Here’s one definition I like a lot:

Lisa Green (2004: 77):

African American English is “a linguistic system of communication governed by well defined rules and used by some African Americans (but not all) across different geographical regions of the USA and across a full range of age groups.”

“Characterizing features of the variety are uniquely related to the history, culture, and experiences of [African Americans] although the variety shares many features with other varieties of English.”

Here’s another good one:

John Baugh (2004: 305-6):

African American English is “the linguistic legacy of the slave trade.” Speakers are descendants of those “historically deprived of access to schools and to equal justice under law.”

These definitions engage the question of whether African American English is characterized by the linguistic features used by its speakers or by the identities of the speakers themselves. In these definitions, Green and Baugh suggest that it is about both: AAE is characterized by features, or more precisely clusters of features, as well as by independent variables that for many speakers cluster as well, resulting in shared — although not identical — experiences. We’re still talking about individual speakers.

AAE has a grammar and it has rules that govern it. As we have discussed, all productive varieties of all languages are rule-governed and systematic. If they didn’t, speakers would not be able to understand one another and the variety would therefore cease to exist. These rules apply to phonology (pronunciation), grammar, and vocabulary. Speakers have to adhere to these generative rules to communicate effectively. The rules that govern AAE and other stigmatized varieties are differentially valued externally — socially and politically — but there is nothing linguistically “wrong” or “ungrammatical” about these varieties. The system is just different. Different doesn’t mean wrong.

AAE is probably the most stigmatized variety of American English, and you better believe its speakers know it. Yet AAE persists and in fact thrives, with tens of millions of speakers nationwide, despite the overt stigmatization its speakers are subjected to and despite decades of eradication attempts through misguided educational policies that are themselves the results of misconceptions about language diversity that unfortunately persist today.

Since the 1960s, when researchers first began to turn their attention to it, AAE has become the most studied variety of American English.

AAE also continues to be linguistically healthy, adaptable, and fully capable of meeting the communicative needs of its speakers. When it doesn’t meet their needs, speakers adapt it so that it does. That is how language works. Its continuing success as a long-thriving language variety suggests that speakers clearly value it for reasons that its critics can’t understand or don’t respect. It suggests that AAE is culturally valuable and helps to build and maintain community and solidarity. It may also appeal to speakers who are not interested in trying to talk like people who seem not to like or value them very much. Linguistically, AAE is a resounding success. Politically, on the other hand, it is a target.

A widely held attitude about AAE views its use as a linguistic deficit. This view assumes that AAE reflects lack of linguistic competence or even intelligence on the part of its speakers. This view is simply not linguistically valid. For one thing, AAE speakers, like speakers of all other varieties of language, are a highly diverse community of individuals. For another, there is no correlation between the language variety (or varieties) spoken and intelligence.

To believe otherwise is a prejudice.

Attitudes about AAE and the value of its speakers have real-life consequences. When you have schoolchildren who are written off by their teachers who assume that students are uneducable because of the way they talk, educational outcomes are going to be severely compromised, which means that economic well-being is likely to be significantly compromised as well. Beyond the educational experience, speakers of stigmatized varieties also experience job discrimination, and their testimony in legal cases is even sometimes seen as less credible, including in the recent trial of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

John Rickford and others have commented on the treatment of Rachel Jeantel, the 19-year-old friend of Trayvon Martin who was on the phone with him until shortly before he died and who testified for the prosecution in Zimmerman’s trial. As Rickford notes, “a torrent of invidious commentary” dominated the public reaction to Ms. Jeantel’s testimony, and much of it was “grotesquely racist, misogynistic and dehumanizing.”

Rickford also points out that in her post-trial interview with Anderson Cooper, juror B-37 said she thought that “because of her education and communication skills,” Ms. Jeantel “just wasn’t a good witness.” As Rickford observes, “it’s clear that Juror B37 was clueless about the role of race.”

“She didn’t notice, for instance, what Anderson Cooper did—how completely she identified with Zimmerman’s perspective, and how her references to Jeantel and Trayvon (“the way THEY talk . . . the type of life THEY live”) distanced them,” Rickford writes.

He also asks whether “jurors were also prejudiced against Jeantel’s vernacular, like those who pilloried her on social networks as stupid, not realizing that her speech is a complex, rule-governed system that linguists have been studying for decades” and suggests that if juror B-37 (and possibly other members of the jury as well) had found Ms. Jeantel “incomprehensible and not credible,” it was possible that “race, credibility, communication and misperceived ‘evidence’ perhaps influenced the verdict.”

If you have a strong stomach, check out Sherri Williams’s compilation of “good, bad, and ugly tweets about Rachel Jeantel,” including quite a few that focused on the way she talks. As Williams notes, “Instead of focusing on her testimony social media erupted w/criticism about her speech, looks, mannerisms, race & education.”

I said earlier that I think that ideological orientations that position some speakers as owners of the language and others as answerable to those self-appointed owners are illegitimate. Here is why I think that: It is because language ideologies based on unequal ownership of the language and a hierarchy based on an arbitrary notion of “correctness” are inherently racist and classist. Look at the speakers whose speech is stigmatized: Is it wealthy white folks? Of course not. It is people of color, poor and working-class people, “ethnic” people. Coincidence? Please.

Another ideological problem is that a lot of people seem to think that there are only two possible options: inflexible policing of standard-language ideology (although that’s not what they call it, of course) or total linguistic anarchy, which is what some of my English-professor colleagues sometimes accuse me of advocating. (And they say it like it’s a bad thing.)

But this is a false dichotomy. Racism and classism, including the linguistic kind, aren’t just going to go away by themselves. This means that not only do students from nonstandard-speaking backgrounds need serious language and literacy instruction in the privileged ways of speaking and writing but also that all speakers, including standard speakers, need equally serious instruction in the understanding that the privileged ways of speaking and writing are just that — privileged — as well as in the understanding of language variation and change and of the existence and functions of linguistic attitudes and ideologies.

Focusing on this is a way for those of us who are educators – and those of you who are future educators – to start doing some of the hard work of shifting cultural discourses and practices so that more of the burden of confronting discriminatory language ideologies might someday begin to fall on those doing the oppressing (whether unwittingly or not) rather than keeping that burden solely and squarely on the oppressed.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of us never actually get this kind of instruction (correction is not instruction, by the way), in considerable part because many elementary and secondary English teachers simply don’t ever get any rigorous instruction in linguistics as part of their coursework or training. This means that teachers are without the tools they need for understanding and responding to language variation in their classrooms, which is a serious barrier to teaching language and literacy effectively to diverse student populations.

The teachers and education majors I know care passionately about students and are highly motivated to act in their best interests. That is what drives them to pursue the work of teaching in the first place. But without an understanding of language and how it works, along with an understanding of variation and what it means, they not only can’t fix any of this but they – often unwittingly – exacerbate it. And while we dither, serious harm comes to generation upon generation of children who come to school speaking something other than a preferred variety (like standard English) as their language of nurture. They don’t get the instruction they need and have a right to because the teachers not only often don’t know how to do it but they also often harbor negative attitudes developed over a lifetime of exposure to the pervasive ideology of standardness. And their standard-speaking classmates never learn how unjust and damaging the language attitudes that dominate educational institutions as well as the wider culture really are. And so the cycle continues.

Some of you may already know that much of my teaching involves the training of undergraduate education majors. Students in my classes are called upon to do considerable work in the critical analysis of language ideologies. This work begins with the assumption that all students are entitled to be treated with respect, including linguistically, regardless of the relative esteem in which their languages and varieties of nurture are held. As many of our graduates go on to discover as teachers in their own classrooms, not stigmatizing nonstandard speakers in the process of privileging the way some but not all of the kids speak is a lot more effective than sending nonstandard speakers the message, from day one and in a million different ways, both overt and subtle, that the way they talk is bad and wrong and they just need to start talking right already. Because believe me, that is what a lot of kids are still hearing in their K-12 classrooms, even in 2013. Sadly, they are sometimes still hearing it in their college classrooms as well.

And while we’re on the subject of reality, here is another one: Those who come to school speaking standard English as their language of nurture are in fact really nothing more than lucky. They are the possessors of a privilege that is just as insidious and just as invisible to most of them as the advantage of their own whiteness is to many white students and the advantage of their social status is to many middle- and upper-class students. And it is in just as desperate need of critical inquiry.

The suggestion that a linguistic variant that functions effectively in a speech community but is considered nonstandard by mainstream speakers is a “linguistic error committed out of ignorance,” as a colleague who teaches literature at another university recently wrote on a Facebook thread on this topic is itself an error committed out of ignorance. It suggests ignorance of the way languages actually work; ignorance of the history of the English language, including its ideological history but also its lexical, grammatical, and phonological development; ignorance of the role of prescriptive grammar and the ideology of standardness in maintaining and reinforcing social and racial stratification. Saddest of all, it suggests ignorance of the unspeakable and incalculable damage the attitudes it springs from do to real people who start to learn beginning on their first day of kindergarten that not only do the people with power and authority over them think that they themselves are “wrong” and “incorrect” and “ignorant” but that so is everyone they love.

Imagine having to sit there and listen to that every day of your life. Now think about the millions of kids who experience that as their reality. Maybe you were one of them. Maybe your child is now. Now think about the parents, many of whom endured the same thing. And the grandparents. When you consider how many lives this kind of thinking has had the power to define and to thwart, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it is an intellectual crime against humanity.

Linguistically, nonstandard variants are only “incorrect” from the perspective of speakers of privileged varieties. It is an inherently biased perspective that deserves to be challenged, but it is often defended by the very people — teachers, professors – who have the best shot at shifting the paradigm and helping the rest of us to move beyond this persistent prejudice. Because that is what it is: a prejudice. Language varieties work according to their internal structures and they respond to the communicative needs of their users. The structures and systems don’t all work the same way. A variety that works differently from how yours works or how mine works is just different. That’s all. The so-called “standard” isn’t better or purer or more correct or more of any of the other ideologically driven characterizations that so many standard speakers believe and have been so successful at convincing nonstandard speakers to go along with. It’s just the variety with the most power and status. That’s all.

So instead of being high-handed about it and thinking that there is something inherently superior about the standard and inferior about everything else, and therefore that standard-speakers are somehow ordained with the right to pass judgment upon those who didn’t get to be born as lucky, I think the more humane and just thing to do, for those of us who got lucky by being born into standard-speaking families or who have subsequently learned and acquired the prestige variety, is to try working a little harder — make that a lot harder — to think about the effects of our language beliefs and attitudes on the lives of the real live human beings who are hurt by them and to try to stop it already.

There is so little at stake for people like us when standard ideologies are challenged in serious and systematic ways, and there is so much at stake for many, many people who aren’t nearly as lucky as the people in this room. I am talking especially to my faculty colleagues who are hearing this today and to the future teachers. Rather than perpetuating the generations of inequity to which these stubborn, irrational, and incredibly damaging language attitudes have contributed, let’s use the power that comes with our great good fortune to work for justice, acceptance, fairness, and empathy.

Notes:

[1] Linguists generally use the terms African American English, African American Language, and African American Vernacular English for the large group of related varieties of language used in African American communities. The term ‘Ebonics’ is still used in some contexts, but it has been so politicized and stigmatized, especially after the controversy surrounding the school board Ebonics resolution in Oakland, California (which the linguist John Rockford has written about extensively), in 1996 that many linguists have now abandoned it.

See also:

 

The Quasi-Sentient Professor

stepford

Cross-posted at Daily Kos.

A few weeks ago, a friend and colleague who works in a creative discipline at the very fine but underfunded non-flagship state university where I work as a professor of linguistics told me about a recent conversation she’d had with a senior administrator at our institution, in which he had explained to her with apparent enthusiasm that the university will have computers that will be able to do her job in 10 to 15 years.

A day or two later, another friend who is also an academic, although unlike me she is at a small, decently funded private liberal-arts college, posted a status on Facebook expressing her frustration over a lengthy outage of her college’s online Learning Management System, or LMS (a phrase that I use here with all due mockery). The outage interfered with the ability of her students to submit their assignments on time as well as with her ability to access their work, respond to it, and provide grades and feedback according to the schedule she had set out.

And then last Thursday, this article showed up in the New York Times, unironically titled “Essay-Grading Software Offers Professors a Break.” It caught my eye initially because of the unintentionally if grimly hilarious headline. I thought the idea of a potentially permanent “break” for professors from doing our, you know, jobs had to be a joke, with a punchline that probably involved the unemployment line.

As I read about this magical software, especially in the context of those two exchanges with my colleagues and some other recent developments in educational technology, it got me thinking once again about the future of higher education in this country, a topic I take up every so often in this space, only this time the result is what I hope turns out to be nothing more than a particularly vivid paranoid fantasy on my part.

(Note: In my defense, there have been times when things have in fact come to pass that I also thought — hoped — were merely paranoid fantasies.)

As you are undoubtedly aware, there’s been a lot of buzz and a lot of enthusiasm out there recently about a new model for higher education in the form of online course offerings designed to serve tens of thousands of students at a time, with the ostensible goal of bringing higher education to the masses by offering free enrollment to virtually (see what I did there?) everyone on the planet with an internet connection. While it is only fair to point out that some of the enthusiasm is coming from known yutzes who enjoy well-earned reputations for being wrong about pretty much everything, there is also plenty from people who ought to know better.

Known in the EduBiz as “MOOCs,” which in education parlance stands for Massive Open Online Courses (to distinguish it from how it is understood in other parlances), these mass-enrollment courses are already being offered by several elite universities (elite as in highly selective and jaw-droppingly expensive), which are developing and offering the courses in partnership with what I am going to call content vendors, all of them privateand some of them for-profit. The enrollees get what they are paying for in terms of the credit hours they earn, which is to say they earn none, at least for now.

As a professor, I’ve had occasion to think quite a lot about MOOCs lately (not to mention about the mooks who are helping the industry with its marketing). And as a professor, but also as a citizen and taxpayer, I have some thoughts about what these developments in the brave new world of online higher education might come to mean for the old-school kind of higher education, the kind in which actual students attend actual classes at an actual university and interact with actual faculty.

I am pretty skeptical that significant cost savings for states and institutions are likely to result from the increasing emphasis on online “education.” What seems far more likely is more shifting of support away from students and public institutions as public money is diverted into private pockets. (As of this writing, the California state legislature is considering a bill to require public universities in that state to accept credits from online courses offered by for-profit vendors. As Jon Wiener put it in a March 14 article in The Nation, “Here’s how California treats its public colleges and universities: first, cut public funds, and thus classes; then wait for over-enrollment, as students are unable to get the classes they need to graduate; finally, shift classes online, for profit.”)

The well-funded march toward significantly expanded roles in higher education for MOOCs and other educational technologies is likely to come at enormous cost to the students, faculty, and staff at non-elite institutions, which serve 97% of college students in the U.S., by reducing the non-virtual options for them (but not for the affluent), thereby exacerbating an already highly problematic two-Americas class divide in higher education. In a December 2012 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott Carlson and Goldie Blumenstyk make this pointed observation about some of the “MOOC revolution‘s” most visible fanboys:

The pundits and disrupters, many of whom enjoyed liberal-arts educations at elite colleges, herald a revolution in higher education that is not for people like them or their children, but for others: less-wealthy, less-prepared students who are increasingly cut off from the dream of a traditional college education.

Carlson and Blumenstyk quote David Stavens, one of the founders of the for-profit ed-tech start-up Udacity, who earned his undergraduate degree at Princeton and graduate degrees at Stanford, and who told Time magazine last October that “there’s a magic that goes on inside a university campus that, if you can afford to live inside that bubble, is wonderful.”

“But if you can’t,” say Carlson and Blumenstyk,

entrepreneurs like [Stavens] are creating an industrialized version of higher education that the most fervent disruptionists predict could replace mid-sized state institutions or less-selective private colleges.

The ubiquity of the practically evangelical zeal for the MOOC as the answer to the “problem”of higher education, which of course is not at all the problem they think it is, and the increasing emphasis on and expectation that faculty and students will use LMSs that in the experience of lot of their users so far seem to be little more than obnoxious, cumbersome “solutions” to a problem that doesn’t exist, unless you count the entrepreneurial problem of how to find new ways to make money by squeezing it out of struggling students and underfunded colleges and universities like mine.

Of course I am well aware that MOOCs and Learning Management Systems are not the same thing. But the connections are clear and obvious. Let’s see if I can parse them out.

I’ll start with the LMS my institution uses, which touts its products and services thusly:

Breaking down barriers to education, obsessing over the learning and instructor experience, and focusing on an open and extensible platform, we have built a tightly integrated suite of products that is providing a more engaging, intuitive and personalized learning experience than ever before. We provide a seamless experience for creation, delivery and management of courses, allowing users to collaborate and connect around content and activities. From simple to sophisticated, we support a variety of learning environments limited only by the vision of the educational institution.

I think most professors consider “providing an engaging, intuitive and personalized learning experience” to be very much a part of our job descriptions. In addition to the scholarly work those of us at research universities are also obliged to do, the “creation, delivery and management of courses” describes precisely a significant component of what professors do for a living. And yet we seem to be farming that work out to a company that does not actually seem to be doing it. (If they’re “obsessing” over my experience, this is the first I am hearing about it.)

The sentiment my friend expressed in her Facebook post in response to the crash of her institution’s Learning Management System at a critical time was nothing unusual. A lot of us in what is becoming the EduBiz can recount similar and numerous examples of platform failures and the ensuing angst on the parts of students and faculty.

Oh, have I mentioned that my friend’s class is not an “online” course? And that neither are most of the courses my colleagues and I teach but for which we are expected to use LMSs? Our classes meet in the traditional way, meaning in a classroom on a regular schedule, with students and a professor in the same place at the same time.

And so what (finally) struck me after years of hearing frequent and similar technological tales of woe from students and from colleagues was that whether we’re talking about my friend’s decently funded private liberal arts college or my perpetually underfunded nonflagship state university, even our old-school, “traditional,” in-person courses, as distinct from courses that are taught partly or completely online, are moving toward models in which we — students and instructors — are increasingly expected to participate in electronic interfaces in order to submit course work (students), access student work (us), provide feedback and grades (us), and access said feedback and grades (students). We’ve added an extra layer to our own workloads, or rather, had one added, and to the workloads of our students by imposing the online submission-and-feedback platform on them and between us. And our universities are both paying private vendors a boatload of money for the pleasure.

So, what is the LMS for? Why are we using it? Why are we using technologies that intrude into our interactions with students without reducing anyone’s workload but rather adding to it in the form of often user-unfriendly, stress-inducing, time-wasting frustrations, and surveillance-enabling systems that hardly anyone on my campus seems to like except for administrators who don’t actually have to use them? Where is the evidence that these systems are actually improving instructional quality or learning experiences or outcomes in any demonstrable, documentable ways, that this is something other than just the latest look-busy, look-like-you’re-fixing-some-problem administrative/private-sector boondoggle?

It is hard not to imagine that we are all, students and faculty alike, essentially functioning as unwitting, uncompensated, and non-consenting participants in massive beta testing of commercial online platforms, the most successful of which are venture-capitalized, with return on investment (and then some) anticipated to come via student tuition dollars, even if some (but by no means all) of the products are “free” for the time being.

This brings us back to the magic grading software, brought to a college near you by EdX, a private non-profit which if you’ve been following developments in educational technology you’ll recognize as one of the “big three” MOOC developers. The machine-scoring software “uses artificial intelligence to grade student essays and short written answers.” But human beings are not quite obsolete in the process of responding to student writing. The NYT reports:

The EdX assessment tool requires human teachers, or graders, to first grade 100 essays or essay questions. The system then uses a variety of machine-learning techniques to train itself to be able to grade any number of essays or answers automatically and almost instantaneously.

In other words, the software needs to be “trained” by sentient beings, who initially do the work themselves until the application catches on and and can do the work itself. That must be what the senior administrator who announced to my colleague that a computer would be able to do her job in a decade or so meant when he said computer would learn its trade — make that my colleague’s trade — from the colleague who would be training it (and perhaps ultimately herself out of a job).

The other money quote is this one:

EdX, the nonprofit enterprise founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to offer courses on the Internet, has just introduced such a system and will make its automated software available free on the Web to any institution that wants to use it.

I have strong feelings of my own about the efficacy and ethics of machine scoring (as do many others), but at the moment they are peripheral to the cause of my larger unease. I promised a paranoid fantasy, and I intend to deliver. Here it is:

The magical grading software is described in the NYT article as a tool for “freeing professors for other tasks” (such as filing for unemployment benefits?). Everyone who’s ever taught knows how labor-intensive, time-consuming, and draining it can be to engage with student writing, at least if you’re doing it right, and I would not blame anyone who has to do it on a regular basis for being tempted by the possibility that there might be software that could help to ease a workload that can quickly become overwhelming. Leaving aside for the moment the humanistic and ethical arguments against the use of machine scoring, which are legitimate and compelling, there is another serious ethical question, and it has to do with what the developers might be getting in return.

I’m talking about data: the data that students and instructors generate in the course of using these products and platforms, including MOOCs, LMSs, machine-grading software, and whatever else might be coming next. These platforms need human input to work and to improve. The senior administrator told my colleague that the software he was all excited about would learn to do her job because she would teach it to do her job. EdX’s grading software needs instructors to teach it to grade. Of course it’s free. How in the hell else would they get anyone to use it and, in the process, provide all this free labor to EdX?

I don’t mean to single out EdX, because they’re all doing it. The machine-scoring software is just a particularly obvious example of how the knowledge and labor of instructors is being expropriated without their knowledge or consent, let alone any compensation. It is also an example of how student work is similarly being pirated.

And don’t even get me started on these insane surveillance-enabled e-books now being tested at Texas A&M. According to an article in Tuesday’s New York Times, professors using the new digital-book technology can monitor the extent to which students in their classes are doing the assigned reading:

They know when students are skipping pages, failing to highlight significant passages, not bothering to take notes — or simply not opening the book at all.They, along with colleagues at eight other colleges, are testing technology from a Silicon Valley start-up, CourseSmart, that allows them to track their students’ progress with digital textbooks.

Major publishers in higher education have already been collecting data from millions of students who use their digital materials. But CourseSmart goes further by individually packaging for each professor information on all the students in a class — a bold effort that is already beginning to affect how teachers present material and how students respond to it, even as critics question how well it measures learning. The plan is to introduce the program broadly this fall.

OK, never mind that I exactly ZERO interest in trying to micromanage how and when the students in my classes do the reading and whether they highlight or not or anything else that is inappropriately invasive, not to mention that it would be one more massive time-suck for instructors to contend with. Instead, can I just say please make this stop already? I started writing this post on Sunday, and today is Thursday, and I can’t get it finished because every day there is some new announcement of some new kind of intrusion into the work that students and instructors are trying to get done if these bastards would just leave us the hell alone already and get over their obsession with how we are doing it and when we are doing it and how they can monetize it even more! and at this rate, I am at serious risk of becoming the blogging equivalent of the contractor who got the Winchester House bid if the line doesn’t get drawn somehow, preferably now-ish. (But no.)

Anyway, I am not talking about personal information or privacy issues, necessarily (although there are potentially serious issues with that as well). I am talking about private companies appropriating the intellectual property of college students, in the form of their uploaded coursework and online interactions, using data-collection instruments that include but are not limited to machine-scorers, LMSs, plagiarism-detection programs, MOOCs, and whatever else might be headed our way, and using data that rightly belongs to the students, not to Coursera or EdX or Udacity or whoever else comes along looking for a piece of this lucrative action, all of it collected without informed consent or compensationhowever they choose and in ways that none of us really has the slightest idea about.

And I am talking about private companies collecting and using for their own interests, again without informed consent or compensation, data that belongs to instructors and that is the product of their expertise, experience, and labor. In its most obvious form, that data comes out of the instructor responses to those first 100 papers that they must grade in order to “train” the machine-scoring software to take over that job. But why wouldn’t all our online interactions with students be collected and analyzed in ways that benefit the companies who collect them, whether via MOOCs, LMSs, or any other proprietary platforms?

The whole thing is starting to remind me of how the good ol’ boys of Stepford had their wives read long lists of words into tape recorders so that the voices of the compliant robots with which the actual human women would soon be replaced would sound authentic. The robots looked just like the original humanoids, only with 100% less feminist consciousness and no backtalk.

Coursera, one of the major for-profit MOOC companies, announces on its website that they

envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions. Our technology enables the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students.

Through this, we hope to give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few.

If it weren’t for all that pesky interaction with students and engagement with their work, one professor could indeed teach “not only thousands of students, but millions.” At the very least, we could certainly generate a lot more student credit hours than we possibly can now. This is something our institutions seem to want.

Of course, there is a catch, and it is kind of a big one. According to a March 2012 report in Inside Higher Ed by Ry Rivard, self-explanatorily titled “Coursera’s Contractual Elitism,” Coursera is “contractually obliged to turn away the vast majority of American universities” because it has committed to offer courses exclusively in partnership with 62 “elite” universities in the U.S. EdX, Rivard reports, is also known for its “exclusivity” and will work with only 12 elite institutions. “Scores of universities have sought to partner with Coursera or edX,” he notes. “Most, of course, have been denied.” He concludes that “Most liberal arts colleges, community colleges and regional public universities could never join — and many public research universities haven’t been asked either.”

In other words, if these trends continue in the implementation of “disruptive” educational technologies (so named by the kind of people whose kids’ educations are unlikely to be disrupted, because disruption is for commoners), and with the money and power they’ve got behind them, the odds are in their favor, there is pretty much no chance that it will ever be any of my colleagues at this very fine but perpetually underfunded non-flagship state university (including me) in front of those “tens or hundred of thousands of students at a time.”

Maybe computerized grading of student work will eventually be seen as deal-breakingly problematic, even in the world of for-profit educational content providers, in the ways its critics have delineated and/or in other ways, and human interaction will eventually triumph as something that matters.

But whether that realization ever comes to pass or not will make little difference in the lives of most professors, regardless of their status today as tenured, tenure-track, or contingent, because when you’ve got rock-star professors from Harvard and Stanford and MIT whose brilliance will be beamed all over the world to “not only thousands of students, but millions” at a time, the best we chumps can hope for is to be the ones to do the do the engaging with and responding to the writing of all those thousands or millions of students, that is, if we haven’t by then interfaced ourselves into obsolescence via those LMSs and machine-scorers and whatever might be coming next, by donating our knowledge, skills, experience, and labor to corporate entities who are all too willing to take that from us without informed consent, without compensation, and without a word of acknowledgment or thanks.

I realize this is a horribly dystopic vision, and I hope to God I am completely wrong about all of it.

Update: Please, please make it stop.

I Woke Up This Morning in a “Right-to-Work” State

It really happened. And in Michigan, of all places.

snyder_divider

On December 6, 2012, Republicans in the Michigan state legislature rammed through two so-called “right to work” (RTW) bills during a lame-duck session with the potential (and, arguably, the intent) to decimate organized labor in a state whose prosperity through the better part of the 20th century was built on unionism, a tradition that was hard fought and bravely won.

On December 11, 2012, GOP Governor Rick Snyder signed these bills into law.

Because the lame-duck GOP could not muster the two-thirds majority required for the acts to take effect immediately, there was a constitutionally mandated waiting period of 90 days from the end of the session at which the measure was enacted.

That 90 days is up today, March 28, 2013, a date that is sure to go down as one of the darkest for people in Michigan who have to work for a living, which is of course the overwhelming majority of us. It is also likely to have repercussions for working people nationwide.

I am writing this post as a citizen. I also happen to be the vice president of the faculty union at the university where I am employed as a professor of linguistics. In my capacity as VP of our chapter of the American Association of University Professors, I write a blog about labor issues of interest to my faculty colleagues, and at some point in the near future, I will write a post to address some of the issues I am getting into here.

But right now, I want to write simply in my capacity as a pissed-off citizen of a once-great state with a once-thriving middle class where upward mobility was for a long time during the last century a real possibility for regular people who weren’t born rich and who have to work for a living.

I say “rammed through,” because the GOP-controlled legislature bypassed the standard committee hearing process and was closed to public comment. Citizens were literally locked out of the Capitol while the bills were debated and voted on. “You’re doing this in lame duck because you know next session, you won’t have the votes,” objected Rep. Brandon Dillon (D-Grand Rapids). “This is an outrage.”

It was indeed, in all kinds of ways. Police, who along with firefighters are exempted from RTW initially claimed that the building was over capacity but later changed their story to claim that there were safety concerns over fears that the crowd would become “unruly.” Peaceful protestors – also known as citizens and taxpayers — were arrested and maced during demonstrations that drew thousands on December 6, the day the legislature took up the bills.

I thought it would seem obvious to any thinking person that when people living off the fat of the state payroll abuse their positions in ways that threaten people’s livelihoods and economic well-being, said people are likely to get pretty righteously pissed off.

As egregious and anti-democratic as this whole fiasco was, what is even worse is that the sponsors of the bills made sure to include an appropriations provision in order to make them referendum-proof and therefore repeal-proof. Lame-duck session. No public hearings. No chance for referendum.

According to the Lansing State Journal:

Republicans, who are ushering right to work through the Legislature during the lame-duck session, said the appropriation is nothing unusual.Democrats and union leaders say it’s a political tactic aimed at minimizing dissent on the controversial legislation.

Each of the right-to-work bills includes language to give the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs $1 million for this fiscal year. According to the bills, the funding would be earmarked for administrative costs associated with implementing and enforcing right to work and educating the public about the labor law. (My emphasis.)

That’s right: A million dollars in each bill.  Two million dollars for “administrative costs associated with implementing and enforcing right to work and educating the public about the labor law.” That’s two million dollars of the taxpayers’ money to spend on promoting highly unpopular legislation signed into law by an increasingly unpopular governor. Two million dollars that won’t be going to improve Michigan’s badly deteriorating infrastructures, or to bolster education, or to createjobs. Apparently, Michigan can afford to spend $2 million on “right-to-work” propaganda on behalf of the deep pockets who bought and paid for these bills in the first place by buying themselves a state legislature. Of course they can afford to pay for the propaganda themselves. It’s not like they haven’t done it before. But why should they, when they can mooch off the rest of us?

Thousands of protestors returned to Lansing on December 11, the day the governor was expected to sign the bills into law. The crowd included a lot of faculty and staff from my university. We have long been a strong union campus with seven employee bargaining units in all, including local chapters of the American Association of University Professors, AFSCME, and two affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers representing part-time faculty and graduate teaching assistants. And alongside instructional staff were landscape workers, maintenance workers, technicians of all stripes, food-service workers, and custodial workers.

RTW_protest

We joined thousands of friends, colleagues, and neighbors. We marched alongside nurses, auto workers, K-12 teachers, electricians, construction workers. The UAW was there, and so were the Teamsters, the United Farm Workers, and the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Service Workers International, the Building and Trades Council, and many others. Thousands of us marched in Lansing on that frigid, windy December day. Thousands more phoned and emailed the governor to try to get him to listen to reason, to implore him not to sign the bills.

Like many others that day, I was taking pictures with my phone and posting updates to Facebook:

Cops in riot gear seem to want us out of here. This is our house!
2:29 p.m. on December 11, 2012.

Gov. hasn’t signed anything yet acc to Capitol staff. Call him now and tell him to veto the RTW bills!
3:01 p.m. on December 11, 2012.

Some time later, a friend posted this comment on my thread:

I don’t know where you were. They gassed and arrested a bunch of people outside the Romney building…totally unprovoked. I was right there.
4:52 p.m. on December 11, 2012.

And finally, I posted my last update of the day:

Damn him. He signed the bills. Damn him.
6:01 p.m. on December 11, 2012.

Gov. Snyder had previously said on numerous occasions that RTW “wasn’t a priority” because he felt (rightly) that it was “too divisive an issue in difficult economic times.” As recently as September 2012, he said that RTW “is not on my agenda.” When he pledged to sign the lame-duck bills, the Detroit Free Press called him out in a scathing and right-on-the-money editorial, under the headline “A Failure of Leadership: Snyder’s About-Face on Right-to-Work Betrays Voters”:

Two years ago, a newly elected Rick Snyder told the Free Press editorial board he was determined to be a new kind of governor — a pragmatist focused like a laser on initiatives that promised to raise standards of living for all Michiganders.And until last week, we believed him.

[…]

Watching Snyder explain his right-to-work reversal was disturbing on several levels.

His insistence that the legislation was designed to promote the interests of unionized workers and “bring Michiganders together” was grotesquely disingenuous; even as he spoke, security personnel were locking down the capital in anticipation of protests by angry unionists.

Snyder’s ostensible rationale for embracing right-to-work legislation — it was, he insisted, a matter of preserving workers’ freedom of association — was equally dishonest.

The real motive of Michigan’s right-to-work champions, as former GOP legislator Bill Ballenger ruefully observed, is “pure greed” — the determination to emasculate, once and for all, the Democratic Party’s most reliable source of financial and organizational support.

[…]

Snyder’s closest brush with candor came when he suggested that his endorsement of right-to-work was less than voluntary — a decision “that was on the table whether I wanted it to be on the table or not.”

But that is less an excuse than a confession that Michigan’s governor has abdicated his leadership responsibilities to Republican legislators bent on vengeance.

On MSNBC the evening of December 11, Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-Lansing) spoke for a lot of us in the Great Lakes state:

“It is absolutely repulsive,” said Whitmer, “that this governor is such a coward he had to announce it from behind locked doors, cut off debate, lock people out of the capitol, and now he`s signed it behind a wall of armed police officers. You know why he`s doing that? Because he knows the public disagrees on this one and he is dead wrong.”

That was then.

And now 90 days have passed, and RTW is now the law in Michigan.

A lot of my colleagues are asking what RTW is going to mean for us. Our current contract expires on September 6, 2014, and on that day, the board-appointed faculty at Western Michigan University will after 38 years no longer have an agency shop. The other unions on our campus will lose their agency-shop status as their contracts expire over the next three years.

I don’t have good answers to their questions yet. I don’t know that anyone does. Lawyers and labor experts have yet to figure out what all this is eventually going to mean for workers in Michigan and beyond. But the outlook isn’t good.

In the meantime, lawsuits have been filed and the fight goes on.

I am going to stop writing now, even though I still have not said what I came here to say, even though by now it was yesterday morning when I woke up in a “right-to-work” state.

I came here to write about RTW in the specific context of the destructive legislative manipulationinterference, and flat-out blackmail now being visited upon public universities in this state.

I came to write about the constitutional right of these universities to institutional autonomy, vested in our boards of trustees, and how the state constitution is being subverted by those who are sworn to uphold it.

I came to write about the pettiness and the hypocrisy and the thoughtless and mean-spirited actions of people whose abuses of power threaten the economic survival of the people of this state.

I came here to write about how 2014 starts now, and how we can’t let these bastards destroy everything that the people who came before us risked their lives for and what they won for all of us.

I came here to write about how we have to stand up to these control-freak bullies and how we must stand up alongside the brave people who are fighting hard to do what’s right.

I came here to write about how we need to get to work on doing everything we can to dismantle a corrupt system that has made it possible for ignorant, thoughtless assholes to run this magnificent state into the ground, all the while enjoying seats in the legislature that are safe until the sun goes supernova, in a state that is gerrymandered to within inches of its life, bankrolled by heartless assholes who don’t give a damn about anyone but themselves.

I will come back and say all of those things and a lot more very soon. But tonight I am just too sad.

Why I Will Vote NO on Michigan’s Proposal 5

How I Am Voting on Michigan’s Six Statewide Ballot Initiatives, Part 2:
Why I Am Voting NO on Proposal 5

On Tuesday, November 6, I will vote NO on Proposal 5, “A Proposal to Amend the State Constitution to Limit the Enactment of New Taxes by State Government.”

I am voting NO because I don’t think the rich asshole who is bankrolling this proposal should get to call the shots for the entire state and subvert the process by which an elected legislature does the job of representing the citizens.

If this sounds a lot like why I am voting NO on Prop 6, as I discussed in my previous post, it’s because — wouldn’t you know it? — it’s the same rich asshole behind both proposals.

The text of Prop 5 as it will appear on the ballot on Tuesday reads as follows:

This proposal would:

Require a 2/3 majority vote of the State House and the State Senate, or a statewide vote of the people at a November election, in order for the State of Michigan to impose new or additional taxes on taxpayers or expand the base of taxation or increasing the rate of taxation.

This section shall in no way be construed to limit or modify tax limitations otherwise created in this Constitution.

Proposal 5 is a recipe for fiscal disaster. It’s a Tea Party scheme to establish minority rule over anything having to do with taxation in Michigan, and it is bankrolled by the rich asshole who is also behind the almost equally stupid and dangerous Prop 6. Prop 5 is opposed by everyone from the United Auto Workers, the Sierra Club of Michigan, and the League of Women Voters to Republican governor Rick Snyder and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Supporters of Prop 5 seem to be limited to the rich asshole and his family, Grover Norquist, and a group known as the Michigan Alliance for Prosperity that buys into Tea Party ideologies about taxation and is heavily financed by the rich asshole through the Liberty Bell Agency, which is run by the rich asshole’s son. Also on board with Prop 5 are the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity and the freaky fringe Chamber-of-Commerce-wannabe that is the National Federation of Independent Business, which doesn’t even have the sense to be embarrassed by the dishonesty that is evident in its own acronym: NFIB.

And there’s a good reason that everyone with at least half a brain is opposed to Prop 5: If any future tax increase, no matter how slight, has to be approved by a 2/3 majority in both houses, then there is virtually no way any future tax increase could ever pass. Roger Martin, spokesman for the NO-on-5 organization Defend Michigan Democracy, writes that

No tax reform proposal (cut, new tax, closing a loophole or ending a tax break) has ever passed the state Legislature with a supermajority vote. It just does not happen. So, this is not [just] about making it harder to raise taxes….It’s about making state government impossible.

If Prop 5 passes, it would take the yea votes of 25 state senators (out of a total of 38) to pass any proposed increase, which is also to say that it would only take 13 senators to block it. In the House, 73 representatives (out of a total of 110) would have to vote yea under Prop 5 rules, while it would take only 37 representatives to block the legislation.

Prop 5 is thus the love child of a rich, selfish asshole and a virulently anti-tax, anti-government strain of Republicanism that is unfortunately becoming increasingly mainstream, as evidenced by the long, depressing list of dittohead hypocrites who have somehow gotten themselves elected to public office (and who apparently see no irony in living off the generosity of us taxpayers by collecting paychecks and enjoying generous benefits that are funded by the taxes they profess to abhor) and who have sold their souls (and sold out their constituents) by signing Grover Norquist’s so-called Taxpayer Protection Pledge.

The Republican party has spent the last two-plus decades trying to brand itself as the “down with taxes!” party, no matter the cost to the economy or to our most vulnerable citizens. That ideology has become a central tenet of even mainstream Republicanism now, as evidenced by the selection of zombie-eyed granny-starver Paul Ryan as the party’s VP nominee. And now they want to be able to force it on the citizens of this state whether they have a mandate from the people (i.e. a majority in the legislature) or not. Our answer to this has to be a resounding NO.

In other words, Prop 5 would guarantee that the Tea Party gets its way with respect to taxes in Michigan whether it is in power or not. That is of course incredibly undemocratic, but it is also a matter of serious concern for anyone who gives a damn about the social safety net or can imagine a time when emergency measures might have to be taken (such as in the aftermath of a natural disaster) to find a way to raise revenue in a hurry. Further, its passage could jeopardize Michigan’s bond rating, according to the Ann Arbor News, “as lenders [become] wary of our ability to maintain revenue.” The News adds that, should Prop 5 pass, citizens of Michigan can also expect to see increases in the fees we will pay for state-provided services, from license plates to university tuition, and that municipalities would have to take drastic measures to try to blunt the impact of sharp reductions state support, which would be likely to include reducing or eliminating local services and increasing property taxes.

The reality is that sometimes taxes need to be increased or new ones imposed. Times change. Infrastructure ages. So does the human population of the state. And especially in times of prosperity, toward which I hope (and believe) we are now beginning to return, I think it is perfectly appropriate to expect those of us who can afford it to kick in a little more, to support the changing needs of our state and to think about protecting our citizens in the future when things may not be going so well economically. I for one happen to like roads and schools and libraries and first-responders and environmental protection of our natural resources.

But if Prop 5 passes, it would be very, very difficult for the state to find ways to manage its changing – and yes, sometimes increasing – needs for revenue because it would be almost impossible to get a 2/3 majority. As the Ann Arbor News reports,

No one on either side can recall a tax that passed by two-thirds of each chamber. It does not happen.

If Prop 5 passes, that means no tax increase would ever be approved by the legislature nor would any new tax ever be imposed, except perhaps in the most extraordinary of circumstances, and maybe not even then. I am thinking specifically, of course, about that time back in the spring of 2011, when Republicans in the U.S. congress, including VP candidate Ryan, argued that funding for disaster relief be offset by cuts to other programs. As usual in their zero-sum world, they played politics rather than focusing their full attention on the people of Joplin, Missouri, and others who had suffered extraordinary losses in a series of violent storms. Rep. Ryan and his GOP running mate, Mitt Romney, have since both come out in favor of shifting primary responsibility for disaster relief to the states. This would be an especially catastrophic shift for states whose legislatures are hamstrung by idiotic constraints like Prop 5 and by damn-fool legislators who signed Norquist’s no-new-taxes pledge. (And it is of course one more strong argument in favor of re-electing President Obama.)

In sum, Prop 5 is short-sighted, greed-driven, anti-democratic Tea Party bullshit. For the love of everything, please vote NO.

60 Minutes FAIL: 10 Questions Scott Pelley Didn’t Ask Mitt Romney But Should Have

On last night’s broadcast of 60 Minutes, in place of the hard-hitting interview that viewers might have expected for a presidential candidate (something more along the lines of, say, Steve Kroft’s righteous pummeling of President Obama, which aired later in the broadcast), audiences were instead treated to a nothing-to-see-here talking-point-a-thon in which Scott Pelley not only allowed Mitt Romney to weasel out of every one of the (very few) hard questions he actually asked but also missed numerous opportunities to try to get the candidate to talk about some of the most serious (and legitimate) voter concerns regarding this campaign.

Here, then, is my list of

10 Questions Scott Pelley Didn’t Ask Mitt Romney But Should Have:

1. Gov. Romney, you say that

the President’s decision not to meet with Bibi Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, when the prime minister is here for the United Nations session, I think, is a mistake and it sends a message throughout the — the Middle East that somehow we distance ourselves from our friends and I think the exact opposite approach is what’s necessary.

Let’s talk about the Mideast policy you unveiled at that Florida fundraiser last May, which became public thanks to Mother Jones and the “47%” video. That policy, as you articulated it in the video, seems to be based on your belief that the Palestinians have “no interest whatsoever in establishing peace and that the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish.” Here is what you proposed:

So what you do is, you say, you move things along the best way you can. You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem. We live with that in China and Taiwan. All right, we have a potentially volatile situation, but we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.

What kind of message do you think your characterization of the Palestinians might send, especially in the context of the comments you made in Jerusalem last July, suggesting that their culture is inferior, comments that many Palestinians and others found offensive, and what message do you think your plan — essentially to do nothing to try to work for peace in the region — might send throughout the Middle East?

2. Gov. Romney, many Americans are concerned about your response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on the anniversary of 9/11, which took the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens, along with members of his staff and security detail. Even some prominent members of your own party have suggested that your reaction was an ill-advised rush to judgment about a volatile international situation about which you did not have all the facts. How would you reassure voters who think your response raises questions about your ability to serve as commander-in-chief?

3. What would you say to voters who perceive your response to the attack on Ambassador Stevens and his staff in Benghazi, namely that you expressed no apparent grief or regret about the tragic loss of life of individuals in service to our country even when you had the opportunity to clarify your remarks the next day, once you did have all the information, as exploiting a national tragedy as a way to try to earn political points?

4. Are you aware that most of the 47% of Americans you identified in the Mother Jones video as paying no taxes, the ones you said you could never get to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” are working people who are not exempt from payroll taxes, and that therefore many of them are actually taxed at a higher rate than you are?

5. Since the very small minority of Americans who pay “no income tax” are families living in poverty, low-income seniors who have paid all their lives into the system that now supports them, and active duty soldiers deployed to combat zones, would you like to take an opportunity now to reconsider your description of these Americans as people

who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.

6-9. Suggested follow-ups to this exchange:

PELLEY: The tax rate for everyone in your plan would go down.

ROMNEY: That’s right.

PELLEY: But because you’re going to limit exemptions and deductions, everybody’s going to essentially be paying the same taxes.

ROMNEY: That’s right. Middle-income people will probably see a little break, because there’ll be no tax on their savings.

6. Are you saying that you’re going to cut capital gains taxes on middle-income people? Do you understand that most middle-income people do not have any capital gains?

7. Are you aware that most middle-income families are not able to amass enough in savings for the interest on it to amount to anything and that therefore a tax cut on that interest would mean nothing to most middle-income people?

8. When you say that “middle-income people” are likely “to see a little break,” are you still talking about those earning $200,000-250,000, as you defined “middle income” last week?

9. You seem to be saying that the effect of your tax reform would be net neutral. If that is true, what exactly is the point of it?

10. Why won’t you release your damn tax returns?

University of I’ve-Got-Mine

In a recent post, I set out to discuss a proposal by the University of Chicago economist Luigi Zingales that advocated equity financing of higher education, which he outlined in a June 2012 New York Times op-ed, but reconsidered that project when I realized that Zingales’s political connections, including his close association with GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, made for a more interesting story, especially in light of the author’s coyness with respect to his political motivations, about which the Times article and accompanying author bio are silent. In making his pitch for equity funding of higher education, he presents himself strictly as a professor and an economist, situating his authority and credibility on the topic entirely in that context. He is of course a professor of economics, but there is no question that his position is also very much informed by his political affiliations, which he does not disclose. As my own position is also political, I have no objection to hearing out the positions of others who come to their beliefs by way of their politics, including when theirs are different from mine. But I think it is important to be forthright about political orientation and values if we intend a healthy debate, and Zingales was not at all forthright in those respects in his presentation to readers.

In this post, I revisit the op-ed, but not because I think his idea deserves to be taken seriously. It doesn’t. Zingales has established precisely zero credibility for one of his central claims, in which he attributes the decreasing affordability of higher education to “crony capitalism,” which he further claims enriches professors at the expense of “everyone else.” As I discussed previously, his unwillingness or inability to acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of professors in the U.S. are not pulling down anywhere near as much bank as he is seems disingenuous. As I also observed, his credibility is further challenged by an impressive tolerance for cognitive dissonance that enables him to give bestie Paul Ryan and his family a pass despite their extensive record of self-enrichment via federal generosity, which I guess is somehow not “crony capitalism” but rather just good old-fashioned free-market capitalism the way God intended.

Rather, I have reconsidered because that op-ed was read and taken seriously by a lot of people, meaning that it has become part of the mainstream of public discourse on the very real problem of college affordability for American students, and especially because it is a fine example of what is so incredibly wrong with the assumptions that inform a lot of that discourse.

Zingales proposes that “Investors could finance students’ education with equity rather than debt. In exchange for their capital, the investors would receive a fraction of a student’s future income — or, even better, a fraction of the increase in her income that derives from college attendance.” According to the author, “Equity contracts would diversify the risk of failure, with highly compensated superstars helping to finance the educations of less successful college graduates,” although it is not at all clear how that would work.

He further claims that the contracts will somehow “avoid pushing graduates into lucrative jobs just to pay off debt,” which sounds great in theory, but I don’t think it could possibly be true in practice. I don’t see how such an arrangement wouldn’t push graduates toward “lucrative jobs,” including by initially pushing them towards undergraduate majors that are considered more likely to lead to such jobs. I doubt Dr. Zingales is naive enough to believe otherwise, and since he provides no evidence to support his claim, I suspect that he is being disingenuous, especially when he adds this part:

Most important, these contracts would provide financiers with an incentive to counsel students wisely, as financiers would profit from good educational investments and lose from bad onesThis would create more informed demand for the schools, exerting pressure on them to contain costs and improve quality.

Leaving aside for now the suggestion that improved quality is somehow a logical result to expect from budget cuts, I am wondering what “good educational investments” that would result in “profit” for the “financiers” might look like. The specifics are left to our collective imagination. But the focus of media attention to the topic suggests that the operative definition of a good educational investment is one that maximizes future earnings in relation to tuition investment, on the assumption that a good investment is definable in exclusively economic — and exclusively individual — terms.

One influential study of “return on investment” (ROI) conducted by PayScale (a company that collects and analyzes salary and other career-related data) ranked 853 U.S. colleges and universities according to the extent to which “what you pay to attend” is worth “what you get back in lifetime earnings.” You probably won’t be surprised to find that of the top 20 schools with the highest ROIs, all but two are private, six are Ivies, and the total tuition at all but three tops $200K. Apparently even that astronomical tuition investment is totally worth it because of the “projected net return on investment” over 30 years: $800K for the #20 college on the list (Rensselaer Polytechnic) and over $1M for the institutions ranked 1-9.

Thankfully, as of course we all know, the playing field for admission even to elite universities is completely level, and so there is no object whatsoever for any student who would like to attend a high-ROI institution. (Alevei![1]

There is also the role of undergraduate major in calculating ROI. U.S. News recommends “College Majors with the Best Return on Investment,” and Fortune reveals “The 15 College Majors with the Biggest Payoffs.” Kiplinger offers a helpful list of the “Worst College Majors for Your Career” and Time outlines the “20 Best- and Worst-Paid College Majors.” The “best ROI” majors include (pre-)medicine, engineering (looks like any kind will do), economics, finance, or anything that leads to a career in the pharmaceutical industry. Selecting one of these financially promising majors, according one expert, will justify going to a more expensive school” because “there’s more job opportunities” and these jobs “pay better.”

So, is majoring in philosophy (Kiplinger‘s 4th “worst major”) at Stanford (4th highest institutional ROI) a good educational investment or a bad one? Can a high-ROI school compensate for a low-ROI major, or vice versa? Is it still a good investment to pursue a high-ROI major, like electrical engineering (5th “best major”), even if it’s at a low-ROI institution?

And which is the better investment: $200K in tuition for an anthropology major (#1 “worst major”) at a high-ROI institution or at a lower-ROI university at half or even a third of the cost? Will equity financiers want to invest in anthropology majors at all? Might their “wise counsel” include discouraging students from pursuing low-ROI majors? Should anthropology and all other low-ROI majors then be reserved exclusively for those students who can pay their own way?

Will financiers support students who want to attend higher-cost high-ROI institutions if they pursue low-ROI majors? Will they support students at low-ROI colleges at all? Is a low-ROI major and/or attendance at a low-ROI institution a bad investment? Is it a better investment not to go to school at all?

Zingales doesn’t address these issues, not a surprise since he never even gets around to defining “good educational investments” beyond announcing that “financiers would profit” from them and “lose from bad ones.” But it does seem like a free-market guy like him would be totally down with the ROI-rankings game. By the way, his own institution offers “far above median” faculty salaries and enjoys considerable renown, despite its less-than-stellar institutional ROI ranking (#78).

And while Zingales offers no evidence for his claim that somehow equity financing will “avoid pushing graduates into lucrative jobs just to pay off debt,” the framing of his proposal in relation to the investor’s incentive for profit suggests that in the system he envisions, the “wise counsel” of the “financiers who would profit from good educational investments” may well steer students toward high-ROI majors if not compel high-ROI major selection as a condition of funding.

I would love for this to be nothing more than some slippery-slope paranoia on my part, but I don’t think it is. For one thing, there is just no evidence that Zingales’s formulation assumes any kind of educational or cultural value beyond the individual ROI model for the student and “profit” for the “financier.” For another, the ubiquity of ROI as the central assumption of recent public discourse on the topic of the value of higher education suggests that it is not. And for yet another, programs that tie eligibility to very specific kinds of “educational investments” are already part of the discussion. For example, the Amazon Career Choice Program for warehouse employees of the behemoth online bookseller (and everything-else seller) is, according to its FAQ page, “unlike traditional tuition reimbursement programs” in that they “exclusively fund education only in areas that are well-paying and in high demand.” (Those are my italics, but it was not my idea to use “exclusively” and “only” redundantly. Thanks to my low-ROI undergraduate major, today I can easily recognize such graceless syntactic constructions, and the satisfaction I take in doing so is what they pay me with instead of money.)

But none of this quite gets at the real problems with the discourse in general and the Zingales proposal in particular, one of which is this: There is no cultural consensus that students will make the best educational decisions when they base those decisions primarily (if not solely) on the basis of expected individual financial ROI. Should we accept that assumption as a logical guiding principle for any serious discussion of higher education? The case has not been made convincingly or really at all that this kind of thinking is the wisest course for our society, and I have a pretty strong suspicion that it is not. [2]

And speaking of unconvincing arguments, Zingales insists that despite how all this looks, what he is advocating “is not a modern form of indentured servitude.” In his pre-emptive defense against the charge, which he is right to anticipate, he reveals another problematic ideological stance that has gone mostly (but not entirely) unchallenged in the wider public debate of whether college is “worth it.” Zingales says that what he is proposing is not indentured servitude but rather

a voluntary form of taxation, one that would make only the beneficiaries of a college education — not all taxpayers — pay for the costs of it.

I could not agree more that the beneficiaries of a college education should absolutely be paying for it. Where Zingales and I disagree is in our respective understandings of who the beneficiaries really are.

The problem is not that we have a system in which those who are not “the beneficiaries” of higher education are somehow the ones paying for it. The problem is that too many of the beneficiaries are not paying anywhere near enough for it, too many of them resent what little they do pay, and too many of them would like to pay even less.

This is at least in part because a lot of people honestly don’t see themselves as beneficiaries of the education of other people, which I have to agree is a logical conclusion in the context of the dominant ideology that informs popular opinion on the topic of higher ed, which is (say it with me) that it is all about individual financial ROI. In that context, why would people see themselves as beneficiaries of any education but their own?

But they are. We all are. That a whole lot more people benefit from the education of a single individual than merely the individual and that these benefits are cumulative and span generations is indisputable. We are incredibly fortunate to live in a mostly safe, mostly civilized, and relatively prosperous society with extraordinary rights and resources that are foundational for anyone who wants to build anything. That Americans have achieved so much that is truly extraordinary — think moon-landing extraordinary, Internet extraordinary — is a direct result of the high cultural value that we the people have placed on education in general and higher education in particular, in which we have invested accordingly. In this sense, and I want to make clear that I think this is the sense that matters most, higher education is not merely or even primarily an investment in an individual.

But somehow the idea that it is has become a powerful cultural assumption. Yes, the individual benefit of a college education is undeniable, but it makes no sense to assume (or to try to dictate) that it is valuable only in terms of the financial return to the individual (and to the “financier” who pays for it). What an incredibly cynical, short-sighted, and unimaginative view that is.

Imagine what our society might look like if Americans had always thought that way. Imagine a United States with no G.I. bill, no Claiborne Pell, no cultural tradition of education as a public good. How many valuable advances and innovations in the sciences, technology, medicine, and yes, the arts and the humanities, would never have happened if only affluent people could access a quality university education, if the only higher education open to most Americans was training to be good little worker bees in jobs that are some billionaire’s idea of what is best for us?

The debt that a student takes on is all too individual, but the benefit of that individual’s education is collective. And until we can find a better way to make higher education more affordable and more accessible, we ought to be working harder to support individuals for whom student loans are the only option, even the ones who don’t opt for high-ROI majors and those for whom high-ROI institutions are out of reach. Students who choose alternatives to financial self-enrichment, who choose to pursue work in areas that make life worth living not only for themselves but also for others — and that includes pre-school teachersartistsanthropologists, and philosophers, as well as doctors and engineers — are good educational investments even if “financiers” don’t ever recoup a dime of “profit” off them.

I guess it’s easy to blame the student debt crisis on college students and graduates and professors and administrators, or to propose a funding scheme like Zingales’s that does nothing to address the real causes of increasing college unaffordability, starting with the national disgrace that is the systematic public divestment from state universities. I guess that’s easier than taking on the devastating consequences of student-loan debt on individuals and on the U.S. economy in any meaningful way.

It is hard not to be discouraged at the moment, especially given the possibility that the nation might elect a smirking, dishonest presidential candidate whose idea of fiscal responsibility is disparaging poor people and stashing millions in overseas accounts to avoid paying his taxes. And never mind his equally dishonest, free-marketeer, I-built-that running mate, whose own accumulation of wealth via government subsidies entitles him to a description so many times stronger than hypocrite that even this low-ROI English major can’t think of one that rises to the occasion.

But I hope that the cynical ideology that an educational investment is (and ought to be) an individual thing, that the point of education is an exclusively individual benefit, that the benefit can only be measured as a return on investment that can be counted only in dollars, and that any notion of a “greater good” is socialism and therefore bad does not discourage and even prevent people from pursuing educational goals that aren’t an obvious fast track to generating big revenue for themselves (and “profit” for their “financiers”). The last thing we need in this country is to continue to celebrate and reward the ideology of greed that has gotten us into so many of the messes that we are collectively in today. If we allow that ideology to continue to define our education policy, it is not going to be a win for most of us.


Notes:

[1] Of course it is not at all clear that factors that have nothing to do with quality of education, such as the socioeconomic privilege and social advantages that many high-institutional-ROI students and alumni enjoy, can be ruled out as significant influences on a high-ranking institution’s ROI. That is, such a return may not be a function of the institution itself but rather reflective of the relative privilege of the students most likely to be admitted. On a related note, see Thomas Edsall’s March 2012 New York Times article “The Reproduction of Privilege,” which  identifies “anti-democratic trends” in the admissions policies of the “most competitive” colleges, many of which are of course also high-ROI institutions.

[2] And don’t even get me started on how all this institutional ROI business does absolutely nothing to address the highly problematic role of elite colleges and universities in perpetuating social inequality. In discussions of ROI, that function goes completely unremarked even though it a key feature of what makes a high-ROI institution such a “good educational investment” in the first place. These institutions actually exacerbate the class divide, as Thomas Edsall observes in “The Reproduction of Privilege,” cited in Note 1 and linked again here.

Confessions of a Job-Creator

I am a public-sector employee, a professor at a state university, a member of a labor union. The work I do has been described by a presidential candidate as “indoctrination.” I subscribe to the New York Times, I’m a member of the ACLU, I support my NPR member station, and I drive a foreign car. I supported President Obama’s campaign in 2008 after voting proudly for Hillary Clinton in the primary, and I am supporting him again this year.

In other words, some people think I represent a lot of what is wrong with this country.

But here is something they don’t know about me:

I am a job creator.

Some people think they know some things about us job creators. The guy whose job it is supposed to be to represent me in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), who has of course been featured before on these pages, thinks he knows some things about us job creators. He sent me an email the other day, like he likes to do sometimes, to make sure I didn’t miss his latest op-ed, which ran August 30 in his favorite small-town, low-circulation weekly, which apparently lets him publish whatever disingenuous propaganda he thinks his corporate overlords might want to read. The title of his latest is “Survey Highlights Top Concerns of U.S. Job Creators,” and you can read it in its entirety here.

For openers, Rep. Upton observes that “small business owners continue to lead the way for our economic recovery here in Michigan and throughout the United States.” He adds that “They not only embody the entrepreneurial spirit of our free market economy, but play a vitally important role when it comes to job creation, innovation, and local growth.”

It’s true. The stopped clock is right this time. Not to worry, though. It doesn’t last. The rest of the column is more of the usual BS we have come to expect from Rep. Upton, God love him. His response to concerns about energy costs cited by the “job creators” in the survey is to go on about some ditch-digging jobs that he says will save the U.S. economy. He addresses concerns about healthcare costs by announcing that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) hurts small businesses because it “does nothing to actually address the cost side of the equation.”

You’d think a member of Congress who spends so much time obsessing about health care in general and the ACA in particular would be aware of factual information about legislation that passed his chamber while he was in office, such as that the ACA contains no requirement that actual small businesses (as in the kind with 50 or fewer employees) provide insurance for their employees, that it includes no penalty for those who decline to do so, and that it actually offers incentives in the form of tax credits for small businesses who opt (yes opt, as in do something voluntarily) to provide coverage for their employees. You’d think Rep. Upton would know about that. [1]

And you are probably as surprised as I am to learn that the generous flow of profits to the job-creating healthcare industry, i.e. the “cost side of the equation,” which as Rep. Upton rightly notes, the ACA unfortunately does little to correct, is somehow not something that he can get behind. As Richard S. Levick put it in an article in Fast Company in July, “5 Ways Insurers Can Position Themselves To Win Under The ACA“:

It’s not every day that an industry has as many as 46 million new customers delivered to its doorstep. But when the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the controversial individual mandate last week, that’s precisely what happened for health insurance companies across the country.

Somehow this is not good enough for Rep. Upton, whose congressional career functions effectively as a wholly owned subsidiary of the industry?

OK, I exaggerate. “Wholly owned” probably isn’t fair. I mean, it isn’t fair to the oil and gaselectric utilities, and mining industries who are also major stakeholders in the Upton enterprise.

But we were talking about job creators, weren’t we? All right. Here’s my story:

In 2007, I invested $23,000 in a small-business start-up. That was all the money I had in the world. It was actually more than all the money I had in the world, because $15,000 of it was a cash advance I took out on my Visa card, which because it was 2007 I could do at a rate of 3.9%. The business was an automotive repair shop that Mr. Alevei was starting. He would run the business and fix the cars. I would keep my day job, help with the books, and do some web design. There was no question in my mind but that this would be a good investment. (Spoiler alert: It has been.)

Once Mr. Alevei decided to go for it, we got to work on researching and writing his business plan, looking for a location for what would be his new shop, and trying to figure out how we were going to pay for everything that needed to happen to get him up and running. Writing the business plan was a project that turned out to be an excellent fit for many of the skills I have acquired over the years, not in business but in academia. A business plan is like scholarly research. It makes an argument and supports it with evidence. It requires a ton of research and a compelling narrative. Basic English-major stuff. It has to make the case to lenders and other potential investors that the proposed business will be a solid investment.

In order to make our case, we had to conduct a market analysis, develop viable sales and marketing strategies, articulate both a mission and a vision (not the same thing, it turns out), analyze our position in relation to the shops and dealerships who would be our competitors, develop and articulate a brand identity, and of course spell out our projected start-up costs, operating costs, and revenue assumptions, all of which then had to be connected to the overall market and presented – and justified – in excruciating and itemized detail. Our start-up costs included things like capital purchases (the equipment and supplies Mr. Alevei would need to start working on cars initially and projections for additional capital investments over time), real estate costs, insurance, permits and inspections, and personnel, although at the beginning it was just Mr. Alevei on the clock something like 80 hours a week and me making a hash of the books on Saturdays.

I handled a lot of the research and analysis and wrote the narrative. Mr. Alevei created the spreadsheets that outlined our cost and revenue assumptions and projections, producing multiple versions that explored and applied several possible cost and revenue permutations and contingencies and made predictions about cashflow and about profit and loss through the first twelve months. He drew up balance sheets and we prepared personal financial statements. We estimated labor costs, average sales, profit margins for parts, taxes and fees. I was happier to be finished with the business plan than I was when I finished my doctoral dissertation five years earlier.

In other words, we totally built that.

And in the process, we were very fortunate to have access to quite a few publicly funded resources, including our local library, which offers seminars and mentoring opportunities for people interested in starting new businesses and also has a large collection of relevant books and other media. Mr. Alevei took a course on business planning and was in every way the brains behind our many spreadsheets. We met with a mentor from SCORE, a nonprofit association funded by the Small Business Administration to support entrepreneurship. On a completely volunteer basis, our SCORE mentor took the time read our business plan and give us feedback.

Our biggest break of all came in the summer of 2007, when Mr. Alevei called the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center (MI-SBTDC), which is also supported by federal (SBA) funding to help new and growing businesses. The MI-SBTDC set us up with a mentor, although guardian angel might be a better description. Our mentor provided numerous hours of hands-on support, including extensive assistance as Mr. Alevei wrangled with those spreadsheets, as well as moral support, helping to keep our spirits up during some difficult times, such as when we were worried that we would not get financing, could not find an appropriate and affordable location for the shop, did not see how we were ever going to be able to make it happen. That mentor has become a dear and beloved friend, and he is still an invaluable source of knowledge and support to Mr. Alevei. All the services and support he provided to us were available at zero cost to us.

So yeah, we built it. But we did not do it by ourselves. We couldn’t have.

Mr. Alevei opened his shop on November 1, 2007. We are really looking forward to celebrating his five years in business two months from now. I could not be more proud of Mr. Alevei, who over the past five years has worked until 2 a.m. more times than I can count, sometimes coming home and sleeping only three hours before getting up to do it all over again. He deserves all the credit for the thriving and still-growing business he has built. No one could have worked harder or been smarter, more resourceful, or more determined. And today, in addition to himself, he also employs two full-time technicians, a full-time service manager, a part-time accountant, and a part-time support staffer.

Mr. Alevei created those jobs. And as he would be the first to agree, so did I.

Yes, my $23,000 investment in the company is part of it (an investment that has been paid back in full, by the way), and my work on that excruciating business plan is too. And yes, there was also the labor I contributed for the first six months, when I kept the books. Sure, I did this work badly, but I would point out here that (a.) I did it badly for free, and (b.) sucking at it made the it even more difficult and unpleasant. (On the plus side, the experience was heartening for me in its clear affirmation of my decision at age 18 not to major in accounting.)

But here’s the part they really don’t teach you in school or anywhere else when you’re trying to start a business (and I mean the kind business that requires significant outlays of capital, the kind that really does create jobs): Even if you are ridiculously fortunate and your business does well right out of the gate (alevei!), it is still almost certainly going to take some time before it generates enough profit for you to take home a paycheck at all, let alone before you can take home a paycheck that’s anywhere near enough to live on. So if you don’t have a lot of savings that you can live on and that somehow does not have to go into the business, or if you can’t get the kind of business loan and line of credit (which Mr. Alevei and I can tell you can be very hard to get at start-up) that makes it possible for you to survive for as long as it takes for the business to establish itself and start earning you a living, you’re going to be looking at the possibility of some very hard times. [2]

And so it is the case that sometimes even businesses that are doing OK, even businesses that are doing well, don’t make it. They don’t make it for no other reason than that their owners aren’t making it. It’s not because they aren’t working hard enough and it doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t doing it right. But if an individual’s livelihood or a family’s livelihood has to be staked entirely on the business, it is going to be very, very difficult for the individual or the family to buy itself the time that any new business is going to need to start making a living for anyone.

And that’s where this New York Times-subscribing, NPR-listening, Hillary Clinton-loving, foreign-car-driving, Obama-supporting, state employee public sector union professor comes in.

Because it was my paycheck (the one some people don’t think I deserve) and my health insurance (which some people criticize as overly generous) that made it possible for my family to keep a roof over our heads, food on our table, and clothes on our backs (not to mention keeping the student-loan kneecap-busting brigade away from our door while I kept up the outrageous monthly payments that will add up to triple what I borrowed before it’s all over).

It was my paycheck – my below-market state employee’s paycheck – that bought the shop the time it needed, bought Mr. Alevei and me the time we needed so that he could have the chance to put everything he had into making his business the success it is today. There is simply no way that we could have survived long enough without my paycheck for the shop to succeed and to create those five good-paying, secure jobs that did not exist in 2007. And even with this level of success, I still could not possibly consider quitting my day job any time soon.

So let’s hear it for the job-creators, all of them, not just those lucky few who are well connected and/or amply capitalized and/or create jobs only if they absolutely have to and/or don’t actually create any jobs, not just the “job creators” who really do seem to believe that they built that all by themselves.

And anyone who thinks that state employees are a drain on the system, that we don’t deserve the middle-class existence we are fortunate to enjoy (for the time being, anyway), that our belowmarket salaries are still somehow a bad investment of public funds should know this: The percentage of state university budgets that actually comes from state appropriations is at an all-time low nationwide as state legislatures increasingly divert public money away from public education.

So, not only did I work my ass off for those (semi-)state-funded paychecks in a demanding full-time job that I am actually pretty damn good at, but the contributions to actual, tangible job creation that this public-sector union-member has made have not depended on any government grants or loans or contracts. This is in contrast to every single “I built that” bullshit artist who took the stage at the Republican National Convention last week to support Mitt Romney‘s campaign and proclaim their self-righteous, rugged-individualist, free-market, all-by-myself bootstrap delusions to anyone delusional enough to fall for them.

Rep. Upton concludes his op-ed thusly:

A responsible general would never lead an army into battle without the weapons and resources needed for victory.  In the fight for our economic recovery, we can no less give our employers the certainty and resources they need to succeed.

I wonder if he is talking about “employers” like Mr. Alevei and me. But given that the federal tax rate we pay here in the Alevei household is twice the “job creator” rate that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney says he pays, and I don’t see Rep. Upton, his party, or their presidential nominee making a case that Mr. Alevei and I deserve a big tax break or really any kind of break at all, I have to say I doubt it.


Notes:

[1] See “Employer Responsibility Under the Affordable Care Act,” an analysis and report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. You might as well take a look at it, because there’s a good chance that your House representative hasn’t.

[2] And don’t forget that you are somehow going to have to start making the payments on those loans and lines of credit right out of the gate. And so although it left us pretty significantly undercapitalized, we ultimately decided against taking out a start-up loan or line of credit, and instead decided to make a go of it on my $15,000 cash advance, Mr. Alevei’s cashed-in 401K, and $8,000 that I inherited from my grandma, for the following reasons:

a. No bank would consider lending us less than $40,000 and most preferred to make loans larger than even that.

b. The interest rates quoted to us even during those pre-crash halcyon days of summer 2007 were astronomical – double digits. Those were the rates reserved for people like us, i.e. people without a lot of savings or family money, just starting out in business.

c. Repayment of the start-up loan would be tied to the length of our commercial property lease, which was three years.

d. The monthly payment on a $40,000 loan at 12% to be paid back within three years was more than our monthly mortgage payment. A lot more. We knew there would be no way we could possibly make those payments, living as we would be on a single paycheck.

Best Episode Ever

I don’t know whose idea it was to have Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes guest-host, or who picked the screwball comedy “2012 Republican National Convention,” but this is hands-down the funniest episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 EVER.

Bonus: Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) pretending to be charismatic = priceless and adorable.

Calling the Kettle Crony, Part 2: Charles Koch

If you’ve been here before, you might remember that in my previous post, I said that I had been starting to think that Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney “truly take the absolute effing cake when it comes to astonishingly shameless hypocrisy on the topic of Crony Capitalism and How It Is Destroying America” but that it is possible that I have since been proven wrong.

That’s right; I thought I had it all figured out, but then former Michigan governor and present-day bad-ass brainiac Jennifer Granholm, host of The War Room on Current TV, had to go and post a link on her Facebook page last Friday to an August 16 op-ed that exposes Rep. Ryan and Gov. Romney for the amateurs they are.

That op-ed, “Why We Fight for Economic Freedom,” has left me with no choice but to reconsider my earlier statement because of the very real possibility that the title of Absolute Effing Cake-Taker When It Comes to Astonishingly Shameless Hypocrisy on the Topic of Crony Capitalism and How It Is Destroying America might perhaps be more appropriately awarded to its author. He is none other than that Quintessential Crony Capitalist Hypocrite himself, Charles Koch. (Yes, he’s one of those Kochs.)

Granholm and the Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs discussed Mr. Koch’s op-ed on the August 17 edition of War Room (video here). I have not yet watched, mostly because I was afraid they’d use up all the good lines and I’d have nothing left to write about, but I am sure it will be well worth my time and yours.

Mr. Koch’s op-ed was published on Newsmax, and I am reluctant to link to it directly because of my conviction that no one should ever have to visit Newsmax for any reason. If you’re not familiar with Newsmax, the best comparison I can come up with to try to describe it is to say that it’s kind of the Weekly World News of political, um, journalism. It’s also kind of like the Onion, except it’s not funny, and it is bankrolled and run, respectively, by two Clinton-era miscreants: billionaire nutjob Richard “Arkansas Project” Scaife and Christopher “OMG Hillary Killed Vince Foster!” Ruddy.

Anyway, despite my reservations, here is the link to the op-ed. You’ve been warned.

The squeamish should please note that I will excerpt generously, so they will not miss much if they opt not to give Newsmax the satisfaction of a page view. While charges of cherry-picking could conceivably be leveled, I have to point out in my defense that there is pretty much not one single word in the entire piece that isn’t an unbelievable sack of disingenuous, self-righteous, hypocritical malarkey, with the possible inclusion (as Mary McCarthy once famously put it) of “and” and “the.” The whole thing is nothing but cherries.

I have to start with a quick spoiler alert: Koch never actually identifies the “we” in the title (“Why We Fight for Economic Freedom”). The text of the 800-word op-ed contains ten occurrences of “I” and only one of “we” apart from the title. We (meaning us, or everyone who has a perfectly good day to ruin by actually reading it) are left to infer that he probably means himself and his conjoined twin brother, David, to whom he is attached at the wallet and at the basal ganglia.

This seems to be the guiding principle of the op-ed, its thesis, the reason “Why We Fight”:

I want my legacy to be greater freedom, greater prosperity and a better way of life for my family, our employees and all Americans. And I wish the same for every nation on earth.

Except for public employees in Wisconsin. Those commies can go suck it. Except for this commie, the one my dad, Fred “I Heart John Birch” Koch, liked to kick it with back in the 1930s.

OK, I added that last part.

(But see “Joe Stalin Made Me Rich, But I’m Really a Free Market Patriot,” by Theo Spencer, linked here, and “Kennedy’s Death Is Used as Gimmick to Recruit New John Birch Members,” linked here, by the legendary and controversial journalist Drew Pearson, who is not to be confused with this guy. In December 1963, Pearson reported that Mr. Fred Koch and several other like-minded “disgruntled tycoons” were behind full-page ads in the Washington Post and the New York Times claiming that JFK was “a martyr to communism,” despite their pre-assassination charges that President Kennedy was “consorting with communism.” Pearson notes that Mr. Koch the elder “built 15 refineries in Russia,” which he suggests “would appear to put him more in favor of coexistence [with the USSR] than the late JFK.” After listing the names of those who paid for the ads, he concludes: “These are the men who are using Kennedy’s death to campaign for new members to the John Birch Society.”)

Let’s move now to some context so that we can be sure everyone is up to speed on the clear and present dangers to Charles Koch’s Economic Freedom, which he must therefore Fight For, because as he urgently reminds us in the op-ed, “Nations with the greatest degree of economic freedom tend to have citizens who are much better off in every way.”

This is probably going to seem like a digression because the threat to Mr. Koch’s Economic Freedom may not be immediately obvious from the following example, but let me assure you that this is a Deadly Serious topic about which I would not joke nor from which I would even dare to digress. Anyway. As I was about to say, in this Politico article from May 2012, “GOP Groups Plan Record $1B Blitz,” Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei report that

Republican super PACs and other outside groups shaped by a loose network of prominent conservatives – including Karl Rove, the Koch brothers and Tom Donohue of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – plan to spend roughly $1 billion on November’s elections for the White House and control of Congress, according to officials familiar with the groups’ internal operations.

That total includes previously undisclosed plans for newly aggressive spending by the Koch brothers, who are steering funding to build sophisticated, county-by-county operations in key states. POLITICO has learned that Koch-related organizations plan to spend about $400 million ahead of the 2012 elections – twice what they had been expected to commit.

Just the spending linked to the Koch network is more than the $370 million that John McCain raised for his entire presidential campaign four years ago. And the $1 billion total surpasses the $750 million that Barack Obama, one of the most prolific fundraisers ever, collected for his 2008 campaign.

As you can see, then, Allen and VandeHei spell out in no uncertain terms just how grave the threat to Charles Koch’s Economic Freedom really is. It should be obvious to everyone now that this threat is so dire that Mr. Koch is left with no choice but to spend $400 million dollars on the 2012 presidential and congressional campaigns. I mean, just imagine how much more he would be able to spend to make sure that the White House and Congress are fully staffed with people for whom restoring and protecting his Economic Freedom is Job One if he weren’t so brutally oppressed by the appalling lack of Economic Freedom under which he currently chafes.

As Mr. Koch notes in his op-ed,

No centralized government, no matter how big, how smart or how powerful, can effectively and efficiently control much of society in a beneficial way. On the contrary, big governments are inherently inefficient and harmful. And yet, the tendency of our own government here in the U.S. has been to grow bigger and bigger, controlling more and more. This is why America keeps dropping in the annual ranking of economic freedom.

While this statement might sound kind of ridiculously paranoid and delusional, please note that only a real giver and true mensch would selflessly give away the kind of money that he and his brother are putting into the 2012 elections, which I probably don’t need to remind you is something he is doing for no other reason than to help select staff for an organization he believes is “inherently inefficient and harmful.” That takes a truly generous heart, not to mention a complete and total lack of acquaintance with the concept of irony.

Elsewhere in his op-ed, Mr. Koch invokes Karl Marx and toilet-paper rationing (really), and he rightly calls out the “far too many legislative proposals that would subsidize one form of energy over another,” which he — rightly again — sees as interfering with Economic Freedom for All Americans. But I have to admit that I found that part a little confusing. I thought guys like him were usually OK with subsidizing one form of energy over another, as long as the “one form of energy” isn’t renewable, and Mr. Koch does in fact confirm this by railing on about wind energy subsidies, which he considers an “obvious example” of the ways in which support for renewable energy is at odds with Economic Freedom for All Americans.

In his defense, he could be legitimately unaware that the oil industry is heavily subsidized in the United States and in the rest of the world. (See, for example, “U.S. Fossil-Fuel Subsidies Twice That of Renewables” and “Fossil Fuel Subsidies Six Times More Than Renewable Energy.”). We are talking about someone who may be getting most of his information from Newsmax, after all, so how exactly would you expect him to know about documentable things that really happen in the actual world? He has been very busy Fighting for Economic Freedom for All Americans, including You People, so he obviously has more important things to do than inform himself appropriately and behave accordingly. Fighting for the Economic Freedom of All Americans is a big job. Take it easy on the guy already. Sheesh.

So it is entirely possible that while he was busy Fighting for the Economic Freedom of All Americans, Mr. Koch might have missed “World Energy Outlook 2011,” a report issued by the International Energy Agency in November of last year. According to the report:

Fossil-fuel subsidies as presently constituted tend to be regressive, disproportionately benefiting higher income groups that can afford higher levels of fuel consumption. Cutting the payments would also help tackle climate change. Eliminating subsidies by 2020 would cut global energy demand by 3.9 percent in that year, the equivalent of 600 million tons of oil. The savings would rise to 4.8 percent by 2035.

But do you think Charles Koch, champion of the Economic Freedom of All Americans, has time to worry his pretty little head about disproportionate benefits going to higher income groups or the negative impact of oil subsidies on climate change? Please. Of course he doesn’t. What part of Fighting for Economic Freedom do You People not understand? We are talking about Freedom for All Americans, for God’s sake, and that literally means All Americans, from Paul Ryan to Mitt Romney to the Koch brothers themselves. And even that does not begin to consider their many dependents.

Yes, that’s right: their dependents. You People really have no idea how many mouths those poor Kochs have to feed, do you? Well, know this: Koch Industries has no fewer than 172 members of Congress to support during the 2012 election cycle! That support has already totaled $1,677,301 so far this year, not counting anything they have spent since July 1. And before you start trying to say they probably only support Republicans, you should please note that a staggering one percent of their contributions went to Democrats, one of them being Paul Ryan’s cousin-in-law.

We’re talking about total contributions of over $13 million — and that is just what they gave to individual congressional candidates — since 1990. But Mr. Koch makes it crystal clear that he expects absolutely nothing in return! I mean, you tell me if this sounds like a guy who expects anything from the government:

Repeatedly asking for government help undermines the foundations of society by destroying initiative and responsibility. It is also a fatal blow to efficiency and corrupts the political process.

And he should know!

Speaking of what an awesome giver Mr. Koch is, have I mentioned that Koch Industries spent over $8 million last year to lobby Congress on oil and gas industry issues, plus another $5.3 million so far in 2012? What, you think Congress is going to lobby itself? Fighting for Economic Freedom for All Americans is very, very expensive!

But a smart business leader like Mr. Koch is not going to spend all his money in one place. He and his brother also invest heavily in the job-creating climate-change-denial industry, which as you know occupies a critical front in the Fight for Economic Freedom for All Americans. Just to take one example of their considerable generosity: The Kochs are key bankrollers of our friends at the Manhattan Institute, particularly when it comes to supporting that organization’s tireless work to disseminate propaganda on behalf of the fossil-fuel industries. I hope you don’t think that continually having to try to contradict every legitimate climate scientist on the planet Earth, including ingrates like this guy, comes cheap. It doesn’t.

And neither does getting their messages of urgent disentruthfulness out to the public. Even though it all functions in the service of — that’s right: Economic Freedom for All Americans — maintaining that level of projectile anti-intellectualism is itself the very opposite of free. In fact, according to the tree-hugging hippies at Greenpeace, Koch Industries spent over $61 million between 1997 and 2010 to support the Manhattan Institute and other think tanks that traffic in environmental Newspeak. And according to ThinkProgress, “Koch Industries outspends Exxon Mobil on climate and clean energy disinformation.”

Mr. Koch also helpfully demonstrates in his op-ed that it is not only altruistic billionaire mensches like himself who want the kind of Economic Freedom that cannot possibly thrive in a nation with a big control-freak government, which of course is what has always stood in the way of America‘s world leadership in anything that matters. He does this by quoting a millionaire mensch, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who you might not realize was totally on the same page as Mr. Koch in his suspicion and condemnation of big government. As Mr. Koch reminds us,

It was President Franklin Roosevelt who said: “Continued dependence on [government support] induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

Who knew FDR was such a free-market free spirit? Knowing how busy Mr. Koch is, though, I wonder whether he ever got around to reading President Roosevelt’s 1935 State of the Union address, the source of the quote, in its entirety. Earlier in the speech, the president had this to say:

We find our population suffering from old inequalities, little changed by past sporadic remedies. In spite of our efforts and in spite of our talk we have not weeded out the overprivileged and we have not effectively lifted up the underprivileged. Both of these manifestations of injustice have retarded happiness. No wise man has any intention of destroying what is known as the “profit motive,” because by the profit motive we mean the right by work to earn a decent livelihood for ourselves and our families.

We have, however, a clear mandate from the people, that Americans must forswear that conception of the acquisition of wealth which, through excessive profits, creates undue private power over private affairs and, to our misfortune, over public affairs as well. In building toward this end we do not destroy ambition, nor do we seek to divide our wealth into equal shares on stated occasions. We continue to recognize the greater ability of some to earn more than others. But we do assert that the ambition of the individual to obtain for him and his a proper security, a reasonable leisure, and a decent living throughout life is an ambition to be preferred to the appetite for great wealth and great power.

I recall to your attention my message to the Congress last June in which I said, “Among our objectives I place the security of the men, women, and children of the Nation first.” That remains our first and continuing task: and in a very real sense every major legislative enactment of this Congress should be a component part of it.

I have no idea why Mr. Koch would have left that part out because it sounds like exactly the same thing as Fighting for Economic Freedom for All Americans.

And here’s where the president seems to have been going with that whole “subtle destroyer of the human spirit” thing (again quoting from the 1935 SOTU):

I am not willing that the vitality of our people be further sapped by the giving of cash, of market baskets, of a few hours of weekly work cutting grass, raking leaves, or picking up papers in the public parks. We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance, and courage and determination. This decision brings me to the problem of what the Government should do with approximately 5,000,000 unemployed now on the relief rolls.

About one million and a half of these belong to the group which in the past was dependent upon local welfare efforts. Most of them are unable for one reason or another to maintain themselves independently – for the most part, through no fault of their own. Such people, in the days before the great depression, were cared for by local effort – by States, by counties, by towns, by cities, by churches, and by private welfare agencies. It is my thought that in the future they must be cared for as they were before. I stand ready, through my own personal efforts and through the public influence of the office that I hold, to help these local agencies to get the means necessary to assume this burden.

The security legislation which I shall propose to the Congress will, I am confident, be of assistance to local effort in the care of this type of cases. Local responsibility can and will be resumed, for, after all, common sense tells us that the wealth necessary for this task existed and still exists in the local community, and the dictates of sound administration require that this responsibility be in the first instance a local one.

There are, however, an additional three and one-half million employable people who are on relief. With them the problem is different and the responsibility is different. This group was the victim of a Nation-wide depression caused by conditions which were not local but national. The Federal Government is the only governmental agency with sufficient power and credit to meet this situation. We have assumed this task, and we shall not shrink form it in the future. It is a duty dictated by every intelligent consideration of national policy to ask you to make it possible for the United States to give employment to all of these three-and-a-half million people now on relief, pending their absorption in a rising tide of private employment.

It is my thought that, with the exception of certain of the normal public building operations of the Government, all emergency public works shall be united in a single new and greatly enlarged plan.

I know all this probably makes it look like Mr. Koch deliberately misrepresents what President Roosevelt actually said in an utterly shameless, dishonest, and despicable way. But I am sure that is not the case. I am sure there is a plausible explanation for how Mr. Koch could have misunderstood the president’s speech to the extent that he seems to think it meant the exact opposite of what it actually says.But there is something Mr. Koch says in the article that he and I definitely agree on:

Today, many governments give special treatment to a favored few businesses that eagerly accept those favors. This is the essence of cronyism.

He could not be more on the money on this one. And when Charles Koch defines “the essence of cronysim” (which he really does in all kinds of ways), he is obviously speaking from experience. For instance, Koch Supply & Trading was selected by the Bush Administration in 2002 “to provide approximately 8 million barrels of crude oil to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve,” according to this Department of Energy press release. And Reuters reported in a February 2011 article titled “Koch Brothers Positioned To Be Big Winners If Keystone XL Pipeline Is Approved,” that

Koch Industries is already responsible for close to 25 percent of the oil sands crude that is imported into the United States, and is well-positioned to benefit from increasing Canadian oil imports.

A Koch Industries operation in Calgary, Alberta, called Flint Hills Resources Canada LP, supplies about 250,000 barrels of tar sands oil a day to a heavy oil refinery in Minnesota, also owned by the Koch brothers.

Flint Hills Resources Canada also operates a crude oil terminal in Hardisty, Alberta, the starting point of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

The company’s website says it is “among Canada’s largest crude oil purchasers, shippers and exporters.” Koch Industries also owns Koch Exploration Canada, L.P., an oil sands-focused exploration company also based in Calgary that acquires, develops and trades petroleum properties.

In sum, perhaps I am being too cynical in my adorable little outrage over the facts that not only can a handful of extraordinarily wealthy people essentially buy elections out from under 240 million eligible voters who helped to subsidize their wealth in the first place but that they are somehow also able — publicly, and completely and utterly without shame — to work themselves up into a righteous lather as if they are somehow the victims in all this and the rest of us just need to understand what it takes to Fight for Economic Freedom for All Americans. If they become even more obscenely “overprivileged” in the process, well, that’s their reward for Fighting the Good Fight for All Americans, just as God and FDR intended.

And if they want to buy an election because they’re pissed off at the president for standing in the way of their next not at all crony-capitalistic government windfall? Well, they should go right ahead! This is America! And in the America that Mr. Koch envisions, where Economic Freedom will one day ring for All Americans, we will all someday be just as free as he is now to buy whatever kind of political system we want, too. And if there is no way most of us will ever be able to afford to do that, well, the free market will have spoken and it doesn’t want to hear any backtalk from the likes of You People.

Finally, Mr. Koch leaves us with this ominous observation:

In a system without economic freedom, the wealthiest are the tyrants who make people’s lives miserable.

Tell me about it.

“Legitimate rape,” really?

OK, I really wasn’t prepared to have to deal with this level of stupidity so early in the week nor so soon after the multiple head explosions I experienced earlier today as a result of my looking into whether Mitt Romney might be a teensy bit of a hypocrite on the subject of crony capitalism.

But when a candidate for the U.S. Senate (who is also a six-term congressman in the House of Representatives) says

First of all, from what I understand from doctors, (pregnancy from rape) is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

well, I can’t just look the other way, as much as I’d like to. But I will keep this one short. On the topic of Missouri Senate candidate and currently serving House Representative Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin (R-You’ve Got to Be Kidding Me. People Actually Elected This Horse’s Ass to National Office?), I will say only the following:

1. If nonconsensual sex did not result in pregnancy, there would be a hell of a lot fewer people on this planet right now than there actually are.

2. Many of the Republicans who are now scurrying to disavow Rep. Akin’s comments are some of the same people who have co-sponsored misogynistic bills right along with Missouri’s finest that indicate that they believe there is such a thing as non-forcible rape, the existence of which they felt should be codified into law. And they are also some of the same people who were poised to bankroll his Senate campaign. Do I really need to point out that in his SIXTH term in the House of Representatives, Akin is far from an unknown quantity, so they don’t get to pretend to be all surprised and shocked and everything and act like they are just now finding out that this guy is anyone other than exactly who they thought he was all along and knowingly supported until he had to go and say out loud what a lot of them are thinking, possibly blowing their chances of taking control of the Senate, which alevei.

3. The House Science Committee really flew up its own ass when it let Todd Akin be on it and therefore should probably be disbanded until such time as its membership can be limited to people with an actual clue, which while we’re at it should also be a prerequisite for serving in Congress to begin with.

4. This is why God doesn’t want you to go on the TV on Sundays, Rep. Akin.