Category Archives: Student Loans

I Went to Flagstaff for a Commencement

What is explained can be denied but what is felt cannot be forgotten.

Charles Bowden

What do you say, at age 61, as I am rubbernecking the constant superficial, seedy, consumer-caked world now as someone considered a major failure – a few dozens jobs, mostly sacked from, and a few dozen careers, and, I am slogging away at a homeless shelter trying to save myself from the constrictor of capitalism, that strangulating system that gets us all complicit in the crime, making us all little Eichmann’s in this murder incorporated killing, complicit in the hyper exploitation of man, woman, child, ecosystem?

Consumerism as a psychological wedge to allow for the synchronized event horizon of finance-government-surveillance-media-military to work on the masses as a suffocating fog pumped out across the globe by an elite bent on total dominance.

We can jump onto the global stage and see the battering truth:

Diagnosing the Empire with Sadistic Personality Disorder (SPD)

Western culture is clearly obsessed with rules, guilt, submissiveness and punishment.

By now it is clear that the West is the least free society on Earth. In North America and Europe, almost everyone is under constant scrutiny: people are spied on, observed, their personal information is being continually extracted, and the surveillance cameras are used indiscriminately.

Life is synchronized and managed. There are hardly any surprises.

One can sleep with whomever he or she wishes (as long as it is done within the ‘allowed protocol’).

Homosexuality and bisexuality are allowed. But that is about all; that is how far ‘freedom’ usually stretches.
Rebellion is not only discouraged, it is fought against, brutally. For the tiniest misdemeanors or errors, people end up behind bars. As a result, the U.S. has more prisoners per capita than any other country on Earth, except the Seychelles.

And as a further result, almost all conversations, but especially public discourses, are now being controlled by so-called ‘political correctness’ and its variants.

But back to the culture of fear and punishment.

Look at the headlines of the Western newspapers. For example, New York Times from April 12. 2018: Punishment of Syria may be harsher this time.

We are so used to such perverse language used by the Empire that it hardly strikes us as twisted, bizarre, pathological.

It stinks of some sadomasochistic cartoon, or of a stereotypical image of an atrocious English teacher holding a ruler over a pupil’s extended hands, shouting, “Shall I?”

Carl Gustav Jung described Western culture, on several occasions, as a “pathology”. He did it particularly after WWII, but he mentioned that the West had been committing terrible crimes in all parts of the world, for centuries. That is most likely why the Western mainstream psychiatrists and psychologists have been glorifying the ego-centric and generally apolitical Sigmund Freud, while ignoring, even defaming, Carl Gustav Jung.

The reality is, though, most of the revolutionaries like myself in this cesspool of capitalism have to slog ahead in the belly of the beast, without the rarefied air of being an international journalist like Andre Vltchek. The reality is most of us know that when 11 million babies under age two die of treatable maladies each year, or when bodies are shot through and extremities are shattered by the sadism that is the Gestapo-Apartheid “state/religion” of Israel, we push through the fog of rapacious consumerism and consort with our deep empathy for our brothers and sisters under the thumb of despotic regimes like USA, Russia, Israel, China, India, et al.

Because, now, no matter the level of melanin in a collective people’s skin or the desperation of the people, the globe has been infected by a virus called Capitalism-Finance-Unfettered Exploitation.

Exploitation is a pretty tame word for what I am hinting at: destruction, annihilation, extinction. As is the case with me, a rant percolates from the bowels of the commonness of my life, the microcosm of traveling from point A to point B. What happens in Vegas happens in New York City. What unfolds in little town USA is unfolding in San Fran.

Whatever it is, here I was, back in Arizona, first Phoenix, the cancer, the cancer, and then up to Flagstaff, oh that place before white man invasion sacred healing cloud island peaks. Arizona, as I’ve written extensively, is where I cut my teeth as a small town newspaper reporter, learned directly the value of radical conservation, became a brother in arms for Chicanoism, tried my hand at diving and helping bring across refugees of the proxy wars of USA in Guatemala, etc.

I’ve written poetically about the place – here and there, and have inserted the value of those formative years into almost everything I’ve written, taught, done in my 48 years since coming to Arizona young, 13:

Wrestling the Blind, Chasing Apache Horses, and Unpacking the Vietnam War – (September 4th, 2013) or page 12, Cirque

But this most recent trip, a weekend, I went to celebrate my 22-year-old niece’s matriculation, with bachelor of science degree, from Northern Arizona University. The old days when I was young, 19, and a journalist, and then, activist, like quicksilver in my brain, taking over not only my senses, but memory. Many of us saw the writing on the wall 40 and 50 years ago – this barely inhabitable place (a place of migration for Papago and other indigenous people’s), with a blitzkrieg of outsiders plowing the desert and eventually corralling the Colorado River into brackish canals to feed the malls and mayhem of winter baseball leagues and out of control military complex tax cheats. Three state universities, and then this new cheater, University of Phoenix . . . headquarters for the bizarre U-Haul . . . dry mothball arenas for the USA’s killing flying machines. Odd as hell place, with the likes of Edward Abbey running amok. I hear now Noam Chomsky is visiting prof at U of A in Tucson.

Humans build their societies around consumption of fossil water long buried in the earth, and these societies, being based on temporary resources, face the problem of being temporary themselves.

— Charles Bowden, Killing Hidden Waters

I kind of think of Charles Bowden from time to time, who was a reporter and novelist living in Tucson and covering the Southwest and northern Mexico. When I go into the desert, after looking at some shell of a rag that we now call daily newspapers, I feel this guy’s haunting – now dead going on four years:

When he got a hold of a story, he wouldn’t let it go, said former Citizen copy editor Judy Carlock. He had a very generous heart and a lot of compassion … he didn’t mince words.

The way I was trained up, reporters went toward the story, just as firemen rush toward the fire. It is a duty.

He was compelled to work; he had to write … in vivid imagery and concrete detail, Carlock said. Every Monday morning, the (Citizen) city desk would come in to find a long, brilliant masterpiece they had to find room for in the paper.

He lived at full tilt, fueled on caffeine and nicotine, said Carlock. Bowden had stopped smoking about two years ago, Carroll said, and was lifting weights, working on that second wind in his life.

He was no saint, but he was true to himself, said Carlock. I think he secretly relished being thought of as a rogue.

This amazing ecosystem, with syncopated Native American tribes and amazing Mexican communities turned into a wheezing series of six-lane freeways and spiraling communities for the infirm, the emphysemic and the insane.

It’s really difficult to find a place to start.  Sedona and the vortices? Flagstaff, from one-horse town to bedroom (climatically cooler but fire prone) to Phoenix? The 365 days a year fire pit danger, as heat comes earlier, rain disappears quicker, and the landscape is peppered with suburbia’s faux Mexican-Italian-Spanish-Greek designs as the ubiquitous 20-mile caravans of cars and trucks push the hot tunnel of air which is Arizona?

As a former newspaperman, I am compelled to read the dwindling local news anywhere I go, even five and dime advertising things, or corny local monthlies, and so just a few minutes with the Arizona Republic show me where the mass delusion, mass magical thinking and mass ignorance get set in. But, compelling, the stories slugs or ledes:

• Border Patrol punk who murdered 16 year old for throwing rocks, and the jury convicting him of involuntary manslaughter gets hung

• Animal abuse claims against the Havasupal Tribe’s section of the Grand Canyon – you know, animal lovers saying the pack animals used to ferry the tourists into the Canyon are treated like shit (abused) . . . . oh those do-gooders, just how many of them are animal-free product users . . . how many of them know how every stitch of clothing, every chemical smeared in their lives, every product of the modern age are placed in their realm with millions of rats, mice, dogs, and apes murdered for that consumer entitlement . . . ?

• PK12 teachers on the march for wage increases, class size reductions, more counselors, more money for staff and support personnel . . . and yet many of these Arizona scallywags want them to eat shit

• Flagstaff keeping homeless people from living – camping – on public property through ordinances from hell

• A great female representative from the state wanting dreamer children – undocumented – out of the Copper State, more of the same Trump et al giving children the boot while Trump’s monster wife calls for no more bullying

• God in the classroom, a civics literacy bill, more report cards for schools (to fail them so the charter schools get more easy pickings), and this drive for charter (for- profit, hedge-fund lined) schools to take from the public coffers and teach absolute shit

• More gigantic housing developments planned in the Sonora desert without any water delivery plans, without any water!

• Raytheon Missile Systems breaks ground on an expansion of its Tucson facility – 2,000 more Little Eichmann’s added to the already large 10,000 workers designing, testing, manufacturing and delivering via Amazon dot Com killing systems to include Tomahawk missiles and this new Stormbreaker small diameter bomb

• Mexican-American female columnist for the Arizona Republic newspaper bashing the possibility of socialist former Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador making it as president of Mexico . . . “he’s a Hugo Chavez-style authoritarian tropical messiah who would turn Mexico into another Venezuela”

• The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community building lavish baseball stadiums for professional teams like the Diamondbacks

• HBO plans to debut John McCain documentary on Memorial Day – “John McCain; For Whom the Bell Tolls”

• soda or sugar taxes outlawed in the state
• non-English contracts will be voided in all insurance transactions, and beyond

• Abortion patient questions are now mandatory

Oh the compounding blasphemy. If this were a thematic essay, well, here are the components:

• Wanton excess in the state, with brand new, freshly washed expensive SUV’s, power cars, pick-up trucks

• Endless strip mall after strip mall and faux Spanish colonial kitsch and after faux Hacienda kitsch which propels the dribbling consumerism of 24/7 Superstore Grand Openings

• Zero tribute to the peoples of the real Arizona – Chemehuevi, Chiricahua, Cocopa, or Xawitt Kwñchawaay, Dilzhe’e, Apache, Havasupai, or Havasuw `Baaja, Hopi, Hualapai, or Hwal `Baaja, Maricopa, or Piipaash, Mohave, or Hamakhava (also spelled Mojave), Navajo, or Diné, Southern Paiute, Akimel O’odham, formerly Pima, Quechan, or Yuma, San Carlos Apache, Nné – Coyotero, or Western Apaches, Tewa, Tohono O’odham, formerly Papago, Southern Ute, White Mountain Apache, Ndé – Coyotero or Western Apaches, Xalychidom, or Halchidhoma, Yaqui people, Yavapai, or Kwevkepaya, Wipukepa, Tolkepaya, and Yavepé (four separate groups), Zuni, or A:shiwi

• Redneck clashing with wimpy liberal clashing with snowbird clashing with old Mafia clashing with Hispanic-Latino/a clashing with senior citizen Trump lover clashing with new money clashing with the Raytheon mentality clashing with the endless cancer spur that is Arizona

• My old stomping grounds, now despoiled by in-ground pools, putrid man-made lakes, endless track homes like carcinoma, endless twisting cul-de-sacs where minds end up mushed up in mojito-ville

• Hatred, man, the Trump way, McCain way, Goldwater, putrid former Maricopa County Sheriff and Minutemen militias on the border, and the Gestapo Border Patrol and the rot which is a state in the union emblematic of red state loafers and the hard-working people like those teachers

• A college, NAU, broken by a president who cheats faculty and luxuriates in the money thrown her way and the attention the local yokels give her

• Students fighting this female NAU president Rita Cheng who wants cuts to all sorts of important programs (in the liberal arts) so she can court those wanton criminal corporations and alt-right Koch Brothers

• The graduation I went to was embarrassing, dead, nothing in the way of speakers, controlled by this president, and was ten times more lackluster than a Missouri Synod Lutheran Sunday meeting

• Peter Principle of incompetents rising, as in the case of Rita Cheng and thousands of movers and shakers (sic) that run the state

• The inarticulate middle and upper classes of society exemplified in Arizona

• A state with more sun per year with nary a solar panel in sight

• The rotten belief that infinite growth, infinite in-migration, infinite giveaways to the corporate leeches will lead to prosperity

• The Caucasian and other Whitey people’s insipid Trader Joe’s-Dutch Brothers-Bed, Bath and Beyond systematic lobotomizing of the masses

• Sprayed-on lawns and Astroturf backyards scattered around the desiccating real lawns throughout the entire Phoenix and Tucson metroplexes

• Daily reminder of the old adage of “who the fuck thought white people and their poodles settling in Arizona made any sense”

• Like anywhere else, Arizona has no worthy newspaper of note anymore, and the news is not to be seen in the light of day

I’ve always said, that one slice of life is a microcosm, that splice onto one of the big fat four-hour reels of 70 mm movie film depicting the universality in the absurdity of being Homo Sapiens under the thumb of money changers, militaries and grand exploiters. Example: One shit-hole sugar cane fucker and his sibling (Fanjul Brothers) and his fucking family destroying the lives of thousands of slaves, upsetting the natural world, and sending the sweet sting of death to millions. One fucking family owning billions of dollars and billions of people and draining the Everglades. Something along those lines – just look at history of rubber, gold, oil, wood, fruit, minerals, raw labor, animals.

This arithmetic is as clear as the day is long, in a world where this time, the so-called now time, is bereft of no logic, no ethics, no depth of knowledge, no truth except the rubbery huckster kind. While NAU had zero commencement speakers for all five graduation sequences, we now have to read about a world of Rex Tillerson — that son of a bitch lying, thieving, fossil fuel thug — now at a graduation for a military institute (what the fuck are we still living in a world of military academies – sic).

You can’t make this shit up in a work of fiction:

In a commencement speech at Virginia Military Institute, the camera-shy former secretary of state gave his most public remarks since President Donald Trump ousted him from the White House in March.

“As I reflect upon the state of American democracy,” he told the Class of 2018, “I observe a growing crisis in ethics and integrity.”

Tillerson’s emphasis on integrity echoed his parting words to colleagues at the State Department in March. Then he went even further:

“If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom.”

Tillerson’s time in Trump administration was marked by tension. He reportedly called the president a “moron” eight months before he was fired and replaced by then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

But the oil industry veteran has yet to directly criticize Trump. His speech, which began with a discussion on the globalized economy and stressed “the value of friends and allies,” is the closest he has come to attacking Trump’s rhetoric and “America First” policy.

This from the moronic Huffington Post. Alternative realities, sure, Mister Exxon. The reality of propping up dictators, of hiring murderers to take over land, of stealing oil from any number of countries, and the complete environmental despoilment created by the great Exxon-Shell-Chevron-You-Name-It soul and soil eating machine. Imagine, this guy’s a thug, Tillerson, who has no concept of realities, except his thuggery, and a billionaire mentality. Yeah, Exxon and the alternative reality of climate change and the bullshit destruction of the earth from fossil fuel burning. What great record this keynote speaker Tillerson has, and, in the end, he’s as ballless as the lot of the millionaires\billionaires, afraid to criticize the deviant, stupid and reckless Trump.

Where do these people come from? Which DNA-warped womb do they exit from? Which felonious family raised them? Which two-bit schools educated them? Which insane people hire them and then promote them?

A two-day trip back to Arizona is like a two-year LSD trip, floating around with mushrooms on the tongue daily, as bottles of mescal run through the veins. I am telling you, when you get out of your routine – I am a social worker in a veterans’ homeless shelter, where the word “chaos” describes the totality of my time there, daily – and this rushing hot wave of air sucks the oxygen from the lungs for a minute or two. Arizona is California is Oregon is Washington . . . .

And exactly what is the US of A, with so much junk, so much materialistic droning, and yet, poverty is growing, big time, and the fear of the future in terms of no one achieving affordable housing and clean public transportation and free education and decent jobs is like us all whistling as we walk past the graveyard which is Western Capitalism.

Arizona, like any other state, is defined by the kleptomaniacs in government, on boards, in corporations and in the political class. Arizona is defined by a schizophrenia of faux opulence and real indebtedness and our fellow citizens struggling, dying, really, in a world that is upside down when it comes to clean air, clean water, real medicine, and affordable life.

Arizona is the mix of Eastern seaboard accents and southern twangs and amazingly mean people who are in it for themselves, for their backyard in-ground pools, for the 6,000 square foot Barcelona- style triple-decker home. We are talking about leathery skin from all the sun and leathery pools of empathy in the hearts and minds of most Arizonans.

Yet, here I am, 61, wishing my niece good tidings, as she embarks on the journey of medical school applications, and then, what? What world is it we have to give or anoint our children with? I am flabbergasted at the stupidity of the NAU graduation, the bloodlessness of the speakers, the lack of verve, the paucity of an event that for many has cost a pretty penny in debt for parents and children alike.

I end with 2011 commencement speech at Olympia’s Evergreen State College, Angela Davis:

Commencement speakers frequently assume that their role is to encourage graduates to go out and conquer the world. The task I have set for myself is much more modest. I want to urge you to be able to retrieve and sort through and rethink and preserve memories of your time here, which may very well turn out to be the most important period of your lives. Like the philosopher Walter Benjamin, I emphasize the past as the key to your future.

And so as you move on, some of you will go to graduate school, right? Some of you will find jobs. Unfortunately, some of you may not find jobs. Some of you will make families, some of you will engage in activism, some you will be involved in cultural work, and there are all kinds of permutations and combinations of all of these. But I would like you to periodically stop and reflect about the extent to which your lives were radically transformed by your experiences here. And I hope that you will have courage to draw upon the education you have received here from your most challenging professors, as you try to imagine more equitable ways of inhabiting all of our worlds. If you continue to think and act in the tradition of your college you will respect all of the inhabitants of our environments, and not simply assume that the environment must be preserved for the sake of future human generations, but rather for all the future generations of plant life, future generations of all animal life.

How do we extricate ourselves from enduring hierarchies, class, race, sexual, religious, geopolitical? This question, I think, is the question that needs to be posed. Posing that question is the mark of educated human beings. So I might then ask you to think about education as the practice of freedom. Education is the practice of freedom. And so freedom becomes, not an imagined condition in the future, not the set of achievements that will fulfill some desire, but rather an unrelenting, unending, collective effort to reconstruct our lives, our ways of relating to each other, our communities, and our futures. Congratulations to The Evergreen State College class of 2011.

The Housing Crisis Is a Feminist Crisis That Democrats Need To Hear

Image via Boston Globe by John Tlumacki

Every election year, Democratic candidates download the latest changes to the Democratic Party platform. They usually make sure to hit refresh on the Wikipedia page for feminism and check for new developments.

It’s a miracle, with an unapologetic sexual assaulter in the White House, that reproductive health and the gender pay gap are getting any airtime at all. For statisticians and pundits, support for these issues is the best way to make a back of the envelope calculation of odds.

If you follow political punditry, you’d think Americans were split on Roe v. Wade. The fact is, only a quarter of Americans support rolling it back. For perspective, the anti-vaxxer movement has about as much support. The truth is that most Americans are in favor of social equity and access to basic social services.

As it stands, women still make 70% of what men do. Women are more often bound with being the sole breadwinner of single-parent households. Women often have more debt and lower credit scores than men. Women are also the fastest growing section of the homeless population.

Every potential obstacle for having a roof over your head is in the way for women.

Given that Democratic political candidates want to show their support for social justice, feminist, and lower-income issues, you’d think they would commit to ending the housing crisis. With a ratio of six-to-one between the number of vacant homes (18 million) and homeless Americans (3 million), you’d think they’d want to close the gap.

Housing, displacement, and gentrification should be stronger feminist issues injected into the Democratic party platform, as they affect the most dependable Democratic voters, women of color, first. This could bring new life and new energy to the platform.

The Wealth Gap Isn’t Closing

So long as women make 70% of what men make, while paying 100% of housing costs, the wealth gap between men and women will persist.

Women are also saddled with two-thirds of the student debt in the U.S. While women make up a few percentage points more of the college population than men, they are far less likely to get a high-paying job without a college degree or to inherit a family business.

Women also pay more in healthcare costs, paying an average of 30% more than men do. Just staying alive is more expensive for women.

Even high earners and entrepreneurs face a obstacles to affordability. With just 16% of business loans being given to women, companies owned by women face a glass ceiling when it comes to growth.

The Parenting Gap Is Real

In New York and California, where the minimum wage is headed toward $15 an hour, women are required to work two jobs to afford adequate housing. The cost of a two-bedroom apartment for a parent and their children in these states is around $26 an hour. The simple dignity of privacy after being a dedicated and productive contributor to the economy is denied to many women.

There are social expectations for women to take responsibility in the event that the family is a single-parent household. When men are tasked with single parenthood, they’re deeply lauded and appreciated in ways that single mothers aren’t.

Single mothers are often perceived as defective and plagued by problems they’ve somehow caused on their own. Single fathers are perceived as strong, emotionally complex, and courageous more often than single mothers are. Meanwhile, single mothers account for over 70% of all single-parent households.

Homelessness Is Increasing For Women

Unemployment numbers don’t tell a complete story. Unemployment is down as people need to take 2-3 part-time jobs just to get by. Single women and families with children form 50% of the homeless population and their numbers are growing, even though many of them have employment.

While elected officials propose small concessions and programs to act as a band-aid, they simply don’t solve the issue.  Homeless advocates are constantly struggling with elected officials who tell citizens to help the homeless by calling police, public safety, 311, 911, or an endless list of 800 numbers.

This reveals how abstract our understanding of housing insecurity is. People will sometimes endure homelessness as a way to escape an abusive parent or partner. If their abusers are in the local shelter system, elected officials are offering a thoughtless solution that fails to address both chronic homelessness and chronic abuse.

Another problem in the relationship elected officials have to housing insecurity is in the scapegoating of the mental health crisis. Plenty of people with mental health issues have homes. However, living with housing insecurity can cause all kinds of untold damage to the psyche.

And Yet Women Are Still Voting

Elected Democrats continue to stand on banal feminist platforms and telegraph their support for the right to choose and closing the gender pay gap. After decades of denying these rights or the visibility for these causes, this feels like progress.

Cynics could say that these changes could be attested to by the fact that more women vote than men. Others could say that Democrats are waking up to the fact that their most dependable demographic is women. However, given that in 2016 an infamous misogynist got the majority of votes from white women, Democrats can’t rely on women as an unspecific monolith.

Democrats are losing voters as you go up the income bracket, with people making more than $50,000 a year dropping off precipitously. This has been hard for Democrats to face, as they’ve enjoyed funding from the real estate and financial services industries. Angling for the people who are voting for them most dependably would win elections but require a disruption to the fundraising that pundits tie to a candidate’s ability to win.

So Where Do The Democrats Turn?

The people who you’d think would be too busy to vote, working single mothers who might have to work two jobs on a Tuesday, are showing up for Democrats. Why aren’t they showing up for women, especially their most loyal voting block, black women?

Just as the DNC ignored the “flyover” states in the 2016 presidential election, just as the assumed conservativism of the south is being turned on its head, the future of the Democratic party can’t survive on the steam built up by the current Democratic establishment. Democratic voters want new issues, an inspiring platform, and something more than just a team to root for.

We should push that our Democratic platform includes intersectional feminist principles that feature housing prominently. We must then demand that Democrats start putting those principles in practices.

As the 2016 presidential election proved, Democrats can’t and shouldn’t count on anyone to turn out. That’s all the more reason to work to earn our trust. So long as they withhold progress on this front, we should withhold our endorsement of their platforms.

The Art of Healing: Looking Back but Never Conceding Space

Radical — a person who advocates thorough or complete political or social reform; a member of a political party or part of a party pursuing such aims.
• synonyms: revolutionary · progressive · reformer · revisionist · militant ·
• chemistry: a group of atoms behaving as a unit in a number of compounds.
See also free radical.
• the root or base form of a word.
• mathematics: a quantity forming or expressed as the root of another.

What does it mean to reclaim space? I know there are those who want to reclaim ancient wisdom, or reclaim the commons, reclaim ancestry, reclaim a sense of community, reclaim the city, and reclaim the rural. Reclamation projects abound in theory – water, air, soil, cultures.

Reclaiming is also restorative, as in restorative justice or restorative ecology. That total reclaiming is a type of stewardship, and if done with radical intent – at the root seeking change or foundational purpose – then there is a social justice component. Always. Social justice leads to the rights of nature. Eventually, we have a world where replanting trees is the radical (root) approach to starting back to a reset.

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.

— Ancient Chinese proverb

That radical approach can be scaled up and spread throughout the communitarian space of humanity. Imagine, while China is full bore capitalist in some sense, but, 60,000 Chinese troops will be deployed to plant trees:

China has reportedly reassigned over 60,000 soldiers to plant trees and increase the country’s forest coverage. The move is part of China’s plan to plant at least 32,400 square miles of trees by the end of 2018 to help tackle pollution.

In order to complete the reforestation, a large regiment from the People’s Liberation Army and some of the nation’s armed police force have been withdrawn from their posts on the northern border, The Independent reports.

The majority is to be dispatched to Hebei province encircling Beijing. This area is especially linked with the smog that plagues the country’s capital.

China is currently working to increase its forest coverage from 21 percent of its total landmass to 23 percent by 2020. By the end of this year, however, they hope to replant an area of forest that is roughly the size of Ireland!

This tree planting is such a metaphor of our times, in a world where all ecosystems are failing, all species are threatened, where earthquakes are caused by fracking, where climate chaos is scoffed at, where war is peace in the minds of Americans addicted to Grand Theft Auto.

This piece is on education, in that round about way my essays tend to flow. Yes, education is broken, and, yes, PK12 should be revamped – a Marshall Plan sort of revamping. And, yes, college and trade schools (are there any left?) should be reorganized and re-energized. Yes, this should be tax supported, one hundred percent, from levying and tolling the rockets Tesla’s Elon Musk shoots up, to taxing every box shipped out by Amazon – the tax being put on Bezos’ doorstep. We fully fund wars, US military, spooks, DoD, and every first-class trip made by Trump and cronies, the entire higher end government; i.e., cabinet level deceits, and, well, the reader gets it how a reappropriation of wealth and fraud and waste should take place to fund, err, communities.

But I was just on Yale 360, reading Carl Safina’s piece on how biologists – highly educated at elite schools, both state-funded and private – are going with the philosophy that extinction is part of evolution so saving species should not be a priority of conservationists. Here, more clearly, Safina:

In the early 20th century, a botanist named Robert F. Griggs discovered Katmai’s volcanic “Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.” In love with the area, he spearheaded efforts to preserve the region’s wonders and wildlife. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson established Katmai National Monument (now Katmai National Park and Preserve), protecting 1,700 square miles, thus ensuring a home for bear cubs born a century later, and making possible my indelible experience that day. As a legacy for Griggs’ proclivity to share his love of living things, George Washington University later established the Robert F. Griggs Chair in Biology.

That chair is now occupied by a young professor whose recent writing probably has Griggs spinning in his grave. He is R. Alexander Pyron. A few months ago, The Washington Post published a “Perspective” piece by Pyron that is an extreme example of a growing minority opinion in the conservation community, one that might be summarized as, “Humans are profoundly altering the planet, so let’s just make peace with the degradation of the natural world.”

Pyron’s essay – with lines such as, “The only reason we should conserve biodiversity is for ourselves, to create a stable future for human beings” and “[T]he impulse to conserve for conservation’s sake has taken on an unthinking, unsupported, unnecessary urgency” – left the impression that it was written in a conservative think tank, perhaps by one of the anti-regulatory zealots now filling posts throughout the Trump administration. Pyron’s sentiments weren’t merely oddly out of keeping with the legacy of the man whose name graces his job title. Much of what Pyron wrote is scientifically inaccurate. And where he stepped out of his field into ethics, what he wrote was conceptually confused.

Ahh, sometimes what I fight for – a more robust and tax-funded education system – gets derailed by the likes of a Pyron. I read his piece, but Carl Safina’s piece is humane, logical and way beyond the wise use and utilitarian attitude of today’s thinker.

I took the plunge and went on a college tour, with a young (19-year-old) woman who is all about science and math. The act of going back to a campus and visiting it as an outsider was both interesting and triggering for me.

So is Education Planting a Tree for Life, the Future?

Neoliberalism is one of the greatest threats to the future of progressive education in the United States. The goal of neoliberal education policies is not to improve education, but rather to increase the profits of private corporations. Profit-driven models for education directly contrast the goals of progressive educators. The goal of progressive education is to educate students to be productive participants in democratic culture and to engage actively in critical citizenship. Such goals are not supported by neoliberal educational policy mainstays such as teaching to the test and standardized testing. Because neoliberal education policy tends to be data-driven it works against the development of a student’s ability to think critically, thereby undermining the formative culture and values necessary for a democratic society. As long as the United States continues to view educational policy and practice through the lens of market-based values, there is little hope that progressive education, with its aim of educating students for critical citizenship and social and economic justice, will survive.

— This excerpt from the book Neoliberalism, Education, Terrorism: Contemporary Dialogues, by Paradigm Publishers, first appeared online at Truthout.

I was just at the land grant college, Oregon State University, in Corvallis. My step-daughter is planning to embark there as a transfer junior from her current Alma mater, Mount Hood Community College. The hopefulness and energy tied to venturing away from home – Estacada, population 3,000 – to a small college town on a campus of 24,383 – was dynamic and pure in a very innocent way. Ironically, the college boasts a total of 30,058 with 4,503 coming from an “e-campus” AKA on-line and another 1,172 students in Bend, Oregon.

The campus tour was all about amenities, and campus life. As I have written a thousand times, campuses are now looking like Club Meds or 24-Hour Fitness joints. The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters by Benjamin Ginsberg looks at the gutting of the teaching class from 1985 to 2005. It’s a book looking at all the crackpot departments and staffing decisions at these private and state colleges. Ironically, the past 13 years have seen faculty hit the 76 percent mark across the USA as deemed adjunct, AKA precarious or temporary or vulnerable or job-insecure. Much of that is attributed to the rise of programs and plethora of deans, departments, non-faculty positions, and the like tied to promoting the school, and it’s not a pretty thing. Just do an internet search of “PhDs on Food stamps” or “adjuncts living out of their cars” or “faculty and freeway fliers.”

The cost of education extends way beyond the $1.5 trillion student loan debt. But here, a small college, nothing big time, OSU Beavers, is a place to start the indebtedness. Goldman Sachs vampires love students going to college. Just for in-state fees, one year, going to OSU for those coming from outside the city but in the state is as follows: $26,341 to attend Oregon State University on a full-time basis. This fee is comprised of $10,797 for tuition (note that is 2017-18 — tuition increases are on the horizon for 2018-19!), $11,445 for room and board, $1,551 for books and supplies and $1,651 for other fees, $2,083 for miscellaneous things, and then there’s transportation. That’s 27% more expensive than the national average public four-year tuition. For out of state attendees, make that $29,457 a year for tuition, plus the other fees, adding up to over $45,000 for one year.

This is a crime, and no matter how many scholarships, grants and other decompensations my step-daughter might receive, the idea of putting this big of a tab (or some percentage of it, times four years) onto one’s debit card; i.e., student loan agreements, is appalling. In fact, my student relative wants not just a graduate degree, but a doctorate in physics.

Here, Alan Nasser, great economist and who is never quoted in the MSM:

No, it’s not possible for student debtors to escape financial devastation by declaring bankruptcy. This most fundamental of consumer protections would have been available to student debtors were it not for legislation explicitly designed to withhold a whole range of basic protections from student borrowers. I’m not talking only about bankruptcy protection, but also truth in lending requirements, statutes of limitations, refinancing rights and even state usury laws – Congress has rendered all these protections inapplicable to federally guaranteed student loans. The same legislation also gave collection agencies hitherto unimaginable powers, for example to garnish wages, tax returns, Social Security benefits and -believe it or not- Disability income. Twisting the knife, legislators made the suspension of state-issued professional licenses, termination of public employment and denial of security clearances legitimate measures to enable collection companies to wring financial blood from bankrupt student-loan borrowers. Student loan debt is the most punishable of all forms of debt – most of those draconian measures are unavailable to credit card companies. (Maybe I’m being too harsh. Sallie Mae recently announced that it will after all forgive a debt under either of two conditions: in case the borrower dies or becomes totally disabled.)

Bearing Witness Hurts But Works

It’s almost impossible for me to go anywhere, participate in anything, whether going out to eat, hitting a movie, driving, or taking this innocuous tour without seeing the faults of capitalism; i.e., the predatory, inefficient, shallow, extremely violent psychologically and structurally, this for-profit-at-all-costs world is. New buildings on campus (business college)? My question is why?

This is capitalism, full-bore, getting youth, a female going into STEM, no less, (science technology engineering mathematics), on the hamster wheel of predatory loans, expectations, and a world, or future (one decade out for her, maybe) that has in this casino capitalism tied to empire predicating her future employment opportunities for such a rarefied degree (she wants astrophysics, hinting at wanting to do research and be a professor, yet another pie in the sky).

The tour took us past the football stadium, named Reser Stadium, named after donors Al and Pat Reser, owners of Reser’s Fine Foods. For most of us in the Pacific Northwest, that’s Reser’s potato and macaroni salad fame ( the couple both graduated from Oregon State in 1960, and are major donors to the university and Beavers athletics).

The stadium has a capacity of 45,700 with plans for expansion. It’s always the football team, the season, the homecoming, the chance at a title now, is it not? In fact, the college president at OSU is also an NCAA big-wig.

The debate about exploited college athletes takes up a lot of space, and it is a corollary here tied to the OSU event, since this president is NCAA true and through, from Shaun King of The Intercept:

That very obvious dynamic undergirds a lawsuit filed by former NCAA athlete Lawrence “Poppy” Livers asserting that scholarship students who play sports are employees and deserve pay. The Livers case argues that student-athletes who get scholarships should at least be paid as work-study students for the time they put in.

What the NCAA did in response to the lawsuit is as vile as anything going on in sports right now. I had to see it for myself before I believed it. At the root of its legal argument, the NCAA is relying on one particular case for why NCAA athletes should not be paid. That case is Vanskike v. Peters.

Only there’s an important detail: Daniel Vanskike was a prisoner at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois, and Howard Peters was the Director of the state Department of Corrections. In 1992, Vanskike and his attorneys argued that as a prisoner he should be paid a federal minimum wage for his work. The court, in its decision, cited the 13th Amendment and rejected the claim.

The 13th Amendment is commonly hailed as the law that finally ended slavery in America. But the amendment has an important carve-out: it kept involuntary service legal for those who have been convicted of a crime. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction,” the amendment says. It’s that phrase — “except as a punishment for crime” — which allows American prisons to force their inmates to do whatever work they want or need them to do.

And yet, how many employees of OSU are coaches, assistant coaches, and all the staff tied to running athletics, and managing games, tickets, sales, promos, etc.?

Edward John “Ed” Ray (born September 10, 1944) is an American economist who became the 19th president of Oregon State University on July 31, 2003. Prior to joining Oregon State, Ray was executive vice president and provost of Ohio State University for the previous six years. As president of OSU, Edward Ray earns a gross salary of $414,377 in 2010. He also serves as chairman of the NCAA’s Executive Committee.

At-Will, Part-Time, Precarious Nation in the Age of Clinton-Bush-Obama-Trump-The-Next-King

Yet, as I have written so many times when I was an active faculty from 1983 to 2013 and adjunct union organizer for a stint in Seattle and Washington with SEIU, we are the backbone of education, and education and student outcomes pay the price for treating adjuncts as migrant workers. Here, a report from OSU through AAUP:

Non-tenure track faculty members at Oregon State University often are overworked and underpaid, and they deserve better treatment, officials of the American Association of University Professors chapter at OSU said Wednesday.

Some 68 percent of all OSU faculty members — from instructors to researchers to professional employees — are adjuncts. They work under fixed-term contracts, with none of the job security of tenured professors, and they often earn far less money, AAUP leaders said during a lunchtime presentation to discuss the findings of a campus-wide survey.

“Like much of the rest of the American economy, American universities have come to rely on a large pool of cheap migrant labor,” said philosophy professor Jose-Antonio Orosco, president of the Oregon State chapter of AAUP.

“OSU is not different from these national trends.”

The study, titled “We Power Orange” in reference to an OSU promotional slogan, was conducted last spring. Questionnaires went out to 2,771 non-tenure track faculty members, with 1,262 responding.

Top concerns varied somewhat among instructional, research and professional faculty, but in general the biggest issues were low pay, lack of job security and limited prospects for advancement.

My own battle at just one college1,2,3,4:

But the new normal is to have these huge pimping moments at these colleges, paying college presidents base salaries of half a million a year, as in OSU’s case, but worse is these pampered fools’ housing is paid for, so is a car, trips with families, and, most problematic, cash outs for insurance policies and severance pay in the millions.

Look at this:

1. Michael Crow, President, Arizona State University $1,554,058

2. William McRaven, Chancellor, University of Texas system $1,500,000

3. John Sharp, Chancellor, Texas A&M University system office, $1,280,438

4. W. Kent Fuchs, President, University of Florida, $1,102,862

5. Michael A. McRobbie, President Indiana University system $1,067,074

6. Eric J. Barron, President, Pennsylvania State University at University Park, $1,039,717

7. Michael V. Drake, President, Ohio State University, $1,034,574

8. Michael K. Young, President, Texas A&M at College Station, $1,000,000

9. Jean E. Robillard, Interim President, University of Iowa, $929,045

10. Raymond Watts, President, University of Alabama at Birmingham, $890,000

So, it goes without saying that walking on this campus, Oregon State University, “home of the beavers” (as opposed to the other big Oregon School, “The Ducks”) working as a social worker, with two master’s degrees, at $16 an hour to case manage homeless veterans, I want pikes and heads on those pikes. Proverbially, this entire country, from sleazy Chamber of Commerce corner to Sleazier FIRE (finance insurance real estate) corner, is run by scammers. I used to get the same hourly pay, more or less, as a college English teacher (hours put in grading and regrading drafts and final drafts of student essays and assignments).

The social services are screwed, education is screwed, and this upside-down world of Americans all teary eyed over the shallow prognostications of shallow and infantile thinkers (sic) which are basically entertainers with a big fat Propagandist Tapped Over Their Eyes is also one of the prime slights to any thinking human being.

Did you get that hourly rate above, being paid to me? Living in the Portland, Oregon area? Hmm? This is the best of the best, in terms of which non-profit I am working for. Big name brand.

For veterans who are aging, getting dementia, on the streets, PTSD and all those substance abuse issues.

Daily, I try to find something better, and in that sense, does that make sense, starting a job with a client base, and keeping one eye open for a higher paying job? Is that how the US of Israel works? We can never stay in one place because the pay is obscenely low and the rent and cost of living are obscenely high?

Linked In Is Clueless in Seattle, et al

I abhor social media as much as I despise mainstream media and faux left media. I just linked up with that bizarre thing called, Linked In, a business connection site, with the most despicable narratives, really, of the abusers in Capitalism – all this fawning over the CEOs, the Jeff Bezos types of the world. It’s a Whose Who of people thinking that connecting on this platform is more sophisticated than Facebook.

But it’s the same, or worse, and the people either self-censor or lock-step into the dungeon that is Capitalism. It’s about how to sell oneself, how to make money, how to get a raise, write a cover letter, add points to one’s business profile. Typically, it’s sort of the USA Today version of the Wall Street Journal with some Forbes Magazine thrown in, and how to be a successful manager for icing on the top of the drivel.

You write your profile, try and connect to your connections and other’s connections, for I do not know why, since my job profile is way outside any linear or even seasoned employee’s trajectory.

I see no connections that would help me get an in into the work I really excel at – writing, editing, radical urban planning, radical social work, teaching, organizational change.

In the end, though, I put up the Linked In as part of my unemployment insurance gig, working with a silly class on cognitive behavioral therapy – a class set up for people on food stamps or TANF, to try and get them in 12 sessions to change their thinking. Instead, the class was peopled by white males and females, all of whom had had jobs for years and then got sacked. The instructor said the grant for the course, “Rethinking Job Search,” was geared for chronically “dependent upon welfare folk.”

The course is as bad as it sounds, the teacher terrible and infantile, and the lack of true engagement typical of today’s poverty pimps and quasi-unemployment officers. This class I attended in order to teach the class, but that was an interview from hell, and I eventually stopped going. The push for me to stop attending was when all these white people started waxing Christ and God and the Good Book – really, they yammered on how getting closer to Christianity was what was helping them through unemployment and being sacked at an older age. No matter where you go in this country, it’s the Chronicles of Narnia over and over and over.

The final straw was when the instructor brought up some book written by some former female Facebook executive who faced the death of her bigwig husband, and our teacher said this book was a must read, truly inspirational:

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg was on vacation in Mexico in 2015 with her husband and friends when her husband, tech executive Dave Goldberg, passed away unexpectedly of a cardiac arrhythmia.

Sandberg, 47, was left as a single mother of her two children with Goldberg. She writes about recovering from the tragedy and working through the grief in her new book, “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.”

I tried to convey to the instructor that this millionaire (several times over) has zero relevance to someone like me, who has been precarious all his life, who has had at-will employment, 11th hour appointments, and who has seen his careers – newspaper journalism, teaching, social work and novel writing gutted by the very people this Sandberg and Goldberg represent. I also reminded her that I was also a social worker with employment specialist as a title helping recovery clients, re-entry clients, homeless clients, clients with physical disabilities and mental challenges and felony records get shitty jobs in shitty warehouses with two-hour one-way bus trips to work at ungodly hours.

This is the magical thinking of middling people, and Option B – finding joy – was really no option for my clients, but forced choices of poverty, food boxes, five to a room, tents in alleyways, rotting teeth, disease at age 50 were/are their only options. Clients with thousands and thousands of dollars owed to legal financial obligations (LFO’s), hospital bills for ER visits, bad credit because of bad policies. No “Finding Joy” in “Option B.”

Nope, I was not about to hear her tell me the crocodile tears of tech executives would inspire, but alas, that is middling America – rooting for the inured K9 dog, sending in money for its surgery, while denying a panhandler a quarter. A book, no less, on Oprah, I am sure, and loving by the M & B Obama clan, I am sure (Michelle gets over $30 million for her November 2018 “memoir“, titled Becoming, another book of inspiration for incarcerated folk).

Triggers Everywhere I Go

I’ll end where I began – OSU. First, I did stop by the Caesar Chavez Cultural Center (Centro Cultural César Chávez)  on campus, near the stadium and Welcome Center, and I talked with a few of the Latinx folk there. In a few minutes, I was being asked why I wasn’t teaching, and that they kept insisting OSU needed teachers like me. You see, this is a daily trigger for me – young people being taught by middlings, and the radicals like me, well, they never see real Marxists and socialists in their classes, as their faculty.

A few minutes explaining my own teaching narrative, my own life, my own perspectives, well, on one hand I felt honored and proud that the four Latinos/as thought of me as that person, that little Che in their moment on that campus. They wondered why I was not teaching anywhere.

Again, we need me’s on campuses throughout the land. Having a Cornel West is great, but in the end, he is still celebrity, limiting in his reach. Young people need older people to teach them how to revolt, rebel, hack the system and learn a narrative that is not in their lives. I teach writing and composition and literature, and they need strong role models and writers and people who have not got the golden ticket or brass ring.

We’ve bought into the idea that education is about training and “success,” defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.

— Chris Hedges

I told one of the fellows about Jimmy Santiago Baca, that he’d make a great speaker at OSU, for Poetry Month, April. The fellow asked me where he should get his news, his information, so I listed a lot of alternative sites.

People say what distinguishes us from the animals is that we think. Well, then why the hell don’t we extend some compassion to those under tremendous duress? There’s this whole idea that you work really hard so you can deaden your soul to the universe and enjoy yourself only in ways the Sierra Club will let you. But what about enjoying yourself by getting into the whole melee of poverty and racism and violence and murder and drug addiction? Get in there, roll up your sleeves, and do something! Nobody does it.

— Jimmy Santiago Baca

Yes, a bit of ray of sunshine, the Cultural Center, and the Native American longhouse …. and the campus watch on Nazis and white supremacists coming to town.

Yet, on that campus, the supposed jewel of Oregon, the student newspaper is a joke, coming out once a week, and thin as toilet paper.

Young people have a lot to navigate now, and the conflicting messages like Pyron’s above are overwhelming. I did get to pick up the science magazine, Terra, and in that rag, of course, highlights/features of the science faculty at OSU:

1. Energy Matters looks at public policy around how citizens engage in energy issues
2. Bury It Deep looks at pumping carbon dioxide into underground capture sites
3. Reclaiming Native Space is about cultural identity for Native Americans and engaging in forgotten histories
4. Towing the Line is about 60 years of marine sciences new Newport on the Pacific
5. The Oregon Ocean Acid Test is about citizen scientists working to track water chemistry from Astoria to Gold Beach
6. The Giving Trees is about OSU forestry researchers helping restore forest in Haiti, Lebanon and other troubled spots

I’m a wonky kind of guy with marine biology in my veins and an holistic interest in the sciences tied to climate, ecosystems, energy and sustainability. Good stuff, this magazine, but yet, the underlying issue in all the pieces is the lack of funding, big time, for the projects, and the lack of public engagement, lack of political will and the writing in the rag is still a bit dumb-downed and hopeful. There is no mention of feedback loops, and there is no real discussion of how all these systems have been degraded not by accident but by the policies of capitalism, and corporations worldwide.

The irony is that the carbon sequestration piece on trapping CO2 will not solve climate change. The big irony is that the scientists working on trapping CO2 underground are the same scientists who helped the fossil fuel industry to extract black liquid from geological formations.

The fabric of this magazine is based on spin and media control and messaging, and making OSU look good, AND not giving the public who might pick up a copy of Terra or the students at the school too much of a dismal picture of our world. About giving hope.

Hmm, Option B, again? That hopey dopey thing, uh? Old piece from Derrick Jensen, Beyond Hope:

When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there’s a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that they — those in power — cannot really touch you anymore. Not through promises, not through threats, not through violence itself. Once you’re dead in this way, you can still sing, you can still dance, you can still make love, you can still fight like hell — you can still live because you are still alive, more alive in fact than ever before. You come to realize that when hope died, the you who died with the hope was not you, but was the you who depended on those who exploit you, the you who believed that those who exploit you will somehow stop on their own, the you who believed in the mythologies propagated by those who exploit you in order to facilitate that exploitation. The socially constructed you died. The civilized you died. The manufactured, fabricated, stamped, molded you died. The victim died.

  1. Paul Haeder. Springtime in Amerika – Bump those Adjuncts Until They Hurt, Dissident Voice, March 26, 2014.
  2. American Faculty Association. Adjunct Faculty Dr. Keith Hoeller Files Unfair Labor Practice Complaint Against Green River College and Faculty Union (AFT/NEA), November 3, 2015.
  3. Paul Haeder. Wrapping the ‘Precarious’ and ‘At-will’ labels on 150 million USA Workers, Dissident Voice, January 26, 2014.
  4. AdjunctNation. Washington Pters Allege Union Corruption & Cover Up, Ask NEA President for Trusteeship, February 9, 2013. Note: A long one about Green River Community College where I was sacked for organizing students.

Student Debt Slavery II: Time to Level the Playing Field

This is the second in a two-part article on the debt burden America’s students face. Read Part 1 here.

The lending business is heavily stacked against student borrowers. Bigger players can borrow for almost nothing, and if their investments don’t work out, they can put their corporate shells through bankruptcy and walk away. Not so with students. Their loan rates are high and if they cannot pay, their debts are not normally dischargeable in bankruptcy. Rather, the debts compound and can dog them for life, compromising not only their own futures but the economy itself.

“Students should not be asked to pay more on their debt than they can afford,” said Donald Trump on the presidential campaign trail in October 2016. “And the debt should not be an albatross around their necks for the rest of their lives.” But as Matt Taibbi points out in a December 15 article, a number of proposed federal changes will make it harder, not easier, for students to escape their debts, including wiping out some existing income-based repayment plans, harsher terms for graduate student loans, ending a program to cancel the debt of students defrauded by ripoff diploma mills, and strengthening “loan rehabilitation” – the recycling of defaulted loans into new, much larger loans on which the borrower usually winds up paying only interest and never touching the principal. The agents arranging these loans can get fat commissions of up to 16 percent, an example of the perverse incentives created in the lucrative student loan market. Servicers often profit more when borrowers default than when they pay smaller amounts over a longer time, so they have an incentive to encourage delinquencies, pushing students into default rather than rescheduling their loans. It has been estimated that the government spends $38 for every $1 it recovers from defaulted debt. The other $37 goes to the debt collectors.

The securitization of student debt has compounded these problems. Like mortgages, student loans have been pooled and packaged into new financial products that are sold as student loan asset-backed securities (SLABS). Although a 2010 bill largely eliminated private banks and lenders from the federal student loan business, the “student loan industrial complex” has created a $200 billion market that allows banks to cash in on student loans without issuing them. About 80 percent of SLABS are government-guaranteed. Banks can sell, trade or bet on these securities, just as they did with mortgage-backed securities; and they create the same sort of twisted incentives for loan servicing that occurred with mortgages.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), virtually all borrowers with federal student loans are currently eligible to make monthly payments indexed to their earnings. That means there should be no defaults among student borrowers. Yet one in four borrowers is now in default or struggling to stay current. Why? Student borrowers are reporting widespread mishandling of accounts, unexplained exorbitant fees, and outright deception as they are bullied into default, tactics similar to those that homeowners faced in the foreclosure crisis. The reports reveal a repeat of the abuses of the foreclosure fraud era: many borrowers are unable to obtain basic information about their accounts, are frequently misled, are surprised with unexpected late fees, and often are pushed into default. Servicers lose paperwork or misapply payments. When errors arise, borrowers find it difficult to have them corrected.

Abuses and fraud in handling student loans have brought the Education Department’s loan contractors under fire. In January 2017, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sued Navient, one of the largest contractors, alleging that the company “systematically and illegally [failed] borrowers at every stage of [student loan] repayment.”

Getting a Fair Deal

The federal government could relieve these debt burdens, given the political will. A stated goal of the changes being proposed by the Trump Administration is to simplify the rules. The simplest solution to the student debt crisis is to make tuition free for qualified applicants at public colleges and universities, as it is in many European countries and was in some US states until the 1970s. If the federal government has the money to lend to students, it has the money to spend on their tuition (capped to curb tuition hikes). It would not only save on defaults and collections but could turn a profit on the investment, as demonstrated by the seven-fold return from the G.I. Bill. (See Part 1 of this article.)

Alternatively, the government could fund tuition costs and debtor relief with a form of “QE for the people.” Instead of buying mortgage-backed securities, as in QE1, the Fed could buy SLABS and return the interest to students, making the loans effectively interest-free (as were the $16+ trillion in loans made to the largest banks after the 2008 crisis). QE that targeted the real economy could address many other budget issues as well, including the infrastructure crisis and the federal debt crisis; and this could be done without triggering hyperinflation. See my earlier articles here, here and here.

Needless to say, however, the government is not moving in that direction. While waiting for the government to act, there are things students can do; but first they need to learn their rights. According to a new survey reported in November 2017, students are often in the dark about key details of their student loan debt and the repayment options available to them. To get started, see here and here.

Under the Borrower’s Defense to Repayment program, you can get your loans completely discharged if you can prove they were based on deception or fraud. That is one of the alternatives the Administration wants to take away, so haste is advised; but even if it is taken away, fraud remains legal grounds for contract rescission. A class action for treble damages against offending institutions could provide significant financial relief.

Students also have greater bankruptcy options than they know. While current bankruptcy law exempts education loans and obligations from eligibility for discharge, an exception is made for “undue hardship.” The test normally used is that paying the loan will prevent the borrower from sustaining a minimum standard of living, his financial situation is unlikely to change in the future, and he has made a good faith effort to pay his loans. According to a 2011 study, at least 40 percent of borrowers who included their student loans in their bankruptcy filings got some or all of their student debt discharged. But because they think there is no chance, they rarely try. Only about 0.1 percent of consumers with student loans attempted to include them in their bankruptcy proceedings. (Getting a knowledgeable attorney is advised.)

For relief as a class, students need to get the attention of legislators, which means getting organized. Along with degree mill fraud and contract fraud, a cause of action ripe for a class action is the student exclusion from bankruptcy protection, a blatant violation of the “equal protection” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. If enough students filed for bankruptcy under the “undue hardship” exception, just the administrative burden might motivate legislators to change the law.

States to the Rescue?

If the federal government won’t act and individual action seems too daunting, however, there is a third possibility for relief – state-owned banks that cut out private middlemen and recycle local money for local purposes at substantially reduced rates. The country’s sole model at the moment is the Bank of North Dakota, but other states now have strong public banking movements that could mimic it. A November 2014 article in the Wall Street Journal reported that the BND was more profitable even than J.P. Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs. The profits are used to improve education and public services.

According to its 2016 annual report, the BND’s second largest loan category after business loans is for education, with nearly a third of its portfolio going to student loans. As of December 2017, the BND’s student loan rates were 2.82% variable and 4.78% fixed, or about 2% below the federal rate (which ranged from 4.45% to 7% depending on the type of loan), and about 5% below the private rate (currently averaging 9.66% fixed and 7.81% variable interest). The BND also acts as the servicer of these loans, bypassing the third-party servicers abusing the system in other states.

In 2014, the BND launched its DEAL One Loan program, which offered North Dakota residents a unique option to refinance all student loans, including federal, into one loan with a lower interest rate and without fees. DEAL loans are fully guaranteed by the North Dakota Guaranteed Student Loan Program, which is administered by the BND.

The BND also makes 20-year school construction loans available at a very modest 2% interest. Compare that to the Capital Appreciation Bonds through which many California schools have been forced to borrow to build needed infrastructure, on which they have wound up owing as much as 15 times principal.

The BND’s loan programs have helped keep North Dakota’s student default rates and overall student indebtedness low. As of January 2017, the state had the second lowest student default rate in the country and was near the bottom of the list in student indebtedness, ranking 44th. Compare that to its sister state South Dakota, which ranked number one in student indebtedness.

The public banking movement is now gaining ground in cities and states across the country. A number of cities have passed resolutions to pull their money out of Wall Street banks that practice fraud as a business model. In New Jersey, Governor-elect Phil Murphy has made a state-owned bank the funding basis of his platform, with student loans one of three sectors he intends to focus on. If that succeeds, other states can be expected to follow suit.

We need to free our students from the system of debt slavery that has financialized education, turning it from an investment in human capital into a tool for exploiting the young for the benefit of private investors. State-owned banks can make the loan process fair, equitable and affordable; but their creation will be fought by big bank lobbyists. An organized student movement could be an effective counter-lobby. Historically, debt and austerity have been used as control mechanisms for subduing the people. It is time for the people to unite and take back their power.

Without Single-Payer American Health Care is Doomed

Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman.

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Second National Convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, Chicago, March 25, 1966.

It is the year 2018, and yet not a day goes by when a patient is unable to receive good care or a doctor questions their career choice.  How have we arrived at this tragic state of affairs? The answer is that our for-profit health care system is the principal cause, not only of poor patient care, but also of physician burnout. Only with a single-payer system, anchored not in the mores of capitalist plunder, but with the understanding that quality government-funded health care is an inalienable right, can both doctors and patients extricate themselves from this suffering.

Even amongst patients that are insured, restrictive health care plans force millions of Americans to work with doctors that they do not wish to work with. No less disconcerting is the fact that Americans are often compelled to stop working with doctors that they have known for years and do not wish to leave. In conjunction with a complicated health condition I have seen dozens of different doctors over the past two years. Should my insurance suddenly change, this painstakingly constructed system of specialists could come crashing to the ground. Moreover, being forced to leave a doctor that you have known for years is a shame, not only because no one will know your medical problems quite like they do, but because once a good doctor-patient relationship is lost it is gone forever.

This revolving door is also very harmful for physicians, because if a doctor has a practice with patients incessantly coming and going, this will invariably foment alienation which can be a driving force behind physician burnout.

The argument that a single-payer system would be impossible to implement in practice, is contradicted by the fact that the overwhelming majority of countries in the West from Vancouver to Vladivostok, have nationalized health care systems that guarantee universal coverage for all of their citizens. The GDP of Cuba is mere pennies compared to that of the United States, and yet all of their citizens enjoy excellent free health care, with an infant mortality rate lower than that of the United States. (They also enjoy superior literacy rates). How can we call ourselves a civilized nation when millions of Americans with serious illnesses are more fearful of bankruptcy and losing their insurance, than they are of death from widespread disease?

A single-payer system recognizes that it is deeply immoral and inhumane to give superior care to the upper middle class and affluent, while denying good care to vast segments of the population. In the absence of a nationalized health care system, do no harm will continue to be applied increasingly to the haves – and not to the have nots.

Liberals have embraced the Affordable Care Act (the very name of which would make Orwell blush) as if it brought about the successful implementation of a single-payer system, when the power of the private insurance companies has, in fact, been bolstered. Moreover, the premiums and deductibles of the new plans are often considerably higher than the plans they replaced, and the number of doctors that take these plans extremely limited. Obamacare also failed to address the sinister problem whereby health insurance is tied to one’s job, as many Americans have found themselves in the Kafkaesque predicament of having good insurance when they are well, but not when they are unwell. This barbarous state of affairs underscores the fact that this inhumane for-profit system is more entrenched than ever before.

This two-tier system also results in preposterous and inane contradictions, such as when I once asked the chair of Dermatology at a prestigious Manhattan teaching hospital whether there were certain situations where he would object to observers being present during any of his doctor’s appointments, to which he replied without hesitation, “Of course!” Yet patients that have Medicaid and community health plans are denied this right when they seek treatment at his very department, and are quite willfully treated as second-class citizens. A morally bankrupt physician that supports privatization and the two-tier system would argue that if a patient is dissatisfied with a particular physician or department they should simply seek care at another clinic. However, the under-insured invariably have extremely limited options – hence they are often at the mercy of such loutishness and knavery.

There is no logical reason why a New Yorker should be denied the right to see any doctor that they wish at Lenox Hill, Mount Sinai, Weill Cornell, Columbia, NYU or Sloan Kettering. Is it not preposterous that millions of Americans live either within walking distance or a reasonable subway ride from these renowned medical institutions, and yet their health insurance prevents them from seeing the majority of physicians that actually work at these institutions? As is the case with the Manhattan rentals market, there is no shortage of five thousand dollar one bedrooms, yet they are accessible to only a small fraction of the population.

The question of who will foot the bill should be asked, not in regards to who will pay for single-payer, but in regards to how we can continue to maintain a system of nine hundred military bases all across the globe. According to that great bastion of Marxist heresy The Washington Post, “The U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will cost taxpayers $4 trillion to $6 trillion.” And this was written in March 28, 2013. How many hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars have we spent on sustaining this bloated empire over the past four years? Instead of using this money to establish a health care system that we can be proud of the great beacon of liberty and freedom is arming death squads, and dropping depleted uranium, cluster munitions, and white phosphorus on mostly defenseless human beings. Think about that, the next time someone says we can’t afford a single-payer health care system.

The astounding waste that can be associated with just one new (and deeply flawed) fighter aircraft can boggle the mind, as Mike Fredenburg writes in the curiously subversive July, 2015 issue of National Review:

Indeed, it could be argued that the biggest threat the U.S. military faces over the next few decades is not the carrier-killing Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile, or the proliferation of inexpensive quiet diesel-electric attack subs, or even Chinese and Russian anti-satellite programs. The biggest threat comes from the F-35 — a plane that is being projected to suck up 1.5 trillion precious defense dollars. For this trillion-dollar-plus investment we get a plane far slower than a 1970s F-14 Tomcat, a plane with less than half the range of a 40-year-old A-6 Intruder, a plane whose sustained-turn performance is that of a 1960s F-4 Phantom, and a plane that had its head handed to it by an F-16 during a recent dogfight competition. The problem is not just hundreds of billions of dollars being wasted on the F-35; it is also about not having that money to spend on programs that would give us a far bigger bang for the buck.

Such as a single-payer health care system, for instance. That would give us a nice bang for the buck!

Lamentably, the most pressing problem in this debate is the fact that millions of Americans insist on looking at health care as yet another business. Moreover, the extreme inequality that is glaringly on display in education, where our public schools continue to churn out some of the most illiterate and dehumanized creatures ever to walk the face of the earth, in contrast with the outrageously expensive and infinitely more rigorous prep schools that the affluent are sending their children (granted, not without their own problems), may one day be the destiny of our privatized health care system.

The astronomical cost of college tuition has resulted in over a trillion dollars in student loan debt, while the quality of education has been steadily deteriorating since the end of the 1960’s. As with education, we can either choose to have a good health care system, or we can continue to allow a corrupt few to make staggering amounts of money while generating the most abject misery and suffering for millions of their fellow countrymen.

Tying health insurance to one’s job constitutes one of the most diabolical abuses of corporate power, as the overwhelming majority of Americans with full-time jobs can be fired at the drop of a hat, should they be compelled to take a significant amount of time off from work due to illness. Moreover, primary care physicians that elect not to take insurance at all will neither be able to provide patients with critical in-network referrals, nor will they be able to write prescriptions that will be covered by any health insurance plan.

How can do no harm be implemented in practice when vitally important health care decisions are routinely made by hospital administrators, pharmaceutical CEOs, and insurance executives whose only reason for getting involved in health care in the first place was to maximize the greatest possible profit? Remove the profit motive and compassion, logic, and dignity will be reclaimed. Indeed, no less than our very humanity will be restored.

Why must we continue to allow charlatans and con artists to dictate to doctors how they can treat patients, dictate to patients which doctors they can and cannot see, while also using health care as a financial weapon to wage war on the poor and what is left of our country’s once formidable middle class? Good doctors that are forced by hospital administrators and soul-obliterating insurance companies to provide under-insured patients with inferior care will be prone to feelings of guilt, shame, remorse and depression. Some have even taken their own lives. Indeed, this barbarous and unconscionable state of affairs is indefensible, and cannot hold water in any rational or civilized conversation.

The time has come for Americans to put an end to this foolishness, and to disenthrall themselves from these corrupt elements, that straitjacket and humiliate both doctors and patients alike.

Student Debt Slavery: Bankrolling Financiers on the Backs of the Young

Higher education has been financialized, transformed from a public service into a lucrative cash cow for private investors.

The advantages of slavery by debt over “chattel” slavery – ownership of humans as a property right – were set out in an infamous document called the Hazard Circular, reportedly circulated by British banking interests among their American banking counterparts during the American Civil War. It read in part:

Slavery is likely to be abolished by the war power and chattel slavery destroyed. This, I and my European friends are glad of, for slavery is but the owning of labor and carries with it the care of the laborers, while the European plan, led by England, is that capital shall control labor by controlling wages.

Slaves had to be housed, fed and cared for. “Free” men housed and fed themselves. For the more dangerous jobs, such as mining, Irish immigrants were used rather than black slaves, because the Irish were expendable. Free men could be kept enslaved by debt, by paying them wages that were insufficient to meet their costs of living. On how to control wages, the Hazard Circular went on:

This can be done by controlling the money. The great debt that capitalists will see to it is made out of the war, must be used as a means to control the volume of money. . . . It will not do to allow the greenback, as it is called, to circulate as money any length of time, as we cannot control that.

The government, too, had to be enslaved by debt. It could not be allowed to simply issue the money it needed to meet its budget, as Lincoln’s government did with its greenbacks (government-issued US Notes). The greenback program was terminated after the war, forcing the government to borrow from banks – banks that created the money themselves, just as the government had been doing. Only about 10% of the “banknotes” then issued by banks were actually backed by gold. The rest were effectively counterfeit. The difference between government-created and bank-created money was that the government issued it and spent it on the federal budget, creating demand and stimulating the economy. Banks issued money and lent it, at interest. More had to be paid back than was lent, keeping the supply of money tight and keeping both workers and the government in debt.

Student Debt Peonage

Slavery by debt has continued to this day, and it is particularly evident in the plight of students. Graduates leave college with a diploma and a massive debt on their backs, averaging over $37,000 in 2016. The government’s student loan portfolio now totals $1.37 trillion, making it the second highest consumer debt category behind only mortgage debt. Student debt has risen nearly 164% in 25 years, while median wages have increased only 1.6%.

Unlike mortgage debt, student debt must be paid. Students cannot just turn in their diplomas and walk away, as homeowners can with their keys. Wages, unemployment benefits, tax refunds and even Social Security checks can be tapped to ensure repayment. In 1998, Sallie Mae (the Student Loan Marketing Association) was privatized, and Congress removed the dischargeabilility of federal student debt in bankruptcy, absent exceptional circumstances. In 2005, this lender protection was extended to private student loans. Because lenders know that their debts cannot be discharged, they have little incentive to consider a student borrower’s ability to repay. Most students are granted a nearly unlimited line of credit. This, in turn, has led to skyrocketing tuition rates, since universities know the money is available to pay them; and that has created the need for students to borrow even more.

Students take on a huge debt load with the promise that their degrees will be the doorway to jobs allowing them to pay it back, but for many the jobs are not there or not sufficient to meet expenses. Today nearly one-third of borrowers have made no headway in paying down their loans five years after leaving school, although many of these borrowers are not in default. They make payments month after month consisting only of interest, while they continue to owe the full amount they borrowed. This can mean a lifetime of tribute to the lenders, while the loan is never paid off, a classic form of debt peonage to the lender class.

All of this has made student debt a very attractive asset for investors.Student loans are pooled and repackaged into student loan asset-backed securities (SLABS), similar to the notorious mortgage-backed securities through which home buyers were caught in a massive debt trap in 2008-09. The nameless, faceless investors want their payments when due, and the strict terms of the loans make it more profitable to force a default than to negotiate terms the borrower can actually meet. About 80% of SLABS are backed by government-insured loans, guaranteeing that the investors will get paid even if the borrower defaults. The onerous federal bankruptcy laws also make SLABS particularly safe and desirable investments.

But as economist Michael Hudson observes, debts that can’t be paid won’t be paid. As of  September 2017, the  default rate on student debt was over 11% at public colleges and was 15.5% at private for-profit colleges. Defaulted borrowers risk damaging their credit and their ability to borrow for such things as homes, cars, and furniture, reducing consumer demand and constraining economic growth. Massive defaults could also squeeze the federal budget, since taxpayers ultimately cover any unpaid loans.

Investing in Human Capital: Student Debt and the G.I. Bill

It hasn’t always been this way. Until the 1970s, tuition at many state colleges and universities was free or nearly free. Education was considered an obligation of the public sector, and costs were kept low.

After World War II, the federal government invested heavily in educating the 15.7 million returning American veterans. The goal of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, or G.I. Bill, was to facilitate their reintegration into civilian life. By far its most popular benefits were financial assistance for education and housing. Over half of G.I.s took advantage of this educational provision, with 2.2 million attending college and 5.6 million opting for vocational training. At that time there were serious shortages in student housing and faculty, but the nation’s colleges and universities expanded to meet the increased demand.

The G.I. Bill’s educational benefits helped train legions of professionals, spurring postwar economic growth. It  funded the education of 450,000 engineers, 240,000 accountants, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors and 22,000 dentists, 14 future Nobel laureates, two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, three Supreme Court justices, and three presidents of the United States. Loans enabled by the bill also boosted the housing market, raising home ownership from 44% before the war to 60% by 1956. Rather than costing the government, the G.I. Bill turned out to be one of the best investments it ever made. The legislation is estimated to have cost $50 billion in today’s dollars and to have returned $350 billion to the economy, a nearly sevenfold return.

That educational feat could be repeated today. The government could fund a public education program as Lincoln did, by simply issuing the money or having the central bank issue it as a form of “quantitative easing for people.” Infrastructure funded with government-issued US Notes in the 1860s included not only the transcontinental railroad but the system of free colleges and universities established through federal land grants.

The exponential rise in college costs occurred only after the government got into the student loan business in a big way. The Higher Education Act of 1965 was part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society agenda, intended “to strengthen the educational resources of our colleges and universities and to provide financial assistance for students in postsecondary and higher education.” The Act increased federal money given to universities, created scholarships, gave low-interest loans for students, established a National Teachers Corps, and included a PLUS loan program that allowed parents of undergraduate and graduate students to borrow up to the full cost of attending college. Unfortunately, the well-intended Act had the perverse effect of driving up tuition costs. The availability of federally guaranteed loans allowed colleges and universities to raise their prices to whatever the market would bear. By the mid-1970s, tuition was rising much faster than inflation. But costs remain manageable until the late 1990s, when the federal student loan business was turned over to private banks and investors with aggressive collection practices, converting federally-guaranteed student loans from a public service into a private investor boondoggle.

Meanwhile, in many countries in Europe university tuition is still free, including Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Norway, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Sweden and Turkey. But providing an affordable education for the next generation is evidently not a priority with our government. Only 3 percent of the federal budget is spent on education – not just for college loans but for school programs of all sorts, from kindergarten through graduate school. Compare that to the outlay for military spending, including the Veterans Affairs and other defense-related departments, which consumes over half the federal budget and is an obvious place to cut. But there are no signs that our government is moving in that direction.

What then can be done to relieve the student debt burden? Stay tuned for Part 2.

America’s Refuseniks

One year ago, the news was awash with Billy Willson, a 4.0 GPA student from Kansas State University who decided to drop out of university after his first semester with this Facebook message: “YOU ARE BEING SCAMMED. You may not see it today or tomorrow, but you will see it some day.”  His post is still being shared and there are close to 9,000 comments mounting on this thread.  And as someone who has spent a long time in academia as a student and as a university professor, I can’t help but agree with Willson.  As the average increase in university tuition has exceeded that of the increase of salaries or the cost of living, we must begin to ask the tough questions as to why university fees in the US are outpacing the rise of inflation or cost of living increases, and why so many universities are playing a heavy hand in the student loan debt crisis.

As it stands today there are now several generations of university graduates unable to pay for their loans, from the millennials to those who graduated thirty years ago. And with the student loan debt in the United States at $1.3 trillion this year there is an alarmingly high percentage of graduates who are unable to command a salary high enough to pay back these loans.  The delinquency or default rate is approximately 17% and the non-payment rate at 43%. The end result is that new and older university graduates are facing a lifetime of living like Ross and Phoebe (without all the spare time to meet up with friends in the local café) and in order to get out of financial woes, many will be forced into debt consolidation or into a federal relief program.

And the situation of increasing amounts of student loans over the years was no accident.  In the US from 1997-2017, tuition increased to incredible proportions: at private universities tuition rose 157 percent, at public universities out of state tuition rose by 194 percent, and in-state tuition at public Universities has increased by 237 percent.  In the UK the figures are almost as grim as in the US where the average increase in university tuition in the UK grew by 260% between 1980-2014 while the cost of consumer goods grew at approximately 120% in this same period.  And many students in the UK are feeling robbed from the experience as well.

Articles like this by Zack Friedman in Forbes, which frames the ability to pay off students loans a simple matter of living a “humble lifestyle,” completely misunderstands the crisis facing most university graduates in the United States.  Graduates are facing a dismal job market and are not making choices between a one and two-bedroom apartment. They are making choices between having a home or not.  And then there is the ripple effect where not being able to pay student loans back due to low or no income, can actually mean that you are unemployable where government agencies have the power to seize state-issued professional licenses from residents who default on their educational loans. And in twenty-two states you can have your driver’s license suspended for falling behind in student loan repayments, making it impossible for most people to get to work.

And while there are troubling parallels between the student loan and the subprime mortgage crises being made, in addition to a House tax bill that will make graduate school impossibly unaffordable for most, there are even deeper ethical dilemmas facing higher educational institutions which are granting degrees with extremely high price tags and participating in the wholesale bilking of new graduates where students are forced to take jobs that don’t even require a university degree in the first place.

And while some might find Billy Willson’s story exceptional, the reality is that what he has protested against has merit.  In 1980 when the average cost of tuition, room and board at university was $9,000, the reality is that the money earned in 1980 bought far more than today and the $23,000 average price tag on public university and $30,000 for private institutions today means that students are paying more for education than ever before.  So, Willson is correct about students being scammed and more so about some of his critiques of higher education.  What bothers me about his campaign against higher education is why so many institutions and educational presses were silent on this matter.  Might it be that they feared fanning the flames of righteous anger, lest this anger have a domino-effect?

There were a handful of responses to Willson earlier this year, mostly by people refuting his points about courses offered at KSU, addressing the implications of university students being scammed and not learning vital information for post-uni life, and some sympathizing with him. But there were few articles which addressed the central critique of Willson which is about the extortionate cost of an education today in regard to the payout in the short-term post degree.

And facts speak clearly to this situation with the numbers of higher education enrollment in decline since 2013 to include the enrollment of international students who are often being lured from U.S. institutions given the rise of western institutions setting up campus in places like Singapore and China.  Students in both the UK and the US are opting out of university with increasing frequency as many are opting for apprenticeships, starting their own businesses, going to trade school, taking classes at community colleges or online, and entering school leaver programs which are gaining in popularity in the UK.

What is the way out for universities who want to maintain their student body before losing many to alternatives already taking hold?  Brown University just last week announced the end of all student loans for its undergraduate financial packages. Instead, it is replacing the loan structure with scholarships as the university has recently begun a $30m fundraising campaign which has thus far amassed over 2,000 donors.

As more and more people enter a lifetime of student debt and younger generations watch their parents suffer under this enormous burden, little does it matter if you have MBA or PhD after your name.  The reality today is that the education and job markets are completely different to how they were just 15 years ago.  We need to equip ourselves with the skills to resist caving into what is, for most people, a lifetime of debt.  And more importantly, we must teach the younger generations that books and learning are freely available at the local library while we work on viable alternatives to the soaring fees of universities and trade schools.  The bottom line is this: do we want to be a society which positions students for a lifetime of indentured servitude, or might we consider that education is an integral part of our society which benefits everyone?

Media as Ideological Consumerism

Living on the canals and rivers of London for many years, I came within close quarters of some of that city’s most desperate inhabitants, namely those who live on narrowboats because living in London has, in recent years, become horrifically expensive and beyond the means of most, even when flat sharing. Yet, reading the media reports from the BBC, a media corporation which is obligatorily funded by British residents, it would be easy to think that there is no economic inequality in the country, that homelessness is not rising at record rates, and that all the British are just thrilled about the impending royal wedding next May.

The fact is that media often sells the public an image that functions in diametric opposition to their best interests. We have seen this in the analysis of U.S. elections and how conservatives consistently vote against their own interests when selecting the best candidate and we are seeing this in recent years with the media’s liberal use of “clickbait” as headlines mislead the reader as we are drawn in only to find a flimsily concocted story.

“Fake news,” ironically one of the President Trump’s favorite phrases, is precisely how he gained access to the White House.  Still, we are given so much fake news that we must struggle to find the least fake news to read during our morning coffee.  We are living in an era where even a morsel of truth is better than the vast numbers of publications where “news” has been replaced by ideological dogma, such as the new millennium’s penchant for prescriptive list of items that women must do or stop doing.

Media has radically shifted its mandate in recent years having come to take on the role of the advertiser, selling an ideal lifestyle and political ideology, instead of reporting on the mechanisms of power which are forcing ideology forward, revealing who is sponsoring these narratives, how these ideological mechanisms are being bought and sold, and why. I am most concerned that in an era where the average American university graduate is indebted for an average of 21 years to repay student loans while their salary is not commensurate to their investment and more and more people are surviving simply by accumulating debt on their credit cards.  The economic crisis has been largely cast as a government one, but the reality is that media has played a large role in towing a line of personal wealth, despite the fact that 68 percent of Americans have destroyed their credit before age 30 and credit repair will likely be their only way forward under a lifetime of growing economic despair.

How did the media come to dominate the role of ideological mouthpiece for consumerism instead of being a transparent vehicle which reports and queries such ideologies?  It would be useful here to examine the interconnectivity between these media messages where economic hardship is swapped out for images of glamour. Certainly, there is a well-known link between how advertising promotes a product through creating a desire for said product. But how might media function to promote ideology in much the same way that advert campaigns sell perfume or car tires?

In Ways of Seeing Berger discusses this link between image and how people perceive themselves:

Publicity is the culture of the consumer society. It propagates through images that society’s belief in itself. There are several reasons why these images use the language of oil painting.  Oil painting, before it was anything else, was a celebration of private property. As an art-form it derived from the principle that you are what you have. It is a mistake to think of publicity supplanting the visual art of post-Renaissance Europe; it is the last moribund form of that art.

Here Berger analyses the notion that somehow art is “pure” and devoid of any commercial value as he demonstrates how economic structures absorb messages from culture and the art world to sell these repackaged messages once again. Berger’s thesis?  That “without social envy, glamour cannot exist”:

Glamour is a new idea…when everybody’s place in society is more or less determined by birth, personal envy is a less familiar emotion.  And without social envy, glamour cannot exist. Envy becomes a common emotion in a society that has moved toward democracy and then stopped halfway, where status is theoretically open to everyone but enjoyed by few.

The oil painting and the publicity image are not so dissimilar:  reality is based on paintings, art reflects reality,  and then art becomes co-opted by media to give prestige to the product when sold. It is the value of the artwork as possession, as having x value, that elicits this cycle of art as ideology. The consumer will forever want this ideal because what she is buying is ephemeral.

The well-known television series, Mad Men, was in many ways a critique of how media has taken hold of our society, of culture, and of the individual from herself, such that the focus of the plot ultimately fell to the protagonist whose job it was to show us how shallow we all are in the face of consumerism.  As Don Draper states: “People want to be told what to do so badly that they’ll listen to anyone.”  Emotional lack and need feeds the machinery of consumerism as ideology and ideology as product.

John Berger’s task in Ways of Seeing and later the BBC series of the same name, demonstrates how markets create their own demand by utilizing emotion—be it glamour, pleasure, possession, prestige, future dreams—in order to ensure its hereafter? Or might things have changed since the 1970s?

Berger states in the narration of his BBC show: “The highest value of this civilization is the individual ego,” and he demonstrates his point through the images and messages of a British advertisement for Pimms. He leafs through the magazine and placed in juxtaposition to this advert is a story about refugees in East Pakistan with an accompanying text appealing to a political conscious and the next page, an ad for another alcoholic beverage Martini. There is, according to Berger, no coherence between these images and text: “Reality itself becomes unrecognisable.”  And this is salient point especially today. What do words mean when images of Pakistan, England, and elsewhere are juxtaposed to realities of “over there” where the fundamental message is that we deserve to drink Pimms and those people over there deserve what happens to them:  “What happens out there, happens to strangers whose fate is meant to be different from ours.”

Today, two generations after Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972) was released on the BBC, we have an explosion of images coming to us through television, print media, and the Internet, all which function to imbue “truths” through their hyper-multiplicity and repetition.  There is no change in the way that we are sold “things” as objects or in the form of ideology.  Wealth abounds virtually such that the impoverished reader is allowed to identify with this mediatic fiction which manipulates economic inequality, where those on one side are deserving of wealth, those on the other side are deserving of death. It is the ultimate in naturalizing social, political, and ethnic hierarchy.

“Whatever happens in the dream is meant to happen to us,” says Berger.  Publicity implicates that there are simply those who are meant to be included, and necessarily those whom it excludes are negligible.  The fact that you matter also includes the unfortunate fact in our world today, many others simply do not. Ideology as media message attempts to render invisible this “sad fact” replacing political analysis within the surrogate model of a new, happier reality. Indeed, that dreams is meant to happen uniquely to you.

Desire, glamour, future dreams, social mobility—these are all part of how products are advertised and marketed.  The idea that “you are unique” hinges upon this social suspension of reality and the belief that the subject really does have a choice from a plurality of possibilities (ie. Pimms versus a humanitarian disaster) while paradoxically being unique in the world of choices.  The images might say multiplicity, but the message—as Don Draper knows all too well—is choice.  She is one person buying this product which means she is not only unique, but she holds the power.

What happens when you take advertising from the 1960’s and analyze it in the terms of the information highway of our contemporary world?  How has media changed and how might the consumer body (and consumerism) have changed in a world where we have billions of images and messages floating around cyberspace every second?

In Amusing Ourselves to Death Neil Postman compares the Middle Ages (belief in the authority of religion) with our contemporary world (belief in the authority of science (58). Along with science, technology, and orbiting narratives of progress (60), Postman argues, comes a new problem which he calls the “information glut” which leads to “information chaos.” According to Postman, none of our problems are due to insufficient information, but from a lack of the ability to analyze and prioritize it. We can’t answer the question of the purpose our information is supposed to serve. So managing information has become the key issue (J. Beniger, The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society). Postman goes on to explain the cultural impact of printing, and aligns printing, telegraphy, photography, broadcasting and computers as the technological driving forces in changing cultures which together give us access to instant, indiscriminate information.

The result is that we accommodate ourselves to new technology in a world where technological progress has become the chief aim of life (70).  Postman applies this notion of technological progress to advertising contending that advertising is less about the product and more about the consumer. Market research, not product research, is key today. And the questions of marketing and advertising are no longer how to reach the consumer but rather what is wrong with the consumer? How can this product be seen to fix that other, fictional problem?  Postman views that the problem of media is not really about advertising itself but the holistic worldview of technopoly which brings together concepts of progress and consumption, and where tradition is the obstacle (ie. he describes Christmas a “culture rape”).

During London’s “Occupy LSX” in 2011, I was shooting a film at the protest locations and interviewing many people who came in daily to participate as well as those who were living in tents outside St Paul’s Cathedral.  The occupation site was disheveled, there was no main organizer or leader of this occupation as hierarchies were denounced in this movement, chaos ruled and handmade signs abounded.  I walked around the camp daily filming and talking with protestors. Many—most even—would cite quotations from the Internet hit film Zeitgeist when I would ask them what they hoped to accomplish.  Ostensibly from the Left, many of these individuals would talk about the “system,” “the Man,” and most would recite this line as if a memorized chorus: “One day, machines will do everything and we won’t have to work.” I would interject and say, “But most everyone I know loves to work.  Don’t we need work to fulfill ourselves? I do!”   Another said, “But that is how the system wants you to think? There is enough money out there that we don’t really need to work.  One day we can all be sitting at home all day playing video games.” I responded that this seemed like a very bleak future, and a boring one at that.  I asked them to tell me more about this “system” and none could elaborate it aside from clichés of our being brainwashed, our being forced into this “system,” our being unhappy in “this system.”

By the end of my weeks filming at St Pauls, it was unclear to me what this system was or if their system was any different in structure to ethos.  In having discussions like this over several months I came to experience that at the heart of Occupy LSX included zero organization, no plan for understanding its greater constituency, and this protest lacked any coherent message or guiding force.  If anything could have used Don Draper, it was Occupy LSX.  For every single protestor I noted bought their food from the most exploitative of UK food chains, Tesco Supermarket, where £1 of every £8 in the UK retail market goes.  Their actions were in complete contradiction to their words and sadly these protestors did not even realize it.

It was this moment that led me to understand how political activity can mirror the consummation of messages and how advertising has become an irrefutable tool for mass communications today—even if that message is anti-consumerist.  Postman’s technopoly demonstrates how all messages of protest failed (in London) because there was an appeal to rationality whilst the images of the protest were, if anything, anti-rational.  Like LSX needing to find its willing consumer to come into its makeshift tea tent to discuss a future revolution, all advertising projects require the investment in belief.  Postman moves Berger’s connection between rational thought and advertising into a completely new dimension where now the “truth” no longer matters:

By substituting images for claims, the pictorial commercial made emotional appeal, not tests of truth, the basis of consumer decisions. The distance between rationality and advertising is now so wide that it is difficult to remember that there once existed a connection between them. Today, on television commercials, propositions are as scarce as unattractive people. The truth or falsity of an advertiser’s claim is simply not an issue. A McDonald’s commercial, for example, is not a series of testable, logically ordered assertions. It is a drama-a mythology, if you will-of handsome people selling, buying and eating hamburgers, and being driven to near ecstasy by their good fortune. No claims are made, except those the viewer projects onto or infers from the drama. One can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it.

Indeed, we may go this far: The television commercial is not at all about the character of products to be consumed. It is about the character of the consumers of products….And so, the balance of business expenditures shifts from product research to market research. The television commercial has oriented business away from making products of value and toward making consumers feel valuable, which means that the business of business has now become pseudo-therapy. The consumer is a patient assured by psycho-dramas.

So the “system” of the protestor living in a tent for half a year would seem to be the holistic social space wherein everyone—these protestors included—recreate their own communities, their own notions of change and even revolution.  Certainly, the “system” is not a unilateral mass of power being speculated onto the multitudes by some overlord. But it is a discourse for reading society and for understanding which individuals take part and which opt out.  When looking very closely at how these new products exist in all their forms—from green energy tools to donations to the Red Cross to helping victims of a natural disaster—we can notice a trend in how the “system” is very much reflective of our cultural and social values, constantly shifting and changing into something else. Thirty years ago North American women were sold on margarine, today they are told it is toxic to the body with informercials running 24/7 about how low density fat will kill you.  Now buying butter makes the subject feel as if life will never end for her.

So if we must speak about “the system”—or any system for that matter—it is the one in which we have made ourselves simultaneous subjects and objects of ideology whereby consuming helps us be better people.  Today the narrative that media tows is very much in line with turning the reader/spectator of news into the subject-object of a political ideology that seeks its own end by amassing believers. In not fulfilling the mandate to reveal the facts and expose “the truth about the facts” as Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel maintain as the role of journalism, we are simply allowing media to become a pipeline for corporate and elite interests.

We can give way to these economic and political giants, or we can demand regulation of media that might allow it be more about investigation and presenting of the facts over political partisanship and ideological pantomime.  To pretend that we are absolutely powerless and surrender ourselves to “the system” does not seem to be a healthy or constructive approach to countering the force of fake news or ideological propagation within media.  It is up to us to hold our politicians and media accountable.