September 2010 Archives

To the Victims Belong the Spoils

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            "The war on privilege will never end. Its next great campaign will be against the privileges of the underprivileged."

                                                                        H. L. Mencken

 

            As usual, Brother Mencken, who is quoted at some length right over there in the sidebar, was squarely on the money. Somehow, we've gone from the struggle to equalize opportunity and render racial, ethnic, and gender differences meaningless before the law and in American life in general to a situation where the very distinctions that once supposedly put members  of certain groups at  a severe disadvantage are now doing just the opposite by serving as  the basis of a new style of identity politics in which certain, sometimes self-styled ethnic minorities try to leverage their alleged victimhood  into a bigger piece of the political and economic pie. Take, for example, the tragic plight of the poor Italian-Americans in New York and its environs who complain that everybody stereotypes them as gaping, slick-haired, gangster- goombahs and insist that this has made them the victims of ethnic discrimination. I'll concede they may have a legitimate complaint here in re "The Sopranos," although I don't recall anybody giving us so much as the time of day when we'uns was taking on over "The Beverly Hillbillies" or the "Dukes of Hazzard." I don't grant Italian-Americans an inch, however, when it comes to the "Real Housewives of New Jersey," which is peopled by actual I-As who should know better but come across as nothing more than as the still suspiciously Soprano-like spawn of the old country who, in this great land of opportunity, have succeeded in becoming white trash with money. Ditto for "Jersey Shore," which is simply "Real Housewives" before they get married to inarticulate, thick-necked men who earn money (or get big lines of credit) by means that are anything but self-evident.

            Be all of this as it might, the supposedly manifold grievances of Italian Americans have boiled over up yonder at the City University of New York, where more than thirty years ago the idiots in charge made the sons and daughters of Bella Italia an official "affirmative-action category." A well-nigh unbroken stream of pissing (Oops!) and moaning has flowed across the CUNY campus since then in the form of incessant complaints that there are not enough I-As on the faculty and staff. One of the prominent I-A faculty whiners claims, "There have been so many cases of discrimination that I personally know of....from not getting hired to not getting promoted to not getting tenure," and he also charges that "there's been no serious attempt to increase our numbers." The only "evidence" of this oft-bewailed discrimination against I-As is that their representation on CUNY's payroll has hovered between 5 and 6 percent while numbers for blacks, Latinos, and Asians have gone up. Any I-A administrator who won't toe the ethnic-party line is apparently labeled an "Uncle Tony." Give me a break! I defy anybody to make a convincing argument that I-As have encountered anything remotely comparable discrimination-wise to what blacks have faced. I even make bold to assert that those I-As who have had no truck whatsoever with the  Mafiosos, spurned those who have, and conform in no way to the stereotypes depicted on "The Sopranos" or "Jersey Shore" have been judged no more unfairly than white southerners who steadfastly condemned KKK lynchers and thugs and bellowing demagogues swearing to defend Jim Crow to the diehard last. In a purely pragmatic sense, all other things being equal, going up for a job anywhere above and beyond the Mason-Dixon line and even in lots of cases below it, I'd definitely rather be totin' an I-A's cultural baggage than mine.

            If anything, the politics of ethnic victimhood appear to be intensifying among the younger set. Take, for example, the piteous predicament of this young lady who complained that while other students were living it up at last weekend's UGA v. Arkansas game, she would be observing Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, by attending services and fasting. Yet, she noted, "despite the fact that I am Jewish, I will not be refunded for this football game. Neither will anyone else observing this sacred holiday." Here's my favorite part: "UGA Hillel, the Jewish student organization, contacted the NCAA in regards to moving the game--no success." What a surprise! On second thought, if the petitioners were really just trying to make  the NCAA folks pee their pants from laughing so hard, I'll bet they were a lot more successful than they think. Although our young rebel with a cause accepted the fact "that the schedule was already in place and the cost of moving the game would be exorbitant," she was nonetheless "determined to make a difference for Jews everywhere, and find some payback."

            On the latter point we may take her quite literally, for in her utterly selfless zeal to "make a difference for Jews everywhere," she immediately "contacted the University Athletic Association in regards to some sort of compensation for my already purchased ticket" only to discover that, sure enough, just as student ticket policy guidelines clearly indicate, her only option was "donating it back to the University" so that it could be re-sold to another student (for $8) who otherwise wouldn't be able to attend the game. This policy does earn the university "an additional $8," but it also saves some student from the clutches of a scalper looking for way more than the $40 face value of a regular ticket. Still, our complainant felt "this offer is not adequate" and deemed it "unfair that even though I am a devoted Bulldog fan, my being Jewish costs me $8 to observe Yom Kippur."

            By way of translation, most anything that today's young set doesn't like is "unfair." Yet, it seems she found this policy fair enough when she checked the box agreeing to abide by UGA student ticket restrictions in order to buy said tickets in the first place. Of course, it could well be that she has only converted to Judaism since late August or that they were a little late in getting the word out on when Yom Kippur fell this year. Either way, as a Georgia fan who forked over a good bit more to attend the game and see Arkansas pretty much have their way with us for 3 1/2 quarters, if it only cost this young lady $8 to miss it, I'd say she came out way ahead.

There's no doubt that as a people the Jews have some powerfully legitimate grievances historically, but that's all the more reason why this little whiner has no business trivializing her Jewishness by making it the issue rather than the fact that she bought a football ticket that she should have known in advance she couldn't use. What about all the other kids, Jewish or footwashin' Baptists or snake-handlin' Episcopalians, who couldn't utilize their tickets because a kinsperson was so thoughtless as to die or get hitched on a football Saturday? I'm not sure what Mr. Mencken would make of either of the two examples of identity politics belabored here, but although he would be 130 years old by now, I'm betting that he could still recognize a sense of entitlement masquerading as a claim of victimization when he saw it.

Is Our Past in Their Future?

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            Lest the relatively elevated tone of the following startle veteran readers into thinking they  are on the wrong site, the Ol' Bloviator hastens to assure them that in a rare moment of serious contemplation, he penned this piece originally for the History News Network. Not to worry, a recurrence of such behavior on his part is most unlikely, especially during football season.

            As early as 1953, historian C. Vann Woodward was pointing out that the South's  protracted struggle with poverty, tragedy, and defeat actually gave it more in common historically with the rest of the world than with the rest of the United StatesOne of the implications of Woodward's exploration of "The Irony of Southern History" was that there might be substantial benefit in studying its historical commonalities with other nations and societies around the world. Reports of China losing large numbers of its textile and apparel jobs to even cheaper labor markets now suggest that  leaders in locales as distant as Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Cambodia may now find lessons of their own  in the South's recent past that might prove critical to their nation's future.

China's initial efforts to attract low-wage, labor-intensive industries with promises of hordes of docile workers eager to work on practically any terms the employer might impose along with tax incentives and assurances of minimal  government regulation seem strikingly reminiscent of the post-World War II South's courtship of new industry. With development leaders promising a bottomless pool of low-wage workers, labor organizers who ventured into the right-to-work South were lucky to escape with their skulls intact, much less their dignity, and public universities like Clemson even schooled corporate execs in the finer points of union-avoidance. Generous public subsidies to new employers also became the order of the day. At one point, Louisiana was handing out exemptions amounting to roughly 20 percent of its property-tax collections each year, forgoing tomorrow-oriented investments in education and infrastructure in the interest of guaranteed payrolls today. The guarantees on those payrolls were not exactly ironclad, however, as the rise of global industrial mobility would ultimately make clear. By the end of the 1970s, the Piedmont textile belt had begun losing thousands of jobs each year to so-called Third World countries, and in the mid-90s, with NAFTA helping to throw the remaining flood gates all the way open, eleven southern states saw what was left of manufacturing employment fall by 19 to 35 percent between 1996 and 2006. More recently, these states bade goodbye to an additional 1.8 million jobs between September 2008 and November 2009 alone.

          Behind this massive and ongoing exodus of jobs is the central reality that an average North Carolina garment worker makes about $446 per week, while his/her counterpart in Bangladesh commands only $64 each month. Although Texas and Virginia are the only southern states where earnings of the average worker reach the national norm and Mississippi and Arkansas workers fall short by more than 20 percent in global terms, the South has long since become a relatively high-wage region. Yet long-term policies that consistently put the interests of the employer ahead of those of the state or community have left it with a workforce and infrastructure generally ill suited for any but low-wage industry.  

For its part, China has been relatively quicker to understand the importance of improving both infrastructure and, in some respects, education. Educational advances, however, have helped to fuel a dramatic rise in worker expectations that now puts China at a distinct disadvantage in attracting and retaining industries at the bottom of the current wage and skills pyramid. Countries like Bangladesh may stand to benefit in the short run from an influx of employers who find the prospect of paying decidedly sub-China wages irresistible, but short is clearly the operative term here, for its severe deficiencies in education, energy, and transportation cannot be remedied overnight, and although enough of its workers have already raised enough of a clamor that the monthly minimum wage has just been almost doubled, they are quick to point out that it remains less than half that of China.  

Suffice it to say, today's warp-speed changes in technology and production requirements now afford less-advanced nations a much narrower window of opportunity to make the most of industrial expansion that southern states and communities once enjoyed--and all too frequently squandered. It is expecting a great deal to think that people in regions so far removed both geographically and culturally may learn from the South's experience when so many southerners themselves clearly have not. Spartanburg 's massive BMW plant and an equally imposing Mercedes facility in Tuscaloosa may seem to suggest that huge tax exemptions and promises of substantially lower labor costs still represent viable long-term global development strategies, but the ultimate fruits of such an approach are more likely to be discerned elsewhere, in the hundreds of shuttered factories and withering towns whose mortgaged futures have now gone even further south or east, leaving behind former  workers who are frequently too old either to learn a new skill or to pull up stakes and move and generally too lacking in education to have much prospect where they are. Members of this abandoned southern proletariat may still live far better than the average Bangladeshi can imagine, but their shattered self-esteem and dashed hopes are surely at some level a universal indication of what to expect when economic development is allowed to become an end in itself rather than the means to a developed society.

 

Who the Hell is Marc Jacobs?

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            After noting in Sunday's New York Times Book Review that economist William Easterly thinks the recent bashing of Wall Street bankers is akin to "genocidal racism," Christopher Shea notes that recently another "unlikely privileged group" is now under fire. And just who might belong to that group, you ask?  The Real Housewives of New York or D.C.? Paris Hilton's coke dealer? John Boehner's tanning coach? Not exactly. Would you believe that among the members of said select and pampered company is none other than the beloved Ol' Bloviator himself? This is how Shea proceeds to make us tenured senior professors seem comparable to those lyin', thieving', bailed-out banker bastards: "At a time when nearly one in 10 American workers is unemployed, here's a crew (the complaint goes) who are guaranteed jobs for life, teach only a few hours a week, routinely get entire years off, dump grading duties onto graduate students and produce "research" on subjects like "Rednecks, Queers and Country Music" or "The Whatness of Books." Or maybe they stop doing research altogether (who's going to stop them?), dropping their workweek to a manageable dozen hours or so, all while making $100,000 or more a year." Ready to grab that pitchfork yet?

I have yet to see one of these fulminations against tenure fail to cite the magic figure of $100-K salaries for senior faculty, who despite years of schooling and all the subsequent scrapping to establish themselves professionally, are apparently supposed to content themselves with genteel poverty while even the most crooked and incompetent of the aforementioned money changers rake in more than ten times that amount in annual bonuses just for showing up. Most of the senior faculty I know haven't reached the $100-K plateau yet, but I sure as hell ain't offering any apologies for those who have because, as far as I'm concerned, they damn sure earned it.

            Nonetheless, according to Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, the authors of Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids -- And What We Can Do About It, owing to rampant affluence in the senior ranks, rather than the quintessential embodiment of irreversible, incurable geekiness, we of the professoriate are now fashionistas extraordinaire: "Say goodbye to Mr. Chips with his tattered tweed jacket; today's senior professors can afford Marc Jacobs."

Where Hacker and Dreifus are concerned, wardrobe hyperbole ain't the half of it, for they apparently propose making research a nights/weekends, pay-your-own-way proposition for university profs who would then be free to take on much heavier teaching loads during the regular work week. After all, they argue, "In other occupations, when people feel there is something they want to write, they do it on their own time and at their own expense." Never mind here that the most prominent examples would be prominent journalists or ex-politicos who have pocketed six-figure-plus cash advances before pen ever touches paper. The real problem with the Hacker-Dreyfus proposal is that it completely divorces research from teaching. If all university teachers are severely discouraged from researching in their areas, what will they do in the classroom? Draw on the works of  popularizers like Doris Kearns Goodwin, who, I might add, clearly has no problem drawing on the works of others? Perhaps we profs should simply indoctrinate our charges with the moldy, inherited wisdom of the ages, keeping them safely distant at all costs from new evidence supporting new ideas.

            Though Hacker is in his early 80s and professor emeritus of political science at Queens College, he is not asking his younger colleagues to accept burdens and restrictions that he managed to avoid. Queens is heavy into the teaching model, and he paid his dues in full during his many years there. Moreover, some time back, he actually resigned his senior position so that Queens could use his salary to hire two new entry-level faculty.  For this, Hacker is surely to be commended, but here's the kicker. If that had happened almost anywhere else and involved anyone other than an extremely high profile senior faculty member, the odds are way better than even that Hacker's paycheck could have been run through an administrative Vegamatic and used to bring on a dozen or so temporary or adjunct instructors at salaries ranging anywhere from $1,500 to $3,500 per course, with, in many cases, no benefits of any sort. 

        Those who fancy themselves doing the young scholars who are trying to find a regular faculty position any favors by railing on about the evils of tenure are the same kind of the people who would set fire to the barn in order to get a few rats out of the rafters. Nearly two-thirds of all college instructors are in non-tenure-track slots and getting rid of more tenured faculty is more likely to inflate that fraction than reduce it. As I have preached and preached right here on this very cyber-corner many times, "Follow the money" is no less effective a strategy in trying to unravel the mysteries of contemporary academe than in trying to follow the machinations of our terribly abused banking class. Tighter and tighter money and a swollen and still-swelling population of newly minted Ph.D.s has turned academe into a profession that eats its young. Drastic cutbacks in graduate programs across a broad spectrum of disciplines and institutions are clearly in order, but doing so would also deny universities a pool of pre-doctoral teachers who are not only desperately needed but even more exploitable than they will be when they have their sheepskins in hand.

            While we're on the subject, let's not forget administrative bloat, which has surely sucked up some of what could and should have gone into more regular faculty slots.  For example, at Williams, a supposedly teaching-centered liberal arts college, 70 percent of the staff do no teaching whatsoever. A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Arkansas contends that while the faculty-student ratio at American universities rose by 18 percent between 1993 and 2007, the administrator/student ratio rose by 39 percent. These folks don't tell you, however, that their administrative category includes librarians and other support staff. They're also funded by the Goldwater Institute; so it's not a real shocker to learn that their real aim is to convince you that if their cushion of federal funding were jerked away, college administrators would be forced to use their funds more efficiently. Their logic is that with no federal funding, public higher education will be more dependent on tax and tuition revenues. In turn, hard-pressed suppliers of said revenues will rise up and force public officials to force university administrators to operate more cost effectively. Even if this sort of domino-theory-meets-higher-education scenario plays out, it simply leads us back to the long line of adjuncts outside the provost's door.  That probably suits the Goldwater Institute types just as well. I'm pretty certain this outfit has no burning desire to create more real career opportunities for pointy-headed leftist professors.

        It all boils to this, although things are worse some places than others, higher education in this country is either already in a helluva mess or headed that way with the hammer down. Finding no reason for hope and no constructive outlet for my frustration, I have decided to fall back on that old saw that "Living well is the best revenge." Thanks to the sartorial guidance of Hacker and Dreifus and the generosity of the tax and tuition paying masses everywhere, I'm off to Marc Jacobs to see if they have this number in an extra-short. It should be just the thing for my lecture on the Hawley-Smoot Tariff, don't you think?

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