Thursday, March 4, 2010

March 4th Solidarity with Students!

Today across the country and the world, students and members of the public higher education community walked out of class to protest the privatization of our state universities and colleges that is occurring . This writer for one stands with them and I hope the protests were successful in getting a lot of media attention.

The economic recession has hit public colleges hard. States faced with declining tax revenues have made massive spending cuts over the last two years to balance their budgets. Unlike the federal government, states for the most part have to balance their budgets each year, and thus face difficult decisions when a recession occurs. Given the choice of spending cuts or tax increases, most legislatures and governors opt for spending cuts, not surprising considering the unfortunate dominance of neo-liberal economic ideology in our country.

States often target public higher education first in spending cuts. These cuts attack higher ed in terms of accessibility and quality. Direct budget cuts forces schools to lay off professors, which leads to higher class sizes and less classes. It also forces schools to raise tuition and student fees, putting the expense of college out of reach for many working class students the schools were created to service. Most states have financial aid grant programs in addition to federal Pell grants that could help students deal with higher tuition, but typically these programs are cut as well, as the Cal Grant program has in California.

These protests are exciting because they are challenging the broader notion of privatization, not just the current cuts, as UC Berkeley student organizer Ricardo Gomez elaborates in today's DN! interview above. They remind us that public colleges were created to make quality higher education accessible to the broader public. Many are demanding not only the end to cuts but a move towards making higher education a free service to all. Quality higher education should indeed be a right, and hopefully these protests will coalesce into statewide and national movements to make higher education a right. Gomez and Professor Ananya Roy also criticize the privatization of dining services and student housing and union-busting oriented towards college support staff. Not only should college be a public service, but it should lead the way towards a more just society by treating its workers fairly and refusing to allow private corporations unfettered access to public coffers.

This broader social democratic vision allows us to make the connection between cuts to education and the recession. These students and university employees are paying for the recklessness of financial capital and terrible policy-making at the Federal Reserve, which allowed the housing bubble to go on unabated. This isn't just a battle over public higher education--it's a battle over the unjust structure of our economy. The students must connect with community groups and labor unions who are fighting neo-liberalism in other sectors.

As UMASS economist James Heintz notes here, state governments face a cumulative budget shortfall of $260 billion for 2011 and 2012. So far they have been propped up by funds from the federal stimulus package, but those funds expire at the end of this year. The cuts are only going to get worse, so this fight will certainly go on. Heintz also points out that the resulting job losses and reduction in aggregate demand may suppress our already slow recovery, or even cause a double-dip recession.

If we're to avoid these cuts that are devastating to working families in terms of unemployment and loss of public services, we must find the revenues to fill the gaps. Another UMASS economist Rick Wolff has called for states to follow the example of Oregon. In January Oregon voters passed two referendums to increase taxes on corporations and the wealthy to ensure continued funding for education, health care, and public safety. Not only does this protect working class and poor families who rely on public services disproportionately, but it generates growth by keeping public employees working and thus spending on goods and services. (Wolff is a Marxian economist, so he has a lot of interesting ideas for dealing with the crisis that you wouldn't normally hear, check his article out).

The federal government can help out as well. In addition to having broader power to raise money through taxes, the government has the flexibility to borrow money on the bond market. It should continue sharing these revenues with states as their budget crises continue, eithed through deficit spending or by taxes on the wealthy (a financial transactions tax would be an excellent idea, more on that later).

There's something else the federal government can do, although I highly doubt it will. During the financial crisis, the Fed propped up the financial sector by buying their junk securities, making loan guarantees, and providing loans at ridiculously low interest rates. How did it do this? By creating money out of thin air, also known as quantitative easing, which central banks do to pump money into an economy when it has dropped interest rates down to zero effectively. Marshall Auerback, brilliant economist at the Roosevelt Institute (their New Deal 2.0 blog is awesome by the way, best outpost for Keynesian capitalist ideas to deal with this crisis), suggested that the European Central Bank do the same for Greece and other EU countries, just as it did for the banks. Of course increasing the money supply in that way could cause inflation (ie. rising prices) eventually, especially because way less of the money would be hoarded as the banks currently hoard it. Still inflation is the last thing we need to worry about now, as Mike Whitney writes in Counterpunch.

Okay I went from discussing exciting movements to more wonky ideas to fix the state budget and broader economic crises. The point is that this movement for accessible and quality public higher education can lead to a broader vision that backs the creative ideas we need to a) get out of this crisis and b) move towards a fairer economy simultaneously. Keep organizing and agitating my student brothers and sisters!

Something related: Richard Estes's American Leftist blog has been discussing the tactics of California students driving this movement. Apparently liberal, center-left professors have sought to quell the more leftist students who are open to aggressive tactics like 60's-style building occupations in addition to advocacy and public protest. The occupations at Berkeley raised a lot of visibility for the student cause, so I think they were highly successful. There's nothing immoral about a non-violent occupation (illegal does not inherently equal immoral), and it's stupid not to do it when it can be successful. Definitely reminiscent of monied centrist Democratic Party loyalists trying to suppress sectors of the progressive movement moving towards opposing not only conservatives but the neo-liberal, free market-fetishizing ideology that both parties embrace (and that got us in this crisis).

I highly recommend the American Leftist blog. Estes is a more libertarian socialist/anarchist type. As someone who leans more towards the tradition of social democracy and democratic socialism, I don't always agree with him, but he digs up some great stuff on the economy and our foreign policy.

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