Thursday, March 15, 2007

Smarter Than Their Parents

The LA Times has a story covering the UC Regents meeting yesterday, where they voted 13-6 for a 7% increase in undergraduate fees next year, raising the average annual tuition for a UC undergrad to about $7350. The frame successfully created by the Office of the President (UCOP) was that it would be worse for you if you lived in Texas or Virigina, where fees are higher, so look on the bright side. This doesn't change the fact that the state is steadily replacing public with private funding, and that the university's social and personal impacts will change as a result. We'll talk a little about this in lecture today.

Another ominous note is that the Regents approved a proposal led by the law schools at Berkeley and UCLA to remove the cap on tuition increases there, meaning that they will soon rise from their current level of around $25k to $35k or more. The damage to public-interest law is obvious, since now even graduates of public universities can't afford to take the five-figure jobs that those non-profit entities can afford to pay.

The damage to the concept of public higher education is subtler but just as deep: as students and parents pay more for eduation out of their own pockets, they are naturally less interested in paying more for education in taxes. A few of the protesting students mentioned that the "high-tuition, high-financial aid" model wasn't working for them, but most people haven't figured out that only public funding can support higher ed that combines high-qualty with high-volume. That includes the middle-class folks who in many cases are middle-class only because they took a few steps up the social ladder because of very cheap but very good college instruction. To repeat a lecture question: will the California middle-classes give away the conditions of their own existence?


Jim said...

Of course the middle class will give away the conditions of its own existence. Can you identify one policy or political action in which the middle class did otherwise?

Chris Newfield said...

ouch, Jim! But yes - the Black civil rights movement is one long example, and so are the many battles for social security, public higher education, public transit, etc. Same goes for the environmental movement that got pollution restrictions applied to a very hostile auto industry, among many other examples. The middle-classes used to understand that some things could be provided only by government and they were willing to pay for goods that were much better when the cost was widely shared and when access was easy (like college). You might reply that these were movements that, like the trade union movements, were led by working folks who dragged the classical middle class kicking and screaming out of its own myopic selfishness. You would be generally right. When the middle class identifies only with executives, IP lawyers, and so on, it crashes and burns. As I see it, the "Golden Age" of public servies was built from below, and assisted by middle-class beneficiaries who knew they came from below too, and in fact were still really there.

jkl said...

Ok, if we're talking nuance, then wouldn't the narrative go something like this:

In almost all of the examples you mention, the mobilizers were, in general, people of certain means -- what you might call middle class -- who engaged in a kind of class suicide by using their skills and resources to mobilize those most receptive to substantial public policy change: the working class. These middle class "leaders" then become a safe public face for an anxious middle class.

As for things like social security and civil rights, weren't these also longstanding struggles that were initially much more radical but with whose middle class intervention ended up much more moderate than hoped for?

Finally, would you concur that higher education -- at least the UNIVERSITY -- has historically done little institutionally to promote public policy change?

Chris Newfield said...

The middle class didn't turn into yuppie scum until the Reagan Era. The reason is simple: they we mostly not yuppies yet, meaning they were first-generation white collar and close to the blue-collar world from whence they came. The turning point was the property-tax cuts of Proposition 13 (1978) in California, which institutionalized an entitlement to contribute less to the public sector and more to one's individual pocket. The result has been almost thirty years of budget deadlock in Sacramento (and elsewhere), low-tax dogmatism that disparages public services including the higher ed that made the mass middle class after World War II, and also inflated housing prices, more dependence on rising housing prices for economic well-being, more sprawl as people move farther from work to find affordable housing, more global warming and more brain death as people relate to the world through talk radio, TV, and their blue-tooth-enabled cellular phones. The symbolic turning point was Jay McInerney's "Bright Lights, Big City" (1984), which reinvented Gatsby-ism for a new generation of Nick Carraways who uncritically worshipped the lifestyles of the rich and famous while being emotionally destroyed by them. The other great yuppie book of the 1980s was Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" (1986), which mixed fear of a black planet with contempt for the new, morally dead thritysomething financial class that was then taking over the economy from the old "producer" class, white- and blue-collar alike. Things for teachers, nurses, drywallers, autoworkers, public defenders, even family physicians has never been the same. You can't make the old middle-class way of life with good salaries any more, but only by turning your dental practice into a corporation that markets cosmetic and other services, or by turning your salary as a teacher or principal into a consulting business. The middle class is still caught between 2 worlds, one based on real cross-racial equality, environmental transformation, and global justice, and on the other hand their insular faux-50s of 3200 sq foot houses with broadband Internet in the rooms they have to leave only to shop and work. This world requires them to become New Capitalists - commodify their own knowledge and control its returns from within one of the remaining pockets of protection from market forces (law and medical and dental degrees are good, since for the most part they don't yet face direct foreign competition). This will work for the to 5% to 10% at most. You and I, Jim, as college professors are, believe it or not, in the top 10% already, and we still struggle to have money in the bank at the end of the month after paying the mortgage on our small coastal California homes. The university enables both of these worlds - the desperate "forting up" for top 10% (but not top 1%) salary levels for "knowledge workers," but also the majority economics, political and professional self-rule, and cultural hybridity - all the preconditions of Earth 2 that better come soon. Since knowledge workers are now getting deindustrialized like the steelworkers of a quarter-century ago - that is, forced to compete with the low-wage, high-skill counterparts in India, Poland, etc etc., there's bound to be some real movement one of these years. Even Rip Van Winkle woke up eventually.