Monday, October 24, 2011

Frank Rich on Occupy Wall Street and Long-Term Fixes

Frank Rich writes yesterday at New York Magazine about what Occupy Wall Street signifies long-term for American culture and its political process.  Two points strike me:

1. What's messed up in the corporate and financial structures of the U.S. (and the world) goes well beyond Wall Street, and fixing Wall Street is not likely to be a long-term fix for the systemic problems producing our current widespread misery. 

2. And second, the 2012 election will not resolve the problems, no matter who's elected, because our system, as it's now configured, is designed to produce stalemate.  No matter who's elected . . . .  

 About the first point, Rich notes,

The whole system is screwed up, and it’s not all Wall Street’s fault—or remotely in the financial sector’s power alone to solve. As middle-class Americans have lost their jobs or watched their wages stagnate or decline while corporations pile up record profits, they’ve also seen CEOs far removed from Wall Street (at Hewlett-Packard and Yahoo most recently) walk away with rich settlements even after they’ve laid off workers en masse, mismanaged their companies, or wrecked them. But at least politicians pay lip service to the woes of the middle class. That America’s poverty rate has risen to its highest level since 1993 goes all but unmentioned by leaders in both parties. The poor, after all, don’t make campaign contributions and are unlikely to vote. And they have even less clout than usual now that Republican legislators and governors, fanning bogus fears of “voter fraud,” have mandated new, Jim Crow–style restrictions to scare away poor, elderly, and minority voters in fourteen states. In the Beltway bubble, even the local poor are out of sight and out of mind; with a 6.1 percent unemployment rate and a median income of $84,523 (versus $50,046 nationally), Washington is now the wealthiest metro area in the country and, according to Gallup, departs from all 50 states in believing by a majority that the economy is getting better.

And about the second point, he writes,

Elections are supposed to resolve conflicts in a great democracy, but our next one will not. The elites will face off against the elites to a standoff, and the issues animating the class war in both parties won’t even be on the table. The structural crises in our economy, our government, and our culture defy any of the glib solutions proposed by current Democrats or Republicans; the quixotic third-party movements being hatched by well-heeled do-gooders are vanity productions. The two powerful forces that extricated America from the Great Depression—the courageous leadership and reformist zeal of Roosevelt, the mobilization for World War II—are not on offer this time. Our class war will rage on without winners indefinitely, with all sides stewing in their own juices, until—when? No one knows. The reckoning with capitalism’s failures over the past three decades, both in America and the globe beyond, may well be on hold until the top one percent becomes persuaded that its own economic fate is tied to the other 99 percent’s. Which is to say things may have to get worse before they get better.

Rich is right, it seems to me.  My own tiny window into those bigger problems involving CEOs "far from Wall Street," as Rich puts it, has been in academic life.  There, in recent years, I've seen at close range some serious problems contributing to the decline of American higher education.  I've seen several spectacularly bad university presidents rewarded with high salaries and lavish perks, even as they drastically cut faculty, held faculty salaries in check, and effectively dismantled the universities they were running--because they did not have a clue about academic life or any commitment to the values of liberal education.

In one case, one of these corporate CEOs masquerading as an academic leader has just been censured for the second time by a major academic watchdog body--the only sitting university president in the U.S. to earn that distinction, as far as I know.  In both cases, she's been censured for the very same reasons: she ignores the internal governance procedures of the institutions she leads as she fires faculty and staff at will when she imagines they oppose her leadership, inventing specious reasons for the firing and defaming those she fires.

The institution she now leads is facing lawsuits by former employees whose number now runs into double digits, according to media reports.  Several of these are naming this president personally as a defendant, with allegations that she has sought to destroy the reputations of those she has fired, so that it will be difficult for them to find work again.  

Despite all of this, and despite an evaluation by an outside consultant that her board commissioned recently, which the media are reporting is a damning indictment of her leadership, her board chose to keep her on as president at a special called board meeting as the new academic year began.  And so the board, which is populated largely by other corporate CEO types who do not understand or promote the values of the academy, is part of the  problem--as is the academic accrediting body that oversees this university and gave it a clean bill of health in its last institutional review, and as is the church that owns and sponsors this university, whose leaders have persistently placed this particular president in positions of responsibility.

All of this is to say: Rich is right.  The problems in the various sectors of our cultural and economic life that many of us see clearly as ordinary citizens, but are powerless to change,  are multi-faceted.  Their roots do not always run immediately back to Wall Street.  But there is a connection to Wall Street and its values in the academic cases I've seen close-up: as I've noted in repeated postings on this blog, American higher education is increasingly modeling itself on corporate templates, in which presidents are not academic leaders but CEOs of a corporation.

Most university presidents' remuneration has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years, even as they have held faculty salaries at standstill, or have cut salaries.  The boards that put these CEO-presidents into place are made up almost exclusively of business leaders who reinforce the corporate-CEO model of the university president, and who look the other way or actively collude in presidents' mismanagement of their institutions and presidents' attacks on the values and model of liberal education that have long been the norm for American higher education.  Because good CEOs of any institution are expected to be ruthless, to be contemptuous of the demands of labor (that is to say, in the case of universities, of faculty), to be hard-nosed and pragmatic, not swayed by soft arguments about values and solidarity . . . . 

Solving the problems that we now face in many of our institutions will take more than fixing Wall Street.  But it will definitely involve facing the way in which the me-first, greed = virtue values of Wall Street have permeated the culture at large, and have eaten away like corrosive acids at the communitarian ethos of our entire culture and its institutions.

And there is no clear political fix to these problems, as Rich notes in the second passage I excerpt above.  No single election will fix them, nor will many elections fix them, as long as both of the major political parties in the U.S. have sold themselves to Wall Street, with its me-first, greed = virtue values that are eroding the communitarian values and communitarian structures of American life.

If OWS means anything at all, it means that it is going to take many hands and many voices to fix problems of such complexity and such depth, which have not developed in our culture and other cultures overnight.

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