Republic of Dunces

— Gray Brechin

FOR ITS ENTIRE 142-year history, the University of California has served the state’s wealthiest businessmen well as a taxpayer-funded R&D facility. Its graduates have gone out into the world to serve as their mining engineers, attorneys, inventors, weapons designers, and business associates.

It was such a sweet deal for them that the question that we must ask is: Why are they now destroying all of California’s public education system?

Make no mistake about it, that’s what we’ve been doing ever since Howard Jarvis and Ronald Reagan began infantilizing Californians by persuading them that government is their enemy and they shouldn’t have to pay taxes. That was 30 years ago, and California has now become like a car that has run out of gas and whose driver can’t think of anything to do but kick the tires and scream at it.

We’ve tried everything to keep it running, including encouraging gambling and then borrowing against anticipated revenues from gambling and from everything else.

We shifted taxes onto those who could least afford to pay them, and we borrowed and borrowed — anything other than returning to the progressive taxation system we once had. We hoped that Repo Man would never come, but now he’s not only here but he’s breaking down the door with an axe like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.”

I called this talk Republic of Dunces for several reasons. As we’ve destroyed our public education system, that’s what we’ve become. Just listen to the morons at the tea bag parties screaming about how they want the government out of their Medicare and Social Security. They apparently want to live in some John Wayne Western fantasy with unpaved roads and outhouses and wells in the back yard, and gunfights on Main Street to settle disputes since courts are — well — government.

But the Regents and the administration that works for them are a Republic of Dunces too, because they are destroying the very institution that has served them so well for nearly 150 years.

So who are the Regents? This is a question you all should ask, since you write so many checks to them. They are supposed to represent the public interest and to keep the university insulated from politics, but that is bullshit. They are appointed by the governor for 12-year terms but, since the governors have been Republican for the past 26 years with the brief exception of Gray Davis before they got rid of him in favor of a ludicrous bionic action hero, they are overwhelmingly Republican.

They are also overwhelmingly rich; the going rate to be appointed a regent is apparently $50,000 paid to the governor’s campaign chest or his party. I suspect that most of you would not qualify. Few of them have any experience in public education. They have little patience for critical thought, especially from their subordinates.

But more to the point, since many or most of them still belong to the Church of Neoliberal Economics, many of them are ideologically opposed to a public sector at all — public education included. You know the drill: deregulate business, cut taxes, and privatize everything. Run it more like a business; it’s more efficient that way. And the next profit center is education — for those who can afford it. Television and speed for everyone else.

Neoliberal economics has worked just swell, hasn’t it? Those who so passionately believe in it nearly brought down the world’s economy last year. They are SO damned smart that now they are going to take California’s public education system along with California itself — and that could very well take down the nation’s and the world’s economy.

As if the recent cuts haven’t been savage enough, billionaire Meg Whitman said when she announced her candidacy for Republican governor that she wants to cut another $15 billion from public services and fire 40,000 more state employees.

Studying the Regents

So let’s go back to those regents. Just who are they? We used to study them when I first came here in the late ’60s; it’s time to once again turn the university’s great resources like a microscope to an investigation of who these people are and how they are using the university to their own advantage, because they’ve always done that.

There is one regent in particular who needs to go under the microscope because ever since Gray Davis appointed him, he has largely dominated the others. That is Richard Blum, after whom the university has named the Richard Blum Center for Developing Economies now going up on the North Side of campus — because Blum donated $15 million for a center for the study of the causes and remedies of poverty OUTSIDE the United States.

Fifteen million dollars is $1.5 million less than Blum and his wife, Senator Dianne Feinstein, paid for their Pacific Heights palazzo just below their good friends the Gettys. By my counting, it’s one of their six mansions and condos.

I have a suggestion for the Richard Blum Center for the Study of Developing Economies. Study poverty in this country. Moreover, study how Blum became a billionaire since his wife became senator, and study her voting record. Study whether the way that Blum has made his multiple millions has not contributed to poverty in this country, by doing such things as raising your tuition so that you and your family will be in debt for years, paying interest on that tuition to Blum’s financial institutions or those of his associates on the Board of Regents.

Mark Yudof has been crying crocodile tears about how much it hurts him to raise tuition and otherwise wreck one of the world’s great universities, but he is doing precisely what  he is told to do. It was Richard Blum who fired his predecessor, President Dynes, and who selected Yudof and gave him a salary double what Dynes had gotten.

The San Francisco Chronicle in June did an article on how Yudof was beefing up his public relations apparatus by hiring some very slick people at salaries of over $200,000. It quoted Richard Blum as saying that he and Mark disagree on almost nothing, and that if he had to grade Yudof, he’d give him an A+.

So Yudof is doing precisely what he was hired to do. He’s the very well paid lawyer whom you bring in to liquidate the old firm and strip it of its assets so that it can be run more efficiently, like a business that returns a higher rate of profit in the short term, because that’s the only way you can think.

The Alternative

We’re constantly told “there is no alternative.” That’s bullshit, of course. During the last Great Depression, FDR’s New Deal built thousands of schools and entire college campuses. It hired tens of thousands of teachers and research assistants. We’ve been riding on that long-term investment for the past 75 years without knowing it.

That’s the model we should be looking at to get us out of the economic washout the neoliberals have drive us into; we should be hiring, not firing people except for those at the very top of the food chain. Mark Yudof, Richard Blum, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Meg Whitman: Your way leads to another Great Depression.

Finally, I had to ask myself how Roosevelt managed to do so much for public education at such a terrible time in our history. The best answer I’ve been able to come up with is that we did not have at that time the military-industrial complex about which President Eisenhower tried to warn us. Since then, it has grown to be the monster in the living room about which no one wants to talk, and it absorbed our universities as well.

The military is now by far the largest item in the federal budget, shoving all other domestic expenditures out of the room, and it has been extraordinarily lucrative to generations of regents such as Richard Blum.

This university has been an integral cog in that complex at least since the Manhattan Project, developing and promoting new generations of weaponry with which to destroy life on planet Earth. (President Atkinson told me that the regents will not hire a president who is in favor of divestment from the weapons labs at Livermore and Los Alamos.)

The military is now breaking the back of California and the United States. That — rather than illegal immigrants — is why there is no longer any money for social services that government once provided. Until we can rein it in, you can expect to go deeper into debt in every way imaginable.

Let’s get out that microscope and start now. And while we’re at it, let’s rebuild our public education system from kindergarten on up to our graduate schools.

ATC 146, May-June 2010

Right On

Well said, Mr. Brechin. It's so refeshing to hear the truth spoken in good plain words.

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