• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Austerity Fatigue

The Amazon deals.

November 14, 2018
 
 

Working in the sector I do, austerity fatigue is a constant danger. I try to fight it off with a practiced mix of learned optimism, personal self-discipline, and a pretty well-honed sense of the absurd, and that usually works.  But every so often, something so manifestly ridiculous comes along that I can’t let it pass without comment. Reading today that Amazon’s HQ2 New York location will receive over a billion dollars in tax incentives, having spent my day scouting locations for a campus food pantry for students who can’t afford lunch, was just a bit much.

Non-profit, public, open-access colleges are being systematically starved of revenue and then blamed for it, but we’re handing over billions of dollars to a publicly-traded company? 

A few months ago, I did a piece on the news that Harvard had just raised another $9.6 billion.  I figured out what community colleges could do just with the interest on that kind of money, and did a very conservative estimate of the number of people it would benefit.   At the end of the piece, I tried to take a larger view:

American political culture holds that 9.6 billion for Harvard is “philanthropy,” but free community college is “socialism.”  There’s something fundamentally wrong with that...

As a former political scientist, I’ve been fascinated to see the concept of socialism catching on among younger voters.  I’m old enough to remember when the word was an epithet. Very Smart People have pronounced themselves perplexed at its emergence.

Ask a community college student who sleeps in her car between part-time jobs what she thinks about Harvard’s tax-free $9.6 billion windfall, and whether she could come up with any better uses for it.

If we don’t want folks to go off the deep end politically, we need to stop pushing.

Since then, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got elected as an avowed socialist, and a blue wave swept the country. New Jersey alone flipped three House seats from red to blue this year.Anyone who knows, say, Morris County knows how remarkable that is. 

At least Harvard could claim some sort of eleemosynary purpose, however strained. Amazon can’t even do that. It will pack up and move somewhere else if it gets a better deal. 

I know the usual excuses for corporate welfare; I’ve heard them enough times. They’re exhausted. In the spirit of one of my political heroes, FDR, I’ll just call out to the economic royalists of our time: bend, so you don’t break. 

I can stomach austerity when it’s real, and shared. But this isn’t austerity. It’s theft. It’s theft from students who literally can’t afford lunch. 

I hope this moment is remembered, historically, as the high-water mark for the new Gilded Age.  There’s only so much austerity fatigue a body politic can tolerate. We can’t keep doing this. And it’s starting to become clear that, one way or another, we won’t.

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