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Monthly Archives: March 2010

We Are All Pods Now

March 30th, 2010 - 10:53 am

Were we Podded in Our Sleep?

I think I went to sleep about a year ago, just woke up, and realized that either I or the world has been changed, snatched as it were. [1]

Once upon a time, cars were just cars.

Like most Americans on the West Coast I began buying Japanese cars after a host of mishaps with American brands — chronic alternator failures on a Chevy S-10 pickup; a Chevy Malibu whose brakes lasted about 10,000 miles, and whose air conditioner went out every six months; a Dodge Dakota whose electrical system failed three times, twice on mountain roads — once in a rain storm, the other at night … and so on. Like millions of others, I reluctantly started buying either Hondas or Toyotas. But suddenly in this new pod world, I am noticing cars are now becoming political statements — and buying them a political act. Toyota has been demonized over what empirically seems to be an isolated accelerator problem. The subtext, however, is that the now number one automaker threatens U.S. union jobs and the now federal GM brand. Indeed, buying a GM product is becoming patriotic, at least more so than Ford, which did not participate in the federal bailout. Indeed, the evil GM Corporation of Michael Moore’s fantasies within a year has transmogrified into something akin to Social Security or Medicare. What will Palo Altoans or Carmelites do with those Priuses? A year ago, they were signatures of environmental caring, replete with Obama bumper stickers and fading  “No blood for oil” slogans. Now, however, are not they anti-American, anti-union, anti-Obama administration, anti-consumer, pro-corporate greed fetishes?

Borrowing from Uncle Sam

Student loans will never be the same again.  Apparently unnoticed in the health care fight was that the Obama administration simply absorbed the multibillion-dollar student loan program. Students will be delighted to see their interest rates, in a low interest market, perhaps go down a point or so — unconcerned that the resulting waste and inefficiency will in the long term devolve into something like Freddie and Fannie (e.g., the minister of student loans will now become a plum sinecure for retiring apparatchik politicians in the manner of Franklin Raines; yes, maybe the retiring NEA or NEH or Education head will accept a Student Loan czardom for the duration?)

An Empty Mailbox

Suddenly there are to be no more Saturday mail deliveries. The Postal Service is broke; unquestioned is any substantive move to freeze union salaries or lay off large numbers of employees. I doubt FedEx cancels Saturday service. The cynical public wonders whether, with 1/6th less service to the public, we can expect either a budget 1/6th smaller or a work force comparably reduced? No, of course not; it would be lunatic to think that. Did we all just sleep through no more private student loans and no more Saturday service?

The Evil Private Health Care Insurer

I expect both my Blue Cross and Health Net medical HMOs  very soon to send me some sort of letter, either advising me about new tax exposure, advising me about new rate hikes, or advising me about reduced coverage. And in time I imagine the number of private physician groups will shrink, and the number of public clinics will expand. I’ve used both, and can attest in the former people are happy and competent, and in the latter more likely to be demoralized and going through the motions. In one a doctor wants to build a practice by expert care; in the other a doctor knows that whatever he does, he is still paid the same — survival, not competence, being the formula for promotion and pay raises. (And soon suing a GS-15-Step 10 Dr. for malpractice is no John Edwards picnic)

And just as California DMV employees now wear to work purple SEIU T-Shirts with “solidarity!” emblazoned on one side and “organize!” on the other, so too I expect that expression of progressivism with millions of new health care bureaucrats and loan officers. The only mystery is whether, when the bodysnatching process is over, the new alien health care plan’s outward stationary, cards, and logos will still look and sound like Blue Cross and Health Net?

The New Rules of Racial Tolerance

There is a new racial tension not present a year ago, one having nothing to do with the election of the nation’s first President of partial African ancestry. Instead, never in my experience have officials of the federal government, both in the campaign leading up to their governance and once in office, so deliberately chosen to polarize the country along racial lines.

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Beefcake beheading

I have been catching up on the episodes of the new Starz series on Spartacus, the Thracian slave who terrified Rome between 73 to 71 BC, through a mass servile uprising originating in Capua.

At least most of the names of the known characters are right. You can check the main sources of the revolt in Plutarch’s Crassus (the richest and most hated man of the late republic), and the second-century AD Greek historian Appian (a little-read, but fascinating text), and bits here and there in Varro and other compilers.

Both Appian and Plutarch (writing variously between ca. 170-200 years centuries after the incident) seem to draw on the same lost and perhaps first-hand source (their accounts, written a few decades apart, are quite similar), either one of Sallust’s lost books or a later compendium account from one Livy’s lost chapters.

Most recently, Barry Strauss has a fine recent general account of Spartacus’s aims; he also wrote a chapter on Spartacus for Makers of Ancient Strategy, which I edited and comes out today from Princeton University Press. For a comprehensive collection of the primary sources, see Brent Shaw’s Spartacus and the Slave Wars, or the essays in Martin Winkler’s edited Spartacus: Film and History.

So what to make of the series? From the episodes I watched, I’m underwhelmed. True, the production is lavishly financed and professionally produced. The actors are in large part good, and do the British-accented ancient world better than in most films.

The series seems an effort to emulate in part Rome — the far better scripted British-televised two-year series that ended in 2007 — in part 300 (slo-mo fighting scenes, computer simulations, blood splashed on the screen, buff, beefed up torsos) — in part Gladiator (suffering and ordeal, before ultimate moral triumph and death), and (unfortunately) in part the American-style, evening soap — something like the old Dallas or Falcon Crest. And all this is supposedly energized by graphic sex (frontal female and male nudity, homosexuality, gratuitous orgies [I was shocked, as it were, to see a nude Lucy Lawless, whose mostly wholesome old Xena series my then teen daughters, and millions like them, once used to watch], and grotesque violence [lopped limbs, beheadings, etc.])

What baffles me is that the series is spending an entire year on mostly what we don’t know (the life of Spartacus before the revolt) and nothing on what we do (the revolt itself).

So next season, will the complex battles and campaigns of the slaves’ desperate struggle dominate the series (especially in light of the recent illness of Spartacus actor Andrew Whitfield), as we see one of the most fascinating incidents in Roman republican history at long last unfold?  All historical fictions need to invent story-lines and personal relationships, given the dearth of historical information. But whereas Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 Spartacus included personal dramas not in the ancient record, such personal interactions were subordinate to, and enhanced, the known narrative about both the nature of the revolt and the Roman reaction to it.

In the Starz production, however, we never quite see what the point of all these trysts, orgies, and beheadings are leading to, other than a generic reminder that slaves had it bad — and so under that cover we can see a lot of 21st century group and homosexual sex that usually doesn’t make it onto the screen.  If the point is to teach us how awful the owners were, to prove to us they deserved what they will they soon get — when they are strung up and spliced and diced as the revolt starts — all that could  have been done in one episode (ditto the violence of the arena).

That’s the difference between a soap opera and a great novel or film — the ability to turn the everyday minutiae of our pedestrian lives into a larger statement about the human condition. I didn’t see much transcendent thought in this version of Spartacus.

So there is good acting, good scenery, some success in capturing the grubby flavor of Roman life in the provinces — and yet mostly all such efforts are wasted on a soap opera script of who is sleeping with whom, the usual triple-cross betrayals, and surprise plot twists. Take away the next-step nudity (I suppose the male nudity is supposed to be in some way significant), head lopping, and ancient sets and costumes and we are left with Sex in the City psychodrama, rather than speculations of what drove Spartacus (a great favorite later with both right and left totalitarian  socialists) and 70,000 others to take on the best legions of Rome.

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As Predictable As the Sun Rising

March 25th, 2010 - 7:03 am

Giddy About Remaking America

If we assume that Obama & Co. wish to radically remake the United States — along the lines of a European socialist society, or perhaps to the left even of a Belgium or Denmark — then the past 14 months were as predictable as the sun rising.

To transmogrify a center-right country into a liberal utopia, certain things follow: higher taxes on the better-off to pay for redistribution and to bring “fairness” to society (e.g., called “redistributive change,”“spread the wealth,” “patriotic,” “paying your fair share”); increased government coercion to force the reluctant to conform (e.g., new IRS agents, more regulations and government intrusion, mandatory new fees); a growing constituency to administer and receive entitlements (e.g., I never really heard much about ACORN or SEIU until the Obama ascendancy); a public relations campaign to demonize the skeptical as enemies of civil society, starting with “selfish” and “greedy,” escalating to “racists,” and finally reaching the dangerous level of “terrorists” who “threaten officials” (those who used to court Michael Moore, or snooze about books and movies suggesting scenarios of killing George Bush are suddenly worried about uncivil discourse); a new neutralist foreign policy to match defense cuts on the horizon and to adjust our stature abroad with our new more revolutionary profile at home (cf. the treatment of an Israel or Britain to the new efforts at winning over Iran and Syria; or our shrinking Navy and Air Force); a highly educated, urban technocracy not subject to its own new protocols and dependent on an ever growing bureau (e.g., Geithnerism, or the strange career of Van Jones); and a new euphemism  in language (there is no “terrorism” any more, liberals disappeared and were replaced by “progressives,” we have no more enemies from the radical Islamic world, etc.)

Taxes and Spending

As these nearly two trillion dollar annual deficits mount, as the combined local, state, federal, and payroll taxes approach 60-70% on the top brackets and yet do little to meet the shortfalls, we will have to either cut programs or tax the middle class or both — or implode.

We are floating huge amounts of debt at historically cheap interest. One can borrow $ 11 trillion at the price of what would be borrowing $20 trillion in the old days of interest, as rates hover around 2-4% rather than the old 6-10%. But this is a fool’s delusion; any spike in inflation will almost immediately turn this mortgaging into an unsustainable disaster, sort of like those old 1980s adjustable mortgages at 3% that drew buyers in to purchase enormous homes only to climb within a few years to 15% and insolvency, or like those introductory credit card offers that offer 6 months at 3% only to climb to 19% when you are maxed out. (As a rule, all interest rates climb as borrowing increases [ask a petulant Greece]).

If we cut some spending, as in the Clinton years, it will eventually fall mostly on defense — fewer planes, armor, divisions, personnel. Etc. If we continue to increase taxes, we will see some sort of federal sales, VAT, or special user taxes on the tens of millions who are now tax exempt. The untaxed will be taxed and told they are not taxed (sort of like poor George Stephanopoulos in his interview with Obama, being bewildered by the president’s postmodern linguistic gymnastics, and thus reduced to looking up “tax” in the dictionary, only to be ridiculed by Obama that Stephanopoulos had to rely on a dictionary in the first place.)

There are simply too many new entitlements and too few left now to pay for them. Note — it is not as if we were extending novel universal health care to a 1920s self-reliant and much poorer populace, but rather to the most affluent, most leisured and most taken care of generation in the history of civilization. It is not as if those without health insurance plans either get turned away from the emergency room or are bereft of cell phones and flat-screened TVs.

No, entitlements subsidize the good consumer life of both the poorer and the middle class. Go to the poorest section of a poor county in a bankrupt state (e.g., 2 miles from my residence), and the electronic and warehouse discount stores are crammed with the shopping “poor” — poor maybe in comparison with the contemporary wealthy, but in a way rich compared to most in the world today or to Americans a generation ago. Cheap interest, the welfare state, 1 billion Indians and Chinese working night and day, high-tech, and instant communications and entertainment have made life not as it was. Today’s Selma resident not far from this farm has access to “things” that an earl or duke could only dream of 50 years ago.

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We’ve Crossed the Rubicon

March 21st, 2010 - 6:36 pm

President Obama has crossed the Rubicon with the health care vote. The bill was not really about medicine; after all, a moderately priced, relatively small federal program could offer the poorer not now insured, presently not on Medicare or state programs like Medicaid or Medical, a basic medical plan.

We have no interest in stopping trial lawyers from milking the system for billions. And we don’t want to address in any meaningful way the individual’s responsibility in some cases (drink, drugs, violence, dangerous sex, bad diet, sloth, etc.) for costly and chronic health procedures.

No, instead, the bill was about assuming a massive portion of the private sector, hiring tens of thousands of loyal, compliant new employees, staffing new departments with new technocrats, and feeling wonderful that we “are leveling the playing field” and have achieved another Civil Rights landmark law. (NB: do the math: add higher state income taxes in most states; the new Clinton-era federal income tax rates to come; the proposed lifting of limits on income exposed to FICA taxes; and now new health care charges — and I think you can reach in some cases a bite of 65%to 70% of one’s income.)

So we are in revolutionary times in which the government will grow to assume everything from energy use to student loans, while abroad we are a revolutionary sort of power, eager to mend fences with Syria and Iran, more eager still to distance ourselves from old Western allies like Israel and Britain.

There won’t be any more soaring rhetoric from Obama about purple-state America, “reaching across the aisle,” or healing our wounds. That was so 2008. Instead, we are in the most partisan age since Vietnam, ushered into it by the self-acclaimed “non-partisan.” But how could it be anything else?

Partisanship all the time, everywhere

No, Obama has thrown down the gauntlet, and is trying to reify the sloganeering of the 1960s. He apparently reasons along the following lines: that centrist talk was campaign fluff; the voters fell for it, and now it’s his turn to remake America with 51% of the House and 44% of the people. Think Sweden, or, better, Greece as our model at home, and something like America as Brazil in matters of foreign policy. Apparently, Obama figures that people now may not like the present partisanship, but they didn’t like FDR at the time either. Yet whom do they associate their Social Security checks with? Hoover? Coolidge? Harding?

I don’t see why the ram-it-through, health care formula won’t be followed by similar strategies for blanket amnesty, cap and trade, and expansions of the state takeover of cars, banks, student loans, and energy.

Remember, all these will be packaged as “comprehensive” reform — comprehensive health care, comprehensive immigration, comprehensive energy, comprehensive monitoring of even the banal decisions we make. So what does comprehensive really mean, other than all of us are going to get even more official looking letters in the mail, advising us to fill out a form, pay a fine, and be warned that a new regulation or tax is on the way — followed by the usual state/federal representative’s newsletter bragging about some new entitlement that he “won” for us with our borrowed money?

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Reflections on the Revolution in America

March 16th, 2010 - 8:23 pm

America’s Extreme Make-over

These are exciting though scary revolutionary times, akin to the constant acrimony in the fourth-century BC polis, mid-nineteenth century revolutionary Europe, or — perhaps in a geriatric replay — the 1960s. This is an era when the fundamental assumptions of the individual and the state are now being redefined, albeit in a weird, high-tech, globalized landscape.

Radical But Well Off

A word of caution: we are not talking about hoi polloi versus hoi oligoi, or the commune on the barricades fighting the estate owners. No, not this time around.

Instead, the present attempt to remake America is the effort of the liberal well-to-do — highly educated at mostly private universities, nursed on three decades of postmodern education, either with inherited wealth or earning top salaries, lifestyles of privilege indistinguishable from those they decry as selfish, and immune from the dictates they impose on others.

Such are basically the profiles of the Obama cabinet and sub-cabinet, the pillars of liberalism in the Congress and state legislatures, the public intellectuals in the universities and foundations, the arts crowd, and the Hollywood elite. Let us be clear about that.

The Distant Poor

They are all battling on behalf of “them,” the poorer half of America, currently in need of some sort of housing, education, food, or legal subsidy, whom the above mentioned elite, in the way they live, send their children to school, socialize, and vacation so studiously avoid.  (The New York Times owners are likely to follow the cut-throat business practices of Wall Street, live in the most refined areas of New York, and assume privileges indistinguishable from other CEOs; the difference is that they so visibly care about those they never see or seek out).

Note well the term “poor.” These are not Dickensian or Joads poor, but largely Americans who by the standards of the 1940s would be considered lucky. Partly because of globalized Chinese consumer goods, and partly redistributive practices of a half-century, our current “underclass” has access to clothes, electronics, entertainment, apartments, cell phones, transportation, etc., undreamed of by the middle class of the recent past. I live in one of the poorest areas of one of the poorest counties in a bankrupt state; and those I see poor are not like those I saw 40 years ago in the same locale.

No, the revolution is not one of the abject poor and starving storming the Bastille, but of the angry and self-righteous well-off— angry as hell that the less well-off are living lives quite differently from the very well-off. (A trodden down poor person today flies standby from San Francisco to LAX; a very rich person gets into his $50 million Gulfstream — but note modernism’s paradox: the poor person’s United Airlines pilots are as good, he gets there as safely and in some comfort, and not much later as well.)

Funny Revolutionaries

Some of the revolutionaries are guided by genuine noblesse oblige. Others act out of guilt and can justify their own consumption if they “care” for a distant poorer other. Still more explain their own privilege through using government to redistribute income. A few are driven by genuine hatred — stemming from the fact that the highly educated academic or artist makes far less than the doctor, lawyer, CEO, or — heaven forbid — tire store owner, family orthodontist, or owner of a half dozen Little Caesar pizza franchises.

How can that be that the PhD who reads Old English, or the painter who emulates Pollock, or the writer who is the next Fitzgerald, or the AP teacher is given so much less by society than the crass, smug captain of industry, who reads less, has no real taste, and hardly understands his own existential dilemma? Should not salary and capital be predicated on good intentions, high education, rhetoric and argumentation, and a bit of necessary sarcasm?

Liberal Endangered Species

Over the last fifty years it was received wisdom that a liberal Democrat could not be entrusted to run the U.S. LBJ’s Great Society had largely failed. Its legacy were debts, high taxes, bloated bureaucracies, the destruction of the inner-city family, and welfare dependency.

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Is Tom Hanks Unhinged?

March 11th, 2010 - 5:38 pm

Much has been written of the recent Tom Hanks remarks to Douglas Brinkley in a Time magazine interview about his upcoming HBO series on World War II in the Pacific. Here is the explosive excerpt that is making the rounds today.

“Back in World War II, we viewed the Japanese as ‘yellow, slant-eyed dogs’ that believed in different gods. They were out to kill us because our way of living was different. We, in turn, wanted to annihilate them because they were different. Does that sound familiar, by any chance, to what’s going on today?”

Hanks may not have been quoted correctly; and his remarks may have been impromptu and poorly expressed; and we should give due consideration to the tremendous support Hanks has given in the past both to veterans and to commemoration of World War II; and his new HBO series could well be a fine bookend to Band of Brothers.  All that said, Hanks’ comments were sadly infantile pop philosophizing offered by, well,  an ignoramus.

Hanks thinks he is trying to explain the multifaceted Pacific theater in terms of a war brought on by and fought through racial animosity. That is ludicrous. Consider:

1) In earlier times, we had good relations with Japan (an ally during World War I, that played an important naval role in defeating imperial Germany at sea) and had stayed neutral in its disputes with Russia (Teddy Roosevelt won a 1906 Nobel Peace Prize for his intermediary role). The crisis that led to Pearl Harbor was not innately with the Japanese people per se (tens of thousands of whom had emigrated to the United States on word of mouth reports of opportunity for Japanese immigrants), but with Japanese militarism and its creed of Bushido that had hijacked, violently so in many cases, the government and put an entire society on a fascistic footing. We no more wished to annihilate Japanese because of racial hatred than we wished to ally with their Chinese enemies because of racial affinity. In terms of geo-strategy, race was not the real catalyst for war other than its role among Japanese militarists in energizing expansive Japanese militarism.

2) How would Hanks explain the brutal Pacific wars between Japanese and Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, Japanese and Filipinos, and Japanese and Pacific Islanders, in which not hundreds of thousands perished, but many millions? In each of these theaters, the United States was allied with Asians against an Asian Japan, whose racially-hyped “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” aimed at freeing supposedly kindred Asians from European and white imperialism, flopped at its inauguration (primarily because of high-handed Japanese feelings of superiority and entitlement, which, in their emphasis on racial purity, were antithetical to the allied democracies, but quite in tune with kindred Axis power, Nazi Germany.)

3) Much of the devastating weaponry used on the Japanese (e.g., the B-29 fire raids, or the two nuclear bombs) were envisioned and designed to be used against Germany (cf. the 1941 worry over German nuclear physics) or were refined first in the European theater (cf. the allied fire raids on Hamburg and Dresden). Much of the worst savagery of the war came in 1945 when an increasingly mobilized and ever more powerful United States steadily turned its attention on Japan as the European theater waned and then ended four months before victory in the Pacific theater. Had we needed by 1945 to use atomic bombs, or massive formations of B-29s when they came on line, against Hitler, we most certainly would have.

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Obama’s Great Gift — to Bush

March 10th, 2010 - 10:26 am

Obama’s gift — it just keeps giving to Bush.

Trumping Bush

Barack Obama has oddly done a great service to George W. Bush. Almost every issue about which the media and our elite culture once faulted Bush for has been even more applicable to Obama himself.

Bush and the Press? Obama has given far fewer press conferences; he is accessible, if the media agrees to fluff interviews and photo-ops. For Scott McClellan, substitute Robert Gibbs (Obama has of yet no pro like Tony Snow). Authentic imprecision in a president is perhaps preferable to teleprompted glibness.

Awkwardness? For “nucular,” substitute “corpse-man,” and add in Austrian-speaking Austrians and Cinco de Cuatro celebrations.

Karl Rove hardballers? Trumped again by Chicagoans like Axelrod, Emanuel, and Jarret. I don’t think Mark Foley ever accused a shouting Karl Rove of approaching him naked in the congressional showers.

Tired expressions? Try “let me be perfectly clear” and “make no mistake about it” ad nauseam.

Bush crassness? For “Yo Blair” and a back rub for Angie Merkel, imagine cheap gifts for the British, bows to the Saudis, and lies about Islamic primacy in science and discovery.

We could go on.

Bush the rude boor abroad? A poll of Europe’s leaders (privately, of course) would perhaps find German, British, Italian, and French prime ministers and presidents more favorable to the folksy dependable Bush than the aloof diffident Obama.

NATO friends in Afghanistan? The transnational Obama is no more successful in keeping Europeans at the front than was the supposedly unilateral Bush. Indeed, the Dutch are leaving and the French not sending any new help.

American popularity abroad? Polls show that Americans, at least, feel our national prestige has declined, not grown since 2009. Most worry more that allies like Merkel, Sarkozy and the Brits now doubt America’s resolve than whether we are liked by the crowds in Bali or Zimbabwe.

Is Obama on some sort of mission to rehabilitate George Bush? Each time he starts in with “reset” and “Bush did it” and “we inherited this mess,” he is achieving the opposite effect of what was intended — sympathy for the prior president.

Obama as Bush 2.0

But all this is just fluff and PR: the real Obama gift to Bush has been on foreign policy and the economy.

By December 2008, a multiyear narrative had been long established among global elites that George Bush had essentially shredded the U.S. Constitution. By enacting a series of post-9/11 anti-terrorism measures such as the Patriot Act, renditions, tribunals, Predator-targeted assassinations, and the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, as well as conducting two unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush was supposed nearly on par with the terrorists themselves.

State legislator, Senator, and then presidential candidate Obama perhaps best both played on, and helped to advance, this narrative of Bush the anti-civil libertarian, by serial criticism of almost all of the Bush protocols. Indeed, Obama was on record on everything from demanding combat troops out of Iraq by March 2008 to labeling air attacks in Afghanistan as a sort of airborne terrorism.

For every Bush protocol, one can adduce a demagogic Obama slur, as he derided tribunals, Iraq, renditions, and Guantanamo. Such posturing was relatively easy — given that an unexpectedly safe America years later had the luxury to second guess the earlier protocols that had kept it secure. Partisan cheap rhetoric, of course, was far easier than responsible governance.

Predator Obama

But then a funny thing happened. A now President Obama, responsible for the safety of 300 million Americans, adopted almost all of the Bush measures, and in some cases even augmented them (such as quadrupling the number of targeted assassinations.)

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I am looking over a pile of form letters and going over emails of anguish, all decrying the cuts in state government. Indeed, I just got my regular alumnus email note from the UC system — outraged over the destruction of the university through massive budget cuts. Of course, there is very little self-reflection in all of this furor. Not one of these notices suggests, “There is no money left. It does not grow on trees. Look in the mirror.”

You, the Greedy — Not Us, the Anointed

No, nothing is much said about the gargantuan number of UC administrators, their pay, the percentage of administrative costs in the budget, the number of non-academic employees serving in the system, or any explanation why the rate of annual increase in the university budget has consistently over the years exceeded the rate of inflation — in many years at twice the rate of inflation. Taxes climb; guaranteed federal loans that pay tuition expand; state borrowing increases; standards decline; admissions increase; life is good — so why worry?

“They” did it!

Instead the modus operandi is to cite students turned away, classes canceled, programs slashed — never any sense that the first cuts should be vice chancellors, associate provosts, assistants to the president, and other top echelon administrators — absences in many cases that would not affect the quality of instruction. Slash UC administrators by 50%, make all UC professors teach 2 classes per semester (those at CSU teach 4), cut out “support” personnel in various centers, end tenure — and at least some of the crisis would ease.

From my 21 years in the CSU system, I can attest that most of the “centers for…” and “assistants to” and “offices of” could easily be terminated. Both UC and CSU have vastly increased the percentage of non-academic, non-teaching expenditures in their budgets — the expanding number of non-instructional employees subsidized by both increased taxes and the exploitive use of part-time and graduate student instructors, who teach at well less than half the pay of normal faculty and now at some campuses account for nearly 40% of the total offered units. (Remember that the next time a tenured professor rails about pay inequity at Wal-Mart).

Protests everywhere…

In general now, University of California students are furious with tuition raises, rioting even at Berkeley. Teachers are angry about cutbacks. State employee unions blast the airways with ads complaining about a scarcity of funds.

So bear with me with a bit.

The cost to attend a University of California flagship campus — room, board, and tuition — is about a third of what is charged by a private, comparable institution in California like Stanford or USC — roughly some $15-20,000 in total costs versus around $50,000 per year. Public higher education is a good deal, in other words.

California public school teachers make on average the highest salaries in the United States, several thousands higher than those in Massachusetts or Connecticut, and about $20,000 more a year than in a place like Maine or Kansas. On average, government employees, state and federal, nationwide make about 50% more (in salary, pension, and benefits) than their counterparts in the private sector. I realize that if one reaches the very top of private enterprise, one can make more than a high-earning state or federal bureaucrat; but, in general, across the spectrum, it is far preferable to work for government, besides the job security, higher pension, and better working conditions.

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March 3rd, 2010 - 8:03 am

California is a rich state — as the world found out the last century. It has the best farmland in the world, much of it watered by gravity-fed irrigation from the Sierra. Its timber acreage is vast. There is a lot of natural gas and oil still in the southern interior and off the coast. Silicon Valley, tourism, Hollywood, defense, and Napa Valley all contribute to natural wealth.

The problem is that we have created a strange drone mindset that manifests itself in two ways. Among elites there is almost a “Don’t touch or disturb that!” mantra. The law of the hothouse orchid reigns. Once our grubby ancestors created our infrastructure, we wish sometimes to ridicule and — use — it, less often to leave anything better behind for anyone else.

Fish, not people

We want all the dividends of industrial society, but an 18th century wilderness at the same time. So the in-the-know people demand cheap, plentiful, and tasty food, but worry more about a three-inch fish than the farmers and farm workers who keep us alive one more day — and so divert fresh water out into the bay to keep the delta smelt alive. (Oh, I know the Gorist logic: the smelt is a canary in the mine; when he can’t get enough oxygen, then we won’t be able to drink soon.” Sorry, I suggest that communities whose treated sewage goes into the bay begin using some sort of organic toilets rather than the old flush models.)

To drive through downtown Santa Barbara is to count the amazing variety of Volvo, Mercedes, Lexus, and BMW SUVs — and wonder where the gasoline comes from, as off-shore drilling declines. You get the picture — our top echelons have become quite prissy. The redwood deck is beloved, not the falling coast redwood tree; kitchen granite counters are de rigueur, not the blasting at the top of the granite mountain; the Prius is a badge of honor, not the chemical plant that makes its batteries; we now like stainless steel frigs, but hate steel’s coke, and iron ore, and electricity lines; arugula is tasty, not the canal that brings water 400 miles to irrigate it; I support teacher unions and -studies courses in the public schools, but not with my Ivy-League bound children.

And on the other hand…

At the other end of the social spectrum, the underclass seems to be growing. I don’t expect to see much cash at mega-supermarkets in my area. Food stamps — and yet expensive food — are the norm. The school systems of California’s major cities are broken; the wealthy praise them and flee, and the poor complain about their inadequacy, but insist on the sort of identity “pride” politics curriculum and staffing that ensure the inadequacy.

Don’t mention parental responsibility; that’s either Neanderthal or racist. When I see gang bangers in San Jose or Fresno, I think two things: they like DVDs, nice cars, drugs, and the cult of male violence, but when they get hurt they show up at the emergency room and demand 21st century medical care from the nerds they so often intimidate on the street. Is a Stanford-trained emergency doctor potential prey on Saturday night at the stop light, or a few hours later in surgery a godsend?

It is taboo to ask our failing youth a simple question, “What exactly have you done the last month to ensure your birthright to the world’s most sophisticated lifestyle propped up by advanced math, science, social stability, and political tranquility?”

It other words, our elite is becoming more elite and refined, while our non-elite is becoming more rough around the edges. But they share a disturbing commonality: both expect something that they are not willing to invest in.

Both Ways

The well-off like nice cars, tasteful homes, good food, and appropriate vacations — but not the oil, gas, coal, nuclear energy, transmission lines, timber, cement,  farmland, water pumps, etc., that bring that to them. In California we like to leave old pot-holed roads up to the Sierra as proof of our environmentalism (cheaper too), and then clog them when we wish in politically-incorrect fashion to have a picnic in the mountains. You see, the mindset of the elite Bay Area denizen is to keep California pristine, rough even, for that one day a year in the wild experience, even as it turns out most green suburbanites actually like to go the lake or beach, and get in their carbon-emitting cars on congested roads to get there.

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