Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous

 

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According to an op-ed by Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post, if Americans are united in any conviction these days, it is that we urgently need to shift the country’s education toward the teaching of specific, technical skills, expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities. “It is the only way, we are told, to ensure that Americans survive in an age defined by technology and shaped by global competition. The stakes could not be higher.” But according to Zakaria the dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future.

As Steve Jobs once explained “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.” Zakaria says that no matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write and cites Jeff Bezos’ insistence that writing a memo that makes sense is an even more important skill to master. “Full sentences are harder to write,” says Bezos. “They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.” “This doesn’t in any way detract from the need for training in technology,” concludes Zakaria, “but it does suggest that as we work with computers (which is really the future of all work), the most valuable skills will be the ones that are uniquely human, that computers cannot quite figure out — yet. And for those jobs, and that life, you could not do better than to follow your passion, engage with a breadth of material in both science and the humanities, and perhaps above all, study the human condition.”

 

ARTICLE: https://trove.com/a/Why-America%E2%80%99s-obsession-with-STEM-education-is-dangerous.RIMIP?chid=147907&_p=full-frontpage%5B5%5D

New discoveries show that Mars may have once been habitable

By Bryan Dyne
28 March 2015

A recent study using data from NASA’s Curiosity rover and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences present data showing the presence of nitrates on Mars. This molecule, composed of one nitrogen and three oxygen atoms, may indicate that there was once a nitrogen cycle on ancient Mars, one of the necessary mechanisms on a planet to sustain terrestrial-like life.

The Mars rover Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The research was undertaken with an international team led by Jennifer Stern using Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite. In earlier studies of Martian soils and rocks at Gale crater, nitrogen was detected in both scooped and drilled sediment samples. However, it was not clear whether the nitrogen detected was from the surrounding atmosphere, indicating molecular nitrogen, or from the rocks themselves, indicating nitrates. Using SAM and subtracting out the known sources of nitrogen within the instrument, Stern’s team was able to show that there were still up to 1100 parts per million (ppm) of nitrogen remaining, depending on the sample analyzed. From this, Stern’s team concluded that the nitrogen originated from the sediments and thus from nitrates.

Whether nitrogen is found in the atmosphere or in other forms plays an important role in biochemistry on Earth. While the majority of terrestrial nitrogen is in the atmosphere, making up 78 percent of the air we breath, it is in the inert form of molecular hydrogen (N2). To incorporate nitrogen into more complex molecules—such as nucleobases, amino acids, DNA, RNA and proteins—it must be in more accessible forms. The nitrate molecule (NO3) is one of the most prevalent and useful molecules seen on Earth for this purpose.

As such, the strong evidence of nitrates in a variety of different rocks and sediments on the Martian surface implies that, at a very early point in the planet’s history, there could have been large amounts of biologically useful nitrogen on the Red Planet.

Stern’s research complements a report released three weeks ago in Sciencewhich provides strong support for the existence of an ocean of liquid water on the surface of Mars during the planet’s early life. The ocean is estimated to have held more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean. That is enough water to cover the entire surface of Mars in liquid 137 meters deep. More likely, the ocean covered almost half Mars’ northern hemisphere and reached depths greater than 1.6 kilometers.

This is much larger than previous estimates of a primordial Martian ocean, meaning that the planet’s surface could have been wetter for much longer than estimated, perhaps 900 million years. Combined with a thicker, warmer atmosphere, volcanism on the surface and the presence of nitrates, this likely led to rich reservoirs containing the diverse chemical elements needed for life.

Artist conception of the primitive ocean the NASA suspects once existed on Mars

This second discovery was made by a team led Geronimo Villanueva, working with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, and the W.M. Keck Observatory and NASA Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii. Using detailed maps of the Martian atmosphere, the scientists were able to distinguish the chemical signatures of two slightly different isotopes of water. The first is the familiar H2O. The second is the more exotic form HDO, in which one hydrogen atom is replaced by one its more massive forms, deuterium.

By taking the ratio of H2O and HDO in Mars’ atmosphere and comparing it to those values found in water trapped in a 4.5 billion-year-old Martian meteorite, Villanueva’s team was able to measure the atmospheric change in the intervening time span and determine how much water escaped to space. The forthcoming MAVEN probe will take similar measurements.

These maps were made over the course of three Martian years, amounting to six years on Earth. Beyond showing that Mars once housed a massive ocean, the research also revealed seasonal changes and local weather patterns across what was previously thought to be a mostly homogenous desert climate.

Mars’ polar ice caps were also studied, using the same H2O and HDO ratio, as they are suspected to contain a more direct record of water on Mars from 3.7 billion years ago to the present. The researchers found that Mars once had at least 6.5 times the amount of water currently contained in the ice caps, meaning a volume of water on ancient Mars of at least 20 million cubic kilometers. This is in general agreement with the atmospheric study.

Both the nitrogen amounts and water levels now thought to have existed on ancient Mars lead to the question: Where did this all go? Mars today is a barren world with an atmosphere that is 96 percent carbon dioxide and less than 1 percent as thick as Earth’s. There is no liquid water on its surface and one has to dig before finding any indication of biologically useable material.

It is suspected that Mars lost its atmosphere to space. The results gathered by the Curiosity rover as a whole are in agreement with in situ atmospheric measurements made by the Viking landers from 1976 to 1982, when this idea first gained traction. The three main mechanisms for losing atmosphere include interactions between the atmosphere and the solar wind, a massive impact by an asteroid or other body, and/or the atmosphere escaping as a result of thermal motion and the planet’s relatively low gravity. It is not clear which of these mechanisms (if any) is primary.

The loss of the ocean is somewhat more mysterious. Neither the solar wind nor low Martian gravity can account for the loss of liquid water. As the planet cooled and the water froze, one way for the ocean to have disappeared is for the frozen water to sublime into water vapor in the atmosphere and then into space. A more interesting hypothesis is that the ocean didn’t go anywhere at all, but was covered up by sediment and dirt as it froze. If so, this would mean that a great deal of water ice is under the northern lowlands of Mars, the Vastitas Borealis basin. It is unknown how far down a probe would need to drill in order to test this idea.

A further question is posed: What is the possibility that life developed on early Mars?

While a great deal more research needs to be done on this subject, these two results are further evidence that at the very least, the conditions once existed on Mars for a life cycle to begin.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/28/mars-m28.html

The fraud of Obama’s “Student Aid Bill of Rights”

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By Nancy Hanover
23 March 2015

Last week President Obama announced a series of executive actions that he dubbed a “Student Aid Bill of Rights.”

The initiative is partially an exercise in damage control. It follows a series of lawsuits and scandals involving the Department of Education (DOE). The government agency has become the target of growing anger for protection of predatory student loan collection agencies, its bailout of the for-profit career college chain Corinthian and its overall profit-taking from student loans.

Obama’s initiative, in the form of a memorandum directed to the DOE, calls for:

  • a new web site where all federal loans will be visible by July 2016
  • requiring loan servicers to notify debtors when their loans are transferred or payments are late
  • instructing loan servicers to apply prepayments to loans with the highest interest rate
  • a “state-of-the-art” complaint system.

In addition, the administration will launch a two-year pilot program in which the federal government will directly collect the defaulted debt of a small number of loan borrowers.

It is farcical to call such rudimentary accounting and communications procedures a “Bill of Rights.”

The language merely emphasizes that there is not even a pretense of a right to higher education in this country. The 43 million Americans who owe some $1.3 trillion in student loan debt were offered zero forgiveness. In fact, Obama does not propose even one measure to actually lessen the ever-escalating cost of college or encroach on the lucrative business of student loan debt. All the “rights” remain in the hands of the government, the banks and hedge funds.

To add insult to injury, the centerpiece of the memorandum is the promise of a web site system—in a distant 15 months—from an administration who has not recovered from the political debacle of the Affordable Care Act web site.

Meanwhile Obama’s new budget calls for further cuts to students on the Income Based Repayment (IBR) and Public Service Loan forgiveness programs. These cuts will reduce government write-offs and drive up student loan volumes.

The “Student Loan Bill of Rights” is, however, something of an admission of guilt. The Department of Education has been on the hot seat for some time over its cozy relationships with debt collectors using unscrupulous and outright illegal methods and the fact that the federal government is directly profiting from student loans, to the tune of about $10 billion per year.

Earlier this month, the Department of Education said that it would terminate its lucrative contracts with five debt collection agencies that systematically lied to or misled student borrowers. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau provided evidence that student loan collectors told students that they would face legal action when that wasn’t true, and further misled students as to their options and rights.

Despite the terminations, two of the debt collection companies, Coast Professional and National Recoveries, were awarded new contracts in 2014 which may still be valid, according Inside Higher Ed. Such contracts amount to tens of millions of dollars annually. Three of the debt collection agencies, known for their clout on Capitol Hill, have filed suit against the DOE over the contracts.

Separately the Navient-owned Pioneer Credit Recovery (formerly Sallie Mae) has filed a formal protest, one step down from litigation, over the contract termination.

Navient, one of the more notorious violators, paid $97 million in a settlement last year for illegally maximizing late fees on the student loans of military personnel. Over 60,000 loans were affected by the violation of the 6 percent interest rate cap which is afforded to active duty service members. Navient’s contracts amount to $130 million annually, and Obama has come under fire from the American Legion for the administration’s failure to hold Navient liable.

On the other hand, there is worry among the powers-that-be that they are sitting on a political and economic time bomb. Nearly 7 in 10 graduating seniors in 2013, 69 percent of the total, left school with student loan debt, with an average debt of $28,400.

An extraordinary meeting was held by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York on March 4, where the bank’s president William Dudley spoke at length on the macroeconomic consequences of student loans. His remarks make the real purpose of the Obama web site clear: to be an early warning system for a crash of the student loan system.

Dudley pointed to the government’s inadequate knowledge of the student loan crisis and a “data gap.” He also cited statistics that put loan repayment rates at a catastrophically low level.

“New York Fed economists have shown that for the 2009 cohort of graduates, only 17 percent of their original debt had been paid down after five years,” said Dudley. “More than 20 percent of high-balance student borrowers owe more now than when they graduated in 2009. For the 2005 cohort of graduates, only 38 percent of their original student debt had been paid down, on average, nearly ten years after graduation.”

With student loan debt surpassing credit card debt and the only form of debt that continued to grow between 2008 and 2013, the effect on overall financial stability of growing defaults and slow repayments is a concern to the Federal Reserve.

These considerations put into context the policies of a section of the Democratic Party who posture as defenders of indebted students, but are loyal advocates for the financial industry.

The most outspoken of this group is Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, who reintroduced last year’s stillborn bill, the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act, last week. Such legislation seeks to rein in the most rapacious aspects of student loans in the hopes of increasing repayment rates and averting a collapse of the $1 trillion loan bubble.

Like Obama’s call for free community college, however, there is little chance the proposal will advance, as the Republican majority is advocating increased student loan interest rates, pegged annually. Even were students to be allowed to refinance their loans at modestly lower rates, as Warren advocates, the substantial spread between the Federal Reserve rate and the student loan rates will still net large profits for the government and banks.

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), one of the most strident defenders of Wall Street, also announced new legislation last week, “Andrew’s Law,” which would require private student loan companies to forgive outstanding debt if a borrower dies. Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA), and senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CN), and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), among others have joined with Warren questioning the bailout of Corinthian Colleges by the DOE and requested clear guidelines on DOE policies for loan discharges. Waters has supported a debt strike by some Corinthian students.

Obama himself floated the idea of allowing private loans (10-15 percent of the student market) to be discharged under personal bankruptcies. The Fairness for Struggling Students Act of 2015, also sponsored by a group of Democratic senators including Warren and Richard Durbin of Illinois, has also been introduced in Congress.

The administration’s nod to the bill, interestingly, was greeted with approval on Wall Street. “Obama’s proposition may encourage Americans to take on more student loan debt,” noted Zack’s, an equity research firm. “This will indeed be a boon for post-secondary education providers like DeVry Education Group Inc., Strayer Education Inc, Apollo Education Group, Inc [Phoenix Universities], Capella Education Co, Universal Technical Institute, Inc. and many more. Share prices of most of these education companies have risen following the announcement.”

This group of for-profit colleges applauded the proposal on private loans, adding the hope that the Obama measures might reverse falling college enrollments and the “decline in student demand due to hesitancy over taking a loan.”

Far from a “Bill of Rights” Obama continues to deliver a fraudulent bill of goods. At every point, his administration has protected the financial industry in looting an entire generation of students, preventing millions of young people from either attaining the education they desire or making them pay through the nose for the rest of their lives.

 

The author also recommends:

Elizabeth Warren speaks at AFL-CIO meeting
[13 January 2015]

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/23/stud-m23.html

Toronto strikes back against neoliberal education

By ROAR Collective On March 20, 2015

Post image for Toronto strikes back against neoliberal educationThe university strikes in Toronto are a powerful articulation of an emergent student and academic staff movement that is growing on campuses globally.

Article written by various rank and file members of CUPE 3902 and CUPE 3903. Photo by Daniel Kwan.

As we enter now into the third week of strikes at two of Canada’s largest universities — the University of Toronto and York University — we believe this is a vital moment to reflect upon the aims shared by members of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) locals 3902 and 3903, representing over 10,000 teaching assistants and course instructors with the majority of them graduate students at both University of Toronto and York University, and to explore the larger structural issues that led to strike actions at both campuses.

We contend that the casualization of academic labor and the commodification of education must be seen as components of the larger framework of the neoliberalization of state and society. This is seen quite sharply in the demands put forth by members of both CUPE 3902 and CUPE 3903. The authors of this piece are a collective comprised of rank-and-file members from both CUPE locals. Our aim is to provide an analysis of the present situation with united voices, exploring linkages between these specific articulations and the ways in which our strikes are situated on the horizon of a growing movement.

While the particular details of each local’s bargaining position are specific to existent relations within each university, upon brief reflection it becomes remarkably clear that the foundational concerns raised in each case are symptomatic of the neoliberal restructuring of the university system, and indeed, of society at large, and represent a concerted push-back against austerity and the casualization and precarization of labor within and beyond the academic institution.

In conjunction with increasingly assertive organizing on the part of adjunct faculty across the continent, with a second round of student strikes about to kick off in Quebec, and with student occupations taking off across the Atlantic inLondon and Amsterdam, these concurrent strikes have become increasingly powerful articulations of an emergent student and contract labor movement growing across university campuses globally.

Sparking the match

CUPE 3902 at the University of Toronto was the first to declare the strike, on Friday, February 27, with York joining shortly thereafter. The University of Toronto strike deadline had been set months prior, but the employer had delayed bargaining until the very last minute, when at 3am, after a marathon negotiation session, it tried to push through a lackluster deal which the membership would swiftly and decisively reject.

The tentative agreement offered by the University of Toronto included minor wage increases, some limited financial allocations available by application for those in the final years of PhD studies, and several modest improvements in the language of the collective agreement, but it did not address the substantive issues members had entrusted the bargaining team to negotiate. In fact, written into the deal was the employer’s assertion that CUPE 3902 does not have the mandate to negotiate on either of the core matters which membership had authorized it to negotiate — an increase in the overall guaranteed minimum funding package of $15,000 per year, and a reduction or remission of tuition fees for graduate students beyond the funded years.

Given that teaching assistant and course instructor work is a requirement to fulfill more than half of that funding guarantee, this was widely seen as a political attempt by the administration to limit graduate students’ capacity to deploy our collective power as unionized workers and address the terms of our relationship with the university holistically.

In response to this insult, CUPE 3902 members raised picket lines at all three University of Toronto campuses the following Monday, and were joined by CUPE 3903 at York the very next day. Similarly, York’s offer also evaded the union’s core bargaining points, which included tuition indexation for all members, job security for contract faculty members, and a reasonable funding package for graduate assistants.

Tuition indexation ensures that every dollar added to graduate tuition fees is met in kind by additions to graduate student compensation. This was already won through a protracted strike in 2000-’01, and secured for all members of the local, but York’s administration recently reinterpreted the language and now claims that it only applies to students already under the collective agreement, excluding incoming students. As a result, the tuition fees of international graduate students increased by a whopping $7,000 in 2014.

A second core demand at York is for an increase in the guaranteed minimum funding to Research Assistants and Graduate assistants, currently set at $9,000 per year. In a city such as Toronto, in which the Low Income Cutoff (LICO) is set at $23,000, it is clear that guaranteed minimum funding at both universities leaves graduate students struggling substantially below a livable income.

The financial enterprise of knowledge production

The systemic indifference of university administrators towards the experience of graduate students and course instructors reflects the extent to which institutionalized knowledge-production has become a financial enterprise. In fact, this indifference marks a class conceit particular to the neoliberal moment. As David Graeber argues, the neoliberal university is exemplary of the emergence of a modern class alliance between financial elites and corporate bureaucrats, which he terms the professional-managerial class; a class position which university administrators have increasingly come to occupy over the past few decades.

Alongside the casualization of academic labor that marks diminishing prospects for the attainment of tenure-track professorship and replacement with highly insecure and poorly compensated adjunct teaching positions, there persists a hiring spree of senior administrators with progressively higher salaries and compensation packages emulating that of corporate executives. A brief glance at the Ontario Sunshine List, which shows the annual salaries throughout the past decade of any publicly employed person making over $100,000, reveals the bloated and rapidly increasing salaries of administrators at both universities.

Meanwhile, the ratio between senior administrators and tenured faculty is decreasing dramatically across universities in Ontario. This exemplifies an ongoing trend in which universities have become sites for the reproduction of the professional-managerial class; a reproduction that we emphatically insist comes at the expense of the political place of labor in our society.

The form this class reproduction assumes is unequivocally corporate. Universities are constantly engaged in orienting their policy outlook to the private interests of investors and shareholders, where “revenue shortfalls” and “budget surpluses” dictate policy, albeit without any change in employee working conditions either way, as the conditions of our current strikes reveal. After all, although U of T reported a budget surplus of $200million last year it refuses to negotiate the value of its guaranteed graduate funding, which hasn’t seen an increase since 2008. Meanwhile the average salary of a University of Toronto dean has risen by $20,000 since then.

Prioritizing “fiscal responsibility,” often at the expense of educational quality, universities are becoming technocratic financial institutions in all but name. Consequently “asset management” and “market value” have come to signify the quality of research and education on offer, both of which achieve popular mass consumption in the form of global institutional rankings, themselves evocative of corporate performance reviews.

And yet for all their pomp and “prestige,” such global indices belie the exploitative conditions that await international graduate students whose untenable economic position at our universities exemplifies the extreme edge of precarity experienced across the graduate student population. The often undervalued contributions graduate students make as cutting-edge researchers and contract education workers are essential to the international prestige of these institutions, and indeed, their very functioning.

The pedagogy of student indebtedness

Another crucial dimension in the reproduction of the neoliberal university is student indebtedness. With tuition fees increasing well above the rate of inflation on an annual basis in Ontario (by provincial law, universities can increase tuition by up to 5 percent per year), and with meager stipends that fall well below the poverty line, graduate students and course instructors are often forced to debt-finance the completion of their degrees.

As one CUPE 3902 union member succinctly puts it, when we speak about precarity in the university, we are primarily speaking about debt. Exemplary of a neoliberal strategy beginning in the 1970s, the right to a publicly funded education is increasingly being substituted with easy access to credit. And although the university is not a primary issuer of student loans, it plays a formative role in the financialization process by intentionally fostering mass student loan debts. Thus it is through student debt that we can more clearly discern how the university articulates and produces a larger neoliberal order based in the reproduction of financial capital.

Most importantly, student indebtedness designates a pedagogical dimension of the neoliberal university, one central to the reproduction of the professional-managerial class (or, more accurately, the sensibilities associated with this class). That is to say, in the name of their professionalization, students are taught through their debt to reflect on their status as human capital, or as University of Toronto administration has termed its students, “Basic Income Units.”

In order to acquire the habit of valorizing themselves through personal “investment” in their (unforeseeable) futures, they are taught to make an enterprise of themselves, engaging incessantly (and anxiously) in acts of self-marketing. As such, an audit-culture is instituted in the neoliberal university through an ethos of indebtedness whereby student-debtors are incessantly interpolated as manager-professionals split between the contrarian injunction to embrace risk and the prudent warning to take precautions against making bad investments.

Whose university? Our university!

At a recent solidarity rally outside the administrative offices of the University of Toronto, thousands of graduate and undergraduate students together chanted “Whose university? Our university!” With blinds tightly shuttered and campus police standing guard at each locked entrance, our voices rang in unison so that we might be clearly heard, if not seen, by the administrators cloistered within.

While our respective strikes are but a beginning, the terms in which they are articulated show clear linkages with a wider global struggle to reclaim the university as a public space for free and guaranteed accessible education for all. In this sense, the fight of striking student union members at the University of Toronto and York University for increases to the basic funding package, tuition relief and/or tuition indexation, and improvements to overall working conditions, cannot be separated from the wider global struggle for broad structural transformation within the fiscal and pedagogical governance of the contemporary university.

Students in Canada have been at the forefront of the struggle for high quality accessible education for all, with the 2012 student strikes in Quebec a telling example. The struggle of Quebec students against austerity challenged multiple aspects of neoliberal governance within and beyond the university setting. As striking Quebec students in 2012 articulated opposition to both proposed tuition increases and the sweeping northern development project Plan Nord, this movement cannot be separated from the struggle against the exploitation of land and resources, and the ongoing internal colonization of Indigenous territories. Indeed, in 2012 lines of solidarity were produced between Indigenous and student activists articulating an overall critique of neoliberal restructuring in all sectors, and a shift toward alternate visions for the futurity of political-economic relations.

The momentum of the present movement is escalating rapidly. Our own administrations have taken hard offensive lines against our unions necessitating prolonged strikes, while concurrently, Quebec students from 24 student unions across six Montreal campuses have declared a second wave of student strikesbeginning March 21. From the picket lines on Keele, Mississauga, Scarborough, and St. George campuses in Toronto to the occupied Maagdenhuis (the main administration building of the University of Amsterdam), one thing is clear: resistance against the neoliberal regime within and beyond the university setting is growing, and it transcends the bounds of academia.

At present, we need solidarity across all universities and workers’ unions, whether through active participation in pickets, the launch of mirror strikes on other campuses, or the drafting of strong letters of support. CUPE 3902 and 3903 members must escalate our tactics in solidarity with supporters within and beyond the city of Toronto, and demonstrate the extent to which our labor is fundamental to the effective functioning of the university. Following a victory regarding our specific aims, we must ensure that any “back to work” agreement does not end in the abandonment of this wider struggle.

A victory for striking graduate student workers will signify a decisive step toward the reversal of neoliberal policy and provide an example and a source of inspiration for others moving forward. The momentum for a campus-based global anti-austerity, anti-neoliberal movement is strong at present. Our moment is now. We invite you to join us on the picket lines, out on the streets, and inside occupied administrative buildings. Together, We Strike to Win!

Authors:

Jennifer Gibson, PhD student in Anthropology, University of Toronto
George Mantzios, PhD student in Anthropology, University of Toronto
Sardar Saadi, PhD student in Anthropology, University of Toronto
Behnam Amini, MA student in Social and Political Thought, York University
Gülay Kılıçaslan, PhD student in Sociology, York University

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/03/graduate-intructor-strike-toronto/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

Is a New Political System Emerging in This Country?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

The New American Order
1% Elections, The Privatization of the State, a Fourth Branch of Government, and the Demobilization of “We the People”

By Tom Engelhardt

Have you ever undertaken some task you felt less than qualified for, but knew that someone needed to do? Consider this piece my version of that, and let me put what I do understand about it in a nutshell: based on developments in our post-9/11 world, we could be watching the birth of a new American political system and way of governing for which, as yet, we have no name.

And here’s what I find strange: the evidence of this, however inchoate, is all around us and yet it’s as if we can’t bear to take it in or make sense of it or even say that it might be so.

Let me make my case, however minimally, based on five areas in which at least the faint outlines of that new system seem to be emerging: political campaigns and elections; the privatization of Washington through the marriage of the corporation and the state; the de-legitimization of our traditional system of governance; the empowerment of the national security state as an untouchable fourth branch of government; and the demobilization of “we the people.”

Whatever this may add up to, it seems to be based, at least in part, on the increasing concentration of wealth and power in a new plutocratic class and in that ever-expanding national security state. Certainly, something out of the ordinary is underway, and yet its birth pangs, while widely reported, are generally categorized as aspects of an exceedingly familiar American system somewhat in disarray.

1. 1% Elections

Check out the news about the 2016 presidential election and you’ll quickly feel a sense of been-there, done-that. As a start, the two names most associated with it, Bush and Clinton, couldn’t be more familiar, highlighting as they do the curiously dynastic quality of recent presidential contests. (If a Bush or Clinton should win in 2016 and again in 2020, a member of one of those families will have controlled the presidency for 28 of the last 36years.)

Take, for instance, “Why 2016 Is Likely to Become a Close Race,” a recent piece Nate Cohn wrote for my hometown paper. A noted election statistician, Cohn points out that, despite Hillary Clinton’s historically staggering lead in Democratic primary polls (and lack of serious challengers), she could lose the general election. He bases this on what we know about her polling popularity from the Monica Lewinsky moment of the 1990s to the present. Cohn assures readers that Hillary will not “be a Democratic Eisenhower, a popular, senior statesperson who cruises to an easy victory.” It’s the sort of comparison that offers a certain implicit reassurance about the near future. (No, Virginia, we haven’t left the world of politics in which former general and president Dwight D. Eisenhower can still be a touchstone.)

Cohn may be right when it comes to Hillary’s electability, but this is not Dwight D. Eisenhower’s or even Al Gore’s America. If you want a measure of that, consider this year’s primaries. I mean, of course, the 2015 ones. Once upon a time, the campaign season started with candidates flocking to Iowa and New Hampshire early in the election year to establish their bona fides among party voters. These days, however, those are already late primaries.

The early primaries, the ones that count, take place among a small group of millionaires and billionaires, a new caste flush with cash who will personally, or through complex networks of funders, pour multi-millions of dollars into the campaigns of candidates of their choice. So the early primaries — this year mainly a Republican affair — are taking place in resort spots like Las Vegas, Rancho Mirage, California, and Sea Island, Georgia, as has beenwidely reported. These “contests” involve groveling politicians appearing at the beck and call of the rich and powerful, and so reflect our new 1% electoral system. (The main pro-Hillary super PAC, for instance, is aiming for a kitty of $500 million heading into 2016, while the Koch brothers network has already promised to drop almost $1 billion into the coming campaign season, doubling their efforts in the last presidential election year.)

Ever since the Supreme Court opened up the ultimate floodgates with its 2010 Citizens United decision, each subsequent election has seen record-breaking amounts of money donated and spent. The 2012 presidential campaign was the first $2 billion election; campaign 2016 is expected to hitthe $5 billion mark without breaking a sweat. By comparison, according to Burton Abrams and Russell Settle in their study, “The Effect of Broadcasting on Political Campaign Spending,” Republicans and Democrats spent just under $13 million combined in 1956 when Eisenhower won his second term.

In the meantime, it’s still true that the 2016 primaries will involve actual voters, as will the election that follows. The previous election season, the midterms of 2014, cost almost $4 billion, a record despite the number of small donors continuing to drop. It also represented the lowest midterm voter turnout since World War II. (See: demobilization of the public, below — and add in the demobilization of the Democrats as a real party, the breaking of organized labor, the fragmenting of the Republican Party, and the return of voter suppression laws visibly meant to limit the franchise.) It hardly matters just what the flood of new money does in such elections, when you can feel the weight of inequality bearing down on the whole process in a way that is pushing us somewhere new.

2. The Privatization of the State (or the U.S. as a Prospective Third-World Nation)

In the recent coverage of the Hillary Clinton email flap, you can find endless references to the Clintons of yore in wink-wink, you-know-how-they-are-style reporting; and yes, she did delete a lot of emails; and yes, it’s an election year coming and, as everyone points out, the Republicans are going to do their best to keep the email issue alive until hell freezes over, etc., etc. Again, the coverage, while eyeball gluing, is in a you’ve-seen-it-all-before, you’ll-see-it-all-again-mode.

However, you haven’t seen it all before. The most striking aspect of this little brouhaha lies in what’s most obvious but least highlighted. An American secretary of state chose to set up her own private, safeguarded email system for doing government work; that is, she chose to privatize her communications. If this were Cairo, it might not warrant a second thought. But it didn’t happen in some third-world state. It was the act of a key official of the planet’s reigning (or thrashing) superpower, which — even if it wasn’tthe first time such a thing had ever occurred — should be taken as a tiny symptom of something that couldn’t be larger or, in the long stretch of history, newer: the ongoing privatization of the American state, or at least the national security part of it.

Though the marriage of the state and the corporation has a pre-history, the full-scale arrival of the warrior corporation only occurred after 9/11. Someday, that will undoubtedly be seen as a seminal moment in the formation of whatever may be coming in this country. Only 13 years later, there is no part of the war state that has not experienced major forms of privatization. The U.S. military could no longer go to war without its crony corporations doing KP and guard duty, delivering the mail, building the bases, and being involved in just about all of its activities, including trainingthe militaries of foreign allies and even fighting. Such warrior corporations are now involved in every aspect of the national security state, includingtorture, drone strikes, and — to the tune of hundreds of thousands of contract employees like Edward Snowden — intelligence gathering and spying. You name it and, in these years, it’s been at least partly privatized.

All you have to do is read reporter James Risen’s recent book, Pay Any Price, on how the global war on terror was fought in Washington, and you know that privatization has brought something else with it: corruption, scams, and the gaming of the system for profits of a sort that might normally be associated with a typical third-world kleptocracy. And all of this, a new world being born, was reflected in a tiny way in Hillary Clinton’s very personal decision about her emails.

Though it’s a subject I know so much less about, this kind of privatization (and the corruption that goes with it) is undoubtedly underway in the non-war-making, non-security-projecting part of the American state as well.

3. The De-legitimization of Congress and the Presidency

On a third front, American “confidence” in the three classic check-and-balance branches of government, as measured by polling outfits, continues to fall. In 2014, Americans expressing a “great deal of confidence” in the Supreme Court hit a new low of 23%; in the presidency, it was 11%, and in Congress a bottom-scraping 5%. (The military, on the other hand, registers at 50%.) The figures for “hardly any confidence at all” are respectively 20%, 44%, and more than 50%. All are in or near record-breaking territory for the last four decades.

It seems fair to say that in recent years Congress has been engaged in a process of delegitimizing itself. Where that body once had the genuine power to declare war, for example, it is now “debating” in a desultory fashion an “authorization” for a war against the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq, and possibly elsewhere that has already been underway for eight months and whose course, it seems, will be essentially unaltered, whether Congress authorizes it or not.

What would President Harry Truman, who once famously ran a presidential campaign against a “do-nothing” Congress, have to say about a body that truly can do just about nothing? Or rather, to give the Republican war hawks in that new Congress their due, not quite nothing. They are proving capable of acting effectively to delegitimize the presidency as well. House Majority Leader John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to undercut the president’s Iranian nuclear negotiations and theletter signed by 47 Republican senators and directed to the Iranian ayatollahs are striking examples of this. They are visibly meant to tear down an “imperial presidency” that Republicans gloried in not so long ago.

The radical nature of that letter, not as an act of state but of its de-legitimization, was noted even in Iran, where fundamentalist Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei proclaimed it “a sign of a decline in political ethics and the destruction of the American establishment from within.” Here, however, the letter is either being covered as a singularly extreme one-off act (“treason!”) or, as Jon Stewart did on “The Daily Show,” as part of arepetitive tit-for-tat between Democrats and Republicans over who controls foreign policy. It is, in fact, neither. It represents part of a growing pattern in which Congress becomes an ever less effective body, except in its willingness to take on and potentially take out the presidency.

In the twenty-first century, all that “small government” Republicans and “big government” Democrats can agree on is offering essentially unconditional support to the military and the national security state. The Republican Party — its various factions increasingly at each other’s throats almost as often as at those of the Democrats — seems reasonably united solely on issues of war-making and security. As for the Democrats, an unpopular administration, facing constant attack by those who loath President Obama, has kept its footing in part by allying with and fusing with the national security state. A president who came into office rejecting torture and promoting sunshine and transparency in government has, in the course of six-plus years, come to identify himself almost totally with the U.S. military, the CIA, the NSA, and the like. While it has launched anunprecedented campaign against whistleblowers and leakers (as well as sunshine and transparency), the Obama White House has proved a powerful enabler of, but also remarkably dependent upon, that state-within-a-state, a strange fate for “the imperial presidency.”

4. The Rise of the National Security State as the Fourth Branch of Government

One “branch” of government is, however, visibly on the rise and rapidly gaining independence from just about any kind of oversight. Its ability to enact its wishes with almost no opposition in Washington is a striking feature of our moment. But while the symptoms of this process are regularly reported, the overall phenomenon — the creation of a de facto fourth branch of government — gets remarkably little attention. In the war on terror era, the national security state has come into its own. Its growth has been phenomenal. Though it’s seldom pointed out, it should be considered remarkable that in this period we gained a second full-scale “defense department,” the Department of Homeland Security, and that it and the Pentagon have become even more entrenched, each surrounded by its own growing “complex” of private corporations, lobbyists, and allied politicians. The militarization of the country has, in these years, proceeded apace.

Meanwhile, the duplication to be found in the U.S. Intelligence Community with its 17 major agencies and outfits is staggering. Its growing ability to surveil and spy on a global scale, including on its own citizens, puts the totalitarian states of the twentieth century to shame. That the various parts of the national security state can act in just about any fashion without fear of accountability in a court of law is by now too obvious to belabor. As wealth has traveled upwards in American society in ways not seen since the first Gilded Age, so taxpayer dollars have migrated into the national security state in an almost plutocratic fashion.

New reports regularly surface about the further activities of parts of that state. In recent weeks, for instance, we learned from Jeremy Scahill and Josh Begley of the Intercept that the CIA has spent years trying to break the encryption on Apple iPhones and iPads; it has, that is, been aggressively seeking to attack an all-American corporation (even if significant parts of its production process are actually in China). Meanwhile, Devlin Barrett of theWall Street Journal reported that the CIA, an agency barred from domestic spying operations of any sort, has been helping the U.S. Marshals Service (part of the Justice Department) create an airborne digital dragnet on American cell phones. Planes flying out of five U.S. cities carry a form of technology that “mimics a cellphone tower.” This technology, developed and tested in distant American war zones and now brought to “the homeland,” is just part of the ongoing militarization of the country from its borders to itspolice forces. And there’s hardly been a week since Edward Snowden first released crucial NSA documents in June 2013 when such “advances” haven’t been in the news.

News also regularly bubbles up about the further expansion, reorganization, and upgrading of parts of the intelligence world, the sorts of reports that have become the barely noticed background hum of our lives. Recently, for instance, Director John Brennan announced a major reorganization of the CIA meant to break down the classic separation between spies and analysts at the Agency, while creating a new Directorate of Digital Innovation responsible for, among other things, cyberwarfare and cyberespionage. At about the same time, according to the New York Times, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, an obscure State Department agency, was given a new and expansive role in coordinating “all the existing attempts at countermessaging [against online propaganda by terror outfits like the Islamic State] by much larger federal departments, including the Pentagon, Homeland Security and intelligence agencies.”

This sort of thing is par for the course in an era in which the national security state has only grown stronger, endlessly elaborating, duplicating, and overlapping the various parts of its increasingly labyrinthine structure. And keep in mind that, in a structure that has fought hard to keep what it’s doing cloaked in secrecy, there is so much more that we don’t know. Still, we should know enough to realize that this ongoing process reflects something new in our American world (even if no one cares to notice).

5. The Demobilization of the American People

In The Age of Acquiescence, a new book about America’s two Gilded Ages, Steve Fraser asks why it was that, in the nineteenth century, another period of plutocratic excesses, concentration of wealth and inequality, buying of politicians, and attempts to demobilize the public, Americans took to the streets with such determination and in remarkable numbers over long periods of time to protest their treatment, and stayed there even when the brute power of the state was called out against them. In our own moment, Fraser wonders, why has the silence of the public in the face of similar developments been so striking?

After all, a grim new American system is arising before our eyes. Everything we once learned in the civics textbooks of our childhoods about how our government works now seems askew, while the growth of poverty, the flatlining of wages, the rise of the .01%, the collapse of labor, and the militarization of society are all evident.

The process of demobilizing the public certainly began with the military. It was initially a response to the disruptive and rebellious draftees of the Vietnam-era. In 1973, at the stroke of a presidential pen, the citizen’s army was declared no more, the raising of new recruits was turned over to advertising agencies (a preview of the privatization of the state to come), and the public was sent home, never again to meddle in military affairs. Since 2001, that form of demobilization has been etched in stone andtransformed into a way of life in the name of the “safety” and “security” of the public.

Since then, “we the people” have made ourselves felt in only three disparate ways: from the left in the Occupy movement, which, with its slogans about the 1% and the 99%, put the issue of growing economic inequality on the map of American consciousness; from the right, in the Tea Party movement, a complex expression of discontent backed and at least partially funded by right-wing operatives and billionaires, and aimed at the de-legitimization of the “nanny state”; and the recent round of post-Ferguson protests spurred at least in part by the militarization of the police in black and brown communities around the country.

The Birth of a New System

Otherwise, a moment of increasing extremity has also been a moment of — to use Fraser’s word — “acquiescence.” Someday, we’ll assumedly understand far better how this all came to be. In the meantime, let me be as clear as I can be about something that seems murky indeed: this period doesn’t represent a version, no matter how perverse or extreme, of politics as usual; nor is the 2016 campaign an election as usual; nor are we experiencing Washington as usual. Put together our 1% elections, the privatization of our government, the de-legitimization of Congress and the presidency, as well as the empowerment of the national security state and the U.S. military, and add in the demobilization of the American public (in the name of protecting us from terrorism), and you have something like a new ballgame.

While significant planning has been involved in all of this, there may be no ruling pattern or design. Much of it may be happening in a purely seat-of-the-pants fashion. In response, there has been no urge to officially declare that something new is afoot, let alone convene a new constitutional convention. Still, don’t for a second think that the American political system isn’t being rewritten on the run by interested parties in Congress, our present crop of billionaires, corporate interests, lobbyists, the Pentagon, and the officials of the national security state.

Out of the chaos of this prolonged moment and inside the shell of the old system, a new culture, a new kind of politics, a new kind of governance is being born right before our eyes. Call it what you want. But call it something. Stop pretending it’s not happening.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author ofThe United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runsTomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World(Haymarket Books).

[Note: My special thanks go to my friend John Cobb, who talked me through this one. Doing it would have been inconceivable without him. Tom]

Copyright 2015 Tom Engelhardt

https://medium.com/@TomDispatch/engelhardt-is-a-new-political-system-emerging-in-this-country-fbfa0acbe185

Why we occupy: LSE students mobilize for a free university

By ROAR Collective On March 18, 2015

Post image for Why we occupy: LSE students mobilize for a free universityStudents at the London School of Economics join the budding movement against the neoliberal university by occupying the administration’s meeting room.

Statement and photos by Occupy LSE — Free University of London.

Why we are occupying

We have have occupied the Vera Anstey Suite, the central meeting room of the university administration, to demand a change to the current university system.

LSE is the epitome of the neoliberal university. Universities are increasingly implementing the privatised, profit-driven, and bureaucratic ‘business model’ of higher education, which locks students into huge debts and turns the university into a degree-factory and students into consumers.

LSE has become the model for the transformation of the other university systems in Britain and beyond. Massive indebtedness, market-driven benchmarks, and subordination to corporate interests have deeply perverted what we think university and education should be about.

We demand an education that is liberating — which does not have a price tag. We want a university run by students, lecturers and workers.

When a university becomes a business, the whole of student life is transformed. When a university is more concerned with its image, its marketability and the ‘added value’ of its degrees, the student is no longer a student — they become a commodity and education becomes a service. Institutional sexism and racism, as well as conditions of work for staff and lecturers, becomes a distraction for an institution geared to profit.

We join the ongoing struggles in the UK, Europe and the world to reject this system that has changed not only our education but our entire society. From the occupations in Sheffield, Warwick, Birmingham and Oxford, to the ongoing collective takeover of the University of Amsterdam — students have made clear that the current system simply cannot continue.

We are not alone in this struggle.

Why Occupy?

In this occupation we aim to create an open, creative and liberated space, where all are free to participate in the building of a new directly democratic, non-hierarchical and universally accessible education: The Free University of London.

The space will be organized around the creation of workshops, discussions and meetings to share ideas freely. Knowledge is not a commodity but something precious and valuable in its own right. And we hope to prove, if only within a limited time and space, that education can be free.

This liberated space should also be a space for an open discussion on the direction this university and our educational system as a whole is heading. We want to emphasise that this process is not only for students, and we encourage the participation of all LSE staff, non-academic and academic.

We base our struggle on principles of equality, direct democracy, solidarity, mutual care and support. These are our current demands which we invite all to openly discuss, debate and add to.

1) Free and universally accessible education not geared to profit

  • We demand that the management of LSE lobby the government to scrap tuition fees for both domestic and international students.

2) Workers’ rights

  • In solidarity with the LSE workers, we demand real job security, an end to zero-hour contracts, fair remuneration and a drastic reduction in the gap between the highest and lowest paid employees.

3) Genuine university democracy

  • We demand a student-staff council, directly elected by students and academic and non-academic staff, responsible for making all managerial decisions of the institution.

4) Divestment

  • We demand that the school cuts its ties to exploitative and destructive organisations, such as those involved in wars, military occupations and the destruction of the planet. This includes but is not limited to immediate divestment from the fossil fuel industry and from all companies which make a profit from the Israeli state’s occupation of Palestine.

5) Liberation

  • We demand that LSE changes its harassment policy, and to have zero tolerance to harassment.
  • We demand that LSE does not implement the Counter Terrorism Bill that criminalises dissent, particularly targeting Muslim students and staff.
  • We demand that the police are not allowed on campus.
  • We demand that LSE becomes a liberated space free of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and religious discrimination.
  • We demand that the school immediately reinstates the old ethics code and makes it legally binding, in line with the recently passed SU motion.
  • We demand that the school ensures the security and equality of international students, particularly with regards to their precarious visa status, and fully include them in our project for a free university.

RIP Terry Pratchett: “AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER”

The beloved fantasy author died at age 66 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease

RIP Terry Pratchett: "AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER"
Terry Pratchett (Credit: AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Prolific fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett has passed away at the age of 66, after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2007. He continued to write throughout his illness, completing the 40th “Discworld” book last spring, which he did through the help of dictation and speech recognition software. He has often spoken publicly about his illness and became a staunch advocate for assisted death after his diagnosis (according to a source at the Telegraph, he died of natural causes).

Pratchett has written more than 70 books over his long career, including 41 books in the popular Discworld series, and has sold over 85-million books worldwide. He is the second most widely-read writer in the UK — and was, for a long time, the first, before being unseated by J.K. Rowling. He has many other accomplishments to his name, including the Carnegie Medal for his Discworld kids book “The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents”, as well as the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement and a Knighthood, not to mention enriching the lives of millions of readers across the globe.

Pratchett’s death was announced via a series of tweets from his Twitter account, describing an encounter with Pratchett and “Death,” who was a character in the Discworld novels.



“The world has lost one of its brightest, sharpest minds,” read a statement from Larry Finlay at Pratchett’s publishing company Transworld. “In over 70 books, Terry enriched the planet like few before him. As all who read him know, Discworld was his vehicle to satirize this world: He did so brilliantly, with great skill, enormous humour and constant invention. Terry faced his Alzheimer’s disease (an ‘embuggerance’, as he called it) publicly and bravely. Over the last few years, it was his writing that sustained him. His legacy will endure for decades to come.”

Anna Silman is Salon’s deputy entertainment editor. Follow her on Twitter:@annaesilman.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/03/12/rip_terry_pratchett_at_last_sir_terry_we_must_walk_together/?source=newsletter